Flu Comes to a Southern Town
An Interview with Rick Maier
by Joyce Dixon
Rick Maier used his knowledge and experiences as a father, executive, community activist and free-lance columnist to create a thriller dealing with a flu epidemic attacking the citizens of Macon, Georgia. He shows how the community deals with mass death, crime, family and faith as his novel, Bone Dust, follows the employees of one company.
A part of the Middle Georgia community for over twenty years, Rick Maier is CFO at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia.
You begin and end Bone Dust with the Ocmulgee Indian Mounds. What about this locale touches you spiritually? Were you trying to make a connection to the deaths of Native Americans from epidemics, such as small pox?
I stand on the Great Temple Mound and can't help but reflect on all the people who lived along this stretch of the Ocmulgee River over the centuries. I look out over the modern city of Macon and think about how our brief dash on the timeline of this area fits in. We are told that the Indians were wiped out by wars and epidemics, and I wonder if we're any less vulnerable today.
Bone Dust takes place after September 11, 2001, when bio-terrorism became an international fear. Did your research prove that we are safer now or would it be easy for another Manila Flu to slip over the border?
Bone Dust was released in 2003, but I wrote most of the story in 1998. We are certainly more aware of bio-terrorism today, but we have a long way to go before we can prevent or effectively treat dangerous viruses. But researchers are making progress, spurred in part by 9-11.
Your book was released soon after the SARS epidemic. It is believed that SARS may become active again in a second wave during the coming flu season. Can a flu shot protect you from viruses like SARS and Manila Flu?
SARS may not return, but there is no end in sight for new types of flu-like viruses to threaten our world. Vaccines only treat known strands of flu and don't prevent the next dangerous variety of the virus.
Seeing how SARS shut down our borders to Canada and China, do you see any way to truly isolate a community from an epidemic? Even in 1918, a self-quarantined flu-free Utah town was infected by the mail carrier.
I think the global reaction to SARS last spring proves how vulnerable we are. It took far too long to shut down our borders. We now understand how important it is to stop the mailman, but we probably wouldn't be willing to stop family members from reuniting, or to sacrifice a city, state or country to save the rest of the world from a serious threat.
You mentioned part of your inspiration was due to the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, and Macon was one of the hardest hit communities according to the spread map. What about the 1918 experience made you want to write Bone Dust?
Before studying the 1918 epidemic, I had no idea how deadly influenza was, that it killed 600,000 Americans in a single year, and - most amazing of all - that I knew nothing about it. I was also impressed that one of the five people featured in the 1998 PBS documentary was from Macon. One of the messages in Bone Dust is that big trouble can indeed strike anywhere, even in Middle Georgia.
In 1918, the virus started with a cloud of burning manure at Ft. Riley, Kansas. In your story, the virus starts with burning chicken houses in the Philippines. Are people still careless with bio-hazards?
The dangerous flu strands usually start overseas where populations are denser and agricultural processes are less rigorous. For example, chickens can't be raised near pigs in the US because that's how disease can spread to humans. Many animals carry the flu, but we usually get it from pigs – hence the name 'swine flu'. Less developed countries such as the Philippines aren't as strict, and while we don't import their meat, airplanes travel from Manila to the US regularly.
Mike Spiker was financial operations manager of Bio-Lab Research. His branch of the national firm had several contingency plans for possible problems; yet, when faced with the flu pandemic, the company shut down - like the city and everything else. Can we truly be prepared for all emergencies? How can such an epidemic affect a national economy?
Companies prepare for the absence of key people or loss of power. Cities prepare for hurricanes and train wrecks. Certainly the terrorism threats following 9-11 have increased our preparedness, but I must say I wasn't impressed with the response I got from local officials when I asked them about a Bone Dust-like emergency.
Part of your characterization of the community was showing the class and race tensions, then showing how they changed when faced with a major event. What do you want readers to gain from the changes in Latrice and Dwight?
I have first hand experience that when urgent and challenging work needs to get done, color, gender and other differences don't matter. Dwight couldn't shake his past; Latrice focused on the future.
Bone Dust shows people dealing with death and grief in different way. Some rise to the challenge and others are lost to survival guilt. What do you believe is the best way to face the sudden death of a loved one?
I think you have to accept the natural steps - denial, grief, acceptance... and keep moving forward. Writing is a great way to deal with the sad as well as the happy times.
What are you writing now?
I've only started sketching out novel #2, but so far a guy from Delaware gets abducted while vacationing in Florida and ends up in Macon. I enjoy writing occasional OpEds to the Macon Telegraph, but I'm dedicating the time between now and February to reading all the books that stacked up when I was busy writing, and to promoting BONE DUST.
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© 2003, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved