A.J. Colucci is the critically acclaimed author of science thrillers. She spent 15 years as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor and writer for corporate America. She has a new novel out, Seeders. A.J. met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about her new release and the use of enclosures to explore lawlessness.
Tell us about Seeders.
The story is a terrifying journey into the amazing world of plants. The book opens with George Brookes, a brilliant but reclusive plant biologist living on a remote Canadian island. After his mysterious death, the heirs to his estate arrive on the island, including his daughter, her teenage children and Jules Beecher, a friend and pioneer in plant neurobiology. As Jules begins investigating the laboratory and scientific papers left by George, he comes to realize that his mentor may have achieved a monumental scientific breakthrough: communication between plants and humans. Within days, the island begins to have strange and violent effects on the group, especially Jules who becomes obsessed with George’s journal, a strange fungus growing on every plant and tree, and horrible secrets that lay buried in the woods.
A lot of the book is based on plant neurobiology, a growing field of study. Recent discoveries show that plants use all five senses, make decisions, learn and remember. They communicate constantly with insects, fungi and each other. They also can defend themselves against predators, including humans, and sometimes in deadly ways. It’s amazing, just the other day a study came out from the University of Missouri which reveals that plants can hear themselves being eaten alive. All of these facts about plants sparked the idea for the book and set the grounds for the story.
Islands are useful enclosures for the literary exploration of unknown predatory threats, since they isolate characters and exist lawlessly, a case in point being HG Wells’s The Island Of Doctor Moreau, where a scientist is experimenting with mutations. How does the island work dramatically and thematically in your novel?
That’s a good question. In Seeders, the island is a vital part of the story because, as you said, it prevents the characters from escaping their dire situation and creates a sense of chaos. But even worse, the island itself is a kind of monster trying to destroy them. The trees, the fungi are everywhere and there is no safe place to hide.
The island also represents the world of nature turning on mankind. I’ve seen it compared to Island of Dr. Moreau and that’s quite a compliment. I do agree with H.G. Well’s messages on humanity and interfering with nature. I hope that comes across in my book.
Do you believe in James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis and to what extent do you think humanity is mutating?
I’m no expert on Gaia theory, but I do think the earth is a self-regulating system where living and non-living organisms influence each other, and to some extent keep everything in balance. I think humanity is mutating constantly, but not quickly. I’m intrigued by all kinds of theories that pertain to evolution. I studied quite a few of them while writing Seeders, including those of Rupert Sheldrake, a biologist who has published controversial papers on plant and animal behavior, telepathy and consciousness. His theory of Morphic Fields proposes that memory is inherent in nature and that much of evolution is a result of habits. It explains things like why an ant looks like an ant instead of a banana and how our bodies are able to simply form into human shapes. He believes that cells remember over time how to organize themselves. It’s a theory that makes fascinating reading.
What do you make of the conflict between Darwinism and Theocracy in the US?
I believe everyone has a right to their opinion, but it’s frightening to see the religious right in this country wielding so much power in politics, especially where education is concerned. Evolution is taught in school because scientific facts support it. I’m sure if scientists find solid proof of creationism, it will be added to the curriculum.
Who are your literary influences?
I grew up reading a lot of Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes stories and classics by Orwell, Vonnegut, and Wells. The author who got me into science thrillers was Michael Crichton, but I later discovered Douglas Preston, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Maberry, Scott Sigler and James Rollins. I think Carl Sagan very much influenced my story ideas. My books have a touch of horror, and part of that comes from a good dose of Stephen King.
What do you make of the E Book revolution?
Personally, I like the feel of a book in my hands, but I do read eBooks too. Anything that gets more people reading is fine with me. My biggest concern is that authors will continue to be paid unfairly for eBooks. Right now, there’s a lot of debate about how much a book is worth, especially if there’s no printing involved. I’d like to see authors having more say in their future, more control over their work.
Graham Greene wrote, ‘There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.’ What do you make of his observation?
It’s true that in order to describe all the horrors in life in dramatic detail, a writer must have a bit of an icy heart. When I’m working on a passage that’s truly gory, I’m usually in the ‘zone,’ where I put myself right in the scene so that it feels very real, but at the same time there’s no sense of revulsion. I’m guessing writers have an ‘off’ switch in their brains, but that’s a good thing, because it allows authors to be instruments of change, exposing the most heinous aspects of society and human nature such as slavery, war, rape, murder. They can make readers understand injustice by becoming emotionally invested. For that I say, thank goodness for writers and their icy hearts.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m trying out a new genre, a crime thriller. I have to say it’s liberating to rely more on my imagination and less on research because with science thrillers you really have to get every detail right. Today I went a little crazy and went nearly an entire chapter without having to look something up. That feels pretty great.
What else is on the cards for you this year?
I’m doing some local writer discussions and I try to stay active with ITW, which is a wonderful organization for thriller writers. This year I’m a judge for their Thriller Award’s short story category. Most of my time I’ll spend with my family, catching up on my reading and, of course, lots of writing.
What is the best writing advice you ever heard?
Years ago, a friend gave me a tip on learning to write like the pros. He said, takeout a pad and paper and copy the first page of your favorite book. I thought that sounded kind of nuts, but I gave it a try. I hand-wrote the first couple paragraphs from books by Stephen King, David Baldacci and Dennis Lehane. What a surprise! You can learn so much about description, dialogue and technique from that simple exercise, writing like the greats rather than just reading them.
Thank you A.J. for a perceptive and informative interview.
Read more about A.J. Colucci and her books at her website