What's in a name?
He's had five books out in six years and is waiting for the sixth to be published. He is a lecturer of medicine at the University of Birmingham. Chris McCabe spends nine hours a day in the lab researching cancer, and comes home to spend two hours writing novels at once hugely entertaining and minutely descriptive which are published under the name John McCabe. His next book, Dirty Science, is due next year for which he will take on yet another name. McCabe was zipping through the country seven days, three cities and countless lectures and "seeing the insides of five-star hotels and British Councils, so completely far away from the real India" but managed to spend half an hour to talk about the rather schizoph
PHOTO: V. GANESAN
A name game: McCabe.
CHRIS, John, Mr. McCabe, Dr. McCabe and soon, maybe, John MacKen, what does one call you? And don't you ever get confused? I mean, mix up the names while signing the rent cheques and your books?
I have signed the wrong name on a book, but it hasn't happened more than a couple of times. I'm really Chris. It's funny because a signature is something you want from the time you're about 14 or 15. But now I have a fake signature for my books, which I have to do at signings and promotions. And now, I've got to come up with another fake signature! (Laughs) In a way having a different name on the book jacket makes it less real. You're a little removed from it and that gives you perspective. So when someone praises or criticises your books or introduces you at a launch as John McCabe, you're thinking, `Uh, that's not really me now, is it.'
Does that mean you take your writing less seriously than your science?
Writing is really sitting in a dark room, hammering away at a laptop; the rest of it promotions, reading, tours is bizarre. It's given me a glimpse into a world that would otherwise have been closed to me. But it feels more natural to step into the lab. My heart lies in the lab and my work is going very well. Somehow the craziness of publishing makes my work feel more real.
What is your real work?
I am interested in the cancers of the thyroid and pituitary and we examine how they grow, and how to prevent them. I work with a team that researches the causes of endocrine cancer. We're doing some really exciting science.
You say the one time you wrote about scientists was a complete disaster and Paper (his second book about scientists who stumble across a murder) is one of your worst books. Why then are you going back to writing about science?
With Paper, I got the wrong idea about science. My perspective about science has changed since then. With this new book, Dirty Science or Dirty Little Lies as the publisher is considering calling it I'm writing about the kind of science that will be of interest to many people. It's a scientific thriller.
Does that mean you're going to be a kind of Robin Cook?
Er... what do you mean? He's dead!
Oh no, not the former Foreign Secretary. The author!
It's not Robin Cook or Michael Crichton kind of science. It's about criminals who subvert investigations, who use increasingly law-biding techniques scientific techniques to do illegal things like planting evidence, framing people, that sort of thing. It's a book on forensic science.
Do you really need a new persona, or name, for your next book? And why switch genres, when you've found a formula that works?
The trouble is people are rather narrow-minded. It's important not to cheese off the people who like me being a humorous writer, and people who like scientific writing are going to think, `Who's this comedian trying to have a go?' I've done five books in this loosely structured funny style; this time I tried new things. This is a fresh start.
Also, at present humour is not doing very well in the U.K. Maybe people are lazy, maybe they don't want to read books that are so descriptive because humour depends largely on observations of human follies.
But that's not entirely true. There is space for authors who write with humour.
Well, that's right, humour is not doing badly in that sense. Writers like Alexander McCall Smith are not seen as an entirely humorous though what he writes is funny. I'm talking about specific male humour the kind written by Tom Sharpe that's not doing very well in the U.K. at present, and most of my books are based on how terrible men are!
It's a very unpredictable market. But my reason for switching genres is not just the sales. I wanted to try something new, completely different. It might work, it might be a dismal failure, let's see.
Was it difficult to change genres?
I actually underestimated how hard it is to change genres. My natural thing is to sit there and make up jokes and laugh to myself. Also, humour gives you the liberty to write two whole pages without anything really happening because the objective is to make the reader laugh. But writing thrillers is harder; I had to stop myself from putting in jokes. Everything you write has to lead somewhere. You understand and appreciate the mechanics of the writing and the techniques only when you use them yourself.
You recently got an award that gave you a year off to experiment with writing fiction applying scientific ideas.
I got the NESTA [National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts] endowment it pays you not to go to work. I did a lot of travelling, I went to Russia, I scripted a film. I went into the lab once a week and wrote for the rest. My idea was to explore scientific writing and what it can teach us about writing literature, to develop a style that would bring the best of literature and scientific writing together.
Is that possible? Is there a lot that's similar between scientific writing and literature?
I'm spending all week saying `yes,' but off the record, um... (Laughs). Writers can learn a lot from scientists and vice versa. Science writing is structured, sharp, succinct and very efficient. It's straight writing that gets to the point and that is something writers can learn.
But straight, scientific writing wouldn't entirely work for fiction. You have to keep the reader going till page 357...
That's true. I realised six months into writing this new book that you HAVE to lie to your reader. If you told them everything in the actual order that it happens, you'd have no story left. But writers can learn a lot from scientists in terms of structure and clarity. Some like Graham Greene have a spare, efficient, unambiguous way of writing; he almost writes the way a scientist works. And authors can teach scientists to write interestingly, to use grammar properly and make the story flow essentially, learn to make science more accessible to everyone. There is a movement in the U.K. to popularise science newspapers have regular science columns written in language that is accessible to everyone, TV channels have science correspondents who simplify the science that affects people's lives.
But there are differences between the two kinds of writing.
Yes but that doesn't mean the two are exclusive. The idea is to encourage debate and discussion about what the two sides can learn from each other. It's important for people to understand science. But science doesn't work if you write about it casually. It's important to maintain the balance.
Language changes according to the way the world changes and again, we need to find middle ground. It's changed so much since Darwin wrote his Origin of Species, which was almost classical in its use of language, or Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice. Today, SMS text messaging is language at its most abbreviated. But by simply stating the meaning of things we risk losing its inherent beauty. Good scientific writing shares the same principles as good literature. Good writing is good writing whether it is scientific writing or literature. And you can't have enough of it.
Okay, so you're a scientist and a writer, intelligent, good-looking and have experience posing for photographs. Why didn't they make you James Bond?
This is a question I ask myself everyday! Maybe next time... and maybe if I was a little taller...
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