Susan McCormick should probably buy a lottery ticket. Or perhaps a hundred. When she set out to write a medical fantasy that would catch young readers’ attention the way Rick Riordan’s mythology series has, likely she had no idea that we’d been spending a year or two or a thousand dealing with a pandemic. Her passion project is uncannily timely! Read on to find out more about how she came to write The Antidote (The Wild Rose Press, Inc) and then pop on over to my Instagram channel to listen to a replay of our conversation about her creative process.
When my son was in middle school, I volunteered to help with the chicken wing dissection class. As a doctor, I was certain I could explain about the muscles and tendons and bones, the opening and closing, and all the tiny tissue strips that play a part. Exciting! Captivating! Best class ever! That was what I was expecting.
Oh, they were borderline enthused. They accepted the wings into their hands and allowed me to demonstrate. But the passion wasn’t there. Certainly when I explained my journey to becoming a doctor, then. They listened politely and asked pertinent questions. But something else was on their minds.
Mythology. They studied mythology in school as well, but the teacher needn’t have bothered. They already knew everything. They had read Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief series, often multiple times. Dad swallows the kids? They knew it. Head bursts into two heads? They knew it. Three old ladies who determine your future? They knew it. How could I compete with this?
But the human body is important, and I set out to write a fantasy as exciting as the mythology tales, with maladies instead of monsters. In The Antidote, twelve-year-old Alex Revelstoke can see disease. And not just disease, but injury, illness, anything wrong with the body. He sees skin melt away to reveal the organs beneath, much to his shock and horror. He comes from a family of doctors with this extra gift, going back generations, helping, healing. But Revelstokes are locked in a centuries-old battle with ancient evil itself, an entity called ILL, the creator and physical embodiment of disease. Alex is the last Revelstoke, all that stands between ILL and his new super disease, worse than polio, worse than smallpox.
The Antidote (The Wild Rose Press, Inc) explains diseases like heart attacks and appendicitis and sudden death in young athletes, as well as diseases and pandemics of the past, like plague, smallpox, and the Spanish flu, allowing kids to see that our current COVID-19 situation is horrific and scary, but not without precedent in history. And like in the past, science and medicine can get us through.
Though I am a doctor and knew the basics of each disease in the book, medicine is a huge field, and I had to research. A lot. Despite the scientific bent, though, my favorite part of writing, the magical part, still happened. I have experienced this before, when words appear out of nowhere while my fingers fly on the keyboard. Characters plunge in unexpected directions, whole scenes appear out of nowhere. The dog in the book was planned and based on my Edward, a giant Newfoundland who was an adorable ball of black fluff with the most unpleasant breath imaginable. Like the dog in the book, people would approach to wrap their arms around Edwards’s head, only to draw back with a “He’s mighty fragrant” understatement. I wrote this into the book, but then the magic took over and suddenly the hideous breath had a special meaning, something I never conceived of before the words were on the page. Magic. Just like when I carefully planned Penelope, Alex’s new friend, and then she gave herself blue hair and a sad backstory, much more sad yet interesting than anything I would have ever written. Magic again.
Science and magic mix in the book and mixed while I was writing. Just like chicken wings and mythology, the spark for the story.
Susan McCormick is a writer and doctor who lives in Seattle. In addition to The Antidote, she writes a cozy murder mystery series, The Fog Ladies, and she wrote a lighthearted picture book about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, Granny Can’t Remember Me. She is married with two boys, neither of whom have any special powers. She loves giant dogs, and has loved an English Mastiff, Earl, and two Newfoundlands, Edward and Albert, none of whom had any special powers, either, except the ability to shake drool onto the ceiling.