Andrew Duxbury and his ‘Accidental Plague Diaries’: Doctor, actor and author, too

Dr, Andrew Duxbury. (Photo courtesy of Andy Duxbury)

You may know Dr. Andrew Duxbury from his roles on stage in Birmingham, or you may know him as a leading doctor of geriatric medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Then again, you may know him as the author of “The Accidental Plague Diaries,” a series of books that recently came to an end with the publication of the third one. His road to becoming an author is an interesting one, and he was kind enough to sit down and answer some questions about it.

Tell me a bit about yourself, Andy. Where are you from? When did theater enter your life?

I grew up in Seattle, Washington, in an academic family. My father was a professor of oceanography at the University of Washington. My mother taught various sciences at the junior-college level. Of their three children, I was the academic one, so I was sent to a college prep school in Seattle for high school. I got a great education there. What they did not count on was that the school would build a new theater my junior year. When I walked into it for the first time, it spoke to me, and I wanted to learn how to use it, so I signed up for technical theater classes. I didn’t have any real interest in performing. From there, I went on to Stanford University in California, where I double majored in chemistry and biology and spent every evening I could in a theater as a stage manager and later a director. Then it was back to Seattle for medical school, where I became involved in the semi-pro musical theater scene of the 1980s and then, in 1988, another bounce back to California, this time to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento for my residency in internal medicine. And with that, with every third or fourth night on call, my theater career came to a screeching halt. I remained in Sacramento for a decade – as an internal medicine resident, and then a fellow in geriatric medicine, and then faculty in geriatric medicine once my training was over. I had met my first husband, Steve, and the two of us were planning on remaining in Sacramento, within striking distance of San Francisco, for the rest of our professional lives. However, in 1998, war broke out at UC Davis between the school of medicine and the health system over various issues, and the clinical geriatrics program was caught in the crossfire and destroyed. I had to go somewhere else to continue my career, and the number of jobs available then that suited me were somewhat limited. I ended up taking the job I still hold at UAB, figuring it was a temp job which I would have for five years or so before moving back West. Life had other plans. A year after arriving, Steve became terminally ill with pulmonary fibrosis. I spent the next two years taking care of him while working until he died in mid-2001. I then spent a year or so recovering from that. I woke up one morning realizing that I had lived in Birmingham for four years and I knew no one other than the people I worked with, and I needed to do something about that. I ended up meeting Tommy, my second husband, and he suggested that I go back to theater. And he suggested that this time I do it as a performer (having seen me at various public speaking gigs). I started to audition and kept getting cast, and the performance career took off, and Tommy and I developed into a local theater power couple. His unexpected death five years ago was the impetus to my taking my writing more seriously as I used it as a means of working through grief issues. The joke has become Andy loses a husband and gains another career. 

Have you always been writing?

I started to write seriously in college. It really began as letter writing. It was pre-electronic communication and I found out that when the job got boring and you needed to look busy, writing furiously on a legal pad made you look busy even when you weren’t, so my friends used to receive very long letters from me. As things went to electronic communication in the 1990s, I experimented with various forms and ended up in a writers group that concentrated on essay formats, and I learned about being more concise. When Steve got sick and I was trapped in the house, I started to write comic film reviews as a way to let my outlandish imagination run wild when I couldn’t really do anything. I also did some blogging of various forms intermittently over the next few years. Then, with Tommy’s death, I began to write much more frequently and more in depth. 

Tell me about the first book. What prompted it?

After Tommy died, I began to write as a form of grief therapy. I had woken up to the fact that I was now an elder who had had a rather eventful life and that I had stories to tell and, as I was now alone, if I didn’t set those stories down in some form, they would die with me. So, I started to write what I called “long posts” on Facebook. They let my friends know how I was doing, where I was if I was traveling, and I peppered them with anecdotes of mine and Tommy’s and Steve’s lives. After about six months, I thought they might make an interesting thing to look back on, so I started a blog and cross-posted to there. The essays were all over the map. They might be about a show I was working on, a long winded anecdote, commentary on politics or social issues or just late-night ramblings. When Covid hit and everything was happening so fast, I pivoted to writing about Covid as, being in health care, it was incredibly overwhelming, especially as my patient population, being the elderly, were at considerable risk. I wrote. Wrote some more. It was as much about helping me understand what was going on as anything else. But something happened I had not expected. I started getting feedback from friends and acquaintances via Facebook and elsewhere that I was the first source they had found that was explaining the pandemic in understandable terms, and they encouraged me to keep writing. So, I did. And, after about six weeks I looked at what I had written so far and thought to myself, “Good Lord, I’m writing a plague diary.” I hadn’t intended to. It was by accident, so I started calling my Covid essays “The Accidental Plague Diary” as a joke. And I kept writing. After about six months, I looked at what I had written to date and started to wonder what it might actually be so I got hold of an old old friend, Steve Peha, who has a small independent press in Seattle and for whom I had done some writing assignments in the past on elder care. I sent him what I had to date and asked, “What is this?” to which he responded, “A book – I’m publishing it.” So, we set about shaping the random material into the first book, deciding to keep it in the same diary-type format in which it had originally been written. I cut the material with the change in administration as I assumed that would be where the story would more or less end. I was wrong. When the first book came out to good reviews and won a bunch of awards on the competition circuit, we knew that I might be on to something. 

Was it the first book that had chapters that were all Sondheim songs? What brought that on?

Stephen Sondheim has been my idol for many decades. I first discovered him in the late ‘70s when I was at the end of my high-school years, and my interest exploded during my freshman year of college when I saw the original production of “Sweeney Todd” on tour and stage-managed a production of “A Little Night Music.” We eventually ended up meeting a couple of times, had an intermittent correspondence, and bonded over a mutual love of puzzles, games and parody. He once called one of my parody works “brilliant,” and I will forever treasure that letter. He was still living when I wrote the first volume and, as I had finally “finished a hat,” I decided to honor him by using his songs as the chapter titles. I sent him a copy when it came out and got a nice note back thanking me for the compliment. For the second and third volumes, I decided to use my two other favorite Broadway lyricists. Volume II uses Cole Porter song titles and Volume III uses Yip Harburg. 

How would you describe your essays to people who have no idea what to expect?

It’s the story of the pandemic from one personal point of view. It talks about what the pandemic was (and is), how it impacted our health system, our society, and even our minds and personalities. It’s my story and, at the same time, it’s all of our stories. 

Did you know there would be sequels?

I did not. I assumed that the first book would be it – that the change of administration would lead to us all getting vaccinated and the virus slinking off the social and political stage as usually happens. We all know that that’s not what happened. I didn’t stop writing about Covid. I just cut the material at an obvious stopping point (to me at least) and, when the first book came out and was successful and it was clear that the story of the pandemic was far from over, we decided there needed to be a second volume. And, when things were still not ending, it became three. Fortunately, at that time, it became clear that our society’s relationship fundamentally changed starting this past fall and that was a good time to end the story – we’ve moved from pandemic thinking to endemic thinking over the last year and that’s far less interesting to write about. 

Can you talk about the image on the covers?

Steve, my editor/publisher, did the basic cover design. I’m pretty hopeless at graphics. My sister, Jeannie, who is a brilliant artist, mainly doing tattoo work these days, came up with the concept of the plague doctor caricature and did three different versions of it for the covers. She also tattooed a version on my left deltoid in commemoration of having completed the work. 

Do you feel like the trilogy is it, or is there more to come?

I feel like the story of Covid is over for now. Even if we have new surges and increases in hospitalization and death, we will be dealing with them from a very different perspective that does not incorporate pandemic thinking. We’ve pretty much made that clear to each other as a society. Could my writings lead to another book at some point? I don’t rule it out but, there’s nothing dancing in my head yearning to spring free like Athena quite yet. I think the books, in many ways, are a single book, just published in three volumes as it’s happening. The diary form in which they are written means that it’s easy to dip in and out of. People are starting to tell me that they’ve gotten enough distance and perspective on the pandemic, especially that first year, that they can now read them with some enjoyment and recall of what they were doing or how they were interpreting things at the time. 

What has been the reaction?

Most people seem to like them and have been complimentary. When the first volume went out on the awards circuit, it did well and won a bunch of prizes. I’ve heard some negative things from conservative readers who don’t care for my political views. If they read the books, they should understand where my politics come from and why. I have tried to be even-handed. For instance, I have tried when discussing society or politics to try and focus on policy and its implications rather than on the personalities or parties involved. 

What’s next for you, on stage and off?

I will be in “Into the Woods” at Virginia Samford Theatre in February as Cinderella’s Father. I am in discussions with another local theater regarding their Christmas show, and I will be in the chorus of “I Pagliacci” with Opera Birmingham in April. I’m also slated to direct Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” next summer. I have no idea where the writing will take me next. In regards to the medical career, I am starting to contemplate retirement. I have been in geriatric medicine for nearly 35 years, and I’m starting to reach the geriatric age group myself. But not this year …

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