Saturday, August 26, 2006

Neuroradiologist, Mystery Writer, Researcher and Dad: Jeffrey Scott Anderson Explains How He Does it All

  Posted by PicasaOn your website you are wearing black and holding a skull. Is this an homage to Hamlet?
Wow – you’re good. Nobody else has even remotely commented on that. I thought it would be fun to have a few literary allusions on the web photo, sort of symbolic for what I’m trying to merge: a good story that incorporates serious themes with depth. I’m the first to admit my prose is not by any stretch literary, but the issues I try to bring up are what I see as this generation’s intellectual battleground. There’s one or two more allusions in the text scribbled on the scanner.

You are committed to “writing science thrillers without sacrificing plausibility.” I take it you’ve read some thrillers that did make this sacrifice?
I think almost all of them do. When it comes down to it, people want a good story, and authors have learned that most readers just want enough realistic details to suspend disbelief and give the air of modern science as context for the story. I’m trying to be a little more compulsive about scientific details because it makes for a more engaging intellectual challenge to come up with a solid premise.

All the same, I make a lot of mistakes. These things are incredibly multidisciplinary, and nobody has the training to follow story wherever it weaves and speak with authority about all the scientific angles. My Dutch is so rusty that a few Dutch readers were embarrassed how out of date Eva’s Dutch slang was. Readers catch your mistakes. In Sleeper Cell, there were a few errors in terms of firearms selection, a helicopter that flew outside of its range, stuff like that. In Second Genesis, for starters, I use the colloquial “monkey” to refer to “apes.” I’m still waiting for mistakes to come rolling in. And the project I’m working on now has a lot of quantum physics in it. I’m afraid I’m going to butcher that, despite my best efforts. But I’m giving it my best shot.

It is gratifying that a lot of the positive feedback from both books has come from university professors and people with a solid background in the subject I discussed. I got notes from a number of Homeland Security experts on Sleeper Cell, including some currently working in biodefense at the Pentagon, that word on the street at the Pentagon was that it was a pretty good idea. The inventor of one of the drugs I mention in Sleeper Cell picked up immediately on why I chose it, and sent a nice email. People who work in molecular biology are thrilled to see somebody talking about DNA microchips and transcription factor biology in a sensible way – it makes it hard for them to immerse themselves in the story when there are obvious impossibilities.

In your first book, Sleeper Cell, you invite readers to “Enter a world beyond anthrax, beyond Ebola, where mankind's greatest plague is engineered to outwit the world's greatest scientists.” This does not sound like a laugh a minute. Do you get depressed writing your own novels?
Never. It’s the best fun you can have. There’s something exhilarating about jumping into a new world with new characters and coming up with a twisted plot full of evil. Most thriller writers love this, and sleep perfectly well at night. A couple years back at BEA in New York, I had some beers with some horror authors, who probably sleep better than just about any other profession. It’s therapeutic to vent your darkest fears on paper. At the last ThrillerFest, there was a sorority group having a convention in the same hotel, and the running joke for the conference was how the thriller authors there could engineer the violent demise of all of the sorority girls.

Before you got your M.D. and P. h. D. at Northwestern, you studied Math and Russian Literature. So do you think Crime and Punishment is the greatest of all mysteries?
I think it’s a fabulous story. As it turns out, the main reason I learned Russian in the first place was to read The Brothers Karamazov in Russian. But I’m not sure about the greatest mystery. It’s a fabulous story, and you have to have a soft spot for something so elegant before the tools were invented for modern mystery and crime stories. It’s sort of like admiring Jules Verne and H.G. Wells for their science thrillers before such a thing really existed.

You started your graduate work in mathematics, where you “proved theorems about strategy spaces of infinite games.” What does that mean?
Game theory is a very cool branch of mathematics that has produced some elegant results in economics, politics, and social anthropology, among other fields. You study simple games like the Prisoner’s Dilemma or the Ultimatum Game, or Domineering. Strategies for these games can be written in equations, and make a framework for a complex branch of mathematics. Some of the games are chaotic, with populations of strategies that can alternate between unpredictability and surprising order. Others are computational, like chess or go.

Whenever mathematicians talk about anything, various types of inifinity come up. What if you played a game an infinite number of times? What if you had an infinite number of players? What if each move of the game spawned a whole new game’s worth of possibilities, and you could play a recursive game. That sort of thing. It gets a little esoteric, but the results are amazingly beautiful.

I'll take your word for it. :) You have four children, and according to your bio you only work on your book when they are sleeping. What do you do when they are awake?
Very simple. It’s a demand a minute. #3 isn’t #4’s friend anymore because she broke her glass figurine last month and #2 is teasing #1 by singing about how he’s a “potato head” and whoops, #4 just bopped #3 because her feelings were hurt and can #2 have a glass of lemonade with cranberry juice mixed in, and no! she wanted the heart cup and why is #4 making sculptures with laundry detergent and who drew on the walls in the office with a black Sharpie and why do all of the Barbie dolls in the house have thongs made of paper on today and does somebody need the sex talk and is #1 going to do their piano practicing even though #4 scribbled on their music books and why is my wife burying her head under the pillow and pretending she’s asleep… you get the idea.

Sadly, I do. Tell us about your current project, Schroedinger’s Box.
It’s about a group of people trapped in a high-tech nanofabrication laboratory. They can’t get out. Someone or something is trying to kill them. It involves a solution for the origin of life – how did the very first cells arise from the primordial soup, and what if we could find out how to do it again… differently.

Wow. I'm going to try to use the word "nanofabrication" in one of my books.

You have lived in the States, Belgium, and Russia. Does one place stand out as the most beautiful scenery you’ve ever encountered?

They’re all beautiful. Live anywhere all your life, and it becomes mundane. Go someplace totally different than you’ve ever been before and it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. That’s how our brains work. They’re novelty detectors. It’s true about the Flemish countryside, about the Volga river, about the canyons in Southern Utah.

You now live in Salt Lake City. Do you like it there?

I’m crazy about the place. Within 15 minutes you have amazing skiing, mountain biking, hiking, symphonic music, first-rate theater. The people here are friendly. It’s a safe place to live. And if you don’t like the weather, it’s guaranteed to be different in a few hours.

You are the third Jeff I have interviewed here; I also have a husband named Jeff. Do you think people named Jeff are simply drawn to mystery, or have I stumbled onto something you once proved a theorem about?
I think it’s a repressed need from your childhood. Surely there was some bully named Jeff who taunted you and made you feel an implacable need to fill your life with Jeffs to prove he hasn’t scarred you for life. That and the fact that you can’t throw a cat in this country without hitting a Jeff.

We won't get started on my repressed needs. But maybe I'll give my cat a toss after this interview and see if he hits a Jeff.

Is your wife also a doctor?

She’s not, but she is a fellow mathematician. We met in a math class. We got kicked out of the math lab for making out in the lounge after hours. She’s also worked as a software developer. Right now she’s gearing up to start law school.

Wow. You are a power couple.

Your book Second Genesis came out this summer. In it, “Science Prepares to Meet God.” This is a pretty impressive meeting. Why does it happen in the Amazon Basin?

Two reasons. First, it gives the story a primordial setting, takes it back to a fecund cradle where you might imagine life originated in the first place. It’s teeming with life and death. Second, there are a lot of very cool threatening animals that live there.

What do you do to promote your books?
Not nearly enough. Okay, basically nothing. I set up a website. Problem is that I’m trying to run full time a clinical neuroradiology fellowship and I’m setting up my research laboratory. I have three totally separate full-time careers and something’s got to give. I understand that it’s not a good idea to just throw a book out there and see if it floats without promotion, but I don’t really do this for the money. I don’t depend on writing for income. It’s all about the challenge of coming up with a good premise and losing myself writing the story for me. If the books sink, oh well. It was fun.

Does being a neurosurgeon cramp your writing style, or vice versa?
(Actually a neuroradiologist, but that does include endovascular neurosurgery on AVM’s and aneurysms and such so I won’t argue the point.) Yes, it makes me twice as likely to put jargon into the books because I think concepts I’ve struggled with for 12 years should be common knowledge. It also keeps me in touch with the coolest ideas in medicine and science that make great grist for stories. Ultimately, the publishing world doesn’t care what my day job is. They just want a good story. And as far as promotion, I think it would be more useful to have a job that looks interesting at cocktail parties. If I were Paris Hilton’s pool boy, now that’s something a publicist can use.

How can readers find out more about the fascinating Jeff Anderson?
Send me a note. I love to talk to readers. You can reach me at:

For the travel fanatics, come to ThrillerFest. There are a lot of amazingly cool people there, and I’m totally hooked on going to meet other interesting people.

Thanks, Jeff. You are a very interesting person, and your books sound terrific.

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