Thursday, April 24, 2014

New Voice: Yvonne Ventresca on Pandemic

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Yvonne Ventresca is the first-time author of Pandemic (Sky Pony, 2014)(blog). From the promotional copy:

Only a few people know what caused Lilianna Snyder's sudden change from a model student to a withdrawn pessimist who worries about all kinds of disasters. 

When people begin coming down with a quick-spreading illness that doctors are unable to treat, Lil’s worst fears are realized. 

With her parents called away on business before the contagious outbreak--her journalist father in Delaware covering the early stages of the disease and her mother in Hong Kong and unable to get a flight back to New Jersey--Lil’s town is hit by what soon becomes a widespread fatal illness.

With friends and neighbors dying around her, Lil does everything she can to survive. 

Just when it all seems too much, the cause of her original trauma shows up at her door. 

Lil must find a way to survive not only the outbreak and its real-life consequences, but also her own personal demons.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

The premise of Pandemic is that a deadly, contagious bird flu strikes the U.S. and an emotionally traumatized teen needs to survive on her own. Most of my research focused on the logistics of a pandemic and its consequences.
Yvonne's blog

The deadliest influenza that Americans have experienced occurred in 1918, so I started my pandemic research in that era, with books like The Great Influenza by John M. Barry (Penguin Books, 2005) and Influenza 1918 by Lynette Iezzoni (TV Books, 1999).

I also read about current emerging infectious diseases in books like Spillover by David Quammen (W.W. Norton and Company, 2012) and Secret Agents: Emerging Epidemics by Madeline Drexler (Penguin Books, 2010).

Many people don’t realize that we’ve lived through a recent pandemic that was highly contagious, but fortunately not exceedingly deadly. The H1N1 (Swine Flu) pandemic of 2009 is well-documented on the www.flu.gov website, so I started with that illness as a rough model for some aspects of my fictional disease.

Next, I needed to figure out how a pandemic experience today would differ from one a century ago. Because of airplane travel, for instance, diseases today spread much faster than 1918 when a rural town could try to isolate itself. I made a list of realistic complications that could occur and I worked many of those into the story. For example, what happens if we lose our electricity and all the service people are too sick to make repairs?

The story is set in New Jersey, and another source of information was government preparedness documents. I was surprised to find some plans online, like the state’s “Antiviral Distribution Plan.” I also found a 2005 Homeland Security Document, “National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza.”

Based on their planning assumptions, I tried to think about other complications. For example, many people think it is most likely that a pandemic would start someplace else, like Asia, and as a result the U.S. would have a warning period. What if that turned out to be untrue and we had little or no time to prepare?

I didn’t experience any roadblocks but had to fight the tendency to over-research. For example, I spent a lot of time checking the spring migratory flyways of waterfowl when I should have been writing instead. I have a whole folder on “Birds” research which I didn’t really use.

One of my best resources was an interview I did with a local health officer. I generally prefer to interview people by email or phone, but I met him in person in 2011. He spoke frankly about the H1N1 experience and gave me insight into what problems could potentially occur if a more deadly pandemic struck.

He also shared some local planning documents that were in the process of being updated based on what they learned from the H1N1 pandemic. It was educational and also inspired some ideas, like the news story Lil (the main character) sees about who should receive the antiviral first if supplies were limited.

Besides books, online searches, and interviews, I’m a big fan of automated news alerts through email. I used Google Alerts and Talkwalker (both free) to keep me updated on newsworthy items that I might have been able to incorporate into Pandemic.

As a result of all my research, I tend to wash my hands more than the average person.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

Yvonne's promotional files
I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of how to promote a book and reach readers. As I waited (with cautious optimism) to hear back from my editor about the acquisition of Pandemic, I started reading marketing books and articles. (I had been saving articles since 2005!)

One of my favorite marketing books is Everyday Book Marketing by Midge Raymond (Ashland Creek Press, 2013). From my research, I made a list of possible ideas, some of which I ultimately discarded, but many of which I’m using. I think of this debut book period as the time of saying “yes.”

As in, yes I will visit that library in the town I’ve never heard of to speak about Pandemic. Yes, I will submit proposals to be on faculty at SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conferences. And yes, I will bowl at an event with teen readers even though my bowling skills are non-existent.

I decided early in the process to hire a freelance publicist (Rebecca Grose of SoCal Public Relations) to work with Sky Pony’s team to help promote the book. It’s been great to have her to help with the process, and she’s been an excellent source of knowledge and support. She’s been able to supplement Sky Pony’s efforts with activities like creating a press kit and reaching out to additional reviewers.

I’ve also joined an online group (UncommonYA) to support each other’s books, and a regional group (Kidlit Author’s Club) to do appearances together. It’s helpful to go through the promotion-journey with other writers.

In terms of concrete actions, I’ve developed postcards and bookmarks and swag. I created a mailing list of target libraries to let them know about Pandemic. Twitter (@YvonneVentresca) is my favorite social media, and I’ll be teaching twitter to writers at the New England SCBWI conference later in the spring.

I’ve stepped up my social media presence in general, and began blogging twice a week, with one post always geared toward teen writers. Revamping my website was gratifying as it evolved.

My other activities include guest blogging, planning my launch party, and participating in a few upcoming festivals.

My advice to other debut authors is to figure out what others are doing (through books, articles, or researching online), then do what is comfortable for you. If you like a certain form of social media better than others, focus on the one that doesn’t feel like a burden.

You should experiment, but don’t feel like you have to give the same level of commitment to every idea you try.

Overall, the promotion phase has been an enjoyable one for me. I like to think of it as a big experiment (although it’s hard to tell exactly what the results will be). I’ve created two lists to keep me sane: one of accomplishments, to keep track of what I get done each month, and one of acts of kindness, so I’ll remember all the wonderful things people have done to help me throughout this process.

Rocky and Luna in Yvonne's office--they keep her company and bark out the window.


Cynsational Notes

See additional resources on topics related to the novel such as pandemics, preparing for emergencies, and getting help for victims of sexual assault.

2 comments:

:Donna Marie said...

Cynthia, I love that you interviewed Yvonne! This was SO enjoyable to read, learning about writing process, marketing and all things in between. Great stuff, and good luck with PANDEMIC, Yvonne! :D

Yvonne Ventresca said...

Thank you for the interview, Cyn. And thanks, Donna Marie, for your comment. :)

Yvonne

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