Meet the reader: Scott Fotheringham
Fiction writer (and molecular geneticist) Scott Fotheringham was 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 live near Ottawa in a pleasant little town on a river. We are surrounded by fields of corn, soybeans, hay and the occasional cow, which makes going for a run enjoyable. It's a good way to clear my head in the middle of my at-home work day. I am not currently writing much fiction. I am ruminating on my next book, hoping to have it more or less mapped out before putting fingers to keyboard. The Rest Is Silence took me so long because I was constantly changing the order of things and expanding and contracting the dramatis personae. Basically, I confounded myself to the point where I often swore that I would never write another book.
What's your day job?
I work in public relations, writing press releases and other material for companies in the visual effects and digital cinema. Usually these are nonfiction. (He smiles.) My background is not in film or digital technology, so I have been learning very quickly. It's fascinating stuff as, I've learned, anything is if you dig deep enough.
You have a PhD from Cornell University in molecular genetics. How does your background in science inform/inspire your writing?
I have an abiding interest in the natural world and how it works. That's what informs much of my life and what led me into science in the first place. It's what informs my writing, so it was logical that I'd use my experience as a molecular geneticist in my fiction. My next book may be about biological invasions and what our reactions to them say about our relationship with Nature. At least, that is what it will be about if it doesn't change form on one of my runs.
What can writing (or reading) about science and technology teach us about ourselves?
Writing and reading about—as well as doing—scientific research has taught me that our curiosity is endless. For example, I used to think that botany was boring, before I studied plant biology and then used some of that info to grow a garden. The deeper you go in the study of anything—and I'm convinced this applies to anything—the more interesting it becomes. I've heard that some people don't like fruit flies, going so far as to even consider them pests. But if you ever saw one under a microscope or studied their genetics, you'd realize how beautiful they are. They are intelligent. This then leads to an understanding of just how supremely intelligent humans are, or could be if we stopped texting on our iPhones long enough.
To where do you trace back your interest in science?
My Dad. He was always present to answer my questions and those of my siblings. When we were older we used to tease him by asking him why water was wet or why the sky was blue. But whenever we asked a question in earnest, he would stop what he was doing and help us find the answer. You had to make sure you had time to answer your own question because he wouldn't stop until we found an acceptable answer. He started his PhD after medical school but stopped to take a job in psychiatry. One of my favourite pictures is of my father, at age 30, in a lab coat leaning against a bench at the NIH in Washington, DC. He has always been wickedly smart, and humble about it, which is a potent combination.
To where do you trace back your interest in writing?
I've been writing since I was in grade school. I can't draw very well and have little musical talent. My five-year-old daughter draws and sings better than I do. So what's a guy to do if he has ideas he wants to explore? I also love to read and had a Grade 13 English teacher who turned me on to poetry, plays and novels. In fact, don't tell anyone, but, when I was in grad school, I spent an inordinate amount of time in my apartment reading novels when I probably should have been in the lab experimenting. I thought, "Hey, I can do that." Of course, I can't yet and I imagine George Eliot and Martin Amis and John Cheever are shaking their heads at my arrogance.
Can you describe a couple of the stories that struck you as standouts?
The stories that stayed with me were the ones that were not only well written, but that delivered an emotional wallop. The story of a woman undergoing chemo and hating the agony of a particular chemotherapeutic cocktail (what a misleading term!) that rips her apart every time she takes it. She admits that the only reason she's taking it is for the two young daughters whose handprints grace the front of the shirt she is wearing in the hospital. And the stories—and there were a few good ones—of children being introduced to the stars and planets, or Halley's comet, or Sputnik by an enthusiastic parent or older brother. And then there was the one of the CUSO volunteer remembering the keening mother of a son, dead by machine gun fire. Ugh. Some technologies should never have been manifested.
Scott Fotheringham grew up in Thornhill, Ontario. He has a BSc from the University of Guelph and a PhD in molecular genetics from Cornell University. His first novel, The Rest Is Silence, was published in 2012 by Goose Lane Editions. He currently lives near Ottawa.