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Blogs, Interviews and Reviews

Interview: Q&A with Marjorie's World of Books

(as originally appeared on MarjorieBookLikes.com on Sept 15, 2015)

MWoB: Knowing your scientific background before reading your book, I had thought there might be parts that would be over my head. I was very impressed with the clarity and simplicity of your scientific explanations. Was it difficult for you to tone it down for the general public?

MR: Thank you! No, it’s not difficult. I do tend to include more information than necessary in earlier drafts, but that’s just because I’m working through exactly how the science might work in my own mind. Once I know how it works out in the novel, I’m able to go back and rewrite the scientific explanation passages down to the bare bones necessary to educate the reader while still keeping the pace moving at a good clip. I’ve been asked this in several interviews now and I usually just refer to the fact that I’m a professor at Penn and enjoy teaching genetics and genomics to entry level graduate students there… so in all honesty I’m accustomed to going back to basics to explain the science in this field.

MWoB: You’ve written numerous scientific books and articles. How difficult was it to change that style of writing into a creative thriller?

MR: Well I don’t find it difficult at all because I’ve learned to write in both ways. I think its now harder for me to write scientifically, because then you have to be very succinct and to the point, sort of “just the fact’s” if you will. Whereas with fiction, you can be a bit more baroque and descriptive. So its actually more difficult to go back to writing science and keeping my summaries as succinct as possible- I’d rather have the freedom to express exactly what I want to say in however many words I want, but that’s just not acceptable in scientific communication.

MWoB: The first chapter of “The Ripper Gene” is completely engrossing and chilling. I read that it’s based on an incident from your childhood. Can you tell us more about that?

MR: Yes- it comes from a single Halloween night I experienced when I was about the same age as the young version of Lucas in the novel. My mother was driving us children around in the backroads of Mississippi for trick-or-treating, and she came up on several teenaged boys stumbling about in the middle of the gravel road in the dark forest. I never forget how they looked in the headlights, with blood all over their shirts and jeans. My mother, being a no-nonsense sort of lady, simply floored it and drove to the next neighbor’s house and called the police from there…which is a big, boring departure from the tragic prologue I created based on my memory of that night. But I’m glad things worked out and that my mother’s still with us, all these years later!

MWoB: The question “is a serial killer made or born?” is raised in your book. You’ve been quoted to say “Many studies now suggest that a significant portion of an individual’s tendency to exhibit anti-social behavior is inherited. In other words, it’s in our genes”. Do you believe that our genetic inheritance overrides free will?

MR: No I personally don’t believe that one’s genetics can “over-ride” free will completely. But what I do believe is that our genetic inheritance can “modify” our individual capabilities to control aggression, to respond in fear or flight, and other capacities that seem to roll-up into the decisions that influence what we know as “free-will”. And that, in and of itself, is enough to make me really question whether everyone is created equal or not. Not equal in terms of their right to a life of freedom (everyone is), but equal with respect to their ability to choose right from wrong. And I think that question frames an interesting and important societal discussion that will only continue to grow as we sequence more genomes on the planet in the coming decades.

MWoB: How much truth is there in the Ripper Gene and the Damnation Algorithm? Are they a possibility or does some similar form actually exist or did you take some literary license?

MR: The scientific premise for The Ripper Gene is actually a real-life gene known as monoamine oxidase A, abbreviated MAO-A, which is also known as the “warrior gene”. It was identified as being mutated in a family of individuals with behavioral issues like hyper-aggression and other deficits. Most studies (not all, but most) have now shown a link between MAO-A genotype and antisocial behavior in the context of childhood maltreatment. That is, if two groups of children, some who have normal copies of MAO-A, and others who have mutated versions of MAO-A, are all raised in abusive homes… studies have shown that children with mutated versions of MAO-A will typically have a higher incident of aggression, antisocial behavior, and criminalization.

So while there’s a “warrior gene”, to date at least, there’s no analagous “ripper gene” in the sense that no similar gene has been identified as more frequently altered in serial killers. And there’s no scientific equivalent of a damnation algorithm (a group of genes that when analyzed together would indicate higher likelihood of a serial killer phenotype). But I don’t know if the appropriately sized genetic and genomic studies have been performed yet, to determine if there are or are not significant differences in certain genetic loci between highly psychopathic individuals and the control population. With more sophisticated techniques that allow us to look at features of the human genome that we’ve previously ignored, we may find differences. We’ll have to wait and see.

MWoB: You have been described as a pharmaceutical executive by day and an author by night. I believe you also wear the professor hat. Which is more taxing on your mind and which do you enjoy the most?

MR: I’m going to pass answering this question from the perspective of self-preservation!

MWoB: The way you insert the scientific facts into your novel without slowing down the fast-moving plot at all is admirable. Are there certain writing techniques that you use to accomplish that?

MR; There’s one technique that I use which is pretty standard. Whenever there’s a particularly important but complex concept that needs to be used or referenced in the novel, I’ve found it helpful to insert an extra character into the scene. That individual wouldn’t normally need to be present for the action to take place, but having them there means the main character needs to “explain” what they’re doing to the additional character. That way, the break in the story where your main character “explains” what they’re doing or how something works seems believable and doesn’t interfere with the pace because the explanation occurs organically through dialogue which, if written crisply enough, doesn’t tend to slow the pace too much.

MWoB: You’ve written a very intelligent, thought-provoking work of literature that at first glimpse seems to be a typical thriller but there is much more buried beneath. Yet this is your first novel. It’s hard to believe that writing scientific papers would prepare you to produce this caliber of work. What do you attribute your literary skill to?

MR: My father is a writer so it’s probably genetic. Beyond that I would mainly credit the creative writing program at the University of Idaho. I did take a creative writing class or two during my undergraduate career but after I graduated college and decided against going to medical school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. My parents had moved to Idaho so I moved to their hometown, took a job at the University of Idaho as an analytical chemist and then, as a university staff member, was able to audit one course a semester. So for nine semesters (fall, spring and summer) I essentially took graduate level creative writing courses there. Most of them were in poetry, but the last one or two were in fiction writing and they had a profound effect on me. Even though I went on to graduate school at Penn in the biomedical sciences, the foundation for fiction writing had been laid.

MWoB: Who are your literary role models?

MR: My literary role models are diverse and include William Faulkner (impossible for me to be from Mississippi and say otherwise), Albert Camus, Flannery O’Connor, J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, Dashiell Hammett, and Stephen King, just to name a few.

MWoB: Are you currently working on another novel? Any hints for your readers of what’s to come?

MR: I am indeed; in fact, I’m working on three new novels at present- a follow-up to The Ripper Gene, a literary mystery set in 1980’s Mississippi, and a biomedical thriller set in and around Manhattan. I usually work on multiple projects and then let one take off so we’re in the early stages currently.

MWoB: Your book would make a great movie. Any particular actor you would like to see take on the role of Lucas Madden?

MR: I’d always thought Matthew McConaughey would be perfect, but the role of Lucas Madden might be too close to his recent True Detective role for him to be interested. But you never know- he’s a Southern boy at heart and this is a Southern story to be sure. I think Brad Pitt or Sean Penn might be interested as well, given their close ties to the setting of the novel on the Mississippi and Louisiana gulf coasts. I think any of them would do a fantastic job with the role, but I’m sure many other actors would be exceptional in the role as well. I’d like to think actors would be attracted to the role of Agent Lucas Madden in The Ripper Gene not only due to its interesting scientific premise, but because of the deeper theme of genetic determinism and implications for free will that run beneath the surface of the entire novel.

MWoB: Are you part of any social media sites where we can follow your work?

MR: My website is www.michaelransombooks.com. I’m on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads as well. Right now I’m mainly promoting The Ripper Gene (new reviews, etc) but hopefully soon will begin sharing current progress on various projects. Stay tuned!
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