Posts Tagged ‘Jon McGoran’

McGoranHere’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


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 —!). 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.


DeadoutWith his second novel, “Deadout,” Jon McGoran appears to be carving out a nice little niche for himself in the thriller genre. Like his debut, “Drift,” the intrigue centers around genetic modification in agriculture.

That description doesn’t get your heart racing? Trust me. McGoran’s novels paint a nightmarish picture where any entity with the money and know-how can warp the planet’s natural processes for malignant and deadly ends. Worst of all? They’re based in contemporary science. Picture a 1950s mad scientist horror movie, except where the lab-grown monsters are entirely plausible.

Like “Drift,” “Deadout” also uses a contemporary scientific news peg as a framework. In this case, the disappearance of bees.

“Deadout” brings back some characters from “Drift,” including Philadelphia police detective Doyle Carrick as the hero. A good thing about Carrick as a character is that he doesn’t know anything about all this genetically modified biological hocus-pocus either. That allows him to serve as a reader surrogate while he learns the basics to solve the case.

By bringing back Carrick, McGoran could have run the risk of what I call “Die Hard 2 Syndrome.” That’s when you have a regular-guy protagonist who just happens to stumble into an extraordinary situation in the original story. And then he just happens to stumble into a very similar extraordinary situation in the sequel, for no reason other than a twist of fate. “What? Terrorists are taking over the airport we’re in, similar to the way terrorists took over the building we were in that one time? Darn the luck!” (See also: “Speed 2 syndrome.”)

But McGoran gets around it by keeping the character of Nola Watkins on as Carrick’s organic farmer girlfriend. That gives him an excuse to walk into situations where some kind of agriculture-related nefariousness is going on.

Speaking of “Die Hard,” Carrick resembles that movie’s John McClain in his characterization as a salt-of-the-earth tough guy with a relatable and endearing streak of emotional vulnerability.

That comes into play early on when Carrick and Watkins are having some trouble in their relationship. They head out to Martha’s Vinyard, where Watkins has scored a temporary job. There, they find that farmers are desperate because the honeybees necessary to pollinate their crops are disappearing. A corporation is offering to bring in genetically modified bees to make up for that loss.

Could there be something sinister going on behind the scenes? (Spoiler: Yeah. There totally is. It’s a thriller. Did you really expect the answer to that question to be “no?”)

I don’t want to reveal much more. I will say that the story goes to some pretty dark places before it plays out. As in “Drift,” a big part of the fun is the jarring incongruity between the wholesome organic farming milieu, and the scary motherfuckery revealed once McGoran pulls back the curtain.

One welcome addition to “Deadout” missing from the previous book is the suggestion of vast, shadowy forces looming on the periphery of the action. Carrick’s work, McGoran implies, is just beginning. Fine by me. If there’s an upside to the fact that modern science is venturing into some ominous places, it’s the fact that McGoran should have no shortage of material in the foreseeable future.

science fictionMy recent review of Jon McGoran’s excellent thriller “Drift” got me thinking about the definition of “science fiction.”

On the surface, defining science fiction looks pretty simple, doesn’t it? Does it have science in it? Is it fiction? Then it’s science fiction. Whew! Gotta take a nap. All this thinking has plum wore me out!

Except maybe it’s a little more complicated than that.

Don’t want to go into too many details here lest I drop any spoilers. McGoran’s book is about a modern-day cop who stumbles into a criminal conspiracy involving the bioengineering of crops. I’ll tell you this much. The secret he uncovers turns out to be pretty jaw-dropping, yet it’s grounded in modern scientific developments. Incredible, but not intelligent-walking-plant-creatures-menacing-humanity incredible.

That aura of plausibility, coupled with the fact that it takes place in modern times instead of the future, would seem to place it in the realm of “techno thriller” rather than “science fiction.”

Though I’m not one of these obsessive buffs who reads nothing BUT science fiction, I still love it.

It’s interesting to me, how science fiction developed. It (debatably) started around the turn of the 20th century, at a time of staggering scientific and technological advances that were radically changing the world for better and for worse. People were interested in reading stories that speculated about what changes might be in the works, and what those changes might bring.

A lot of early science fiction wasn’t intended as escapist fantasy, so much as a peek at how sweeping technological developments could affect the future.

I’m not suggesting that all science fiction was based on sober speculation. I doubt anybody read John Carter’s adventures on Mars because of their gritty realism. Still, a lot of early science fiction was based on a sense that the fantastic scenarios and inventions being described were plausible. Even imminent. If transcontinental air travel — a bizarre and fanciful notion for the generation preceding those early science fiction writers — was plausible, how much of a leap was it that the next generation would be living on the moon? If Americans could meet and interact with people on the other side of the globe, was it really that big a stretch that we might someday be shaking hands with the occupants of Mars or Venus?

So what makes one fictional work involving science a “techno thriller,” and another “science fiction?”

I saw a few reviews comparing McGoran to Michael Crichton. I’m reluctant to do that, because I really liked McGoran’s book, and I’m not a big fan of Crichton as a writer or as a scientific theorist. (“Global warming? Poppycock!” Good call, Mike. Very scientifically rigorous.)

Still, Crichton’s books were frequently classified as techno thrillers too, as opposed to science fiction. No matter how outlandish the premise — such as resurrected dinosaurs — the contemporary setting and mere nod to scientific plausibility would take them out of the realm of science fiction.

It seems that these days, a work gets classified as “science fiction” more because it incorporates certain tropes associated with the genre, than because it has anything to do with science. Tropes such as time travel, space travel, extraterrestrials, cyborgs, etc. Not based in actual scientific research on any of those topics, so much as variations on previous works about them. Being curious and knowledgeable about science doesn’t necessarily appear to be a qualifier for science fiction writers anymore, so much as a desire to write about spaceships and robots.

That’s not a diss. Like I said, I love science fiction — vintage and modern. And I guess it’s not a recent phenomenon. I just did a Google image search for science fiction pulp magazine covers, and they don’t exactly make the words “scientific rigor” come to mind. The raison d’être for many of them is apparently finding excuses to depict babes in metallic bikinis on the covers.

And of course there are plenty of exceptions. The subgenre of cyberpunk, much like early 20th century science fiction, attempted to combine rollicking adventure with genuine speculation about how radical contemporary technological developments might affect the future. You’ve also got works such as Scott Pruden’s “Immaculate Deception” that deliberately subvert standard science fiction tropes for purposes of social satire.

Still, it’s interesting that incorporating genuine science into a story these days might disqualify that story as science fiction.

DriftIf I was to sit down and rack my brain to think of subjects that could serve as the basis of a gripping thriller, I probably wouldn’t include “botany” on that list. Well, not before I read “Drift” by Jon McGoran, anyway.

Turns out plant science can make for a pulse-pounding story. And I’m not talking Day-of-the-Triffids-style monster plants, either. I’m talking about regular ol’ plant science, grounded in modern-day technology.

The “drift” in the title refers to cross-pollination, which drives the plot. Doesn’t exactly get your heart racing? Trust me on this one. In capable hands, nuts-and-bolts (or nuts-and-berries if you will … sorry) science can make for some very engaging reading. And McGoran’s hands are eminently capable.

It’s basically a techno thriller. But with plants.

McGoran draws on contemporary developments in bioengineering to depict a queasily plausible scenario where unethical parties can exploit those scientific advances — manipulating natural processes at will to produce drugs or weapons. To McGoran’s credit, this isn’t some hysterical, misinformed screed about GMOs. He periodically steps back, providing a rational assessment of the benefits and risks of the scientific advances at the book’s core.

Still, don’t get the impression that this is some dry treatise on modern agriculture. It’s got all the components that fans of slam-bang thrillers (like me) demand of their page-turners. An intriguing mystery. Compelling characters. Kick-ass action sequences. And simmering tension building to a final setpiece that … well, don’t want to give anything away here. Just stick with it.

The story concerns Philadelphia narcotics detective Doyle Carrick, who gets a 30-day suspension and ends up spending it in rural Pennsylvania. There, he encounters some organic farmers who are wrapped up in the political and ethical issues of commercial crop cultivation.

McGoran makes a canny decision in casting Carrick as the reader surrogate, who’s initially not into this stuff. The story gets some nice comic moments out of his reactions meeting some of the eccentric characters who are.

Even if Carrick doesn’t know anything about organic farming, he’s still got a cop’s instincts that tell him when something fishy is going on. A bunch of known thugs showing up in this small farming community, a mysterious developer buying up land, threatening phone calls to the holdouts and some apparent junkies who seem strangely insistent about their abstinence from drugs all point to something going on under the surface.

With the assistance of new-found friends in the organic farming community, Carrick begins piecing it together and learning as he does. I hasten to add that this isn’t one of those edu-ma-cational thrillers that periodically brings the story to a screeching halt so some character can awkwardly deliver a lengthy academic lecture.  (*Cough cough! Dan Brown. Cough cough!* Pardon me. Something caught in my throat.) McGoran keeps the pacing quick, and the storytelling tight.

So read “Drift” for the entertainment value. And if you learn something along the way, so much the better.