Friday, May 23, 2008
How I became a fantasy writer
I was going to be a bacteriologist, but a funny thing happened on the way to the laboratory. I became a fantasy writer instead.
Maybe it should have been obvious from the beginning. When I was a little kid in Sri Lanka, I used to pull the big dusty volumes from my uncle’s bookshelf and do my best to read them. My favorite was The Lord of the Rings because of the cover, which showed a landscape spread out as if from an eagle’s point of view – trees and fields and mist-wrapped mountain peaks, but if you looked very closely, you could see a group of tiny dark figures making their way down a path. One of them had a pointy hat on.
I didn’t ever think of being a writer, though. The firstborn child in an Asian family becomes a doctor (MD or PhD) or an engineer. Maybe a lawyer, at worst. So I went off to college to study microbiology, though I read a lot of Star Trek novels while I was there and even wrote a few short stories. One of them was a fantasy, and since I was tired of farmboys and magicians, I wrote about a family of spies. Espionage in medieval times was fascinating. Still, none of the stories went anywhere – they were just a hobby.
I graduated, worked in a protein purification laboratory for a year, wrote a story about a unicorn and threw it away when every fantasy magazine declined it. Marion Zimmer Bradley gave it such a blistering rejection that I never dared to query her again. I got into graduate school and started working on chemotaxis (movement influenced by chemicals) in the bacterium Salmonella typhimurium.
Research was tough. My friend Adam had worked for three years without getting any publishable results, which explained the bottle of Scotch he kept in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet. I soon found myself working late at night while taking classes and not having much of a social life beyond the people in the same lab. I needed some way to destress from that, and I thought of writing again. But the short stories hadn’t worked. All right, why not a more ambitious project, like a fantasy novel?
So I started on my fantasy novel, outlining it during my lunch hour, while my electrophoresis gels ran, while my Luria broth was in the autoclave. I wrote at night and on the weekends. It was fun. At the same time, I was working towards my qualifying exam, where I would have to present and defend a new project. I remember it had to do with the bioluminescent bacteria Vibrio harveyi and Vibrio fischeri, but I don’t recall much else, because not only was it not fun, but the cross-examination just about killed me. Since I’d focused so intensely on my project, I went blank when the professors started asking about other topics. One of them asked about the lac operon, and let’s just say I lac-ked the necessary information at the moment.
I waited outside the examining room for an hour until they informed me that I hadn’t passed, but could could retake the exam six months from then. My mentor was very unhappy and called me in for a little chat about how I could improve. “You need to be thinking about science constantly,” she said. “In the shower, when you’re eating and before you fall asleep.”
I couldn’t say anything. It was a lightbulb comment, illuminating everything for me. That’s not how I think about science, I realized. That’s how I think about my novel.
(Digression : when I first started writing fantasy, I wondered why I enjoyed it so much, then decided that it was because I didn’t have to think about science and research when I sat down to write. This is hilarious in retrospect, since nearly everything I’ve written has included some science – chemistry, psychology, physics, evolutionary biology – and I’ve done as much research for my books as I did for my project. The difference is that I’ve enjoyed it more.)
I never got that PhD. I took a Masters’ degree, weathered everyone’s disappointment, graduated and kept writing fantasy. I took the road less traveled, and I’ve never regretted it. Oh, and Adam? After the third year, he got results. His work appeared on the cover of the Journal of Bacteriology, he graduated with a PhD and he works for a company called Ambion now. He’s an inspiration to me. From him, I learned to pursue my dream, keep trying even when nothing seems to work, and always have a pick-me-up of some kind in the bottom drawer.