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Novels under the microscope

Chris McCabe, scientist and author, applies the scientific method to literature

7 March 2005

McCabe at the day job

I would never sacrifice entertainment for the sake of scientific rigour.

Dr. Chris McCabe is a geneticist in Birmingham, UK who studies the role of hormones and growth signals in the development of human cancers. He is also the author, under the nom de plume John, of five novels. One of them, Paper, is a classic of the Lab Lit genre, describing the exploits of a disgruntled postdoc whose chance encounter with a second-hand laptop lands him into serious trouble. The modern molecular biology laboratory is painted as a bleak landscape where the natives are not terribly friendly and where boredom is the biggest occupational hazard. We like this book because the science is intricate, integral and realistic without being onerous, and the geek factor is tempered by clever dark humor and plenty of unusual thrills (our favorite scene is when the hero is threatened with a vial of phenol). McCabe is currently enjoying a year-long sabbatical under the auspices of a prestigious Nesta Dream Time Fellowship; recently caught up with him for a brief interview.

You're a successful geneticist. Why did you start writing fiction?

Purely because I was tired of writing scientifically. I wanted an escape into writing which was chaotic and anarchic, rather than constrained and disciplined.

You didn't start writing about science until your second novel, Paper. What made you decide to switch?

I didn’t want my first book (Stickleback) to be about science. It was an escape, an antidote to the papers and grants I was writing and having rejected. However, after that, I felt confident enough to have a stab at incorporating a humanist view of science into a novel.

Do you find it difficult to incorporate science into your fiction, knowing that much of your audience has only limited knowledge in that area? How do you decide how technical is too technical?

The majority of my books aren't about science, but when they are, it is a difficult line to tread. I would never sacrifice entertainment for the sake of scientific rigour – the role of a writer is, above all else, to entertain. However, there is an art in being just scientific enough to convince, without being so scientific that you bore.

In a related question, do you think it takes a scientist to write definitively about science, or do you think a non-scientist can accurately "fake it"?

A non-scientist could fake it, provided they run their manuscript past someone with a wide enough knowledge of science. I suppose the paradox comes down to this: what is entertaining might not be factually correct; what is factually correct might not be entertaining.

What is your favorite novel(s) featuring science? Are there any that wind you up?

I suppose the obvious ones are Primo Levi’s Periodic Table and Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World, each of which treats science in a very different way. But I enjoy their contrast. I haven’t read many novels featuring science which wind me up – although there are undoubtedly many out there that might – largely because, through my own experiences, I am aware that in literature you have to compromise, and that, unlike science, accuracy isn't everything.

You’ve been awarded a NESTA Dream Time fellowship to explore new ways to write, and you’ve said that you’d like to try to apply the scientific method to novel writing. What was the thinking behind this goal, and how is this intriguing experiment going so far?

The idea was this: scientific writing is an art in its own right. Scientists have to describe a complex series of experimental events in an ordered, structured and accessible format. To describe an interlinked series of investigations is to tell a story. My aim, then, was to explore what scientific writing could teach me as a writer. I aimed to write a novel, using the principles applied to scientific papers - taut, precise, structured and disciplined - to see whether the two disciplines I have always kept separate, almost as antidotes to each other, actually have more in common than I have imagined. I am in the latter stages of the book, and it is going well. There have been some compromises, and I have learnt a lot. When it’s actually finished, I will be able to tell you whether the experiment has failed or succeeded!

We understand you’ve recently been invited to Siberia to talk about science and literature. What was the occasion, and how did it go?

The British Council invited myself and the poet Jo Shapcott to travel to Tomsk and Novosibirsk, and to give a series of lectures exploring the way in which language influences science, and science influences language. The trip was fantastic, and opened my eyes to many, many things. Plus, our audiences were keen to discuss their views and certainly kept us on our toes. It’s funny, but often it isn't until you say the words out loud that you know whether they are true or not. In this sense, it was a useful exercise in deciding what I believed and what I didn’t about the experiment I am in the middle of.

How do you integrate your laboratory obligations with your writing? Do you find that the two endeavours have any complimentary (or clashing) elements?

With increasing difficulty! I now have two young children and two jobs, and things have become a lot tougher. I haven’t had a nervous breakdown yet, but it’s probably in the post. Certainly, I will have to write less than the book a year that I currently churn out. In terms of clashing elements, there really aren't any to speak of. The two endeavours act as ideal antidotes to each other. However, I constantly wonder whether I would be a better scientist or better writer if I didn’t do both.

Can you give us a hint about the book you’re working on at the moment? Will there be more laboratory action?

The book I'm writing as part of my ‘experiment’ is a thriller set in the forensic science world. So, yes, plenty of science, albeit at the forensic level.

Your books also feature a lot of black humor and a have a keen 'thriller' edge. Who or what have been your influences in these tendencies?

It is difficult to narrow the influences down. They purely reflect what appeals to me. Science, like medicine and certain other careers, can encourage a darkness of humour. In fact, you need to be pretty miserable about the whole thing to succeed. Ours is an endeavour almost entirely characterised by rejection. The grants that aren't funded, the papers which aren't accepted, the ideas that come to nothing etc. I hope I'm cheering you up… But it is sheer bloody-mindedness that sees you through in the end, coupled with a healthy degree of pessimistic humour.

Are there elements of yourself in Darren, the long-suffering scientific hero of your second novel, Paper? Have any of your former colleagues ever been convinced that one of your characters was actually them?

No comment on the similarities between Darren and myself. However, I did get into a lot of trouble with this book. Firstly, my boss read it. If you have read the novel you will understand how catastrophically difficult this might have been if she didn’t have a sense of humour. Secondly, I might actually have based some of the characters on people I worked with. Might. Since this, and the repercussions, I am careful never to let any character even resemble anyone I know, have met, shared a lab with or walked past in the street.

One of the paperback versions of Paper features a brilliant full-page shot of a fluorescent purple Eppendorf tube, which we absolutely adore [see the thumbnail on the main page]. Was that your idea?

Yes! My publisher at the time (Granta) bought a whole load of Eppendorf tubes of various colours, and photographed them until you couldn’t quite see what they were. But, yes, I like that cover.

Would you ever give up the day job?

I should answer this question carefully. The correct answer is no. However, should a publisher turn up with a wheelbarrow full of cash, I would be open to offers.

The novels of Chris McCabe, in chronological order:

  1. Stickleback
  2. Paper
  3. Snakeskin
  4. Big Spender
  5. Herding Cats

Order Chris’s books from Transworld

Read more about Chris and his NESTA fellowship