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Essay

The Dragon in the Stone

On the quest to publish a science thriller

Frank Ryan 3 December 2006

www.lablit.com/article/179

Frank Ryan

I utterly refuse to accept that science in a novel will not sell. It’s a publishing house delusion – I’m sure of it.

Editor's note: LabLit.com is pleased to present a new weekly blog from Frank Ryan, a scientist, doctor and best-selling author who is currently attempting to publish and promote his latest novel (written in the lab lit genre) via an untraditional route.

It’s a Sunday afternoon, hot September. The hottest autumn on record in what is turning out to be the hottest year. I’m ticking over, pretending to work, while staring out at my overgrown garden, which is attempting to conquer the former dairy in my garden. The wrought iron gate clangs open and I hear the rapid patter of feet on the paving stones, heralding trouble.

My granddaughter is tall for six, fully a head taller than her four-year-old brother, and easily tall enough to ring the doorbell, like Ulysses’ siren. I’m too torpid to make a move, though I swivel my chair towards the office door. There is a momentary respite, the sounds of my wife opening the door onto the porch, the frantic scrabble of footwear being dumped, the squeal of voices. I watch the handle turn in my office door. I watch the door chink open an inch. Then, in a hysterical scramble of legs and shrieking, she takes a run and dives, rugby-tackle style, pinning me into my chair. My granddaughter is slender and elegant, but still a considerable battering ram when she launches at speed.

I’m still recovering, mildly aghast, hearing her call, ‘Granddad – I’m stuck to you.’

It’s a game, I’m now led to understand, with a cunning element of forfeit. She will release me only if I think up some alternative entertainment she finds irresistible.

I try asking her if she would like me to get her a drink.

‘Orange!’

She chortles. In spite of the fact that I am out of the chair, she has somehow manoeuvred herself so she is standing on my feet. To make my way through to the kitchen, I have to perform a literal two-step. We shamble awkwardly by her brother, who is trawling kid’s channels like a four-year old media diva. In the kitchen I try not to spill more than 50% of the orange into a red plastic cup. She still has me entangled by the window.

‘Oh look!’ I say. ‘There are horses in the fields.’

No chance! She is not so easily distracted, and perfectly capable of keeping this game going for a decade.

‘You’ve given me an idea!’ I say.

‘What is it?’

‘A new story!’

‘A fairytale?’

‘The very best of fairytales!’

‘Can we write it together?’

‘Yes – if you’ll free me from this sticking business.’

‘What’s it called?’

‘I don’t have a name for it – not yet. We’ll decide about names after we’ve taken a little walk.

In a nanosecond I am free. My granddaughter is gone in a blur of flashing legs to alert her brother we’re heading out in search of a fairytale.

We make our way up the lane under the leafy canopy of horse-chestnut trees. We pass by the squirrel tree, a half dead sycamore, with a prominent hole in the trunk. We dawdle by the wild raspberry bushes, so the children can satisfy themselves the fruits are all gone. We make a half dash for the triangular green. At one corner is the stone watering trough, where the well-dressers had recently painted a Christian scene in flowers. I lead them to the south-west angle, immediately opposite the old stone nursery school. We stop and gaze at the man-sized standing stone.

The monument commemorates the victory of an Anglo-Saxon king of Wessex who, in the year 829, became the first overlord of all England. Deep into its surface a dragon glowers, with a chunky barb of tail and raptors claws. Its wings are raised, like the fanned sails of a Chinese junk, and its tongue protrudes like an angry spike.

We follow what is now an established ritual, taking turns to place a hand on the image of the dragon. ‘Poor old dragon!’ my granddaughter says.

‘Why do you think he’s so unhappy?’

‘Because he’s stuck inside the stone!’

I give each of them a one-armed hug.

We have the theme for our new fairytale – The Dragon in the Stone. And we have the theme for our new joint fairytale – the search for the magical spell that will free the dragon from its stony prison.

**********

On April 20th this year, I met up with Jennifer Rohn in London. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the problem that had inspired her to create the LabLit website in the first place: that publishers seem to have a problem with novels that feature a scientific or laboratory theme (read her piece on this in Nature here). Her experience, in common with many of the people who are drawn to LabLit.com, fits perfectly with my own over many years. I would add that a similar problem exists for non-fiction, as you’ll soon see.

Commissioning editors are not bad people. In fact, they’re rather pleasant and fun when you get to meet them. (I’m feeling a trifle gracious; it has nothing to do with the fact that some of my friends are commissioning editors who might happen to read this!) Oh, yes, indeed, they’re merely a trifle anxious – who wouldn’t be, given they will be hung, drawn and quartered if they commission a book that does not sell.

It isn’t too difficult to imagine how such anxiety could set a ball rolling. Few books based on science get published. This in turn results in a lack of a successful track record. It’s a kind of vicious circle. A very cruel circle that makes it just about impossible for an aspiring writer to break through. And all that rejected creativity, all that still-born angst, does that not conjure up the very image of a sad and fiercely frustrated dragon, locked for all eternity in his or her stony prison? The question, then – and this was one of the things that Jenny and I discussed – is what can we do to set the dragon free?

My first dragon quest, back in 1990, was not aimed at liberating a novel but a work of science non-fiction. I had gathered together the story of how tuberculosis was first cured. It was a very wonderful story, essentially the stuff of legend – the history of how a handful of the most unlikely individuals, none of them tuberculosis experts, found the cure for the greatest infectious killer in history. Oh yes, and laboratory science featured big time. I was already a best-selling writer of non-fiction. I had one of the best literary agents in London. Surely the commissioning editors would be stabbing each other’s eyes out with ballpoint pens to get me to sign on the dotted line. Dream on! All of the major publishers in London turned it down. Even the two who were currently doing pretty well with my published fiction and non-fiction spurned it without a qualm. My poor old dragon seemed doomed to stay locked up within the stone.

But I was damned if I was going to accept defeat. I fought for my dragon. With the help of friends, I inaugurated the small press publisher, Swift. My book, Tuberculosis: The Greatest Story Never Told – now perhaps you understand the source of the unlikely title – became our flagship publication. Swift Publishers was the magical spell that enchanted that particular dragon out of its stone.

But like so many quests, it grew into an epic contest. I worked sixteen-hour days. I ended up £30,000 in debt. My wife took to wringing her hands and exclaiming we’d have to sell our home. I often felt that I stood alone in an exceedingly hostile gladiatorial arena and, dressed in nothing more than woad, was obliged to fight on, day by day and month by month. But the wonderful thing is that in the end my dragon flew. Indeed it wheeled and soared like a mad thing, giddy with exhilaration at this of life. It was covered three times in one week by The Daily Telegraph. Documentary films appeared on the same day by Horizon and World in Action. It even made it into the teen reaches of the national best-seller list. In America, where it had also been spurned by publishers left right and centre, the Swift example enchanted the major imprint Little, Brown to take it on a new quest, hitting on the smarter title, The Forgotten Plague. Again it flew. It took the front-page reviews of the New York Times and Washington Post, and was judged one of three non-fiction books of the year for the New York Times.

We didn’t end up selling the house. My dragon is still airborne fourteen years later and its quest had taken it into many languages, twice into Chinese. I sat on its back and took to the skies with it, journeying on an exciting ten-year odyssey of science non-fiction, all triggered by that spell of release. In 2005 I returned to my lighter alter ego and completed what I thought was a very powerful novel, a techno thriller, based on a major scientific – yes, lab-based – theme. My agent thought it was brilliant. The commissioning editors would be battling with those ball-point pens. And guess what?

Déjà vu!

In spite of the fact that every expert reader (recruited by at least ten different publishers) raved about it, the editors all said, no. One very nice editor of a major international house confessed to me that his in-house reader wrote a eulogy, then concluded: Your novel...many wonderful aspects...but, well, it’s a little out of the ordinary...frankly too much science.

Those same remarks, almost word-for-word, I remembered from fourteen years earlier. Am I just going to lie down and accept it? Damned if I will! I utterly refuse to accept that science in a novel will not sell. I’ve spoken about science to a variety of audiences from octogenarian members of the women’s institute to world congresses. Nowhere have I encountered any lack of interest. It’s a publishing house delusion – I’m sure of it.

So – a new quest!

On with the blue paint! Out I head, with my battle axe gleaming, into the familiar gladiatorial arena, I’m ready for battle. To free the dragon of science in fiction – is it not a noble quest? And where I go, any of you who are sufficiently intrepid may follow.

Trust an old gladiator – I’ll show you the way.

In next week’s blog, the woad-painted Frank quests for the spell of liberation...and comes up with an unlikely muse.