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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Interview w/ Jennifer Rahn

Well, here is my review with Jennifer Rahn. Enjoy!

SMD: Thanks for doing this interview with me! For the audience, could you please introduce yourself and perhaps give a little brief history about who you are, etc.? JR: Hello! I'm Jennifer Rahn, author of The Longevity Thesis. I am a first generation Canadian, born in Saskatchewan and raised in Alberta , to immigrant parents from Germany and Malaysia. Of course, with a background like that I only speak English and a smattering of French. I've visited family around the world, but otherwise, my life has been uneventful. I've basically gone to school for a very long time, and I'm pretty much still there, graduated or not. I currently work in the cancer research field, studying mechanisms of metastasis. I did a short stint in the biotech industry, but ultimately I've found that academia suits me much better.
What initially sparked your curiosity in writing fiction? Who influenced you in your writing?
Probably all the books I read as a kid. I don't remember learning to read, but I'm told my brother taught me when I was three. On Saturdays I was usually left to my own devices in a library while my parents shopped. Endless books, full of illustrations and stories. As many as I wanted. My Mum influenced me the most. She trained as an Early Childhood Development specialist, and basically fed me books, crayons and plastic alphabet letters ever since I can remember. The only other person I remember leaving a strong impression on me in terms of my ability to write stories was Mr. Pezim, my grade 11 English teacher, mainly because he introduced me to Edgar Allan Poe. That's not to say that I don't appreciate the support or publication opportunities given to me by my other Language Arts teachers (Ms. Baldwin and Mr. Shields for ETC Magazine and Stepping Stones), but as always, the good stories drew me in the most.
SMD: If you wouldn't mind, could you perhaps explain in idiot terms what sort of research you are doing in the cancer field? What you're working towards, etc. I'm a cancer survivor, so I have somewhat of a vested interest in any cancer research by default. JR: I trained extensively in experimental breast cancer pathology, focusing on the mechanisms behind the spread of the tumour cells. My supervisor was a clinical pathologist, so she taught me all about the clinical features of breast cancer cells, how to recognise them, stage them, etc., and my supervisory committee made sure I was up to speed on all the current experimental techniques in molecular and cell biology. To sum it up, I was able to study how cancer-specific proteins contribute to cancer spread in both artificial model systems (cells in a culture dish) and in samples from actual patients. The goal, as always, was to understand how cancer cells moved so that we could identify ways of preventing this movement therapeutically. Graduates are always strongly encouraged to leave town and broaden their horizons, so I moved 300 km south and took up a project on how proteins unique to brain cancer can assist in the migration of these cells throughout the brain. Hopefully I will find ways to block this movement, which would give the surgeons and radiologists a better chance of eradicating the tumour at its primary site.

SMD: What are you currently reading (fiction or nonfiction)? Who are your favorite writers past or present and why?
JR: I am currently reading Tesseracts Eleven (signed copy!) which I picked up at the EDGE/Dragon Moon Press Hot Off the Press Party last November, and will shortly resume reading Darwin's Paradox by Nina Munteanu (not signed, but I'll hunt her down). After that, I want to see what The Golden Compass is all about.
As a child, I particularly remember Hans Christian Andersen, Brothers Grimm and Maurice Sendak. Later on, Zilpha Keatley Snyder and E.B. White. Now I live in perpetual angst, hoping that Joan D. Vinge will publish something new. Honestly, the woman writes literary crack. I think I was covalently bound to my copy of Catspaw for about three months, and I'm thoroughly addicted to her Snow Queen series. I also enjoy Barbara Hambly, J.K. Rowling, Alexandre Dumas, Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, Oscar Wilde, John Marston, Sarah Monette and Dean Koontz, and I get a huge kick out of the weirdness of Tanith Lee. I also spend way too much time/money reading manga (Bleach, Saiyuki, Hellsing). As for why, it's because I get completely immersed in the stories, to the point where I really don't care if the world is exploding so long as I can finish the book, and I love the characters that are tinged with neuroses. Please do not ask me to read Joseph Conrad. Ever. Or I may harm myself.
SMD: What were your influences for The Longevity Thesis, if any? JR: Hmm. Possibly a combo of Joan D. Vinge and Tanith Lee, but I doubt very much that anyone other than me sees it that way.

SMD: The Longevity Thesis is set in a world where medical technology is somewhat similar to today, minus the technology. Medical knowledge seems to be on par with what we might expect of the field today if things like CT scanners didn't exist. Did your medical background have a significant affect on the creation of this world? Did you always envision that your world would be this highly scientific underground that merged aspects of the medieval with the world of today? JR: I actually wanted to write a story that examined frustrated anger, self esteem, personal development, spiritual development and finding inner peace. The setting came about because having spent most of my adult life in medical academia, it was easy and natural for me to write it that way. I think I always envisioned the Desert and the underground tunnels, as they could represent a repressed person (crusty, confused and boring on the outside, vibrant, confused and complex on the inside), but the medical stuff is a spill over from my real life.

SMD: You mentioned to me via email that you are working on a companion novel to The Longevity Thesis. Could you tell us about this new project and what you hope to do with it? JR: It's a prequel, tentatively called Wicked Initiations. This one will be about Qi (life energy) which will fictitiously require to be flowing in a particular direction in order for the characters to get themselves out of trouble. However, I intend that motif to be rather subtle. On the surface, it will be the story of Antronos' parents, and how his life gets set up and set in motion before he is even born. There will be a few surprises in Antronos' genealogy, and the Desert appears as an actual character. Also included is the war which led to some of the underground caverns being shut off, and exactly what the deal with the Red Ghouls is. It will also continue the subtle motif that first appeared in LT, of love being weird and coming to a person from unexpected sources.

SMD: Power is a major theme within The Longevity Thesis and you present it in many different ways. Some of your characters are trying to take power from others, some are just trying to keep the power they have, and still others don't really want any power at all. When developing this world, what were your thoughts on the theme of power, particularly in how you intended to weave it into the story? JR: I think I was coming at it from the other direction: emergence. Breaking free. Getting that damn monkey off your back. Coming into one's own in order to have freedom. In that sense, Vernus, the main villain who is most interested in attaining power and controlling or suppressing people as he does so, is a bit of a cardboard cut out. He is conveniently evil and powerful enough to be a worthy adversary, giving something for the other characters to emerge from. Although, Jait does have other problems to break free of.

SMD: On the subject of Vernus, your 'magic system', if we want to call it that, isn't a flashy easy-to-do type system like in a lot of fantasy books out there. Rather, your system requires that characters pay a price, whether that means controlling the mind of someone else, sacrificing people, etc. When you were 'designing' this system were you concerned about maintaining a balance and making the magic itself difficult? (I don't mean designing as in sitting down and figuring out all the little intricacies, but more in how you intended to use the magic, etc.) JR: I was pretty concerned about it, because the "easy" type of magic didn't seem very interesting to me. I wanted to build the character of Vernus as a scientist (or at least a philosopher, as he did deal in very non-scientific magic), which meant he couldn't know how to do everything, otherwise, why would he have to experiment and develop his methods? Without that, the story just didn't flow right. He could have just taken over everyone's mind right from the start, and there would have been no escalating struggle between him and Antronos, the dynamic of which I did find interesting. Both of them had to come up with more and more complex and novel methods of counteracting and attacking each other. I also didn't want pat solutions to the problems in the story (I think that's what killed Enterprise).

SMD: Your novel touches on something that, I think, is one of the most desired fields of research today. Medicine has grown to increase one's live or to make one look young again. What do you feel will be the future of such research? Will we have medicine that can actually prolong the life of organs and people in general? Or is it a somewhat never-ending field? JR: Personally, I think diet and nutrition are often easier to use and more effective to treat minor health issues with than medicine, and can go a long way in promoting longevity. However, if an organ is severely damaged and does need to be repaired, it seems that right now our best hope lies in stem cells, or finding a way to unlock the totipotency of already differentiated cells. Stem cells are easier to work with though, and since they can now be harvested from ethically acceptable sources, such as amniotic fluid, I think they are the best bet.

SMD: What made you approach Dragon Moon Press rather than attempting to go through the larger publishers? JR: I actually did try to go through larger publishers. DMP was my third try. As for why I picked them, it's because I thought they would be interested in my story and I really liked the covers of the other books they put out.

SMD: What is it like being published by a small press and what do you think are the advantages over larger presses? JR: Small press is more fantastic than people realise, and in hindsight, it's the best thing that could possibly have happened for LT. Here are some of the things I've heard at conventions and/or learned along the way:
i) A small press will keep you in their catalogue indefinitely, whereas large press will usually do one large print run, then drop a title off its backlist. After that, an author would have to resell the novel as a reprint to keep it on the bookshelves.
ii) A small press will more readily take a chance on a new author, who is willing to develop the market niche alongside the publisher. A large press will generally not accept a novel that they don't expect will be able to sell at least 100 000 copies. That means accepted novelists should come with an already developed fan base.
iii) A small press will give you enormous leeway in determining the look of the final product, and generally won't force you to rename the story. Large presses have been known to do the opposite.
iv) Distribution and marketing can be a problem with small presses, but with the internet, these can be compensated for to some extent. I feel very lucky that LT was released just after the merger with EDGE, which meant that DMP had access to EDGE's already established distribution network. LT is available worldwide, offered by numerous booksellers in places I never would have imagined, like Estonia , South Africa and Japan .

SMD: What advice would you offer to any budding writers out there? JR: i) If you have trouble plotting your novel, try storyboarding.
ii) Try to be seen. Get yourself known. Go to conventions and writers' clubs and schmooze with writers, editors and publishers. If you can't do that, try blogging or networking on MySpace. I've heard a rumour that one of the reasons why it's so important to already have writing credits is because it proves you're easy to work with and won't throw a hissy fit if asked to change something. I think if you get a chance to talk to some of these people, they'll see how nice you are and give you a try, writing credits or not.
iii) If you don't know how to write (like if you did your degrees in the medical sciences or something) try joining a critiquing group or a novel workshop, and then try to be flexible. Sometimes receiving a critique is hard, but even if a reader's take on your work is way off, at least you know that the story isn't coming across the way you intended. General rule of thumb: if more than one person gives you the same criticism, it's no longer a matter of taste and something should be changed.
iv) Don't be scared to bleed your soul out onto the keyboard when you're writing. You can always edit and step back into your comfort zone before you submit. It's easier to cut back if you have too much, rather than fill in afterwards.
v) Take Chekov's Rule seriously. Try to not include things that aren't relevant to the story. Sure, a certain amount of creative license is tolerated by most readers, but too much will annoy them.
vi) Start marketing way before your book is released. That way when the whirlwind really hits, you've already got your website, book trailer, jacket blurbs and promo freebies all at hand, because you might be too busy and overwhelmed to generate these things when the book gets launched. Plan to continue your marketing efforts for years. (Yes, you have to do it yourself. If you get help, that's gravy.) If you don't know how to market, copy Scott Sigler and/or Tee Morris.
vii) If you can't get a short story published, go straight to the novel. Never mind what other people tell you. (I still can't get a short published, but the novel was relatively easy.) Maybe you're just better at writing novels than short stories. The two are vastly different, and I think shorts require far more skill. Sometimes getting published comes down to a combination of luck and timing in addition to having a good story. Don't get discouraged. No matter what you've written, there is an appreciative audience for it somewhere. Not everyone is going to like, or just simply be able to use your piece. Doesn't mean it's bad or that you haven't got what it takes to write. Keep trying. If you really think it's futile, see point (iii).
viii) Ask for things. It's incredibly easy to get yourself interviewed in local newspapers, or have a library set up a public reading for you just by asking. The worst that can happen is a few of them say "no".

SMD: And for a random question: If you were left on a deserted island and you had to choose three books to bring with you, what three would you choose?
JR: Catspaw by Joan D. Vinge
Awakening the Buddha Within
by Lama Surya Das
The Collected Works of William Shakespeare

Thanks to Jennifer for doing this interview with me!

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  1. Awesome interview! I need to run out and pick up the book. The basis of medicine with science fiction is great.

    I can relate with you about dealing with cancer. You're blessed being in remission. It's been 1 year last New Years that my aunt (god-mother) passed away of cancer. She fought her best. We all participated in Relays too, but she was meant to be watching over us.

    Taking care of our self is most important as that includes health, family, and following one's passions i.e. writing, computing, or whatever.. It helps keep positivity in life :)

  2. Wow! There it is.

    Hey, for anyone who is interested, my cross-interview of SMD will be appearing on my blog some time next week.

    Thanks SMD!

  3. You're welcome, Jennifer! Most welcome indeed!

    And thanks for the comment blondeswtp :). Cancer sucks, but I think we'll have some good solutions to it in the near future. We're making a lot of breakthroughs in the field it seems (such as the cervical cancer vaccine that helps prevent cervical cancer :P), so maybe in the next five years we'll see advances in therapy options and maybe even some cures!