Wednesday, September 23, 2020

AR-SP02 Kurt Avard - First, Do No Harm

I’m joined today by author Kurt Avard, author of the new book: First, Do No Harm, a work of historical fiction that takes place in the setting of real-life historical events.  Our conversation was recorded shortly before the September 25, 2020 release of his new book.

Michael Troy  

Kurt, I’m glad you could be with us today and welcome to the American Revolution podcast.

Kurt Avard  

Honestly, Mike, after more than a couple years of listening to your podcast, it's really great to have a chance to talk with you and with all the other history fans out there.

Front Cover
You're here today because you've written a book, which I thought would be of interest to my listeners.  It's called first do no harm. It's not about the American Revolution, but I thought it was interesting anyway.  Why don't you tell us a little about what inspired you to write this book and just what readers can expect to hear? 

First Do No Harm takes readers over to the 17th century in Vienna, kind of an overlooked time period and an overlooked location in both world history as well as even European history. Now, as to the inspiration behind it. I intimated before, I was actually very lucky to have been able to experience this history not firsthand, but at least the history of Vienna itself, having a chance to live in the city for about 14-15 months. 

I recall one of the first things I did when I had gotten to The city initially, as I was told to check out a cathedral in the center of town, both the metaphoric and nearly the geographic center of the city itself. While I was there, I ended up noticing some sort of advertisement for a catacombs tour, and me kind of being open to the different kind of histories and moments that we overlook. In some cases, in this case, truly just walk on and I paid the five Euro and went on that tour. 

That's when I first heard of this story of perseverance, of horror, of bravery, of courage, of faith really going throughout this moment in time, when society was completely upended by, like the present day, a pandemic that threatened everything that these people really knew. I suppose that kind of initial research to kind of initial story drove me to ask the guy some questions, probably to the point that I probably began to annoy him just a little bit.  

But that became the springboard for the rest of this story. I turned into local files. I turned into the history of the church itself in the area. I tried to find all these different things and the more threads that I pulled on the more bits and pieces that I looked into the more and more fascinating the story got. So for the story itself, this is a based on true events tale of a both horrible but huge plague that came to the city back in the late 17th century.

Catacombs, underneath Stephansdom
(from Atlas Obscura)
Now, the funny thing is, and I'm sure you will probably wonder this yourself, is why the 17th century and I think a lot that really is because like I said before, we don't really know about that too much from an American perspective. I mean, the American history is, we have Jamestown, we have the Northeast colonies, and then we jump ahead to the American Revolution. And then we're off to the races over there. Even from the European sense, we focus on things like France, we focus on things like England, focus on things even like the Holy Roman Empire. Sort of. I mean, I'm sure many of your listeners will know that so much of European history was dominated by places like Austria who controlled a huge swath of territory throughout the ages, but we don't really know the ins and outs and we kind of overlook so much of it because Austria’s importance has kind of faded. So this was a kind of a really unique bridging time between the high Middle Ages, the early Renaissance, late Renaissance. And then, how would you call it perhaps, post humanism, where we have the American Revolution, we have the proliferation of democratic ideas yet again, and we have the French Revolutions and Napoleonic era.

Yeah, that really is an interesting time that is overlooked in a lot of histories. And you say the book was based on real events about a plague that took place in Vienna around this time?

At this particular point in time, while we've come a long way from bleeding somebody with leeches and praying over sick bodies, we still have this kind of level of superstition that kind of pervades throughout the history of Europe itself. And like you just said, yes, this is based on true events. I will say the main character may not have existed. Maybe some of the other supporting characters in here may not exist, but I do promise you, one of the biggest things that I want to keep in all of my literature is fidelity to history. Because I think it's very easy for us to get lost in sensationalizing things. I think we've seen that in more than our fair share of films and books. And I think sometimes that downplays the true courage and the true fact behind some, in some cases, decent life changing these, world changing events that sweep through.

Well, to that point, your main character whose name is Dietrich and I don't want to give too much away about what he does and where the story goes. But he does seem like a bit of an odd bird. He's a member of the minor nobility in Austria, but he seems to reject that position and his rank and ends up taking a more active job among commoners working with the nightwatch. Why would an aristocrat do something like that? 

So it's kind of intriguing.  We have this perception of nobility throughout all of history, as being these kind of just elitist forces, these people that  look down their noses at pretty much everyone else down below. And in many cases, I think that's a completely fair characterization. 

But it was one of the things I started discovering as I was doing more research into this particular set of events, that there was a lot of - and I hesitate to use the word activism on the ground - but in the Holy Roman Empire, there was this spectrum, let's say, of interacting with the lower born people, of the common citizenry like you and me.  On one end, we have, of course, people like the Emperor whose country is concerned about the length and breadth of academic policy and political policy and military policy across an entire Empire. On the other hand, you have people that are a little closer to the daily lives of individuals kind of going in and out and moving through each day. 

And I think in many ways, we had a lot more people who existed like Dietrich, who were people who were involved in things like the nightwatch, because I'm sure you know, at that time period we still don't have any kind of modern police force. That doesn't happen for another 75 or 100 years or so. We have people that are very concerned and very active, philanthropically actually with people who are much lower born and in many cases that nobility - that birthright, let's say 0  and I hesitate to even use that word tends to not really show the true character of what these people were willing to give and what these people were willing to share with other people.

Yeah, I think that's true. I think you're right. We tend to think of the aristocrats as sitting on their estates and kind of staying out of worldly affairs, so to speak.  But you're right.  They did get involved in things. And that's true in a lot of times and eras during the era of aristocratic ascendancy for lack of a better word. 

I actually wrote a piece last year, which I was going to give to a history camp, which got cancelled thanks to the pandemic.  It involved militia in Philadelphia in the 1840s. Philadelphia still did not have a police force in the 1840s. And you saw obviously, we didn't have aristocrats either, but you had the wealthy elites of the city, who took a very active role in policing the city and maintaining various things within the city. That sounds like something like your character Dietrich was,

I think what you say is true. And in many ways what you make the comment about even goes back further and further into history. I mean, the first fire brigade, for example, in the US was Benjamin Franklin memory serves, right?

Yeah, first Volunteer Fire Company in Philadelphia.

But even the first fire brigade that i think i've ever even heard of was ancient Rome. And that was actually run by an elite, that type of active aristocracy, I think we tended to kind of ignore in a very, very big way. And I'm sure we'll get into her a little bit later on. But Dietrich has a sister, Sophie, who I'm sure you'll say is a very, very different kind of perception than what you might think of a woman in the 17th century. That being said, I think that we have this notion, especially in the present world, to kind of lump everything into a single kind of box because it's so much easier for us to see it as a painting with a wider brush center. kind of getting into the nitty gritty to kind of like that various back and forth.

You mentioned Sophie, I was a little shocked by her dominant role in the family. It is rare for women to be very active publicly, to be taking traditionally male roles. So I thought that was a very interesting plot twist, the way she is, almost like a man in the society.

Empress Eleanor 1630-86 
(from Wikimedia

And that's very fair. And I think that's an entirely valid point to kind of make but like I said, we kind of paint with a very wide brush, just the case might be another, in this case, historical figure who truly existed back then, is the Empress at the time now, the Empress at the time was this woman named Eleanor. She is exactly one of those women that you would expect to be around and to conform to very traditional roles. By the same token though, the more you dig into her story, you find things out like she rejected five monarchs around Europe to be their wife, which is just mind blowing when you consider the kind of standard idea behind the times. By the same token, she asked the people who are poor to treat her like a commoner so that she could better understand their struggles and that her philanthropism might be more acutely deployed, shall we say that her finances to be more, you know, target the things that are truly important to them. 

So while it's fair to say that Sophie's a little bit more modern, I think than what many people might have said, there is a bit of an explanation in the book. I don't want to give the wrong impression here. But I will say that in many of the cases where she is more dominant, it is with people who have historically either been dominant and are losing that dominance. And I'm sure we'll talk about the church that's exactly too I referenced or other people who are, you know, beholden to her for one reason or another, which, as much as you want to say about that philanthropism of elites during throughout history, there also has been a little bit of quid pro quo. I scratch your back, you scratch mine, kind of attitude. And I think Sophie, in my mind, rises that kind of balance point decently well.

You mentioned the church and yes, the business Bishop of Vienna plays a key role in the book. What was your understanding of how the church behaved at the time? I mean, this is after the schism with Protestantism. So the Church's position, especially in Northern Europe was in a state of flux, I guess at the time.  How did a bishop in Vienna -this is a Catholic bishop - what was his role in society at this point?

Like you said, the schism of Protestantism has happened. It's been 150 years since we have Martin Luther. And that's a whole series, a whole podcast that I'm sure is out there already. 

At this point, we have just come off the end of the 30 Years War. The 30 Years War is this devastating conflict that sweeps over the entirety of Europe. We have this conception of the World Wars being devastating.  The 30 Years War makes them look like a sideshow. It is absolutely barbaric, some of the things that go on during it. 

This story takes place about 30 years after that.  There is a very important thing that I think will give greater context to this and that's the idea of the Treaty of Westphalia, 20 or 30 years before. And in this treaty, it basically says that the church itself takes a much less dominant position in political life. We start to see some of the modern notions of what states become and how we see separation of church and state. 

Bishop Wilderich von Walderdorff
1616-1680 (from Wikimedia)
That actually is one of the areas in which, I want to say Jefferson in one case, starts to write his own theories about how we divide both the government from a more religious organization itself. In this particular case, the bishop that you referenced again, is an actual historic figure, Bishop Wilderich, who's lost his family name escapes me.  Forgive me, I don't think they use it, but once in the book.  But Bishop Wilderich, if you look into his biography, as well, is both an extremely pious man but at the same time is a great, very great humanitarian. 

And I think, while I can't speak for all the clergy back then, again records are a little bit scanty during events of this time. We have once again the entire spectrum where we have certain religious officials who are very human, and how they approach the world and we have other ones who are very, I don't want to see supernatural, I don't want to say overly pious, but the very traditional and how we might expect, let's say men of the cloth during that time period to approach it. So we have this kind of weird thing where the church is trying to find out what its new role is in the society. So it's clinging to old traditions, but trying to become something new. So it's really kind of fascinating interplay between the two sides of character.

Another profession that plays a key role in the book is doctors and most doctors in your book don't come off very well. The status of medical practice at the time had some very real limitations. They didn't understand germ theory yet. There weren't a lot of medications. So doctors were almost part nurse, part magician, part performance artist, and what messages were you trying to send about medicine and medical practice and doctors through your book?

I admit, when I tell most of these stories, I'm rarely trying to push a single kind of agenda. I'm trying to give you a lot of the facts to kind of put in front of you and have your own perspective on. So please, whatever I say here, don't take as - forgive me for lack of a better word - gospel. 

Vienna Plague Hospital, 1679 (from Wikimedia)
But you're right to say that a medical theory at this time, we're not, we don't have that modern sense. We don't have that monitor conception of, no we need to make sure we clean our hands before we disinfect a wound, we need to make sure we do XYZ to treat a particular disease. That said, there was a lot of medical knowledge at this time, which has just exploded throughout the era. We overlook, definitely, I would say, the Near East and Middle East kind of perspective from about five or 600 years ago,  that medical knowledge is still kind of limping into Europe from time and again. 

I guess the message that I'm most trying to deliver here is there is an awful lot of pseudoscience that gets applied both and in times of strife, both like in today's society as well as in historical events such as this. And I think the major message that I'm trying to get behind here is that there are certain facts that kind of reach certain results. And while I don't want to get too much into let's say how different doctors approach this deadly disease, there are ramifications to applying outdated theory and outdated practices to the current events and surround this ever so slightly because some of these doctors that I think we're talking about do play another role entirely as well. 

The doctors at this time is always that plague doctor mask, that kind of crow's feet that kind of Corvus mask, bone whites, terrifying kind of figures overall. And I will say that anybody who picks up this book will see that there's a very big delineation to how people who are used to treating this disease might approach it, versus how those who are outside of that particular part of medicine might go after it. 

I'm not trying to make an active attack on the medical practice, I think like you said, to highlight the real, very real limitations of the time period, it is important to see that as opposed to now we can kind of toss a cocktail of antibiotics at it and solve something like the Bubonic plague. assuming of course, we catch it early enough. And these are people who were without any real recourse at the time. All they could do was, try a purgative if they were brave enough to try that bleeding of a leech, and these are people were caught without options in the face of something that was terrifying in real and all pervasive to the society,

Right. I guess it's easier for us to look back today with centuries more science and technology and say, Oh, how crude and crazy things were back then. But they were people struggling with the knowledge they had at the time and doing their very best.

Exactly, I mean, even then we look at 100 years ago, it's Civil War kind of medicine. And we think how could they go and not do X, Y, or Z? And they were doing the best that they could, Even, even 70 years ago? Good lord. I mean, polio, for example, was what we’re almost 100 years out, finally, but even then we look at that now and say, Wow, how could we have been so foolish at that point?

So as we said, the plot of the book involves Vienna and involves a plague. At the very beginning of the book, Dietrich finds a plague victim in downtown Vienna.  That sets off a series of events and questionings to try to figure out what exactly is happening. And without getting into too many details about your book, it goes beyond just a mere disease. There's a whole lot else going on. And Dietrich comes in contact with some other people who may be humans may be otherworldly creatures, we're not quite sure. I think you bring up a lot of issues of enlightenment thinking versus traditional religion at the time, is that we were trying to get at with all that?

Plague Doctor circa 1656
(from Wikimedia)
Yes, and no, the fascinating thing and we touched on this before is, this is that time period that's between “praise God” - God controls all of our lives - and now where it becomes the state, like I said, we're coming off the 30 Years War coming off the separation now, and kind of this independence between religion and society itself, where religion, it begins to take more and more of a backseat.  

These characters that you mentioned, I will say they're actually is historical precedent for them. Without getting into too much detail. There is a theory called millenarianism - that when great kind of numerical years happen. There are huge consequences that occur. One of the famous historical things happens just 10 or 12 years before this, the year 1666 was the year of the beast. And that that was supposed to be at the end of times and very kind of Nostradamus kind of predictions could completely collapse. 

So the people to which you refer, yes, there is a little bit more gray area, because again, I want to give that kind of onus for the reader to make their own decisions upon them. But by the same token, there is historical precedent for these particular people. 

I guess to get back more of your thought before enlightenment thinking versus traditional religion, I would hesitate to say that I'm trying to make too much of a preach about it. Again, when I'm crafting the story for you, yes, these events really happened. But there is a tiny bit, a tiny bit of embellishment to it. So hopefully, hopefully you'll forgive me about that. I know you and I haven't had a chance to really speak too much about the book after your reading it here, but hopefully you forgive me the tiny bit of embellishment that might have happened.

You also mentioned there are a couple of Jewish characters in the book and some mention of Muslims, although they don't play a major role. What was the situation between Christians, Jews, and Muslims in this period, in this part of the world?

Vienna at this particular time period sits in a very unique position between what's considered east and what's considered Western Europe shortly, I believe is before the shortly after the 30 Years War if they are attacked by the Ottoman Turks, there's a lot of fear and a lot of anti-muslim propaganda. 

Unfortunately, at the same time, a lot of people in the city who are Jewish experienced the same kind of hatred, historical material that kind of happened against unfortunately, their culture. And since they've emigrated from the Middle East.  Vienna at this point, was as cosmopolitan as you could get in terms of European city. Vienna operates on this very, very strange node of being the geopolitical center of the HRE, the Holy Roman Empire, as well as being east of France, which is a major kind of political point, west of the Ottoman Turks was just another kind of major political point, and a major trade node, both an exchange of ideas as well as goods. And so we have all these cultures that kind of continue to mesh in the city, some of which you can suppose to be influenced today. 

Regrettably, our kind of modern notions of accepting and be more multinational, multicultural, didn't quite hold sway here.  A couple of tongue in cheek comments being made about the Emperor making a rather rash political decision to eject Jews from the part of the city. They were unfortunately still seen very much as a scapegoat in society, taking on the ills of so many things that have gone on, 

I think, by adding both of these cultures into what would otherwise be a very kind of whitewashed Catholic Christian society, I want to at least acknowledge the true history that first of all, there were these people in the city.  This was not a number of Christians going through this and then bending on one knee towards a cross. This was a truly broad spectrum, multiracial community going through this together. 

One of the major characters, I'm sure you will bring up, is Abraham at the same time and his wife Sarah. And Abraham runs a small apothecary. And for the most part, Jews at this time period, if they weren't outside the city, they were expected to keep the religion quite internal, quite close. But the more that we kind of see, Abraham, we see the way that he interacts with more kind of classically Christian individuals, we are able to see both, let's say the stubborn ways of the older world, as well as maybe this kind of broadening sense, this broadening kind of community of fraternity, that both this hardship brings, as well as these kind of new ideas, kind of post enlightenment era,

European Jews always and even unfortunately, up though modern times often have had a very difficult balancing act, is in that they often wanted to kind of be guarded and apart from the bigger society because bigger society was often so hostile to them. But at the same time, they had to interact more with society so that people realized that they didn't have horns and weren't going to eat their children or things like that.

It's funny, you mention that because some of those things do come up in the book. I will say there's actually more than a few funny moments between the Bishop Wilderich and Abraham as both try to reconcile their theological differences. 

And I think when it comes right down to it, we still need to recognize that past all the labels that we put on each other, we're still going through this crazy madhouse, this crazy set of events together. And I think to me, one of the things that was so enjoyable to hear that even in these dark times, we dropped all those labels. It didn't matter if you were Jewish, or you were North African, you are more kind of classically Arab. And please forgive me if I'm not able to break that down more culturally. You were going through a hard time and you forgot what happened, your forgot the former divisions and you tried to come together.  

That to me, especially in this time period that we're going through these last long months and forever, however, who knows how long ahead. It was a message that I thought needed to be shared that basically in these kind of harsh times in these horrible kind of difficult times, this is the time to kind of band together. This is the time to to forget all patriots and forget all prejudices and to join hands and head. So it was it was a very powerful tale I had to share.

That's the thing, times of crisis can bring people together and it can drive them apart. You know, whether you're looking for a scapegoat to blame all society's ills on or just the fear of the unknown will make you hate the other group and want to lash out - attack at them. Or can we all come together and fight the common enemy, in this case, the plague and a host of other things. The book tackles that tough issue I think does an interesting job taking a look at it. Is there anything else you really hope readers will take away from reading your book - something some main point or theme or idea you wanted to get across to them?

The major thing I hope each reader takes away from this book, however you feel about the characters. How do you feel about the strife that goes on,  there are many different kinds of conflict. The thing I want most people to take away is that these stories really are completely endemic to our history.  

We have this perception that every single event that happens to us has never happened before that every single moment that we've gone through every single difficulty is the first time in history we've ever had to deal with it. And one of the things that I discovered as I went throughout my research was not just that it's not true to begin with, but also the fact that we have monuments made so that we recall all of these hard times and the way that we're able to persist in the face of them. 

Plague Column in Vienna
(from Wikimedia)
When I first found out about this particular plague, I learned that there was a column three or 400 yards away down in nearby side street that commemorated surviving this extremely deadly event. And then I remember standing there watching as everyone kind of walked past it, just completely heedless of this beautiful thing that told us both such a hard time, such a sorrowful time and such a triumphant one at the same time. I remember asking someone in the city about it a couple months later. And her response was, I guess I never noticed it just was a column to me. 

So one thing I hope that I can kind of encourage all the readers to do and this is something that thankfully, I think I've been able to come to grips with as well with the American Revolution Podcast is that these events have happened, everywhere. And I think that we do need to make a greater emphasis on paying attention to those and learning from those learning the stories of those people who have gone before learning of how they're able to kind of break through and rise above all the issues that we still face today.

Yeah, that's exactly right. I actually thought about asking a question somewhat Tamil tongue in cheek, about how modern viewers could possibly identify with a story about a global pandemic and outsiders being feared and hated, and all those things. But it just goes to show that there are cycles, there are common themes throughout history, things that we live through again and again and again. People react differently, but they react very much in the same way, the same range of reactions exist in every time in society.

True, true. And I think it's sometimes a great shame that we don't try to break that cycle, we find it all too easy just to follow the momentum around again,

Learn from history or be condemned to repeat it.

Exactly. And I think to me, this is something that we kind of hear occasionally about those of us who've taken history courses, or have been lucky enough to hear about it in various school works. We hear about the Black Death, and it's this abstract thing. Oh, yes, it was this horrible disease, there was this terrible thing. 

But if you've read accounts of people who have been infected by it, you read accounts of people who have suffered or observed it firsthand. It's bone chilling. It's just a very powerful moment to kind of connect with people who have gone through that. 

I am born and raised in New Jersey. And I know that for example, 100 episodes ago from when this hopefully it comes out, Mike you talk about the Forage War.  And the Forage War for me - I grew up forty minutes away from the Forage War I am within easy driving distance of Morristown, both where I grew up and where I am now. And I never heard about it in American history, and I love history. And to me it was so fascinating, I'm sure because this later, it was just something that I had to learn more about. 

So if I can ask you know, you if I could ask any reader who picks up this book, don't see this as the final word either on the Black Death or on people who were able to kind of survive and go through it and see this as a springboard. Maybe you don't want to talk about the Black Death anymore. I don't blame you. It is a devastating thing. But maybe read about Austria now, or read about the church like you brought up before. It's a really incredible thing that's going on recently.Or read about women that we have just completely never heard about and I had never heard about before I started researching the story behind this event. 

Turning to another topic, I wanted to ask you a little bit about your process. I know this is your first book for public release. How long did it take you to write it? 

You can make the case that it's been about ten years. I admit, I first learned the story back when I was in grad school.  Like I touched on before, I was lucky enough to live in Vienna. For most of my graduate degree. That was the point I had never thought to write before. That was never really a wasn't even a glimmer in my creative mind at the time. 

Writing began about six or seven years ago, that there's some other material that's gone on before then.  There's a sci fi book, which you know, I won't bore you with.  It was okay, but it's pretty much written on a bar bet with myself. Could I do it? And there's a couple dozen short stories, some of which I'm proud of some of which I'm not. 

This book actually started in a Starbucks about 18 months or two years ago, I was lucky enough to meet another writer there. His name is Jim Ward. He writes a lot of kind of crime novels. And Jim and I got to talking about fantastic stories and stories that were overlooked. And this was the first thing that kind of came to mind to me, my normal nine to five and I put that kind of in air quotes here is that like I said before, I'm an academic tutor. So my normal day was I would get up I would drive to the coffee shop, go to the gym and pack my computer and drive for three to four hours. And then do my kind of normal appointments, meet with students, try to give a little bit of history, maybe what I was doing, just on the off chance one of them might be just completely fascinated.  To this day, I don't think that anybody was but...

Is it gonna be on the exam?

Exactly, exactly there was like it was on the exam. Okay, cool Kurt, I will listen to you, but I'm not paying attention. And it was that way for eight months or so. And some days we're writing writing came out brilliantly, and other days it was very slow. 

About a year ago, I ended up finishing the particular work. And I put it before a publisher who said, you know, I'm not sure this is the right time for it. And then March happened, and we unfortunately are under our present situation now and I thought to myself, this is the perfect time for it. But unfortunately, a lot of the kind of classic publications are very, very nervous about even testing material. So to me, this was something that I had to get off my chest. This is a story that I had to give out to all of you. So I took it upon myself. This is a self-published book.  And I hopefully it doesn't give off anywhere. impressions. I know self published has a very weird connotation.

I think it used to. I think more and more, you're seeing a lot of really quality stuff self-published, because you just, you don't need a large publishing company anymore like you did 50 years ago.

And you know, Mike, I really appreciate hearing and you saying that, to me. It's one of the things I've been weighing very heavily upon my mind these last long months here, but...

I'll tell you, probably at least a third of the books that I use for the American Revolution Podcast, and I go through hundreds of books, are published.

Well, and that's the thing is that I think that we have this this predilection against what might be a fascinating tale, just because it doesn't have a certain name on it,

Right, and a lot of self-published people, well publishers first of all, they don't want to take a chance on an unknown author. But those unknown authors are people like you who have spent ten years thinking about this book and thinking about and studying and learning everything so they are sometimes the greatest experts in a very particular topic that a traditional historian or hearse history professor or something. Isn't ever gonna touch, unless they happen to be their PhD thesis. And it's something that you know you focused on for so many years and was an obsession in your head, it forces you to become the person to write this book. 

That's true. And while I won't pretend to be the greatest authority on it, I like to think that hopefully, I can hold a conversation here or there with those, a little bit more academically focused there. But I will say it has been a, it's been a labor of love as well. And I certainly do hope that it is both an interesting read, I guess, it was interesting read for you, as well as for other history aficionados out there.

Through your research and writing process. Is there anything in particular that surprised you either about the subject matter or about the process of writing a book?

I guess I'll take the second part of that first. So about writing a book, the first thing I think you realize when you're writing a book is, Oh, my God, where did this idea come from? 

I think there's this perception that you must be a Hemingway, you have to be a Salinger or you have to be any number of people to write a fascinating book. The funny thing about it is that the first thing that you write, it may not be wonderful, but it's something that is this was a labor of love that becomes almost addictive. And I guarantee you that anybody has written a book, they will all tell you that nothing they wrote on the first draft was worth, was worth anything. So it's been fascinating to kind of learn that, whether you're a perfectionist, or you just want to get a thought down on page, just the act of putting something down is a victory. It's one of the greatest kind of things you can do. I'm sure you realize yourself with the podcast when you first started this, you thought to yourself, no one's ever gonna want to listen to this. No one's ever gonna want to read this or hear about this.

I told my wife when I started the podcast, right before I launched, I said, if I could get forty people to listen to this, I'll be happy. That was my expectation.

Again, if you pull those back out now you would say to yourself. What was I thinking about this? Like, no one's ever? Why would I wouldn't want to listen to this. Why would anybody come along with me for 175 episodes and counting? That's the thing about writing a book, that's the thing about writing anything, it could be a term paper for all you really care - is that it's one of the most fulfilling things of creation, you can probably do. 

That’s the thing.  You have to feel compelled to do this thing, regardless of whether you're going to make any money or really even if anyone listens to it.  You just feel compelled to make this story known. And that life itself, exactly will make it a great story, because you want it to be a quality product, and you want people to know the story.

Stephansdom Cathedral,
Vienna (from Wikimedia)
Well, and that that takes us into the second part of this, you said about this particular book as well. I confess to some other stuff I've worked on since then. This particular book, it's funny when you try to begin to almost craft a plot-line behind this, the first thought is, Oh, of course, they went to sickness, like what else can what can you do with it? And then you start getting into the weeds, you start getting into those files and those books and those manuscripts that people don't really pay attention to that you can't find with a simple Google search. And you discover about people like the Empress Eleanor or you discover things about people like the bishop builder bridge, who by the way is still buried underneath the cathedral that he wants served 450 years ago, which to me is just astounding. The Empress Eleanor, when I lived in Vienna, I was actually lucky enough to get back there last year, I got to see her own resting place. It was just  - it's fascinating to hear all these tiny facts. 

And the funny thing too Mike, I'll tell you is that, whether or not you think you have a wonderful story, especially it might be just with history. I don't know why. But the more you learn about history, the more you learn, that all stories are so nuanced, so fascinating, and all these kind of strange little queer plot points that you couldn't even think about dreaming up actually happened. 

Like Eleanor, for example. I honestly, first I was trying to develop this plot, it was: we need to find someone who's a philanthropist and then you do the history do the learning behind it, you find out they existed by the dozens. Or to know the Jewish history of people in the city at this point. And then to find out yeah, they were there. This kind of got overshadowed by the fact that we have this perception of everyone just being Christian in Europe.  The plot’s been written for you.  It's fascinating just to see all the little tiny details and nuances that can create a very engaging yarn.

You say your book is self published, but I'm just kind of curious what sort of process did you have to go through to get it published and get, you know, have actual copies of the book on paper that you could sell to people?

Oh, well, I'll tell you by saying it's a long one. I will say.  Given that this was my first intended fully published work, I confess to sharing this material as it evolved, almost in a kind of Andy Weir style. I have several people whose word I consider impeccable. And as I wrote chapter by chapter, I was sharing it with them.  One would read it for conceptual.  One would read it for editorial. One would read it for both.  A fourth one who didn't even like the genre, would just read it because he wanted to see if he could nitpick it.  And if he actually liked the book, then that was a, you know, huge vote of confidence right there. So I had this team of people who have given so much of themselves and their time and I thank them rather effusively in the epigraph in front of this. 

But that was the creative process. I mean, you finished a particular draft and this took many, many months to do. And the next step is formatting it for any kind of work. And this, any number of places you can go.  If you want to, you can find someone to do it for you.  You can get your material professionally edited. I was fortunate enough to actually have an English major, take a look at it. I actually happen to be related to her, which is even better. It made my life so much easier and definitely the entire process cheaper, which I think is a major stumbling block for so many would-be writers out there that it can be a very expensive process. 

Now I was fortunate enough to find an online service that handles a lot of the printing and distribution of any kind of text that you want to do. But then there's also the copyright that you have to take care of. And then there's the cover design and there's the and there's this and there's that and I will actually say one of the things been just so amazing about this is I've been able to cross paths and rub elbows with fascinating artists from around In the world, 

Back cover
Mike, I admit you only got to see a PDF of my book. So you only have to share it and half of the cover imagery behind it. But I was able to connect with a wonderful artist out of Italy, whose family I think, she wasn't 100% sure, but she thinks that her family actually came from Austria at some point in the past, there's a lot of kind of up in the air. But a wonderful artist to give me her  time and talents to do both the cover for me and the back cover, which, honestly, for me, I don't know which one I like more. I mean, back cover for me is this beautiful thing of the actual cathedral where so much of this takes place. 

It's a process that takes so much self education and so much stubbornness, that it can seem extremely long. It can seem like a mountain, it can seem like something that you'll never truly accomplish. But whether you find an individual to help you through it, or you just keep continue to plug away by doing research and asking questions and trying to educate yourself. It's a long one. It's a very, very long one. I will tell you that At this point, I think I spent, actually most of the pandemic. So most of the time since March has been formatting or editing or commissioning all of these various pieces.

Well, all I can say is job well done. Now, as I said, this book is going to be publicly available beginning September 25. So you're at the finish line now with this project launch, what are you working on now? Do you have any future projects in the works or planned?

Yes, to multiple of those. So one actually was inspired by this podcast I mentioned before, never having heard about the Forage war. And, like I said, live growing up so close to it, and growing up, just through the heart, really, of so much the American Revolution in the northeast, I was shocked. I didn't know anything about the series of events. So at some point, I would hope in the next couple of years, I'd have a nice solid draft down on paper to kind of both highlight the division of the time period as well as just the many unique moments of heroism on both sides. And Mike, I will say I might ask you to be a beta reader on that one for it. At least for the history,

The Forage War is absolutely fascinating to me. And for people who aren't familiar with it, I would describe it as almost a version of Vietnam except the Americans were the Vietcong in that one. There was just constant, lots of little attacks and continual harassment of the British just breaking them down, one shot after another without any major battle. And that's why it doesn't get remembered. There was no big battle that got remembered. It was just hundreds and hundreds of tiny little attacks and ambushes and pot shots and things like that. Yeah, it's just it's truly amazing.

That's admittedly I have another project in the way just before that, but that's on my intent. I would say within the next book or two that I'm looking to accomplish. I admit a couple of things. One is that the events described I think in this current book, we are actually nearing the 350th I think I've calculated that right? The 350th anniversary of it actually happened, happens about a month after the book releases itself. 

It is my hope, actually, in the course of the next year to kind of push out another kind of overlooked story, or at least one or you know, a very, very bizarre version of it. So I have a duo of books to duology or Deuteronomy, I'm not really sure exactly the correct terminology is here, of the contact between the Spanish and the Aztecs themselves, trying to correct some of the misconceptions that are going on there. 

So I have a fully completed work called Night of Sorrows, which discusses a very, very fascinating event of its own, and then its immediate sequel is going to be Day of Mourning. Next year, will actually mark the 500th anniversary of the Spanish and the Aztecs have the kind of faithful interaction between the two of them and I really want to go and share that story as well and hopefully, take readers to discover a little bit more than what they might have heard in the history books thus far. Next project or to looking for that hope within next year, 18 months at least, pushing up one of those maybe both if the fates are right. 

But I would love to return to the American history and I mean the Forage War probably is by itself has just been so fascinating to learn about so far. And I think you hit the nail on the head by saying, you know, America's Vietnam literally or Vietnam’s America, I'm not really sure which way the possessive goes there. But to have a truly homegrown story, and to again, shed light on another misunderstood or overlooked moment from the history books.

And also just the divisions between the Tories and the Patriots within the events.  It really was a civil war. 

And the third group as well who just kind of stayed out of it and said you know what, as long as I have my life and my goods, I just don’t care..

Can’t I just grow and sell my own damned cabbages and sell them? 

Exactly! But that’s the intent.  A lot of this really depends on the salience of it. I mean, I would love to say this is going to be a smooth launch.  I would hope, of course.  I have to say thank you to people like you who continue week in and week out to call attention to the stories that we don’t hear.  I only hope that something like this book First Do No Harm can actually join those ranks at some point, even on a much smaller scale than the effort that you put into this so far already.  I just hope that at one point this can be on that level.

Yeah, I agree It’s always fascinating when you can read for the first time a story that you’ve never heard before, and one that’s true, that’s based on true events - makes it all the more fascinating to me than one that came out of someone’s head. Truth is often stranger than fiction as they say, and for me much more fascinating.

I will tell you this is never more true than what actually happens in the events that happen in this book.  I will tell you that right now.

As I said, I was very pleased to read it and very pleased that you could come and talk about it with me today.  First Do No Harm is going to be released on September 25.  I really hope that people can get out and listen to it.  Read it? Listen to it? Listen to me, I’m a podcaster. I really hope that people can get out and buy it, read it, and check it out.  It’s a very interesting story based on real events, and I think, will open people’s eyes to something they haven’t paid much attention to in the past.

Thank you so much Mike for giving me the chance to come on here and just kind of share this story.  I really appreciate every last second of it.

Alright, Kurt Avard, First Do No Harm, we look forward to hearing a lot more from you.

Indeed, thank You.

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First Do No Harm

by K. S. Avard (Releases Sept. 25, 2020).

In 17th Century Vienna, a local watchman discovers a dead body outside of Stephansdom Cathedral.  He soon realizes that the black plague is sweeping across the city.  He must determine: Is there a medical cure that will stop this illness from devastating the population? or is the plague the result of other-worldly beings bringing God’s wrath to a sinful people?

Author Kurt Avard takes readers on a journey through a society still emerging from medieval Europe to embrace enlightenment.  The struggle between religion and science breaks into open warfare as a determined group searches for a way to end this terrible suffering.  First, Do No Harm releases on September 25, 2020.  Pre-order your book on Amazon today.

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Follow author Kurt Avard on Twitter @theRealKAvard

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