Monday, April 14, 2014
For the love of science: Dr. Amy Rogers talks about science thrillers and a new publishing company dedicated to science writing
You know I'm always excited to find fellow scientists who write, but when I met Amy Rogers and learned all that she does to advocate for "real science" in fiction I was ecstatic. Amy is a medical doctor, a scientist, writer, critic, and, as she states in her website, "a relentless promoter of scientific literacy." Amy not only writes science thrillers herself (her book Petroplague explores the world of bioengineered bacteria), but she promotes all science thrillers through her website ScienceThrillers.com. Wait, it gets better: Amy is about to launch a new publishing company completely dedicated to scientifically grounded fiction. Science writers and readers rejoice!
I'm really honored to have Amy here on CHIMERAS today to discuss her book, science writing, and of course her publishing company. Welcome, Amy!
EEG: The premise of your book, PETROPLAGUE, comes from real, ongoing research on biofuels: bacteria that can be bioengineered to produce oil-like substances. You took this premise and turned it into an apocalyptic scenario of what would happen if America were suddenly deprived of oil. Tell us a bit of how you had the idea for this book.
AR: When most people hear the word “microbiology,” if they think anything at all, they think of “germs.” The common understanding of bacteria is that they make you sick. But this is a narrow, skewed vision of the microbial world. When I taught microbiology at California State University, my goal was to convince students that disease-causing microbes are minor players. Bacteria are far more diverse, and far more powerful, than the few examples that infect humans.
In particular, bacteria are capable of performing just about any chemical reaction. Some bacteria break down hydrocarbons (petroleum) and naturally clean up oil spills. Others produce hydrocarbons and could be used to manufacture renewable petroleum substitutes.
That got me wondering. Why don’t naturally-occurring bacteria that “eat” oil get into our fuel supply and “spoil” our gasoline? And what would happen if they did?
Around that time, people in Los Angeles were using the words “carpocalypse” and “carmageddon” to describe the temporary closure of a major local interstate. America’s most car-dependent city, which also is a major oil-producing region, became the obvious choice of setting for my novel PETROPLAGUE.
EEG: Are you currently working on a new novel?
AR: My next novel REVERTANT will be released in early fall 2014. As with PETROPLAGUE, real microbiology is central to the plot of REVERTANT.
In REVERTANT, an American scientist travels to a medical tourism hospital in Mexico to test a risky new treatment on a boy dying of an incurable disease. When the hospital is taken over by a brutal drug gang and a rabies-like virus infects her colleague, she must solve a medical mystery and put her life on the line to protect the child.
Gene therapy, bad guys, chimpanzees, and a really good dog are all part of the tale. I like to think REVERTANT combines the kind of scientific detective story found in Michael Crichton’s THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN with the surgery phobia of Robin Cook’s COMA.
EEG: I love your website ScienceThrillers.com and how you "relentlessly" promote science literacy. That's also my mission here on CHIMERAS! There are so many intriguing premises that spur from real science, yet most traditionally published "science-y" books are based on bogus science. Why do you think that is? Do you think people are scared of "real" science?
AR: There are two sides to your question: producers and consumers. Why do writers use bogus science? And do readers avoid real science in the stories they read for fun?
As far as readers go, all I need to say is Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park.
Readers don’t avoid science. They’re attracted to great stories. If a writer has the ability to combine a great story with real science, readers will respond.
The problem with writing good scientific fiction is a mismatch of skills. The people who understand science deeply enough to use it realistically in a story are generally scientists or educators, not full-time writers. Many writers find science interesting and would like to use it in their stories, but they lack the technical expertise to write about it well. So they make it up. And often get it wrong. In my experience reviewing over a hundred science-themed thrillers at ScienceThrillers.com, writers can get help correcting the details of their science, but scientist-writers like Crichton display a unique depth of understanding in the way they weave science into their plots.
EEG: How can we make a stronger message that science is in fact sexy and fun?
AR: As writers of science-themed fiction, we’re doing it! Through much of the 20th century, the entertainment industry portrayed scientists as male, mad, and malevolent. Today, when geek has become cool and Bill Gates is the world’s richest man, it’s time to recast the scientist stereotype in books and movies.
We need great stories that will capture the public’s imagination. Those stories must feature compelling, realistic characters who are also scientists, engineers, mathematicians, or physicians. Science in plots should enhance the reader’s understanding of general scientific principles, not undermine it with nonsense.
EEG: You’ve launched a new publishing company, ScienceThrillers Media. STM is dedicated to science-y fiction, specializing "in stories with scientific or medical themes, and stories with protagonists who are scientists, mathematicians, engineers, or physicians." As you explain in your website, your emphasis is on "science thrillers" rather than the speculative stuff most people think of as "science fiction." ScienceThrillers Media is a "hybrid" publisher, offering authors the option of a traditional, advance-paying contract or an indie-style arrangement with higher royalties. Tell us more about STM and how the company plans to distribute the acquired titles.
AR: As you say, ScienceThrillers Media is a new, boutique publisher that will specialize in stories (primarily fiction but also narrative nonfiction) that have realistic science in the plot. Thrillers are a popular part of this genre, but STM will also consider mysteries, romance, historicals, young adult, etc. if the book appeals to the scientifically literate audience we serve.
Traditional publishing and self publishing each have advantages and disadvantages for authors. ScienceThrillers Media will negotiate a contract that finds a balance between the two that best suits the individual desires and skills of a particular writer for a particular book.
ScienceThrillers Media titles are published in both digital and paper formats. Our ebooks are distributed through amazon, bn.com, Apple/iBookstore, and Kobo, and many smaller and foreign e-tailers as well. Our trade paperbacks are distributed through Ingram, amazon, Baker & Taylor, Barnes & Noble, Espresso, and various global partners. STM can’t guarantee placement of books in bricks-and-mortar stores, but we do offer booksellers a generous discount and return policy, just like the major publishers, and we will promote our catalog through industry channels to get our authors’ work in front of buyers.
If you write scientific fiction or popular science nonfiction, send us a query. No literary agent required.
EEG: That's fantastic. Thank you, Amy, for stopping by, and most importantly, thank you for advocating the importance of "real" science in books as well as in our everyday life.
Amy Rogers, MD, PhD, is a Harvard-educated writer, scientist, educator, and critic. Through her book review website, her publishing company ScienceThrillers Media, and her own science thriller writing, Amy advocates for literate entertainment in the form of great stories with real science.