More About the Author
I have created stories in journalism for more than 30 years, but I arrived at fiction with 25 years of community and computer reporting, evenings of acting and hours of radio broadcasts. I've been living a lifetime of learning to write what I don't know. That's what a journalist does, teaching while he tells stories. And there's no better way to learn than to teach something. That's why I lead writers in Austin workshops.
This book concept first came to me in the crush of the AIDS epidemic, that dark time in the '90s when there was no pharma cocktail that could extend the lives of those who were suffering. It wasn't the first time that drugs had failed to cure a disease, and certainly won't be the last. That's where Viral Times takes off -- when the flu becomes the first trigger of a disease we transmit simply by touching one another. Research on the Spanish Flu of 1918 showed how a world that was overwhelmed would react emotionally, how fear would grapple with faith in our better natures.
While I worked on the book the world caught up to its future. SARS and H1N1 arrived more than five years after I was in the process of writing Viral Times. The iron hand of Camp X-Ray and Homeland Security certainly sparked visions of similar government forces in a diseased future. Public health policies emerged that show the ability to stop a pandemic is not the primary response. There's a pecking order for who will receive medical care in the worst of times. Most of us won't make the list, and not nearly enough will be able to afford a pharma cure. The crisis in insured healthcare has only gotten worse. Natural remedies are the only cure and comfort in reach of the community's budgets. Austin has a thriving alternative medicine community, from the Chinese herbalists of Turtle Dragon to Central Family Practice's integrated medicine, from People's Pharmacy featuring its natural remedies to Austin's sea of yoga, acupuncture and massage practices. Multiple schools of massage and yoga turn out healers here. I live with a yoga practice in my own house, as my wife Abby Lentz has developed her own HeavyWeight Yoga plus Kripalu teachings. Sanskrit is spoken in my house.
Along the way, the computer networks element of the story continued to grow out of my industry reporting for trade newspapers and ultimately my own newsletter and website. No matter how wild something in the story appeared to be, within a few years the framework appeared in experimental tech. The fastest tracked inventions have been aimed at consumers rather than businesses. And the highest profit ventures surround sex and human desire. Budgets are boundless for this kind of computing.
The book began to gain plenty of momentum once I launched The Writer's Workshop in Austin. The techniques of the Amherst Writers & Artists group help me lead writers in creating and then revising their own works of fiction and nonfiction. Many of the scenes and characters of Viral Times grew up on those Tuesday night tables in my home studio, surrounded by fellow writers who wrote in response to prompts from images, music, scents, quotes and more. There's a limitless source of sparks for writing. We all carry the kindling to light up the page.
I drew on more than 20 years of acting experience to help set the dramatic pace and character building in the book. My stage time began with musicals and comedies, extended into classic melodrama, and eventually included Shakespeare, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Bleacher Bums. But I was hiding out from the book while I reveled in the immediate response of acting. I needed to step out of the footlights of theaters in Austin and elsewhere to devote time to my story. A friend who'd directed me had died of AIDS. I'd helped to care for him through his last year. I wanted to write a book that might make a difference, all the while knowing that it had to entertain to get its message into readers' hearts.
A change in the course of my journalism career powered my practice of writing fiction. While my wife and I published a newsletter about the HP 3000 business server, Hewlett-Packard announced the end of life of the 30-year-old computer. I now had all the reason I needed to expand my writing toolkit and create a business in storytelling, starting in the spring of 2002. Work in the Austin Writer's League with novelists including the late Karen Stolz (of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, and "World of Pies") and romance novelist Jodi Thomas gave me great guidance, along with intensives at the Tin House Summer Writing Festival and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. I sought out teachers, rather than big-name writers, while I took those seminars. I also huddled with fellow-novelists I'd met in the Writer's League.
It was the business of leading my own teaching practice that gave me the means to deepen my study. Steady manuscript workshops gave me the grist to polish and grasp the gist of storytelling. Writing on cue, with no worry about negative response to just-crafted story, let the words fly on those Tuesday evenings with other writers waiting to hear what we'd just written. In a way, it was the melding of acting with writing, a bright light to fly toward, much like we'd seek out the spotlight on the stage.
Performance has been a big part of my life, the place where I'd go to know I was being heard. The technology revolution gave me the tools to podcast after I'd worked in radio broadcasts about technology. Tech Ranch, on KUT in Austin and later on commercial radio, provided a way to hone the brevity that broadcasting requires. When you have to write for a 47-second window, every word has to carry its weight, but fly high enough to be remembered.
When I'd just mustered out of the Army at the end of the 70s, using the GI Bill to take a crack at drama school at the University of Texas, I got advice from the dean. "You should try writing," he said while we talked about my career path. "It's a lot like acting, but you get to rehearse all the time." It's time for the rehearsals to end for Viral Times, and let the story take its first bows. There are other stories waiting in my wings.