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H10N1 Contagion Hits Readers Hard

Booking It by Colleen Walsh Fong

Today I have the distinct pleasure of talking with M. R. Cornelius, author of the newly published book H10N1. She is a journalism graduate of Indiana University, and has recently retired after 15 years as a cafeteria manager in an elementary school in Fulton County. She has been writing for most of her life, and currently belongs to the Atlanta Writers’ Club. Here, she shares her views on writing, publishing and style with Eve Laments readers.

CWF: It’s such a pleasure to talk with you after reading your new book, H10N1. What compelled you to write it?

MARSHA: The book is about a flu pandemic gone awry, and after working around children for fifteen years, I’ve seen how quickly a virus can spread.

CWF: That is an interesting connection most moms and teachers can relate to! How would you categorize your work?

MARSHA:  It’s a post-apocalyptic thriller. Not to be confused with sci-fi. There are no zombies, aliens or vampires, just looters, muggers and thieves.

CWF: I picked your book up at 11:00 p.m., expecting to read the first page so I could get a sense of what it was about. At page 63 I forced myself to put it down. Its pace seems to match the urgent situation your characters face. Was this intentional?

MARSHA:  Oh, definitely. When you’re running, not only from a deadly virus, but also from marauding survivors, there’s a real urgency to find a safe haven from the madness.

CWF: You write about several locations as if you know them well. Do you?

MARSHA: Let’s just say I did a LOT of research. Oh, and I have hiked the Blue Ridge.

CWF: I loved how you allowed both genders to be complete people with needs, intelligence and strength. Was that hard to do?

MARSHA: Actually, I’ve had a few readers tell me that I write from a man’s perspective well. In this particular story, I thought it was important to have both of their points-of-view. I definitely wanted a strong female character. When my son read H10N1, he complained that the male character was too weak. But I think that’s a misconception men have because they expect the female to need rescuing at some point. My female lead handles herself just fine.

Incidentally, my next book is written strictly from a man’s POV. So, we’ll see what the critics think of him.

CWF: Some of your metaphors really jump off the page such as “He was getting waterboarded with all these memories.” Was this intentionally apropos of the book’s setting?

MARSHA: Metaphors are really difficult for me. My tendency is to go with the clichés: smooth as a baby’s bottom, tight as a drum. But writers get busted for taking the easy way out like that. So I spend a lot of time trying to come up with new descriptions of sounds, smell, expressions. I was really pleased with the ‘waterboarding’ analogy.

CWF: How long have you been writing fiction?

MARSHA:  I guess you can’t count school assignments, but I had a professor in college who really liked a paper I turned in. He suggested I could get it published, and from that moment on, I knew what I wanted to do. Unfortunately, magazine and newspaper articles don’t pay much, so until recently, my writing has always been my ‘weekend hobby’.

CWF: How did you prepare for writing the medical scenes?

MARSHA: I spoke with physicians, surgeons, and did online research. I may have made some mistakes in procedure and vocabulary, but H10N1 wasn’t written as a medical thriller, so the professionals will have to overlook any inadvertent errors. I think the readers will get a pretty good idea of what was involved.

CWF: Many authors talk about working at their craft. What does that mean to you?

MARSHA: It means even if I can’t come up with the finishing touches on a chapter, there’s always something I can write. Outline what will happen in the next chapter, re-read dialogue in a previous chapter and see if it can be tweaked. I read a cute tweet on Twitter. He said, “I don’t get writers’ block, I get writers’ ‘don’t feel like it today’. You can’t do that. Just like you can’t call in sick at work. Every day, you have to write.”

CWF:  Your characters are urbane—smart and sassy. I laughed out loud a few times at some of their remarks. How did you dream them up?

MARSHA: It’s so hard to explain where these characters come from. They slowly just form in my mind as I write. I get to know them, just like a living person. This is my third book, and it’s amazing how much I miss my characters when I finally decide, ‘this book is done.’

CWF: Are you as witty as your characters?

MARSHA: My husband doesn’t think so. My kids consider me an embarrassment. But, yeah, people I worked with, and friends, they think I’m funny.

CWF: How do you approach your work? What gets you going each day?

MARSHA: I walk a LOT. When I’m in the house, there are way too many distractions, so I grab a small notebook and start walking. It never ceases to amaze me the scenes and conversations that I develop while I’m out strolling. Then I scribble like mad to get them down before I forget. I never leave home without my notebook and pen.

CWF: Some authors create formal outlines, and character trait lists, and know for sure where they will end before they begin. Others find out the ending as they go along. What is your method?

MARSHA: When I first started writing I had no idea where I was going. But now, I come up with a rough outline. I’ve been told to clip pictures of people out of magazines that look like my characters, but that’s not as easy as it sounds. I do jot down stats: their age, when and where they were born, siblings, jobs. More like a job application. It helps when I’m halfway through and realize, ‘wait, he couldn’t have a cell phone when he was a kid. He was born in 1952.’ Sometimes I find that the ending isn’t at all what I expected. It’s mostly a journey without a map for me.

CWF: How long did it take you to go from your first finished manuscript to a finished novel?

MARSHA: Boy, that’s tough because I just tinkered with H10N1 for years, like on weekends and holidays. And the first time I wrote it, the format was a screenplay.

CWF: Why did you change it?

MARSHA: The more I thought about it, I felt it would play out better as a book, so I’ll leave the screenplay to screen writers.

CWF: Speaking of screenplays, I saw “Contagion” with Matt Damon and realized how it is really a prelude to H10N1.

MARSHA: My thoughts exactly! If you take a look at my trailer, you’ll see the connection, though my book was in production long before I’d heard anything about “Contagion.”

CWF: Do you have any advice for writers just getting started on their first manuscript?

MARSHA: Oh, sure, writers have tons of advice. But if I had to narrow it down, my suggestion is to develop a good tough shell, because being a writer is rough from the moment you begin. Critique partners tell you what they don’t like about your work. Agents reject you with form letters, if they even bother. Editors will give you pages and pages of rewrites. And even if your book actually sees the light of day, all of the marketing falls on you. Phone calls, e-mails, social media, press kits, flyers. It was a lot harder for me AFTER the book came out, because my expertise is not in marketing. Just remember, though, you can never, never give up. Never.

CWF: Marsha, I want to thank you for taking time during this hectic season to talk with me. Your book, H10N1, is enthralling, and I highly recommend it to Eve Laments readers, who can buy it by clicking on the icon below. All best to you for a long career as an author!

MARSHA: Thanks so much, Colleen.

M. R. Cornelius’ book, H10N1, is available at Amazon.com, Smashwords, Pub It, Bookie Jar, and Kindleboards. Her web/blog is http://mrcornelius.com/.

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