Hi Malcolm, welcome to Teen Librarian and thank you for giving up your time to answer some questions for the Third Degree.
My first question to all participants is to please introduce themselves to the audience.
I’m a daydreamer. I’m probably the best footballer the country has ever produced. I’m also a fantastic musician, computer genius and brilliant detective. And I like murdering people.
Sorry. I got carried away there. I live near Sheffield at the edge of the Peak District and, when I can’t see the way forward in a story, I walk in the hills for inspiration. Sometimes, though, taking a long bath works just as well. It requires less effort but it’s not as scenic. I am a writer of thrillers and crime stories. The newly launched Body Harvest is my 40th book. By coincidence, I’ve been married to Barbara for 40 years. We have a son who’s an architect in London.
Body Harvest, is the first book in The Outer Reaches your new series for teen readers, from what I have read it is a crime series with a science fiction aspect, could you tell us something about it?
Before becoming a full-time writer, I was a scientist. To be precise, I was an analytical chemist. That means I enjoyed finding out what things are made of. That’s very similar to forensic scientists who analyse paint flakes, blood, unknown substances and all sorts of yucky stuff at the scene of a crime. Because I like forensic science, I inject lots into The Outer Reaches. After all, the first person I need to interest in my stories is myself.
Being an ex-chemist, I also like poisons, explosions, medical advances, and the amazing set of chemical reactions that happens within bodies that make life. Come to think of it, I also like the amazing reactions that happen after life has ceased: something we call decay. Each of these things finds a place in my crime stories.
How did you come up with the concept of two Human races in Body Harvest?
I was reading a scientific article about human evolution, noting that Homo sapiens (that’s us), Neanderthals and Denisovans were all alive tens of thousands of years ago. There was even some interbreeding going on. That’s why we all have a bit of Neanderthal DNA in us. Anyway, Neanderthals and Denisovans became extinct and Homo sapiens continued alone. I thought it would be fun if one of the other humanoid races had not died out and evolved alongside us. In The Outer Reaches, they’re called outers. Homo sapiens are in the majority so they’re called majors. Majors and outers have different body chemistry which makes the forensic science more interesting.
I understand that you have a science background, specifically as a chemistry lecturer, how has this informed your work as an author?
Every author wants to write original stories so we have to come up with original ideas. I look to science for those ideas because, by its nature, science is always discovering or inventing new things. Just think of everything we can do today that we couldn’t do just a few years ago. DNA profiling, cloning, a variety of fertility treatments, making life from scratch, being online almost everywhere we go and so on. Then there’s the science that’s just around the corner such as gene therapy, humanoid robots, brain implants, growing body parts from stem cells, and lots of other things. It’s a great big store of fresh ideas for the novelist. What’s more, many of the topics – like creating a new life form – are controversial so the thriller and crime writer will always be able to find the necessary ingredients for conflict in themes like these.
Because I’m writing for young people, I need to interest them with the themes of my books. Young people have a great deal of natural curiosity and science is the application of natural curiosity so my readers and science are very well matched. But the average science textbook isn’t always thrilling. I think the best way of engaging people in science is to wrap it up as entertainment in an exciting story. Teens enjoy reading about modern forensic science when it helps to catch the bad guys, and they like science-based thrillers when the themes are genuine and preferably gruesome, such as medical transplants, viruses and bacteria, chemical and biological warfare, the use of animals in labs and medicine, and that sort of thing.
I know from your Traces novels you are an excellent crime writer, are you a fan of that particular genre?
I feel I ought to rave about crime stories because I write them. But… I wonder if someone whose job is making chocolate every day goes home at night, puts the telly on and eats lots of chocolate. I suspect they don’t. They probably want a break from it. So, yes, I love writing crime – because, like analytical chemistry, it’s an investigation and a finding out – but I don’t read other authors in the same genre. That’s a terrible confession you’ve forced from me.
Do you get inspiration from other authors or are all your ideas rooted in real-life occurrences?
Taking ideas from other authors is close to cheating. I’m happy to be inspired by something that actually happened and bend it – personalize it – so it becomes my fictional story, but I don’t steal other people’s imagination. Besides, I want to be original and avoid the well-trodden paths. Mostly, I’m inspired by a new forensic method. Then I work backwards. What sort of crime would this new method solve? Why would someone commit such a crime? How would someone hope to get away with it? Then I start at the beginning with the crime. But I often don’t know who did it till I’m well into the story!
I understand that the second book is due out soon, can you drop any hints about it?
In Lethal Outbreak, four scientists working on samples of soil from Mars in the highest safety laboratory are found dead. How did it happen – and why? Actually, the first few chapters set in a secure laboratory will remind readers of the images we see of medics working on the ebola virus, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff about biosafety as well as possible sabotage of the protective suits or the laboratory itself.
The story reflects genuine concern about our ability to deal with alien bugs if they are ever found and brought back for study on Earth. If they turned out to be harmful, there would be serious consequences to the well-being of human civilization. In the Earth’s mild atmosphere, we simply don’t know what it would take to kill bugs that might be hardened to the extreme extra-terrestrial conditions of a planet like Mars.
How many books do you have planned for the Outer Reaches series?
You’ve saved a nice easy question to the end. There will be four books. All of them will be based on genuine scientific issues. In order, they are the illegal trade in body parts for transplants (Body Harvest), the return of toxic matter from another planet (Lethal Outbreak), industrial pollution (Fatal Connection), and the killing of endangered animals so their parts can be used in “traditional” medicines (Blood and Bone). That means the victims of a serial killer in the fourth book will be mostly tigers. I’m really looking forward to writing that one but the topic will make me angry.