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Meet the reader: Beverly Akerman

Beverly Akerman is the only Canadian fiction writer to have ever sequenced her own DNA. She was also one of two readers who read all of the submissions to our "Close Encounters with Science" writing challenge and helped select the finalists. 

Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write? 
I’m a native Montrealer, living in Notre Dame de Grace with hubby; we have three children, 26, 23, and 17 years old. I have a graduate degree in biology (human genetics) from McGill University. For a couple of decades I worked in molecular genetics research, mostly in McGill-affiliated labs. I’ve done lots of weird stuff in my quest to avoid wearing pantyhose to work: made human brain parfaits, isolated, cloned, and sequenced DNA, prepared and purified oceans of bacterial culture. I quit bench work in 2003. 

My fiction and nonfiction have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize; my areas of interest pretty well run the gamut: gun control, book reviews, PR, health and medicine, short stories. My essay against school uniforms, originally published in Macleans, has been anthologized twice. My work has also appeared in The Globe and Mail, The Hill Times, The Montreal Gazette, The National Post, The Toronto Star, CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition, literary magazines, and many other places. My first story collection, The Meaning of Children (Exile Editions), won the David Adams Richards Prize, a J.I. Segal Award, and made the Top 10 for the 2011 CBC-Scotiabank Giller Prize Readers’ Choice Contest. I hope to be a novelist when I grow up.
What's your day job? 
Oh dear. Probably the first thing a budding author is usually told is “don’t quit your day job.” Unfortunately, that advice arrived too late for me. So let’s just call me a freelance writer. Fave recent pieces include “How to become an e-book sensation. Seriously,” and a personal take on Jan Wong’s Out of the Blue. There’s a lot of room for fiction writing in my schedule. Which means I probably spend too much time mooning about, hoping to goose inspiration. 

You have a background in genetics and are the only Canadian fiction writer to have ever sequenced her own DNA. How does your background in science inform/inspire your writing? 
One early reader said that “a benefit” of my story collection was “the info about health issues, especially related to women.” There’s a lot of medical or science-y type stuff in my writing. So there’s that. I also tend to the analytical, and my characters do, too. They notice things in the natural world, they’re intrigued by them. The frozen milk that juts out of the bottle on a winter doorstep. The moon landing (a big theme in this particular Canada Writes challenge, by the way). The variation of sound as an abortion proceeds. You’re taught to be observant in science, and the same is true for a writer. The difference is, the scientist is rarely asked to record how she feels during an experiment. Whereas the writer, engaged mostly in thought experiments, must. I started in science at such a young age…it’s like playing a musical instrument, or riding a bike. It’s always there, a part of me. Like that second head that keeps banging into the doorframe.

What can writing (or reading) about science and technology teach us about ourselves? 
Science is a method of answering questions, of reducing physical phenomena to predictable, testable, cause and effect. If you really understand it, if you really ask questions, you discover that one of science’s most important lessons is how much of our world view is politically rather than scientifically based. For instance, our society is really big on individuality: how different we are, how we’re genetically unique, like snowflakes. Of course, it turns out snowflakes aren’t all unique. And then there’s the fact that logically, if we’re 99.99 per cent identical to chimpanzees, how different can each human really be, one from another, anyway? Then there was that whole “problem of altruism.” I mean, those sociobiologists had the devil of a time understanding why anyone would risk her life for an unrelated person. Well, it’s because we’re all related! Cooperation has probably always been at least as important as competition to our survival. Survival of the fittest was a social concept of the day, conscripted to biology.  

One other really important thing that science teaches is that there are real answers. There is truth, and if you use a careful method, you can, reproducibly, find it. I once sucked my husband, a pure artsie, into taking calculus, simply by asking him if it wouldn’t be a relief to take a course where there were right answers for a change. 

To where do you trace back your interest in science? 
It was grade 5. The teachers set up a joint science demonstration, so we were several classes together, already a nervy occasion. My teacher was Miss Brickwood, she was British. Not that it mattered. The experiment was about pressure, the effects of temperature and pressure on water vapour. They had a pristine metal can, the rectangular kind that might hold a couple of litres of maple syrup. It was partly filled with water, which was then brought to a boil, steam blasting out the top. What would happen, we were asked, when they quickly capped the can and then plunged it into an ice bath? Nobody had a clue. I don’t think the teachers had actually performed the experiment before, just read about it, based on how shocked they seemed by what came next. Which was, instantaneously: the can squashed flat vertically, the cap was sucked inside, and it made an absolutely deafening sound. It certainly got my attention. Google “collapsing can experiment,” it’s quite similar. 

What sealed the deal: in grade 10, we were offered Tay-Sachs disease carrier testing. And one of my friends turned out to be a carrier. Suddenly, genetics was about real people, very close to home. (Tay-Sachs disease is a lethal recessive disease of childhood, more common among Ashkenazi Jews and in a French Canadian deme.)

To where do you trace your interest in writing? 
Oh, like just about everyone else who writes, I’d always known I’d be a writer “some day.” I still have this essay about Lives of Girls and Women where my English teacher suggested as much…but writing seemed a frivolous pursuit (also a terrifying one). Besides, at that point I was hell-bent on proving how smart I was, and how selfless and good. I also joked that I needed to accumulate life experience so I’d have something to write about. But maybe that isn’t a joke. 

Over time, I discovered scientists were just as—well, maybe venal is too strong a word—imperfect as other people. Let’s just say they weren’t all high-minded devotees to human progress. And then, in July 2003, my father-in-law died of lung cancer. Gerry was in his eighties, he wasn’t sick long, it wasn’t a painful, movie-of-the-week melodrama. But still, it hit me hard, beyond the sadness of losing someone close. You know, I had three kids, a husband away half the time—he worked in politics. I worked full-time, was a single parent half-time. We had a house…I suddenly realized I was a hamster on a wheel. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t concentrate…stereotypic midlife crisis. So I took some time to figure out what I wanted to do with the next part of life, given that we all only have one kick at the can. And it turned out to be writing fiction. You’ve probably heard the old saw: nobody ever goes to the grave thinking, “I should have spent more time at the office.” 

Can you describe a couple of the stories from the challenge that struck you as standouts?  
There were so many wonderful stories, it was hard to choose. But some were just stellar. “Firsts,” about a technician working overnight at the hospital, analyzing blood sent from the ER. Who thinks about the lab tech? We get these machine readouts from our blood tests…we don’t really think about the person at the other end of the pipette. The writer had me right there with him (or her), feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders when called upon to diagnose leukemia in a child. That really touched me.

There were many, many stories about electrification, and television. About all kinds of things: Skype and texting, the moon walk. Many were about children learning from their parents; “The New Age” is a quiet story of a kid going outside with Dad and brother to watch Sputnik pass overhead one night in October 1957. “Better Living Through Chemistry,” about what getting the meds right has meant to a person with schizophrenia. A woman who waited six months for an MRI and was so distressed by its claustrophobic nature, she stopped the test. How she was able to depend “on the kindness of strangers.” One about a teacher who knew how to talk physics so that young guys would listen. The experiment a six-year-old designed to identify the tooth fairy…I could go on and on. It was the way the writers communicated the meaning, the emotion, the small epiphanies attached to the scientific or technological experience. The stories I chose all answered that question: how did you feel when it happened? And they did it by bringing me along on the journey.

After over two decades in molecular genetics research, Beverly Akerman realized she'd been learning more and more about less and less. Skittish at the prospect of knowing everything about nothing, she turned, for solace, to writing. Her story collection, The Meaning Of Children (Exile Editions), won the David Adams Richards Prize and a J.I. Segal Award. 

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