Fiction writers discuss environmental issues & genetic engineering as fuel for thriller novels.

An In Conversation with Joel Burcat and Jon McGoren

JOEL: Jon, you and I share an interest in writing fiction that has environmental and scientific issues at its heart. Your book Spliced, has extensive detail and references to genetic engineering and climate change. How did you begin writing the kinds of books you write? How did you first become interested in the subject matter?

JON: I’ve always been interested in science and science fiction — I started out writing science fiction as a kid. As I got older, I was drawn to mysteries and thrillers, but I never lost that fascination with science, so I love writing stories that combine them all. Looking around, I see that so many of the bigger issues facing us have to do with the environment. Climate change, for sure, but also other things like biotech in the food supply and elsewhere.

I am the opposite of a Luddite, but I do think that some of these really powerful technologies, like genetic manipulation, warrant a much closer look than they usually get before they are rolled out. But for me, they also present all these great potential scenarios for catastrophe or evil-doing. It’s fun to explore some of the ways these things can go wrong, maybe in an exaggerated thriller context, but also in a way that illuminates some of the more realistic threats they pose, both in the long term and more immediately.

How about you? What drew you to writing about the environment and technology in your legal thrillers?

JOEL: Like you, I’ve always had an interest in environmental issues. I was fortunate to decide to become an environmental lawyer in my second year of college and took a bachelor of science degree in geography. That was the equivalent of an earth science degree when I took it. I was able to study everything from agronomy, to geology, to soil science, to mining, and surveying (and many other subjects). I got my law degree at Vermont Law School, and focused on environmental law, and began to practice with Pennsylvania’s environmental agency, DER, as an environmental lawyer.

When I started writing fiction, I wanted to tell stories about real life environmental issues, like hazardous waste disposal (as in my first novel, Drink to Every Beast) and strip mining (as in my new novel, Amid Rage). My third novel (Strange Fire), which I am currently editing, is about fracking.

I happen to love stories like Zoo and Relic, which also fit in the eco-thriller genre, but I particularly like real-life environmental thrillers like The Monkey Wrench Game, The Pelican Brief, and The Appeal. My stories are real-life stories, dealing with current environmental issues. I think readers want to read realistic stories that are gritty and edgy and I’m delighted to be able to write them.

How do you present scientific/environmental information to your readers in a way that is enjoyable and readable to an audience of non- scientist/environmentalist readers?

JON: A lot of my stories and books start out with the kernel of an idea, so the ideas really are at the center of the book, even if character is ultimately the most important thing, which I believe it is. I love to write plots that fully integrate the ideas I am interested in, so the information that is revealed and the issues that are explored are essential to the plot. Ideally, this allows the ideas to unfold naturally as the plot plays out, through action and interaction rather than through exposition. Each element of information is doled out like a clue, contributing to a broader understanding of the ideas in the book and the plot, as well.

I also love to write characters who are smart and who could become interested in a given issue, but who aren’t knowledgeable about it to start. It is great to have a character who is already an expert, but it can become a stretch to have them think about concepts in terms that a lay reader will understand. It undermines their character because they just wouldn’t think that way. Writing from the point of view of a character just learning about these ideas allows me to write naturally in understandable terms and allows the reader and the protagonist to discover, and hopefully be excited about, new things together.

How about you? What techniques do you use to include the ideas you find interesting in ways the reader will, too?

JOEL: I agree that it is a great idea to have a character learning the scientific information or environmental information in the story. Then your readers can learn along with the character. One thing I do is to have the information come out gradually so my readers can absorb it over a period of time. As you know, that is harder than it sounds. In Drink to Every Beast, I had one of my characters call the emergency room to say that the chemical dumped into the river was phenol, not chlorine. I had to learn about both chemicals, their effects on human health, and what they would be like “in the wild,” then present that in a way that was understandable to the audience. In Amid Rage, I describe a blast of ANFO (ammonium nitrate/fuel oil explosive) at a mine. I didn’t go into minute detail, but described what was happening in a way that was dramatic and still accurate. You don’t want to explain it too generically, since your readers are looking for authenticity. It’s a balance. I find I often rewrite these scenes several times to get it right both scientifically and as an engaging part of the story.

What makes scientific/ genetic engineering/ environmental issues interesting enough to you that you write novels about it?

JON: I think climate change and technologies like biotech and computer implants, which I also explore in the Spliced series, are incredibly powerful. In different ways, they are already transforming our world, and seem poised to do so even more drastically in the future. As a writer who likes to try to see what is coming next, these are really rich areas to explore, to extrapolate out, to see where they could be headed next. But they can also provide menace, which can be really important to amping up the thriller aspects of a story. These are very real threats.

The idea of “bio-hacking” was core to my first concept of what became Spliced. There are hobbyists out there today, experimenting with genetic engineering in their garages. Some have PhDs and know exactly what they are doing and some really are hobbyists, splicing together a little of this and that to see what they can create. And it’s kind of awesome but also terrifying, to think of what could come out of that kind of casual genetic manipulation. I went in one direction with it, merging biohacking and body modification in a near future, but there are so many different directions you could take a story that starts out with that idea. I look at these concept areas and I see almost limitless story potential!

How about you? I imagine you see all sorts of story potential in your work as an environmental attorney.

JOEL: Over the years I was fortunate to work on many cases that could be interesting enough to be portrayed in a novel. Let me qualify that — bits and pieces of those stories would be interesting to a reader of fiction. Also, some of the characters I dealt with were real “characters.”

I’m always keeping my eyes open for interesting environmental stories that I could turn into fiction. I’m always careful to keep my stories and characters fictional (the lawyer in me makes me do that). Recently, I attended a virtual presentation given by John Grisham and he said that he collects interesting real-life legal stories that he sometimes turns into books. I’m doing the same thing with environmental issues. Certainly, one of the most important issues of the day is climate change. I know you agree with me that it is real and caused by humans.

The whole sub-genre of “cli-fi” will present fiction writers an opportunity to educate the public while telling fascinating, engaging stories. I’m keeping my eyes open for the right way to tell a climate change story. My background has given me the opportunity to present a wide range of environmental issues to readers.

Here’s another question for you: What role does research play in your work?

JON: Research is central to a lot of my writing. It usually starts out with me just reading about things I find fascinating. Technically I guess it doesn’t really become “research” until I have an idea and start working on it, but in a way, many of my ideas occur to me while I am doing this reading — “pre-search,” I guess. But then you have to expand the kernel of an idea into something more fully formed, so I do a lot more research into what will or won’t work, what makes sense and what doesn’t. The more you understand about a topic, the more able you are to see where a story involving it could go.

I love that phase of creating story, when you are just expanding the realm of possibilities through research. Of course, that research also tells you what won’t work, what isn’t plausible or logical, and it is always kind of sad when you realize some twist won’t work because it contradicts the scientific reality. Especially with more contemporary or near future ideas, there is also a lot of research that goes into the nuts-and-bolts mundane reality of whatever it is, learning the minutia so you can faithfully and realistically depict the manifestation of that idea, the technology or whatever, in a realistic and convincing manner.

How about for you? I know your day-to-day life is in many ways research for your work. But do you do a lot of research on top of that?

JOEL: I do a lot of research for my books. Some of it is based on my experiences (I’ve been inside dozens of strip mines and other facilities, even inside TMI and its control room) and much of it is based on research from books and the internet. Also, I’m fortunate to have among my friends a fair number of geologists, engineers, biologists, mining experts, blasting experts and medical doctors (and others). They have been incredibly gracious to lend me some of their time both to educate me and read over the sections dealing with their specialties to make sure I get it right.

As an example, in Amid Rage originally, I referred to the device that detonates an explosion as a “detonator.” My blasting expert said it was called a “blasting machine.” Readers are expecting accuracy and attention to detail. Another example is in Amid Rage, I describe what it’s like to be in a strip mine. I’m able to do that from actually having been there, reading, and talking to the experts. I enjoy this. Right now, I’m reading a book by Michael Mann (the climatologist) on climate change. You have to like this stuff to write about it.

So Jon, we both have a point of view. How do you portray environmental issues in a manner that is not “preachy”?

JON: No reader of fiction wants to be preached or lectured to. That’s not to say they don’t want to learn new things or look at things in new ways, they generally do, but first and foremost they want to enjoy the story and to feel attached to the characters.

Writing that is overly preachy or expositive can really bog down the story, put a wedge or separation between the reader and the characters, and ultimately drive the reader away from the story. Hopefully, I avoid that in a few ways. First, if you make sure your characters aren’t holier-than-thou know-it-alls, and if you render them consistently and don’t use them for sermons or info-dumps, you are off to a good start. I also think it is much easier to make the reader care about something if the characters care about it, and if the readers care about the characters.

But I think the main thing is to keep in mind that, no matter how important or cool or morally stark your message or theme or idea is, no one is going to appreciate any of that if the story isn’t compelling, if your characters aren’t real and engaging. So whenever theme or idea or whatever butts up against story or character, story or character has to win. Every time. Everything else is secondary. I think of myself primarily as a storyteller, and while I think a lot of the ideas in my books are important and fascinating, story always has to come first.

One of the great things about novels as an artform is that they are big, even shorter ones. There’s a lot of words, a lot of pages. You can be very subtle and restrained about addressing your themes on each page, but by the end of the book, the cumulative effect can still be quite powerful, without having sacrificed the story.

And how about you? How do you make sure message doesn’t get in the way of story?

JOEL: I agree with you. Let me add that even the baddest, most evil antagonist in a story believes he or she is right. That is what makes a story interesting (Hannibal Lecter thought he was right, no?). What I do is present the most honest depiction of “the other side” through the mouth of my antagonist or other characters. I try not to push what I personally think, as the author, but leave that final decision to the readers. They readers can decide for themselves what they believe. If you present the facts, they will come to a conclusion in their own way. They may disagree with your protagonist, but that’s okay, especially if you have educated them so they see both sides.

It has been great talking with you about these issues that are an important part of our stories!

JOEL BURCAT is a novelist and environmental lawyer. His latest novel Amid Rage, the follow up to Drink to Every Beast, is the second in his series of Mike Jacobs environmental legal thrillers and available for purchase February 2, 2021. He has received the following awards: Second Place, PennWriters (Novel Beginnings, 2020); Quarterfinalist, ScreenCraft 2019 Cinematic Book Competition; Honorable Mentions at the New York Book Festival (Best General Fiction) and Readers’ Favorite International Book Award (Best Fiction — Legal Thriller). In addition, he has published several short stories. Burcat was selected as the 2019 Lawyer of the Year in Environmental Litigation (for Central Pa.) by Best Lawyers in America. He has also received “Super Lawyers” and “Best Lawyers” designations for environmental and energy law and was selected by the Pa. Bar Association as a recipient of its annual award in environmental law. Burcat lives in Harrisburg, Pa. with his wife, Gail. They have two grown daughters, a son-in-law, and a granddaughter. For more visit www.joelburcat.com.

JON McGORAN is the award-winning author of ten novels for adults and young adults including the YA science fiction thrillers Spliced, Splintered and Spiked, (Holiday House Books) as well as the acclaimed ecological thrillers Drift, Deadout, and Dust Up (Tor/Forge). Spliced was named to the American Library Association’s inaugural LITA Excellence in Children’s and Young Adult Science Fiction Notable List and shortlisted for the 2019/2020 South Carolina Young Adult Book Award. Both Spliced and Splintered have been honored by American Bookseller’s Association as ABC Best Books for Young Readers. His other books include the D. H. Dublin forensic thrillers Body Trace, Blood Poison, and Freezer Burn (Berkley/Penguin) and The Dead Ring (Titan Books), based on the TV show, The Blacklist. A former magazine editor and communications director, McGoran also works as a freelance writer, developmental editor and writing coach, and cohost of The Liars Club Oddcast, a podcast about writing and creativity. For more, visit www.jonmcgoran.com.

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