MA: My guest-blogger today is Paul Guthrie. Paul – or Dr. Guthrie – is a scientist by training and vocation. He received a BA in Physics from Cornell University, followed by a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Massachusetts. After graduation, Paul went to work for NASA at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt MD. His work was primarily in the development of computer models to simulate the chemistry of the Earth’s atmosphere in order to understand ozone depletion and climate change. After thirteen years he left NASA and joined a consulting firm in San Rafael CA, working mainly on air pollution issues for the EPA. By then he was irrevocably committed to the use of computers and the development of software. In 1999 he left the environmental field entirely and became involved in developing software for biotechnology and medical applications, which he continues to do part time. Starting in 2002, however, Paul decided to pursue another interest, that of writing fiction. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area, still married to the same person after thirty-seven years. We have two grown children.
Now that’s a fascinating biography you have, Paul. I am curious about how you found an interest in fiction with so much science in your life.
PG: I’m a scientist, with degrees in physics and astronomy. Working on issues like climate change, I was part of the collision of science, where truth (even approximate truth) is an ultimate goal, with politics, where truth is irrelevant. And I like to read. I‘ve read lots of fantasy and SF over the years, from classic “hard” SF to Tolkien, Eddings, Jordan, Martin, Stephenson, Gibson…the list goes on and on. I also like technology thrillers, like early Tom Clancy and early Michael Crichton.
MA: It’s good to have a wide breadth of interests, but how did you end up writing fiction, and why novels?
PG: My teachers always said I was a good writer, back before I chose a career in science and technology. In 2002 the medical imaging startup where I was working ran out of money and went belly up. Writing seemed like a good way to keep my mind occupied until something else turned up. Something else never did. Why novels…the form is long enough to really explore characters and story. You can say a lot of things in a novel.
MA: Tell us about your novel.
PG: “The Wrong God” crosses genres a bit. It involves something that looks like magic, elements of science fiction, some real science, politics and religion. Here’s the pitch:
Since the beginnings of history people have believed in magic, but California science writer Andy Taggart is not one of them. Until the day that John Chalk, his old friend from grad school, makes a ballpoint pen rise to stand on end – untouched. From that moment Andy is caught up in John’s mystery. Is this an illusion or is it new physics? Why can John do things that other people can’t – things that will mark him in some eyes as a worker of miracles? And why does John think someone is watching him?
Someone is watching. Wendell Murchison is possibly the most powerful man in America. He controls wealth, his own cable news network, an army of evangelical political operatives, and the President of the United States, but he wants more. From the new America of terrorist sleeper cells, detention camps and legalized torture he sees a path to levels of power not seen since the Inquisition. He would make a new all-out war of religion; all he needs is a leader – the New Prophet, John Chalk. Whether John believes or not.
When John refuses and disappears, Andy is left to face an adversary who will offer bribes, publish lies, send goon squads to beat him, whatever it takes to force him to betray John. Under constant surveillance and unsure who he can trust, Andy can’t stand alone; he has to find John. But even together, what can they do against Murchison? Levitating pens won’t stop him and there’s no point in hoping for miracles if you don’t believe in anybody’s gods.
Actually, it all grew out of a single observation. Traditional epic fantasy often involves ancient magic, with a venerable sage or a sacred book to explain the magic. My question was, how did the book get written? Who were the poor bastards who first discovered magic and had to figure out how it worked without killing themselves? Since I assumed (naturally) that they would approach it like scientists, the story became contemporary.
MA: That sounds intriguing, and it contains many of the same elements I enjoy reading about and writing with my own work. Tell us how you developed Andy’s character.
PG: Andy is kind of an almost-scientist. He has the training, but he isn’t entirely part of that world, the way John is. Andy can see the ambiguities in John’s discovery. I tend to like stories of ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges, so he had to be somewhat unheroic.
MA: Andy’s strengths? Weaknesses?
PG: Strengths…determination, loyalty, intelligence, humility, his love for his girlfriend, Rachel.
Weaknesses…fear, self-doubt, a little envy.
MA: It sounds like this Murchison guy is pretty devious…your antagonist, I assume?
PG: Oh yeah. I spent a lot of time on Wendell Murchison. My wife kept asking for more backstory. I kind of saw him as an amalgam of the kinds of people who have been involved at the intersection of great wealth, political propaganda, and the religious right.
MA: I almost hesitate to ask if any real-life experiences made their way into your story, especially given you hard science background.
PG: I guess the main influences were knowing how physicists think and approach problems, and experience watching scientists collide with politics. One other thing isn’t really central to the plot, but I’m a student and player of Taiko, the big Japanese drums. I gave that to Andy so I could try to describe it.
MA: I spent many years in Japan and always enjoyed Taiko drum performances, so I can relate to that character aspect (and a good thing you gave that to your hero!). So what’s next?
PG: I’m working on another novel that is still an untitled work in progress. It’s unrelated, more of a straight-ahead technology/political thriller. Beyond that I have notes for two more books to continue the story of “The Wrong God.”
MA: Thanks, Paul! You have a great blend of real science colliding with fiction in your work. I like the confluence of the two. For my readers, please check out Paul’s website: http://www.thewronggod.com