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Blogs, Interviews and Reviews

Interview: Q&A with Momma On The Rocks

(as originally appeared on September 22, 2015 on Momma On The Rocks)

MOTR: As a young boy, in a car full of trick-or-treaters on Halloween, you encountered two bloodied teens on the road that night - and years later wondered “what if?” But it’s a big jump from molecular biology and writing scientific journals  to writing fiction! What made you take that next step and become a novelist?

MR: The idea of becoming a novelist actually came to me back while I was finishing up my PhD at U Penn back in 1999.   I was so burned out on science at that particular time.  A PhD program is grueling, and "wrapping it up" is a veritable "Study in Perseverance" itself.  It requires a lot of multi-tasking towards the end-  so many experiments in the lab, so many scientific articles to read, and so many pages of original scientific descriptions to write (I just checked- my PhD thesis was entitled “Human Aldo-Keto Reducatses in Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon Activation” and ran 164 pages and contained more than 150 references.). It’s just grueling, and its worse because the writing is so factual, so dry.

So, I was burned out in 1999. Several years before that, prior to graduate school from 1990-1993, I had taken 3 years off after college, and I’d lived in Idaho during that break.  I attended the University of Idaho, and essentially “audited” an entire MFA degree’s worth of creative writing courses while I was there.  While I focused on poetry at first, towards the end I took a couple of fiction writing courses taught by faculty authors like Lance Olsen, or visiting authors like Ron Carlson and Peter Matthiessen…and fell in love with writing fiction.  

So a few years later, finding myself at the end of a PhD thesis, temporarily burned out on science…I decided I’d write a novel if I could, in the hopes of 1) finding a way to recharge the batteries and 2) becoming a novelist one day. 

MOTR: Why should people read your book? 

MR: I like to think that The Ripper Gene is a unique sort of thriller.  Unique in the sense that yes, it contains a mystery with numerous twists and a “furious, fast-pace,” (kind words of author Douglas Preston).  But I honestly believe it’s much more than “just another thriller”.  I was personally inspired by many authors, but definitely inspired by the writing styles of the late medical thriller authors Michael Crichton and Michael Palmer.  I hope it lives up to their legacies.

The novel not only tells a story, but it also contains a good bit of extremely advanced scientific approaches that are and/or could be used by FBI profilers in the not-too-distant future.  M.J. Rose called The Ripper Gene “a thinking person’s thriller”, and I of course both greatly appreciate, and fully agree with, her compliment!

Further still, beyond its scientific premise, the novel also presents moral, ethical and religious conundrums related to the concept of “genetic pre-determinism”.  The essence of this controversy was expertly mapped to The Ripper Gene by a talented geneticist whom I now count among one of my many scientist friends, the PLoS blogger Dr. Ricki Lewis, as detailed on her DNA Science Blog, which you can read here.

Essentially, I like to think that The Ripper Gene not only entertains, but also educates and stimulates readers to think carefully about an important emerging social issue.  Soon, more than a billion people on the planet will have had their genomes sequenced.  Once we have all that information, what will we do with it, as a species? Are all men created equal?  Is Free Will an absolute, or a relative concept? Is the ability of one person to choose right from wrong modified by the DNA code they inherit at birth?  

These are pretty deep questions that accompany the reading of this thriller, and I hope they increase its attractiveness to readers.

MOTR: Does the Ripper Gene exist? Is a person who has this gene ultimately destined to be bad, or do you think nurture can overcome genetic programming?

MR: No, there is no RIPPER gene.  However, it is based on an actual gene that encodes an enzyme known as monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A).  Many years ago, scientists found that individuals lacking functional MAO-A levels due to genetic variants had numerous behavioral problems.  The most typical symptom in those individuals was that of “hyper-aggression”.  The gene came to be known as “the warrior gene”… even though you become more “warrior-like” if you lacked it.

An article in Science magazine that described a genetic study evaluating the incidence of antisocial behavior in children who did or didn’t possess genetic defects in MAO-A actually inspired The Ripper Gene.  Importantly, and to the point of your question, that study showed that children with defective copies of MAO-A had a higher incidence of antisocial behavior IF they all had experienced unhealthy childhood upbringing.  All the children in that study come from “bad” environments, which in itself is a risk factor for future violent behavior.  In the study, the scientists discovered that the children who also had a “second strike” in terms of genetic MAO-A deficiencies, actually exhibited higher rates of antisocial behavior than children with normal genetics from the same circumstances.

Everyone (or nearly everyone) in the scientific community believes that a complex interaction between genes and environment is what’s important in determining the antisocial behavior of an individual…not one or the other.  In fact, scientists are now suggesting that an additional dimension beyond genes and environment (the social context or milieu, which differs from simply ‘environment’) also plays a key role.  The actual basis for antisocial behavior is bound to grow more complex, not less, over the years.  

So to come full circle back to your question.  Genes related to neurochemical processing like the real enzyme MAO-A (and other genes related to dopamine receptor signaling, serotonin transmission, brain derived neurotrophic factor, etc) definitely exhibit variants in the population that can predispose individuals to a host of issues… higher rates of aggression, lower levels of impulse control, poorer functioning of the prefrontal cortex, overstimulation of the limbic system, and other imbalances.  So in a sense yes, the general percentage of people with violent behavior runs higher in subjects who carry those genetic defects than those who don’t.  But whether any one individual becomes “bad” or not depends not only on genetics, but also on how they were raised, whether they experienced head trauma, their socio-economic status, and dozens of other non-genetic factors as well.    Most experts agree that “nuture” can certainly have a positive impact on subjects with those defects, and the earlier that positive nurture is introduced into that individual’s life, the better.

But then again, sometimes, individuals with apparently perfect genetics and apparently perfect backgrounds still go on to become depraved, cannibalistic serial killers.  We definitely don’t have all the answers yet.  Only a few pieces of the puzzle.

MOTR: Where do you write?

MR: I recently renovated a three-seasons room in our house into a home office, so I write there.  I intentionally decorated it to inspire me to write.  It looks down over our pool and backyard on a relatively idyllic scene since we live on a forest covered mountain.  Inside, the bookshelves are lined with copies of The Ripper Gene mainly.  The walls bear blown up canvas prints of the various books I’ve published over the years- my novel, the textbooks and my poetry collection.  They all stare guiltily down upon me as I try to write new content each day.

MOTR: What’s your method? Do your characters “speak to you”, where you just write and go where they lead you, or do you carefully plot the scenes in the book so you know where it is headed?

MR: I use a hybrid approach which works best for me.  I do outline my novel initially.  I don’t really see a way around it myself- if you want to write a mystery and you want twists…I’m just not talented enough to navigate my way through a labyrinth of details and red herrings and false leads and everything else that’s required to not only surprise the reader but to also “not cheat” the reader…I have to use an outline.  I suspect that some of the authors who claim to not use an outline still have an outline- it’s just sketched across the neurons of their brains and they are talented enough not to need to write it down on paper.

With that said, I did mention that I outline my novels “initially”.  But once I start writing, numerous new chapters and scenes never foreseen in the initial outline suddenly appear organically as a result of the writing…essentially sprouting up when the ‘characters speak to me’.  Of course I don’t mean that I hallucinate and my main character Lucas pays me a visit- rather, that as I write the scenes a new idea will come to me, and if its worthy of incorporation, it goes into the novel.  It may only require one additional sentence of explanation beyond the initial outline, or it may create six new chapters, two new minor characters and a previously unenvisioned revelation…but it grows organically and makes the novel better than what was originally only roughly sketched in the outline. 

MOTR: What are you currently working on?

MR: I’m currently working on a coming of age literary mystery set in Northern Mississippi in the 1980s, a biomedical thriller set in Manhattan, a bioterrorism thriller set in Philadelphia, and a sequel to The Ripper Gene.  Not sure which will finish first.

MOTR: What are you currently reading?

MR: I’m currently reading The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells, Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster, and The Woods by Harlan Coben.  Once a multi-tasker, always a multi-tasker.
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