A Different Point of View
In my latest novel, The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes, one of the three main characters, Lisa, is a mathematician who works on the maths of quasicrystals. Despite this, the story isn’t ‘about’ science or maths or medicine, and despite its title, it’s set in the present-day – partly in Glasgow and Ayrshire, and mostly just across the Solway Firth in Cumbria.
So why would I want to choose such an obscure occupation for Lisa? Why would I want to include any reference to science or maths at all?
Well, I should at once come clean and say that in my former career I was a practising research scientist, and that questioning how the natural and physical world works (because this is basically what ‘science’ does) has always excited me, even from early childhood. Research – in both the scientist’s and the writer’s sense – is a wonderful game of winkling out facts and ideas, and thinking laterally,and following new leads, which may turn out to be profitable or need to be discarded. Probably many writers would agree that the background research is the most enjoyable part of writing a novel: the other enjoyable part is ‘having written’. For me, the thrill of finding something new, and then showing it to readers in a fictional context, is a challenge that I love.
But back to Lisa. Lisa is a mathematician, and she has achondroplasia, in other words she is a dwarf. Again, you will be asking ‘For goodness’ sake, why?’ The reason is that for a couple of years I ran a research project with my friend and former colleague Dr Tom Shakespeare, who is himself achondroplasic (there are three amusing and thought-provoking short videos about achondroplasia, made by Tom and John Burn, Professor of Genetics at Newcastle University, on my website, www.annlingard.com. ) Now, start thinking through your own daily surroundings: top shelves in supermarkets and libraries, light switches, car boot-lids that open upwards, lecterns, whiteboards – and you’ll see that these are just a small sample of things that are set up for average-sized people. I was intrigued by this, I wanted to think and write about this, and through Tom’s help I now have two good friends, both achondroplasics, who helped me – with great patience and tolerance and considerable humour – to try to understand what ‘being achondroplasic’ and female means in terms of daily life.
When I started to create Lisa and to think about the role she would be playing in the interconnected stories of the three women in The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes, I understood that she not only saw the world about her from a different point of view in physical terms, she made it clear to me – in the way that fictional characters sometimes, rather unnervingly, do – that her mental perception of the world was very different too. She saw events and conversations and interactions with other people as shapes: to make sense of her memories and to store them in her mind, she sometimes needed time to sort the images, to find where they fitted in certain patterns. And so it was obvious to me that she had to be a mathematician, a theoretician interested in how patterns fill space in several dimensions. As an example of what I mean, you might have already come across Roger Penrose’s ground-breaking work on ’tiling the plane’.
This was rather far from my own scientific comfort-zone (I was a zoologist and parasitologist) so I asked Ian Stewart, Professor of Mathematics at Warwick University, and a well-known writer about the delights of maths, what Lisa would work on. And with “Quasicrystals!” I entered a new and very challenging world, at one stage with my sitting-room floor covered in cardboard models of icosahedrons that were rapidly being made by Uwe Grimm, an expert on quasicrystals at the Open University.
There aren’t large chunks of text explaining quasicrystals in the story: it doesn’t matter if the reader doesn’t quite know what they are – their importance is that they help us understand something about the way Lisa’s mind works. Nevertheless I was delighted after giving a talk at a literary festival that two of the audience came up later to tell me that they had ‘been talking about quasicrystals’!
That’s what provides the fun and stimulus for me to include some science in a story: I have been inspired and challenged as a writer to make sense of the ideas myself, and my readers have been challenged and, hopefully, inspired too.
Incidentally, my own rather shaky understanding of quasicrystals will soon be horribly exposed: I’ve been asked to speak at a ‘Maths in Fiction’ conference and – worse – to speak at the ‘Quasicrystal 09′ conference in Liverpool, where ‘Lisa’ works!
The Embalmer’s Book is my fifth novel, and the previous four have all had a little science, or a scientist or two, in them – but, again, the stories have not been science-led, and the scientists are just people going about their daily lives, whose jobs happen to be science. After all, if you wrote about an accountant as a character, you wouldn’t necessarily write a story about accountancy, would you?
In Figure in a Landscape (set on an island a bit like Rhum), Jos is a seal biologist working for his PhD – he comes and goes between the island and Glasgow; in The Fiddler’s Leg, David is a biochemist whose experiments often run late at night, to the disgust of his girl-friend; in Floating Stones, an Oxford geologist and his postgraduate students spend the summer at their field-study site in Sutherland, where the geologist meets the local potter and his student Caz meets a local shepherd … And Seaside Pleasures swings between a Victorian setting, where Anne Church (a real person, whom I have fictionalised) is a student on the naturalist PH Gosse’s shore class, and the present-day where Elizabeth is a retired malacologist living on the Cornish coast. In all cases, I needed to find out more about the science, from the people who knew – about the biology of the common seal, when it pupped and where, and how David would collect the faeces to see what the seals ate. For an explanation of Sutherland’s spectacular geology and the occurrence of fossil trilobites, I visited Richard Fortey in his room in the Palaeontology Department at the Natural History Museum; and I spent hours in the labs of the late David Brown and his colleagues in the NHM finding out about the schistosome parasite that infects humans, and the snails of Ethiopia and Eritrea which carry it.
And then there are the taxidermists I visited for The Embalmer’s Book; the geneticists who helped with the genetics of scrapie in sheep, and achondroplasia; the discussion I had about the possibility of a camera obscura that could function as a kaleidoscope; tectonic plates and the Iapetus Ocean, when ‘Scotland’ was part of ‘America’; and the language and ideas of marine biologists in the mid-1850s.
Facts, yes, but also the thrill of new ideas and the fun of getting to grips sufficiently with them so that I can distill the relevant bits and implant them in the plot – for a novel, after all, should be a story, not a thinly-disguised piece of non-fiction.
I should qualify that by admitting that I’ve purposely departed from this format in The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes, by separating most of the historical aspects of anatomical dissection and preservation from the story: that information, and its own relevant stories – Peter the Great kissing babies, Jeremy Bentham’s head, Rachel Ruysch sewing lace cuffs, Charles Byrne’s leaden coffin, Walter Potter’s ‘Kittens’ Tea-party’ – are instead to be found in a series of ‘blogs’ written by Ruth, the taxidermist, and interspersed between the chapters: a trail of ideas and clues tending towards Ruth’s own story.
Some of the extraordinary images and videos relevant to Lisa’s, Ruth’s and Madeleine’s stories can be seen on my website, www.annlingard.com
Finding out about modern science, and putting science into fiction, can seem daunting. But it really isn’t necessary to be a scientist to do this: the only necessity is to recognise that ‘science’ is not a single category but is extremely broad and exciting; that there are hundreds of ‘scientists’ of all ages and backgrounds and disciplines (young and female too!) who are longing to talk to non-scientists about what excites them, and that most of these scientists are very good at explaining, without being impatient or patronising, what they do, and where and how.
© Ann Lingard 2009
The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes
Ann Lingard (aka Dr Ann Lackie) is active in helping writers, artists and scientists talk to each other and collaborate (for examples of her work, see www.plumblandconsulting.co.uk) and is the founder of the free resource, SciTalk (www.scitalk.org.uk) that helps fiction-writers to find and talk to scientists.