Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Risah Salazar is talking with Ron Seiler, author of The Engine of Survival (A Charlie Edmo Murder Mystery).
FQ: Your biography mentions that you have a long career as a researcher - I imagine this book required a lot of research before you began writing. How in-depth a process was it to research?
SEILER: First, thank you for your thoughtful questions. In terms of the research that was needed, I began my search by examining the CRISPR gene editing technology. Dr. Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier’s research is a huge leap forward and holds the promise of transforming our world (for better or worst). It was clear to me immediately that once again, science has far outpaced the capacity of our society to address the multitude of ethical issues created by this new and powerful scientific tool. As I state in the book, nature is no longer in charge of human DNA.
Once I achieved a layperson’s level of understanding about CRISPR and the genetic editing process, and the current state of this rapidly emerging industry, I dug deeper into the potential ethical issues presented by genetic engineering. I came across a book by Bill McKibben, the environmentalist and author. In Enough and other books, Mr. McKibben discusses the possible impact of human genetic engineering on families. His book gave me the idea of a two child family where one child was genetically enhanced and the other was not.
Next, I attempted to understand what it might be like to be born and grow up as a genetically enhanced person. Needless to say; this was hard. I was not interested in how genetic enhancements would impact the physical characteristics of people (hair and eye color, gender, etc.), but rather, will genetic engineering become advanced enough to alter our emotional makeup? As you might imagine, I was less successful as little credible research exists. This was frustrating, but also opened several creative possibilities for character development.
FQ: The character development was very interesting. Did you think about ironing out the plot first before the characters came to life or vice versa?
SEILER: I did extensive outlining of both the plot line and the emotional arc of the main characters. But once I started writing the first draft, I allowed deviations from the (way too long) outline; using it more as a guide. It was interesting to go back and compare the original outline of both the plot and character development to the finished book. I’m not sure I would replicate this process next time around.
For me, character development is a bit of a push me – pull you proposition. The process of inhabiting a made-up person is easier for some characters than for others. Some characters are just easier to get to know and therefore seem easier to write about.
FQ: The Engine of Survival is really a mix of sci-fi and mystery - do you think the mystery aspect of the story made it harder to write?
SEILER: Creating mystery, for me at least, was the most enjoyable part of the work. It’s like playing a game of hide and seek; when and how to reveal or imply important information. Writers are faced with a million decisions as they plow along, and I feel like I still have a lot to learn about being clever in creating suspense and mystery in the mind of the reader.
FQ: Have you always been fascinated with bioengineering / genetics?
SEILER: For as long as I can remember. And to this day I remain astounded more attention is not given by the media to the emergence of CRISPR technology. One of the reasons I was compelled to write The Engine of Survival was to increase awareness about human genetic engineering. I was especially interested in the possibility that wealthy individuals would have greater access to genetic engineering services than less wealthy citizens and what that world might look like.
FQ: How did the story develop? Did you read articles about the possibilities of genetic enhancements and think, “that has the potential to make a great story” or was there something else that triggered the book?
SEILER: The first seed planted, as I mentioned above, were the ideas developed by Bill McKibben related to the impact of genetic engineering on our society and families. His thoughtful work got me thinking about how family dynamics might change because of genetic engineering.
FQ: Let’s say you are a character in your own book, would you want to have your own designer-baby to raise and take care of? Would you want to be genetically enhanced?
SEILER: These are difficult questions for me to address. I am haunted by the words of Jon Stewart of The Daily Show fame, “And yes, it will be used for evil.’ Efforts to use genetic modifications to create super-humans and super-warriors, are already underway. International guidelines exist, but given the profit potential, I suspect these safeguards will not survive. This conclusion is confirmed by many recent news events. These technologies hold the promise of eliminating human suffering on a vast scale. Some argue that genetic modifications are the only way for us to overcome our collective shortcomings as a species. Your questions just lead to more questions and philosophical issues that can only be addressed in a bigger forum.
FQ: What is your personal take on advanced tech like robots and gene enhancements? Do you think they have more advantages than disadvantages?
SEILER: I guess we’ll all find out. Like some many things in life, the emergence of the human genetic engineering industry is a two-edged sword. However, I remain hopeful for the future.
FQ: I loved the character of Gordon Kelly. Was he fun to bring to life?
SEILER: Yes, most enjoyable. I wanted a mad scientist and Gordon was it, and he got crazier as time went on. Gordon Kelly represents the notion, confirmed by my decades working at a university, that there is little or no connection between intelligence and rational behavior. In fact, on some days, I suspect that more intelligence results in a corresponding decrease in rational behavior. Hear my laughter.
FQ: You have a talent for watercolor painting. Do you find that painting helps you develop your story ideas?
SEILER: Sure, one skill complements the other. Any activity that teaches me to concentrate better, to be in a more meditative state, is helpful. In some ways they are similar activities. Like writing, watercolor painting requires sophisticated and detailed planning and complete spontaneity and lightness of touch, as weird as that sounds. Both are lifelong pursuits and I feel lucky to have such interesting work.
FQ: What’s next for Charles Edmo? Would you give our readers a little tease about the next story in the series?
SEILER: Charlie Edmo will match wits with a preteen girl with advanced genetic enhancements.