Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Monday, April 28, 2014

Bargain books for a limited time only: meet indie authors Vincent Trigili and Therin Knite


I have two guests today, as both these authors are launching a promotion starting today: Therin Knite launched her debut novel Echoes, a futuristic thriller, last January. The book is available on Amazon, B&N, GooglePlay, Kobo, and iBooks, and will be at the discounted price of $0.99 for a limited time only. So grab it while you can! Therin's next book, Othella, will be released next June, but you can already request an ARC copy on Therin's blog.

Vincent Trigili is the author of the fantasy series The Lost Tales of Power, and the fifth book of the saga, The Sac'a'rith, is available on Amazon, Smashwords, B&N, GooglePlay, and iTunes.

Therin Knight

EEG: You're a senior in college: what are you majoring in?

TK: I'm double majoring in Finance and English.

EEG: So young and already a book out: tell us about your recent release, Echoes.

TK: Echoes came about when I, well, miserably failed to write another sci-fi novel called Sync (the first in a trilogy). I didn't haven't the skill at the time to pull off the kind of story structure I wanted, so I came up with Echoes -- a more straightforward story written in a similar style. Echoes follows the embarrassingly named Adem Adamend as he navigates early 28th-century life in the United Republic of Earth. Adem works for the Republic's global crime-solving agency, the Interdistrict Bureau of Intelligence. Using his unique, "Sherlock-esque" skills, Adem is able to solve crimes at a much faster rate than most of his peers. Echoes begins with Adem stumbling upon a very strange murder case -- when he mentally recreates the victim's death, the only "murderer" that fits the evidence is a dragon.

EEG: What are your plans for the rest of the series?

TK: Echoes will continue next January with Epitaphs, which takes place about two months or so after the end of the first book. After the events of Echoes (the book), Adem is trying to get used to his new position and his new abilities. But, as you would expect, crime doesn't wait for Adem to catch up, and a terrorist organization arrives in Washington (the city) and starts causing chaos.

Overall, I haven't settled on the exact number of books in the Echoes series, but it's not going to be a short one. The series is designed to read somewhat like a TV show. It's episodic in nature, with small time jumps between each book. Every five books makes a "season," and there will longer time gaps between each season. I'm debating between whether I want to go for four, five, or six seasons right now. Of course, my choice will depend largely on audience reception as the series continues.

EEG: What will The Neuropath Quartet be about?

TK: The Neuropath Quartet is an upper YA (16+) futuristic sci-fi series about people with special mental abilities -- neuropaths. By "mental abilities," I mean the power to manipulate other people's minds. Neuropaths can hijack others' brains and basically tamper with them any way they please. From memory and emotional manipulation to destroying sensory perception to causing severe mental illness to simply..."turning them off."

The series follows a 17-year-old Class A neuropath (one of the strongest), Mal Halloran, who works for a CIA-like government organization that uses neuropaths to "keep the peace." The story is set in a time where there's already been a neuropath civil rights movements (coming off what was close to being a civil war) but discrimination against neuropaths still runs high because non-paths are deathly afraid of having their minds invaded.

Mal is part of a task force created to hunt down and kill the world's strongest neuropath, Langdon Moore, who assassinated the US President and several Prime Ministers during a global summit about 7 years before the series begins. Mal's father, who was on duty at the summit, was also killed in the attack, and Mal is on a vengeance quest for most of the series.

In order, the books are called Game Keeper, Game Changer, Game Master, and Game Ender. I'm also planning a prequel novelette, predictably called Game Starter, that I plan to write this summer for an anthology.

Vincent Trigili

EEG: Why did you decide to study math and computer science in college?

VT: When I was a tiny little Vincent, I had dreams. They mostly involved shooting things, but I digress. When I was little I wanted to grow up to be a computer programmer. Not just any programmer, but one that wrote video games. Unlike most kids, I did not change from that as I grew up. I even spent all of my Christmas money to buy a Commodore 64 when they were new and cool. I was writing programs for computers in the third grade in BASIC on that machine, and eventually transitioned to Turbo Pascal on a PC when my high school offered a class in it.

When I finally got to college, I still wanted to pursue computer programing but I was very unfocused about my degree. I took classes in every subject area possible, including, but not limited to: Music, Philosophy, Math, Science, English, and any thing else that sounded interesting in the moment. It was not until I transferred to my third college (I moved a lot in my early adulthood years) that I even looked at a plan to actually graduate. It was there that the advisors told me I had enough credits to earn not only a B.S. in Computer Science, but a second B.S. in Statistics also. In fact, even after filling those two degrees I still have a ton of unused credits left.

So how did I decide to study math and computer science? I did not really, both degrees just appeared one day out of the chaos of my random wanderings through college. Since then I have gone on to complete two graduate degrees, and obtained additional seemingly random educational achievements. These include security certifications, project management certifications and even a Black Belt in American Freestyle Karate. I have also had an extremely minor role in a movie, been an extra in commercials and even acted on stage to sold out audiences. All of these experiences help shape and form my story telling skills.

EEG: Have any of these concepts ever inspired your stories?

VT: Yes. One of the things I strive for when writing my stories is that even though they are fantastical and science fiction, they must be plausible. For example my faster then light spacecraft engines use a theory I came up with based on my study and understanding of how gravity works, and its impact on time and space. Is it beyond our current technology to test? Sure, but then it would not be science fiction if it was not.

I spend a lot of time researching concepts and ideas for all the fantastic events in the stories and I have had many times to trash ideas because I could not make them work with the laws of nature that we understand today. For example, in The Enemy of an Enemy there is a scene where one military force wants to wipe out their enemies. In my original cut I had them causing a star to go super nova and thereby destroy everything in the solar system. Sadly, after much research I could not find a realistic way to make that happen, so the scene was rewritten with a more realistic, but still devastating means of wiping out a large concentration of enemy forces.
It is all that time I spent in college learning a wide array of random unconnected facts and ideas that helps me keep my worlds somewhat realistic and believable while holding on to a strong flare of fantasy.

EEG: Tell us about the series you're working on. From your website: "The early books in the series take place in a futuristic universe that has recently been discovered by a medieval realm." So basically, you are mixing past and future -- that's quite an intriguing concept.

VT: The Lost Tales of Power series is set in a multi-realm universe with the primary story line currently taking place in a futuristic version of our universe. There have been side paths along the way that have dipped into other realms, and one significant sub plot surrounding a medieval style realm.
The long term vision for the books is that they will all be set in the same universe, with overlapping characters and timelines, but be unique stories. I am not creating a series in the traditional sense where you have to read all the books in order, but an open-ended universe where individual books and series live together.

The first four volumes lay the foundation for the entire universe, and set the stage for all future books. Volume five, The Sac’a’rith, could be read as a stand alone (and eventually will have at least one or two books follow it as one of the first miniseries in side of the universe.
The mixing of “past and present” is a result of the multi-realm nature of the universe I have created through the books. It is not reasonable to think that every realm would be at the same stage of technological development as every other realm, so you end up with knights on horse back interacting with space ship captains. There are wizards and computer hackers working side by side, and fights over protecting one culture from being destroyed by another’s technology.

EEG: Tell us about your latest book release.

VT: On Friday, December 13th, 2013, The Sac’a’rith, was released and for the first time since the series started it broke away from the core cast. It introduced a whole new cast of characters, races and adventures. The story actually takes place at the same time as the previous book does which made some of the time line tracking tricky, but it was good practice for future books that will do the same.
The Sac’a’rith follows the story of Zah’rak, a Zalionian (which is a reptilian race), as he gets freedom from his master and follows a stranger into battle against a rising tide of darkness. They pick up some other misfits along the way and through Zah’rak’s struggles more about the far remote past of the universe is revealed and the backdrop of other stories is pulled back to hint at just how big the universe really is.

Hopefully soon, Spectra’s Gambit will be released (it is in editing now) and that will return to some of the characters that readers loved from the earlier books. It follows Spectra and Dusty (a leading couple from the earlier books) as they grow and carve out what it means to be following a forbidden art in a world were the rules are still being worked out.

After Spectra’s Gambit will come the sequel to The Sac’a’rith (which I am currently writing). It is to early to tell much about what it will entail, but in general, it will follow Raquel and the other key characters from The Sac’a’rith as they try to resurrect a noble order of yesteryear.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Forever Fix: Dr. Ricki Lewis talks about the "many faces" of gene therapy

Today I want to talk about a book that will change the way you look at genetic research. Too often we forget that science is made of people: not just scientists, not just physicians, but first and foremost the patients and their families. I often come home frustrated because of clashing egos, reviewers that don't get it, projects that don't get funded. It's too easy to forget why we are doing this. Reading The Forever Fix: Gene Therapy and the Boy Who Saved It helped me put things back into perspective.

Dr. Ricki Lewis is a geneticist, a counsellor, a writer, an educator, and the creator of the PLoS blog DNA Science Blog. Her book, The Forever Fix: Gene Therapy and the Boy Who Saved It, is a journey that retraces the failures and successes of gene therapy, told from the point of view of families who had no other choice than entrust their loved ones into the hands of an experimental therapy. All this topped by Dr Lewis's beautiful writing that seamlessly folds the science and the history of science into the narrative.

As you know, some diseases come from "mistakes" in one or more genes. The only way to fix them is to fix the gene. Gene therapy is a medical procedure that in principle is simple -- send the "good" genes to replace the defective ones -- but that in practice is really hard to actuate and can lead to devastating complications. Yet for some, often young children, it's the only hope to live. Ricki has met these families, and she tells their stories both in her book and in her blog. I'm really excited to have Ricki here on CHIMERAS today!

EEG: What prompted you to study genetics and, later on, to write about it?

RL: I suppose I imprinted on genetics. I had wanted to be a physician since early childhood. Once at college, the first course for biology majors was genetics – not intro bio – and that was it for me. I had taken several genetics courses and done research in genetics by the time I graduated, and my grades were not good enough for medical school. When I discovered that grad school pays the student rather than the other way around, that seemed a logical route.

But I always loved writing. I won essay contests as a child. I wrote for fun. And it never occurred to me, through high school and college, to actually BE a writer – I was always so driven towards science.

The writing came together for me in grad school. I was just months away from earning my PhD, but was tired of the intense focus on one problem (flies with legs growing out of their heads). I took a graduate science journalism course, and instantly loved it. What freedom, to be able to switch topics every few weeks, and nowadays, days or hours! And so I interviewed with the Cincinnati Enquirer as well as applied for an assistant professor position in zoology at Miami University, to teach and do research in genetics, and got both. We moved to Ohio and I began my first academic position while freelancing for the newspaper’s Sunday magazine. This was the era of Legionnaire’s disease and toxic shock syndrome – two of my first articles. It was at Miami University that the textbook acquisition editors came around, and five of them, after seeing my magazine articles, tried to sign me up. So that’s how my career as a textbook author began, beginning with the intro bio textbook Life. I’ve since become co-author of two human anatomy and physiology textbooks, and of course my beloved human genetics textbook. I’ve also taught on and off, and have been a genetic counselor since 1984. Nowadays I teach an online course in “Genethics” for PhD students at Albany Medical College.

EEG: I totally get the need to change topics! That's why I write too, except then the science keeps coming back, even though in fictional form.

Genetics is a fast-changing field. I still remember when I started as a graduate student in 2004: my institution had just acquired an Illumina machine and they had no clue on how to read and organize the output. In ten years the focus has shifted from single genes, to whole genomes, and then again to ENCODE, RNAs and proteomes. The amount of data is overwhelming. How does one keep up to date with such a fast-changing field? In particular, do you have any recommendations for clinicians who might come across rare diseases? How can they be prepared?

RL: I agree, the pace is crazy! I blog for the Public Library of Science and I’m always backed up with posts, about 4 weeks out. The stories come faster than I can write them.

I can’t really answer the first question about keeping up for a normal person, because, as my husband always points out, I’ve never had a “real” job. All I do is write, and read. So I keep up to date that way. And as a journalist, I get “news” before it is published or announced – press releases every day. This is why I seem so obnoxious to people who send me articles from the New York Times or similar publications – to me it is old news. Writing for Medscape a few times a week, which I’ve been doing for about 18 months now, has really helped keep me up to date too. And I go to meetings – that is really how to stay on top of things. The American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy meeting is coming up next month. Can’t wait!

A clinician can’t really be prepared to recognize a rare disease simply because it is so rare. But I attended a talk at last year’s American Society of Human Genetics meeting – I forget the company – and they combined sequencing with database analysis and were able to diagnose a rare disease in minutes. It was one of the diseases in my book The Forever Fix that usually takes years to diagnose, simply because physicians are looking for horses and then zebras, unaware of the unicorns.

EEG: I loved reading your book for many reasons -- I'm fascinated by gene therapy, I loved your writing and narrative style, and I love genetics and the complexity of the human genome. But, the one thing I loved the most is that you "humanized" science. You gave a face and a voice to the scientists, the researchers, and the families who struggle with rare diseases by portraying their ordeal. Your book paints the reality of the many failures we face for every tiny step forward we make. I know you are a parent, too, so what was it like to meet and talk to the parents of the "gene therapy children"?

RL: I had been writing about families with genetic disease in my textbook, Human Genetics: Concepts and Applications, since 1993. The Forever Fix was actually more a side project, because textbooks must be revised every 2-3 years, and I have 3 of them. The genetics textbook has always had a feature called “In Their Own Words” in which parents and sometimes the children describe their daily lives, or their experiences with the health care system. The book has featured one boy (Max from Forever Fix) since he was 3, and he’s now 15! So I basically had all the stories buried in my textbook. I’d always intended someday to write a trade book on gene therapy, and when I learned about Corey, I knew it was the perfect story. Blindness is terrible, but it isn’t as terrible as many of the other single-gene diseases.

In the first version of the outline I pitched to agents, all those other kids and families were squished into one chapter. The book was to tell only the full story of Corey, the blind boy who no longer is. But unlike your experience with agents telling you different things, a dozen of them told me the same thing – give each family/disease a separate chapter. And that’s how the book was born.

I was extraordinarily lucky in writing the book. I had known about the gene therapy for Leber congenital amaurosis type 2 (Corey’s disease), but had no idea the little boy lived a half hour from me. And Hannah Sames, the little girl with giant axonal neuropathy who is the subject of my two favorite chapters, also lives nearby. And I learned about both of them through my local newspaper!

I knew the story of Jesse Gelsinger, as everybody does, and I knew the back story from the early 1990s of the first gene therapy trial. It was Corey’s doctor who put me in touch with French Anderson, who founded the field and is now in prison. He edited my chapters in pencil from prison. Of course I included his story but the publisher yanked it.

I also knew Lorenzo’s story from the 1992 film, and was lucky enough to interview his father. And so the pieces of the story all fell into place.

My training helped with doing interviews. I’m a genetic counselor, a hospice volunteer, and a mother. The hospice training was particularly helpful – if you’re used to talking with people who are facing the end of life, you can talk to the parent of a child with a genetic disease, although genetics introduces the guilt factor. The most moving encounter was listening to the mother of a boy who’d died of adrenoleukodystrophy practice her talk for reporters on me, at the gene therapy meetings in 2010. She went well beyond what she would say the next day, and really opened up to me. It was heartbreaking. She said I was the only one who asked her about Oliver other than what his illness was like, rather than avoiding talking about him.

Some of the interviews I’d do on the phone late at night, in the summer of 2010. The parents and siblings would be crying on the phone, their stories pouring out. It gave me a new appreciation for being healthy.

I had experience interviewing from my years as a science writer. Once upon a time, writers had something called work. We’d write for magazines, and they’d all pay us at least $1 a word. At one time in the early 1990s, I’d typically have up to 8 assignments at a time. I wrote hundreds of articles for The Scientist, thousands in total. Nowadays, writers either have no work, or are expected to work for free or a pittance – with the exception of a few class acts like Scientific American that still pay. So the magazine writing and that course way back in grad school prepared me to be a good listener and to gently ask the right questions to pull a story out. My PhD in genetics enabled me to speak the same language as the researchers and physicians. And journalistic sleuthing skills came into play too. Corey’s first doctor, who put him on the road to gene therapy, wouldn’t speak to me, so I reconstructed that part from medical records. I told Jesse’s tragic story through newspaper reports from the time and also through interviews with his father and the researcher blamed for the death.

Unfortunately there are too many “faces of genetics” out there. In fact, I’ve been giving a lecture called just that at the undergrad workshop of the American Society of Human Genetics the past few years. Sadly I present different families each year. There are so many of them. I’m facebook friends with several and feature their children – some are able to see for the first time thanks to gene therapy – in my blogs and lectures.

EEG: I've noticed that most gene therapy trials are funded not by the NIH, which would be the usual course of a clinical trial, but through fundraisers initiated by the parents of the sick children. You've told me that's because some cases are so urgent that there isn't enough time to go through all the NIH loops and caveats. How does a single family embark on such an arduous task?

RL: For every case that gets a great deal of attention there are many more that are less known. I can think of half a dozen families off the top of my head who are working 24/7 to raise funds to support gene therapy clinical trials.

Rather than showcasing one family, I like to connect the families so that they can share resources. This is an idea that is the brainchild of Lori Sames, whose little girl Hannah is awaiting her gene therapy but might not ever have it unless her immune system can be suppressed (she is a double nonsense mutation). That story is more tragic than Eliza's case, the 4-yr old affected by Sanfilippo Syndrome-Type A whose parents are collecting funds for a two-million dollar gene therapy experiment. Lori and her husband Matt have worked 24/7 since 2008 to get this trial up and running, and now, on the brink, their little girl can’t receive it. Yet. She is losing the ability to walk, talk, and see. Lori is the one who said to me, “If the gene therapy works, it’ll be a forever fix.” She named my book. And of course I hope it works.

Another example is Taylor King, who at age 7 was diagnosed with infantile Batten disease. Both Taylor's and Hannah's families are raising funds for gene therapy trials through the Hannah’s Hope Fund for Giant Axonal Neuropathy, and the Taylor's Tale fund.

When parents contact me because their children have just been diagnosed with disease X and they don’t know what to do, I put them in touch with Lori. And she helps. These families can share friendship, resources such as access to doctors and researchers and funding agencies, and hope. Lori is the nexus in gene therapy. The families she’s helped insist she knows more than any doctor – and she does.

This is the most powerful lesson I learned from writing The Forever Fix. Parents can take the finding of a treatment – I hate the word cure – into their own hands. They can raise enough funds to save time compared to going the NIH grant route, or supplement government funds, although of course the regulatory hurdles are still there. With social media helping immeasurably, families are confronting genetic disease head on now on a regular basis.

EEG: Wow. You have a vocation. I applaud you for the courage and the great support you give to all these families. Thank you for being with us today and for giving us a glimpse into what it is like to go through these ordeals.

Here's a summary of the relevant links where you can find out more about Dr. Lewis's work, her book, and the families raising money for gene therapy trials:

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Forget the "obesity gene": it's the "obesity microbes" that we need to fight.

Antelope Canyo ©EEG

This is going to be gross. So, if you're eating, finish up your snack first.


Let's do the following experiment: take two twins, one chubby, the other lean. Why one is chubby and the other is lean is a question we'll leave for another time. For the time being, all we do is take fecal samples from both, extract the microbiota (the bacteria living in feces) and transplant them in mice.

You'd been warned it was kinda gross.

The reason for such an experiment is that large intestine microbiota (the microorganisms that live in our bowels) have been implied in many physiological processes. I've discussed in other posts, for example, how commensal microbiota modulates the immune system. Some studies also suggest that they could be involved in the heritability of some epidemiological markers.

In a 2009 paper, Turnbaugh et al. transplanted human fecal microbiota in germ-free mice (mice that didn't have any pre-existing intestinal micriobiota) and showed that changes in the mice diets could alter the microbiota and the genes they expressed. In particular:
"Humanized mice fed the Western diet have increased adiposity; this trait is transmissible via microbiota transplantation [1]."
The human microbiota not only transplanted successfully in the mice, but it was even transmitted to the offspring, which could possibly validate the question raised in one of the epigenetic papers I discussed last week: are dietary changes that do not affect the DNA "inherited" through the gut microbiota?

Ridaura et al., in a 2013 Science paper [2], continued in this line of experiments, this time using samples from twins that differed in obesity: one was lean, the other obese. After the transplant all mice were fed the same low-fat diet. What did the researchers find?
"The increased adiposity phenotype of each obese twin in a discordant twin pair was transmissible: The change in adipose mass of mice that received an obese co-twin’s fecal microbiota was significantly greater than the change in animals receiving her lean twin’s gut community within a given experiment and was reproducible across experiments (P ≤ 0.001, one-tailed unpaired Student’s t test; n = 103 mice phenotyped) [2]."
As a further control, the researchers took the mice that had received the "obese" microbiota and transplanted them a second time with "lean" microbiota. They noticed that the excess adiposity was shed if the mice were kept at a low-fat diet, but not if the diet was high in fat and low in fiber.

The microbiota composition in the two mouse population is different, and the researchers showed that the "lean" microbiota produce higher quantities of short-chain fatty acids. One of the hypothesis raised, therefore, is that these short-chain fatty acids can protect against accumulation of fat and increase energy expenditure.

While these studies come with the usual caveat that humans are typically far more complicated than mouse models, I find them extremely fascinating, especially in light of the epigenetic papers I discussed last week that pointed at how phenotypic changes induced by diet can affect multiple generations even though they are not encoded in the genome. A possible cause for the transmissibility across generations could be the gut microbiota, paired with a high-fat diet which ends up affecting parents and children alike if they all live under the same roof.

[1] Turnbaugh PJ, Ridaura VK, Faith JJ, Rey FE, Knight R, & Gordon JI (2009). The effect of diet on the human gut microbiome: a metagenomic analysis in humanized gnotobiotic mice. Science translational medicine, 1 (6) PMID: 20368178

[2] Ridaura VK, Faith JJ, Rey FE, Cheng J, Duncan AE, Kau AL, Griffin NW, Lombard V, Henrissat B, Bain JR, Muehlbauer MJ, Ilkayeva O, Semenkovich CF, Funai K, Hayashi DK, Lyle BJ, Martini MC, Ursell LK, Clemente JC, Van Treuren W, Walters WA, Knight R, Newgard CB, Heath AC, & Gordon JI (2013). Gut microbiota from twins discordant for obesity modulate metabolism in mice. Science (New York, N.Y.), 341 (6150) PMID: 24009397

Friday, April 25, 2014

"Connecting people with my books": Moira Katson launches her new book Crucible

As you know, publishing my book has given me the chance to meet many successful indie authors. One of such talented authors is Moira Katson, whose latest novel, Crucible, the first in the Novum trilogy, is a quarter finalist in the Amazon Breathrough Novel. Congratulations, Moira!

The Novum trilogy is Moira's second serial work. Her first trilogy, The Light & Shadow Trilogy, a Medieval fantasy, was published last year.

EEG: Welcome to CHIMERAS, Moira! Tell us about Crucible and the Novum Trilogy: what was the "spark" that inspired you for this new series?

MK: Bizarrely, this series started out as a fantasy epic about a character that now shows up in book 2. I was attempting to explain a plot device I had used, a wasteland between two opposing armies, when one thing led to another and it suddenly became science fiction! In this case, the spark was wondering what might happen if the characters of the story had been devastated by war - but not a war they had been a part of. They were collateral damage in something much, much bigger than they were. The idea captivated me, and ... well, you'll see!

EEG: Did you writing process change between this new trilogy and your previous one, The Light and Shadow trilogy?

MK: Crucible had much, much more planning that went into it. I don't know if it was me or the story, but writing it too much more effort than Light & Shadow. Between projects, I read two books that I highly recommend: Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, and Writing the Breakout Novel by Don Maass. Lamott's humor is just right up my alley and it made me laugh at some of the emotional weirdness in writing, and Maass's book just brings the elements of the story into focus in a good way. I was able to overhaul the plot of Crucible with these two books in mind, moving plot points around like a crazy person, and things fell into place in a good way.

EEG: What are your goals as a writer?

To do justice to the stories in my head! They're so beautiful, and my words are often so inadequate. But I keep trying! Another goal, a huge one, is to have people connect with my books. Whenever someone writes me to say something like, "I was having a hard week, and these books really helped," I feel like every moment of strife and banging my head on the keyboard was completely worth it. I know what books have meant to me in some of the darker times in my life, and it would mean the world to me if I could pay that forward to someone.

EEG: What kind of other art inspires your writing?

A lot of digital painting inspires me, fantasy art from all over. Seeing anyone who excels at their craft is inspiring! Music is huge for me, though. I listen to a lot of epic music while writing, Audiomachine and video game/movie soundtracks (Mass Effect, BSG, the Bourne Identity). I'm also really captivated by folk music, the types of music people always find a way to compose and play, no matter where they are. It shows such a beautiful cross-section of the human soul, sadness and happiness both.

EEG: So cool. Best of luck with the launch of your new trilogy, Moira! The Amazon Breakthrough Novel finalists and winner will be announced in July -- fingers super-crossed!

Crucible, the first in the Novum trilogy, comes out today on Amazon. To learn more about Moira Katson's future releases, you can follow her on Facebook and sign up for her newsletter here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Sea turtles, soccer balls, and circus bears: welcome to Cole Alpaugh's beautiful, whimsical world.

His writing has been compared to John Irving's beautiful prose, and his debut novel, The Bear in a Muddy Tutu, to Sara Gruen's bestseller Water for Elephants: Cole Alpaugh is a novelist, an award-winning journalist, and a photographer. His stories are unique, his characters bitter-sweet, and his narrative a mix of melancholy and humor, which is, ultimately, the oxymoron of human existence. There's a special sensitivity that goes in Cole's writing, and if you'll read on in the interview, you'll see why. So, as they say, "without further ado," please welcome Cole Alpaugh.

© Cole Alpaugh
EEG: You are an award-winning journalist, yet these days you've turned into novelist and freelance photographer. Let's talk about the photography first: did you always take pictures or was there a moment in your life when you picked up the camera and never looked back?

CA: I hardly knew what a camera was the day I walked into my first newspaper internship back in college. It was a daily on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and the managing editor - this little bulldog of a guy who was a dead ringer for Lou Grant, if you remember - took me to a cabinet with beat-up gear and said 'here ya go, kid'. I was afraid to remind him I was there for a job as a reporter, worried there had been some mistake and I would be out of a job and credits. Turned out he knew what he was doing. He'd had a hard time finding photo interns. I learned what an f stop was, how to bounce flash, and how to push process Tri-X my first day. Back then, though, the secret to all good press photography was the art of the burn. You weren't happy until half your picture was black. But I also learned that the first person picked for assignments involving plane tickets was the person who could both write and shoot. It's different now with digital do-everythings. Back then, most reporters were lucky to pull off a head shot in focus. And as much as the photo staff didn't want to do a reporter's darkroom work, they sure didn't want them back there mucking around with their chemicals.

EEG: How would you describe your photography style?

CA: I loved spot news from the start because of the chaos and because it didn't involve politicians and businessmen shaking hands and passing checks - the dreaded grip and grins. I had police/fire scanners with me every hour of the day and night. I could beat the first trucks on scene even at fires 30 miles out because so many departments were all-volunteer. Listen, and I swear this is true: I begged my way into doing a ride-along with a cop on the overnight shift, years before the TV show Cops. It was supposed to be for one week, but the first four days was nothing but pulling over a few drunks to encourage them to drive home slower, and rattling doors to make sure they were locked. We got a call on the last night for a dead body in a garage. Turned out that a fraternity had broken into a crypt and stolen the mummified remains to use as a hood ornament. Actually, they strapped her to the windshield. When the idiots got bored of driving around, they put her in a garage across from their house and scattered porn magazines at her feet and lit candles. They tried to make it look like a cult thing, instead of a frat thing. Ten minutes after wrapping up the investigation, there was a bank alarm. The cop is pretty casual because they went off regularly. But we do 100+ across town, then he pulls in to circle the bank building that's in the middle of a mall parking lot. He shines the car spotlight on the back door and gets out to check the locks. As soon as he reaches for the handle, there's an explosion of metal and wood, and he's running back to the car with his gun drawn. Turns out there was a robber inside the bank, and his lookout had taken a shot at the cop. Man, I was hooked. I began watching the war photos coming in over the AP wire, and decided that was what I wanted to do. Turned out that most Manhattan photo agencies were more than happy to sign young, aspiring photogs up and pay half their ticket to war zones.

My photo style? Grainy, natural light that attempts to sum up days or years of someone's life in one harsh instant. That's what I would always be going for, anyway.

EEG: Tell us about the following picture you took. It's fantastic, you really caught the action!

© Cole Alpaugh
AC: Boy does a back-flip off a fence in Holyoke, MA. The group was cutting school, hanging around outside the tenements where they live.

Newspapers force you to be relatively competent at a lot of things, all for lousy pay. One day it's soccer, the next day it's a mall fashion shoot. My specialty was photo essays. Or at least those were most satisfying. I was also lucky to work at papers willing to devote a lot of space to pics. It's not the same to have a series of pics in an online edition. You had to see them together, in different sizes on a broadsheet page to feel the flow of a story.

EEG: Your writing spawns beautiful imagery, poetic in a terse way, and your characters are pained, searching, unique: your first novel, The Bear in a Muddy Tutu, is about a traveling circus, a dancing bear, a journalist whose daughter has been kidnapped, a girl missing her dead father ... they all join together in a melancholy, sad and emotional journey that leaves you daunted, speechless and longing for more. the premise of your second novel is equally unexpected: "A giant wave rolls over tiny East Pukapuka, annihilating everything but an old sea turtle and the ten-year-old girl clinging to its shell. The child is plucked from the currents by a salvage captain named Jesus, who hums Verdi’s Rigoletto while blissfully peeing into the wind and would rather swap the blubbering snot machine for spark plugs than help her find home."

Where do you get your ideas? Is it an image, something you see, a sentence you read, a person you meet, a tune you suddenly hear ... ? You combine exotic settings with memorable characters, bizarre and enchanting at the same time.

CA: Jeez, thanks, Elena, that's too kind of you ... I used to travel to places where human life had very little value. Places that might be beautiful if not for the poverty and suffering. It always seemed that when people have regained some normalcy, had buried their dead and moved on in their lives despite meager circumstances, another firefight breaks out and their animals were slaughtered. Or another child is shot. I suppose I try to capture those emotion in my fiction. There is always hope, but be careful not to celebrate. Something awful is always lurking. Haiti is the only place I've been that I can't imagine every having been beautiful, by the way. I've done off and on charity work for Haitian kids. We send money for soccer balls. Nothing special. A lot of aid groups provide food and medicine, but so many kids in Haiti have no childhood. They are scroungers since the earthquake, but it wasn't much different before. Girls were sold as housekeepers, and boys roamed the city in packs. During rebellions in the mid-80's, I stayed with a man who ran a home for orphan boys. All two dozen of his boys had been prostitutes. Eight-year-old boys ... older and younger. We send them soccer balls to play.

EEG: Wow. That just left me... speechless. A soccer ball seems so little, and yet it becomes a special way to find back the lost childhood.

Tell us about DASH IN THE BLUE PACIFIC, which will be released next year. Also, the ocean seems to be a recurrent theme in your novels, and I'm betting it's not a coincidence?

I love DASH. I'm really proud of it, and can't wait to share it. A jetliner goes down in the South Pacific. There's one survivor who washes up on a remote island, is hidden from rescuers by people who need him for a specific task. The man's closest ally is an alcoholic former god, who is half fish and might not even be real. It's a fun story, sometimes sad. The wonderful and brilliant Catherine Treadgold from Coffeetown Press is working on the final edit with me. It's out next spring. My favorite place in the world is standing at the very edge of land, looking out over an ocean. I'm a surfer and bodyboarder. My wife and I are moving to Hawaii's Big Island when our daughter is off to college in a few years. I love the power of the ocean, and try to tap into the enormity of it, and how insignificant it can make you feel. There's an addictive rush to riding a ten-foot overhead wave and sometimes being crashed and tumbled, sometimes certain you'll never breathe again. The ride is a similar feeling in ski racing - I've raised two wonderful ski racing daughters - but much more organic than skiing, more connected. Right before the first wave my wife and I rode together in Hawaii, this big greenish brown head popped up out of the water between us. It was an old sea turtle checking us out. We'd hiked to find a hidden spot from some old guide book. There we were in his world, and he hung out with us between waves for the entire session. And of course I used him in TURTLE-GIRL, bringing him into my world, while trying hard to show my respect.

EEG: Ha! I'll have to come visit when you move to Hawaii, then. And who knows, maybe once you'll move there, you'll come up with a story about a skiing team...

Thanks so much for being with us today, Cole!

Cole Alpaugh is the author of three books (The Bear in a Muddy Tutu, The Turtle-Girl from East Pukapuka, and The Spy's Little Zonbi), one in print (Dash in the Blue Pacific, April 2015), and two more in the makings. You can follow Cole's work on his website, blog, and twitter (@ColeAlpaugh).

Monday, April 21, 2014

"Under My Eyelids", verses by award-winning poet Maria Grech Ganado


...holding a feather ready in her hand
to write down all she sees

a curious girl is standing
in front of two shut doors

she knows that to choose one
she'd have to split her heart

she'd like to keep it whole
and small as she's herself

she shuts her eyes and trusts
the road she glimpses in them

she shuts her eyes and chooses
the road which she sees there

-- © Maria Grech Ganado
    translated from the Maltese by Maria Grech Ganado
    Appears in the collection Under My Eyelids (Midsea Books, 2014).

Yes, that's my self-portrait "Doors" featuring on Maria Grech Ganado's latest poetry collection titled Under My Eyelids, and the above poem, Under the Hat, is the English translation of the poem Maria wrote to accompany the picture.

Maria is an award-winning poet from Malta and I was delighted when she chose "Doors" as the cover for her latest collection. Maria writes both in Maltese and English, and her poems have been translated in 11 other languages. She received the Service to the Republic award in 2000 and has published four poetry collections in Maltese, and two in English, winning the National Book Prize in 2002 and in 2005. 

Maria and I have been chatting about words and images and we found an incredible connection. I really hope Maria can write more poems to go along my images so I can show off her talent at my next solo exhibit. In the meantime, I leave you with two more poems Maria wrote: Peter Pan, from an earlier collection titled Ribcage, and Wonderland, from Under My Eyelids. All poems posted here with Maria's permission.

"Breaking Free" © EEG

(11th December 1998)

By the time you flew into the story, 
I'd been Wendy for several years.  
I'd tried the window countless times before, 
flapped fiercely, fallen, felt my bruises 
and made my wry determined way back up the stairs.

Older, I spent the days embroidering stars on cushions, 
nights trying to count them in the skies.  
I never gave up hope.  But by the time 
you flew into the story, I had thought up
a new, secure, investing kind of game.

I'd invent shapes like creatures I'd imagined, 
blow words, ideas into them -  a yen for texture, 
warp and woof, and mattresses of paper under which
I'd hide the pea.  And then I'd sew my soul on 
like a shadow and try to help them fly.

Before I'd make it to the window 
the shadow would drop off.  
Why can't it drop off you?  

I've shoved and pulled.  Has practice made
my stitching that  much firmer?  I've tried 
to dive into your mind so fast I'd make it 
to your feet.  But still the stitches hold
and, what's more, you've found the pea, 

digested it!  I can't live with shut windows.  
If you should fly away, shadow and all, 
should I give up and lose my need of flight? 
grow old on pea-less mattresses? and die respectably
as mature mortals do?  Or should I risk another fall,

try one more time - follow my soul - not you?

-- © Maria Grech Ganado
    Appears in the collection Ribcage

"Down the Rabbit Hole" © EEG

She answered
Rouse me from this sleep
much longer than a hundred years

Giddy, I took a step backward
where I'd dreamt of the white rabbit
at that instant when we'd fallen
into a black hole (I'd thought)
because I was dazzled

gather the night around you
like an embrace--
stop and reflect

the star which you'e been chasing
for two thousand years
is obviously a quasar after all

I told her "No, I never lost my heart, you know.
All I did was swallow it down like water
when you confused me through the years.
How strange, it was always here in my breast.

Now that I've found it once more, come
kiss me and get up--it's late.
The garden waits."

-- © Maria Grech Ganado
    translated from the Maltese by Maria Grech Ganado
    Appears in the collection Under My Eyelids

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Was Lamarck right after all? A look at epigenetic inheritance

Myths © EEG

From the Wikipedia definition of epigenetics:
"In biology, and specifically genetics, epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene activity that are not caused by changes in the DNA sequence."
Wait a minute... how can we inherit anything that's not encoded in the DNA? All the information we inherit from our parents is coded in the DNA ... Right?

That's correct. However, there's something very important that goes hand in hand with the information contained in the genes: how and when to use those genes. Not all genes are expressed in all cells at all times: different cells express different genes, depending on the tissue and function they need to fulfill. Epigenetics studies the changes inside the nucleus that determine which genes are expressed and which are, instead, silenced. It turns out, these changes happen throughout our life. And even though they are not "written" in our DNA, in some instances these acquired changed can indeed be passed on to future generations.

This should be surprising. A mouse that loses its tail can still have offsprings with tails because the loss of the tail has not altered the DNA inside the mouse's cells. Yet, studies have altered in a similar way the eye color in fruit flies and the coat color in mice and shown that the changes were preserved in the next generation. In humans, there have been studies indicating that changes established not only through the mother's diet, but even through the father's diet could possibly affect the health of the embryo and be carried down to future generations.
"Animal models have also revealed that these diet-induced epigenetic changes are not limited to one generation, but can ripple down to descendants. Females with an increased disposition to metabolic problems during pregnancy can transfer this to their offspring [3]."
Why is this relevant? Because some of these changes can increase the risk of diseases like cancer.

For years we've been looking at associations between genetic variants and disease risks. Yet for most of the observed heritable diseases and cancers no responsible genes or alleles have been found. Could this be because the majority of heritable diseases are caused not by genetic mutations, but by epigenetic ones?

As Heard and Martienssen state in a recent review Cell [1]:
"Since the human genome was sequenced, the term epigenetics is increasingly being associated with the hope that we are more than just the sum of our genes [1]."
Epigenetics makes you rethink genetics. Back in school we studied that Darwin was right and Lamarck was wrong: Lamarck's view of evolution was that phenotypes developed out of necessity to survive to the environment. For example, according to Lamarck, giraffes developed a long neck because they kept reaching for higher branches when feeding, and then this acquired trait was passed on to the next generations. Darwin, on the other hand, pointed out that the longer neck was just a random trait that appeared at some point during the evolution of giraffes. Giraffes with longer necks experienced an advantage over the ones with shorter necks because they could reach for better food. The long-neck giraffes had an advantage and had more and stronger offsprings than short-neck giraffes, and were therefore selected for.

This view has led to two common misconceptions:

Misconception #1: All genes we have today have been selected for. This is absolutely not true. Many of the mutations we see in the human genome today are due to random drift, basically the "reshuffling" of genes that happens from one generation to the next.

Misconception #2: The environment cannot change our genome and therefore environmental exposures on one generation bear no effect on the following generation. Though this is what Darwin taught us, today we know that Lamarck was not completely wrong after all: while the environment cannot change our genes, it can indeed alter the way the genes work, and these changes can indeed be passed on to future generation. This has been the most surprising lesson epigenetics has taught us in the past few decades.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was wrong because acquired traits cannot be inherited -- they need to be encoded in the genome in order to be passed on to the next generation. If you cut the tail of a mouse, the offsprings will still have tails. The theory that giraffes elongated their necks by stretching it farther to higher branches and that by doing so, their offsprings would naturally acquire a longer neck is wrong. However, it's interesting to note that Lamarck was a botanist and plants do employ epigenetics to pass acquired traits on to the next generation, a phenomenon called "epigenetic inheritance."

The key point is this: the environment cannot change our genome, but it can indeed change the way our genes work (the "epigenome"). Epigenetics studies how these changes can be inherited across generations without being encoded in the genome.

The paradox is the following: we, as individuals, constantly adapt to the environment around us. The best example is certainly the immune system, which, throughout our lifetime, learns to recognize pathogens and kill them. So, what pathogens we are exposed to can induce epigenetic changes. Stress and diet can also affect our metabolism through, again, epigenetic changes. These environment-induced changes affect different cells in our body. Yet, when an offspring is conceived, the very first cells during embryonic development have to be completely reset as they are the cells that will make all different organs in the new organism. It's like completely erasing your hard drive so you can start over. Mother nature does that through a mechanism called "epigenetic reprogramming:" all the lifelong acquired information from the parents is erased in the germline (cells that originate oocytes and spermcytes) and erased again during the first phases of embryonic development.
Epigenetic changes not only take place during embryonic development, but also throughout the lifetime of an organism. The same mechanisms—notably DNA methylation and histone modification—have a role in the acquisition and maintenance of epigenetic changes induced by dietary or other environmental factors. [...] For a long time, scientists assumed that these environmentally induced changes lasted, at most, for the lifetime of the individual organism, but did not influence its offspring because gametogenesis would ‘wipe the slate clean' and the offspring would inherit a completely unadulterated set of genes. However, the specific mechanisms that cause the epigenetic modification of gene expression are now known to be involved in non-Mendelian—i.e. non-genetic—inheritance [3].
Though the mechanism of "epigenetic inheritance" is not yet fully understood, scientists hypothesize that it could happen during this reprogramming when some markers are not completely erased. Another theory is that the intestinal flora could be transmitting information across generations. And finally, the information could be carried on to the next generation through modifications in the RNA.

[1] Heard E, & Martienssen RA (2014). Transgenerational Epigenetic Inheritance: Myths and Mechanisms. Cell, 157 (1), 95-109 PMID: 24679529
[2] Lim JP, & Brunet A (2013). Bridging the transgenerational gap with epigenetic memory. Trends in genetics : TIG, 29 (3), 176-86 PMID: 23410786
[3] Hunter, P. (2008). We are what we eat. The link between diet, evolution and non-genetic inheritance EMBO reports, 9 (5), 413-415 DOI: 10.1038/embor.2008.61

Saturday, April 19, 2014

CHIMERAS Sunday snippet #8

From CHIMERAS, beginning of Chapter 11:
I rolled over and faced Hortensia’s pale shoulders, the soft bulges of her spine drawing a sinuous line all the way down to the small of her back. She turned—the hem of the sheets printed on her right cheek—and stared at me aloof, her parted lips an invitation to be devoured all over again.
“You missed a call,” she scolded, rubbing her eyes.
No point in asking why she didn’t tell me earlier. Whatever does not concern her, Hortensia does by inertia -- when she even bothers.
I reached over to grab the mobile on the nightstand and snapped it open, surfing through the list of calls. Diane Kyle, the display informed me.
If sex is a catharsis, love is a catastrophe.
I tossed the phone on the pillow and got out of bed, meandering through the stacks of painted canvases piled against the walls.

The above is my Sunday snippet submission for the Weekend writer Warriors (you can find the Snippet Sunday group also on Facebook, too). Check them out, it's a fun way to find upcoming books -- all genres welcome, there's something for everyone's tastes.

CHIMERAS, the first in a detective thriller series featuring LAPD Detective Track Presius, is now available in Kindle and paperback on Amazon.

Click to download sample chapters (ePub, Kindle and PDF available).

Book Description: Haunted by the girl he couldn't save in his youth, and the murder he committed to avenge her, Detective Track Presius has a unique gift: the vision and sense of smell of a predator. When a series of apparently unrelated murders reel him into the depths of genetic research, Track feels more than a call to duty. Children are dying, children who, like himself, could have been healthy, and yet something, at some point, went terribly wrong. For Track, saving the innocent becomes a quest for redemption. The only way he can come to terms with his dark past is to understand his true nature.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Acoustic lasers, tomatoes, and spaceships: Endi Webb talks about his life between writing and physics

If you've been closely watching Kindle book rankings on Amazon this month, as I have (ahem), you may have noticed a new star rising: The Terran Gambit, Book I in the Pax Humana Saga, came out on March 19 and quickly rose to the top 10 Kindle books in 4 different science fiction categories! Author Endi Webb is not only an accomplished science-fiction writer, but also an experimental physicist with whom, turns out, I share a common recent employer -- small world, right?

So, of course, Endi had to be my next guest here on CHIMERAS! Welcome, Endi!

EEG: From your bio: "At work, he gets to make nano-materials (really small things) with giant lasers and highly pressurized gas. His clients include NASA, the defense department, and many other government agencies that don't like to be advertised."
Let 's talk about the science you do: you work on nanotechnology, correct? What do you make, exactly, can you tell us? And what are some of the most fun things you get to do on your job?

EW: Hmm... I'm not sure how much I should say, but I study chemical vapor deposition processes, and their effect on material properties: grain size, conductivity, tensile strength, optical properties, etc. When I was an undergraduate, one of the first lab experiences I had was helping to set up a DC magnetron sputtering system, and sputter vanadium metal onto a substrate. It was one of the most magical experiences of my life. I grew up watching Star Trek TNG, and as I saw the argon light up into a beautiful purple plasma it felt like I was living a dream aboard the Enterprise. Needless to say, I was hooked.

Ever since then I've worked on a wide variety of experimental physics projects. My PhD was in thermo-acoustics, and I designed acoustic heat engines that could convert sound into electricity. Kind of like an acoustic laser. Later, I got to work with huge lasers to do.... stuff. Like, 400 watts of high quality 532 nanometer light, focused down into very small areas to create crazy high temperature gradients. Good times. But I think the best part about being a scientist is that I get paid to have fun in a physics lab and play with lasers and crap. I mean, seriously, they pay me for this stuff! It's crazy.

EEG: You are a scientist and a science lover -- how does science inspire your stories?

EW: I love science, both real and otherwise. You know during all the old Star Trek TNG episodes when Geordi or Data would start spouting off some techy mumbo jumbo, and the joke was that the audience was probably glazing its eyes over? Yeah, those were my favorite parts. In fact, one of the most disappointing parts of my physics classes was discovering that tachyons are not real.

In my books, I try to let the science inspire the story, without governing it. I mean, I write about a group of rebels trying to take down a galactic empire. Faster than light travel must be used, and any space battle must have things like bright red and blue beams pounding down on enemy starships. But I try to at least base them in science. I borrowed Isaac Asimov's "gravitics", and actually tried to come up with a theoretical framework for how gravitic drives might function. Yeah, I'm a nerd. And there is a crazy Feynman-esque scientist in the story who tries to explain the gravitic drive to the dunce of a captain, but it's done in a way with a wink and a nod to the reader that they're not supposed to get it. It's more of an homage to all the times that Geordi and Data spouted off their stuff.

So, in brief, I try to throw just enough science into the stories to give them some plausibility, and to make them fun for readers who like science as much as I do, but not so much to make it a boring reading experience for the average reader.

EEG: Your new release, The Terran Gambit is really hot right now: top 10 in three different sci-fi categories in Amazon Kindle books! Congratulations! How does that feel? And what are your plans for this new series?

EW: Actually, 4 different categories! And for a few days it was 5! Honestly, it feels a little surreal. The day I hit #507 in the whole Amazon store was just a little unreal, especially when I looked up the author rankings in SciFi. There I was, tucked right in between Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert. Seriously? This is a joke, right? Obviously, that bump didn't last, but lots of people are still buying this book, for which I'm extremely grateful.

The series will have 10 books, and if the fans clamor for more, there might be spinoffs. I also give all my mailing list subscribers free access to all the short stories I write in this universe, and I'll be adding to that collection over the coming year. Book 2 comes out in mid-May.

EEG: Why do you write?

EW: Honestly? I needed a hobby. Don't get me wrong, I've always had the little voice in the back of my head that said I should write novels, and I've even started a couple over the years. But after a particularly long video game binge two and half years ago (curse you, Skyrim!), I sat down and realized I was wasting my life. I mean, I really, really like videogames, and I'll probably always play them, but in that moment I added up all the time I'd spent in the previous 6 months, and it was.... embarrassing. So for my new years resolution, I decided I wanted to do something "big". I didn't know what "big" meant at the time, but it had to be life changing. A huge accomplishment. I wrote down a list of ideas, and writing a novel came out on top. So for 3 weeks I did nothing but write, the result of which was my first novel that I published, The Rohvim, Book 1: Metal and Flesh. After several months of editing, and a re-write of the first 30%, it actually came out to be a pretty good book.

Needless to say, after writing a novel in 3 weeks, I caught the bug. Bad. I followed up with a sequel, and that Rohvim series will probably end up with at least 2 trilogies. But my first love is Space Opera, and I made the switch to that in November last year for NanoWriMo. The Terran Gambit was the result.

EEG: Hehe, I completely understand. I need a hobby, too. One, that is. ;-)
Ok, I have to ask. What's up with tomatoes? :-)

EW: I love tomatoes. Don't judge me! But seriously, I really like tomatoes. One year living in Los Alamos, I grew 127 plants. No joke. Last year I only grew like 37, but here in Alabama, 37 tomato plants is equivalent to 7,400 plants in the high desert of NM. We had to start giving them away. It was glorious.
I love experimenting with all the thousands of varieties available. When the seed catalogue arrives in December, I go through that thing like other men go through a playboy. I hold it up sideways and just stare at it, paging through slowly and ogling all the beautiful reds and oranges and yellows and purples. My dream is to retire to a tomato farm and be a hermit writer/tomato grower. Kind of like how Captain Picard retires to his vineyards after captaining the Enterprise. Only with fewer starships and phasers.

EEG: Haha, that would be fun! Thank you, Endi, for being with us today!

You can follow Endi and his adventures in writing, acoustic lasers and tomato farming on his blog, Facebook, and Twitter (@endiwebb).

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The week in the blogosphere and giveaway continued

Upper Antelope Canyon © EEG

This week I continued my promotional blog tour. Here's where you can find the posts:
CHIMERAS will be featured in numerous websites dedicated to indie books. I'm listing them here as they are a fantastic way to discover new authors and get cheap books. In fact, many of these fantastic books are free. I encourage all book lovers out there to check-out the websites and subscribe to their newsletter so you can keep your Kindle loaded and happy. :-)

And here's again the details of the current giveaway.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Carnival of Evolution to be hosted here on CHIMERAS!

Fellow science bloggers, the next Carnival of Evolution will be hosted right here on CHIMERAS on May 1st. The Carnival of Evolution is a monthly event that highlights some of the most interesting blog posts about biological evolution. The Carnival is hosted by a different blog every month. You can find last month's Carnival here.

So wear your Darwinian hats and send the links to your evolution blog posts to eegiorgi (at) or submit them as a comment to the Facebook page. You can also submit the links in the comments here.

Can't wait to read!

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 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 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, 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,, 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.