Here’s an interview with author Jon McGoran, who is carving out a distinctive niche for himself with tech thrillers that incorporate cutting edge advances in biotechnology. Really cool stuff. I’ve reviewed his books “Drift” and “Deadout” on this blog previously. This interview previously ran in the quarterly newsletter for Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers, which I edit. The issue was geared toward science fiction writers who might be interested in incorporating some genuine science into their writing. (I’ve previously written about the increasing disconnect between science fiction and actual science here.) Jon’s a really well-informed and interesting guy. So even if you’re not a writer, I guarantee this interview is worth your time. Enjoy. And check out Jon’s Website here.
Looking for a subject for that gritty crime thriller you want to write? Genetic modification of plants probably isn’t going to be on your short list for potential topics. But author Jon McGoran has already authored two books featuring Philadelphia narcotics detective Doyle Carrick and his involvement in cases involving biotechnology.
We’re not talking “Day of the Triffids” style plant monsters here. McGoran’s books are firmly grounded in contemporary science, and touch on real concerns and controversies related to producing genetically modified food. That might seem a bit dry and academic for a police thriller, but both of his Doyle Carrick novels — “Drift” and “Deadout” — are taut, gripping narratives guaranteed to please any fan of action-packed crime fiction. “Publisher’s Weekly,” which gave both books starred reviews, apparently agrees.
While his books fall more under the heading of “science thriller” than “science fiction,” I thought he might be able to provide some valuable advice for us about incorporating recent scientific developments into a narrative. Check out his Website at http://www.jonmcgoran.com.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your background?
A: I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and took it pretty seriously up until my late teens, when music and songwriting became more important to me. For about 10 years I wrote and performed a lot of music, but even while I wasn’t writing fiction, I still thought of myself a writer as much as a musician. After I did NOT become wildly rich and famous, I went back to school and finished my degree, started writing more as a job — copywriting, public relations, journalism. But after a few years, I realized how much I missed fiction, and how much writing and creating was at the heart of who I was. For some reason, when I returned to writing, instead of concentrating on science fiction and short stories, I was thinking only in terms of novels, and primarily in the mystery/thriller genres. Since then, I’ve started writing short fiction again, a lot of it science fiction, and my interest in science and science fiction has definitely informed my thrillers, which have strong elements of science.
Q: How did “Drift” and “Deadout” come about?
A: I had been working for some time as communications director at Weavers Way Co-op, a natural foods co-op in Philadelphia, and had been publishing the monthly newspaper there. We covered a lot of broader food issues, and the last few decades have been a tumultuous time in the American food system. A lot of alarming stuff has been going on: factory farming, irradiation, lots of questionable chemical inputs. I had long been thinking that a lot of what I was writing about during the day was crazier and scarier than the science fiction and crime fiction I was writing at night. But especially alarming and compelling was the way genetically modified foods or GMOs had quietly taken over the vast majority of so many sectors of our food supply, and the fact that so few people knew about it, even knew what GMOs were. The growth of the biotech industry was something I thought was grossly underreported and in need of further discussion, but it was also tailor-made as a thriller premise: Secretive multinational corporations use their financial and political clout to push untested new lifeforms into the food supply of an unsuspecting public. That’s a thriller right there! The more I dug into the topic, the more ideas I came up with for books in the series. And I won’t go into the nuts and bolts of how I came up with Doyle Carrick as a protagonist, but I will say that I love writing him. I love his voice and his world view and his sense of humor.
Q: What kind of response did the books get?
A: The response has been great. The reviews have been wonderful, and “Publishers Weekly” has been particularly kind — in addition to giving both books stars and glowing reviews, they interviewed me for “Drift” and spotlighted the review for “Deadout”. “The Inquirer” has also been great, and so has “Booklist,” “KYW,” “Grid” magazine, and genre outlets like “Criminal Element” and “Crimespree,” places like that, and lots of blogs, as well (including my favorite — chamberofthebizarre.com!). It’s great to get a lot of love from your hometown press, it’s great to get love from the big national outlets, and it’s great to get love from the genre press, because they’re your people. Of course, there are many outlets whose radar doesn’t seem to pick me up, and you always want more, partly to grow your profile and achieve greater commercial success… but primarily because deep down writers are all needy, pathetic and insecure.
Q: Is all of the science in them 100 percent verified, or did you do any speculating based on current scientific theory?
A: There is some extrapolation, to be sure, but I would say that all of the science is legitimate, and that everything in the books could be accomplished using current science, if someone put the resources into accomplishing it. I hope they don’t.
Q: Where and how did you do the research for the books?
A: For these books, most of the research is done initially online, and then interviewing the experts whose work I’ve read, to drill down on the specific ideas I am focusing on. Not everybody wants to talk to you about their work, but I’m constantly impressed by the generosity of the great minds out there, who frequently are not just willing to answer my sometimes ridiculous questions, but engage in these great speculative conversations, and often share ideas with me that might not even be relevant to the book I am currently working on, ideas that they find fascinating, that are fascinating, and that often times surface in another book down the line.
Q: What advice would you give for incorporating scientific explanations into a story, without letting them bog down the narrative?
A: That’s a great question, and to some extent, it depends on the book and the reader. Some readers revel in descriptions of different kinds. Just as some readers bask in pages of detailed naturalistic descriptions, other readers feel the same about science and technology, especially in more far-out stories where world-building is a major component of the book. Many readers though — and I’m one of them — don’t like world-building or complex ideas to get in the way of lean prose and a minimum of clunky exposition. As with so many elements of exposition, one of the most important things to keep in mind is the difference between the level of detail and understanding necessary for you, the writer, to write comfortably, knowingly and compellingly about a topic, and the level of detail necessary for the reader to enjoy it. Just as there may be many elements of characters that help the writer understand them and depict them realistically and compellingly, but which never make it onto the page, the same is true of scientific ideas. You need a deep understanding of the ideas (real or fictional) behind the work, but the reader doesn’t necessarily need quite so much. The trick is in deciding what’s necessary and what’s not. There are also nuts and bolts ways of making facts more interesting — characters can discover things instead of just relating them. Facts can reveal themselves through action or physical description instead of just lecturing. And while you should be judicious in the use of exposition via dialogue, there are ways to make it more palatable and entertaining. Imbue the exchanges with conflict or revelations of character and it feels a lot less expository. (e.g., instead of “As you know, Bob, the X-12 is a brand new technology… ” something like, “I was surprised Bob even knew about the X-12…” or “I couldn’t imagine an idiot like Bob having a clue about the X-12…” or, “Bob rolled his eyes. “There’s nothing new about the X-12. It’s the same crap they’ve been calling new for the last ten years.” Or, Bob smirked. “Nice X-12 you got there. You should see my new X-13.” ) The point is, if you make it feel like it’s about character or conflict or the fact that Bob is a bit of a dick, the reader will just kind of absorb the fact that the X-12 is newer technology, without feeling like they’ve been informed.
Q: Did you feel like you were under any pressure to get things right, in light of the fact that people familiar with the science would likely be reading the books?
A: Yes, but I would feel that pressure anyway. You really don’t ever want to get it wrong, ever. Not just on the science, but anything. Any time a reader thinks you got something wrong, even in very subtle or minor ways, you lose them a little bit, you put a distance between them and the book. And if you screw up something small, they are going to be that much less likely to give you the benefit of the doubt on the bigger things.
Q: Any advice in general for science fiction writers who want to incorporate some genuine science into their stories?
A: The first thing, obviously, is to get it right. Some science fiction or science thrillers are about the science itself, and some are about the effects of the science. Some readers want to revel in the details, and some want to trust that the details ring true and get on with the story. So, whether the background of your story is how the time machine works, or simply the fact that it does, you need to be comfortable and confident in the level of detail that’s appropriate for your story, and then make sure you get those details right — real or fictional. And, of course, whatever universe it is you’re defining — almost like ours or outrageously out-there — internal consistency is key.