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Discouraged by science? Try writing

Q&A with Chris McCabe, a geneticist who writes novels to escape from the drudgery of writing unsuccessful grants and un-published papers

By | July 13, 2006

Chris McCabe is a geneticist at the University of Birmingham, UK who studies the role of hormones and growth signals in the development of human cancers, and writes novels on the side under the pen names John McCabe and John Macken. Jennifer Rohn interviewed him by Email. Q: You're a successful geneticist. Why did you start writing fiction? A: Purely because I was tired of writing scientifically. I wanted an escape into writing which was chaotic and anarchic, rather than constrained and disciplined. Q: You didn't start writing about science until your second novel, Paper, which features a disgruntled biochemist postdoc. What made you decide to switch? A: 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. Q: Do you find it hard to incorporate the technical stuff? A: It is a difficult line to tread. I would never sacrifice entertainment for the sake of scientific rigor -- 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. Q: Do you think it takes a scientist to write definitively about science, or do you think a non-scientist can accurately "fake it"? A: 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. Q: Your books are also full of black humor. Who or what have been your influences in these tendencies? A: 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 humor. In fact, you need to be pretty miserable about the whole thing to succeed. Ours is an endeavor almost entirely characterized by rejection: the grants that aren't funded, the papers which aren't accepted, the ideas that come to nothing. But it is sheer bloody-mindedness that sees you through in the end, coupled with a healthy degree of pessimistic humor. Q. You were awarded a fellowship to explore whether you could apply the scientific method to writing novels. Tell us more. A: The aim was to write like a scientist -- succinct, ordered, structured, chronological, precise. There were many good things about this approach. Think of a novel written almost like a scientific abstract. No wasted words, just the spare description and tight language necessary to get you through. The aim was never to produce something turgid or characterless, however. The non-fiction approach still had to provide entertaining fiction. Q: So what were the results? A: The book finally came to fruition. Like many things in life, the idea was pure but the end product less so. [Although,] it worked surprisingly well, with some obvious compromises. The novel was bought some time ago now, along with a second, and will be released in February. The title was originally Dirty Science, but this has recently shifted to Dirty Little Lies, and will appear under the author name John Macken. So, I'm into my third identity already. In the meantime, I'm three quarters of the way through the [third book in a trilogy that started with Dirty Little Lies]. It feels good to have returned to a scientific theme, given that the novels are about the use and abuse of forensic science. Q: Any other recent adventures? A: The British Council sent me to India -- a lecture tour discussing the ways in which science and literature interact, and how language shapes science, and science shapes language. This was a lot of fun, talking with scientists, journalists, writers, and anyone passing. We took real-life examples of turgid scientific writing and translated them into exciting prose. We ripped famous selections of great literature and attempted to translate them into scientific language. We discussed how the reductionism in everyday language increasingly mirrors scientific language, which began prosaically in the descriptions of Darwin, Fabre et al., and now is efficient almost to the point of brutality. Which, sometimes, can be a good thing. Q: Would you ever give up the day job? A: I should answer this question carefully. The correct answer is no. However, should a publisher turn up with a slightly larger wheelbarrow full of cash, I would be open to offers! Jennifer Rohn Jrohn@the-scientist.com Links within this article University of Birmingham http://www.bham.ac.uk/course.asp?section=1000000100090001000300010001 C. McCabe, "A mission to sex up scientese," GuardianUnlimited, February 5, 2004. http://www.guardian.co.uk/life/feature/story/0,13026,1140718,00.html J. McCabe, Paper, October 1, 2000. http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0552998745/026-9047643-6748465?v=glance&n=266239 J. McCabe, Stickleback, April 15, 1999. http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1862072531/026-9047643-6748465?v=glance&n=266239 D Kim et al, "Pituitary tumour transforming gene (PTTG) induces genetic instability in thyroid cells," Oncogene, July 2005. PM_ID: 15897900. S. Farr-Jones and A. F. Boggs, "Grant writing for scientist-entrepreneurs," The Scientist, May 2006, p. 79. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/23386/ DS Kim et al, "Pituitary tumor-transforming gene regulates multiple downstream angiogenic genes in thyroid cancer," Journal of Clinical and Endocrinology & Metabolism, March 2006. PM_ID: 16394085. British Council http://www.britishcouncil.org/home Chris/John McCabe in Chennai, chennaionline.com http://www.chennaionline.com/education/Books/2005/10mccabe.asp J. Rohn, "Promoting science in fiction," The Scientist, July 7, 2006. http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/23879/
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Comments

Avatar of: Jean-Luc Lebrun

Jean-Luc Lebrun

Posts: 1

July 15, 2006

A scientific paper does not need to be dull. The cure to bad writing will not come from the writers, but from the readers. I believe it is necessary to understand where and why they fail by recovering and analyzing the "black box" after their reading engine has crashed on the steep slopes of mount Science, a treacherous mountain of knowledge constantly covered by dense fogs. One then finds that the cure has something to do with the quest of Chris McCabe as he puts it in The Guardian: "to explore the commonalities of good scientific writing and good literature".

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