Q&A: Betty Jean Craige Turns Genetics Into Suspense in ‘Aldo’

Image courtesy of The New Yorker

As science explores the possibilities of genetic therapy, questions arise as to how far is too far when it comes to scholarship and academic freedom in science; such is the case in Betty Jean Craige’s novel, Aldo. 

Aldo is not only a suspense novel, it’s a timely look at the politics involved in academia and the ethical considerations of science we all must face.

Isabel Canto, the associate director of Pembrook Atlantic University’s Institute for Genome Modification finds out that she is pregnant, the same day that the university president receives a letter from someone calling themselves “Aldo.” The letter threatens physical harm if the president does not shut down the Institute and fire the director. While Isabel recommends that the president refuse to give into the demands of a terrorist, what happens next sets of a chain of events no one could have predicted.

BookTrib got to chat with Betty Jean Craige writing science into fiction, researching gene therapy and writing a novel-within-a-novel.

BookTrib: Aldo is about genetic therapy and modification, academia, and politics, while also being a fantastic thriller. Can you tell us a little about how you developed this story? 

Betty Jean Craige: The characters, as well as the plot, all developed in response to this question: What might happen if an individual held captive the president of a prestigious university until he or she fired a professor and disbanded his controversial research program?

‘Aldo’ is the pseudonym of a brilliant and dangerous ideologue who wants to eliminate Pembrook Atlantic University’s Institute for Genomic Modification and fire its director Linus Winter. Linus is using germline gene therapy to eradicate genetically transmitted disorders such as Huntington’s Disease in the affected person’s descendants. Isabel Canto, Linus’s intellectual colleague and the institute’s associate director, is using gene therapy in more conventional ways, to cure genetic diseases in the affected person. Isabel is the novel’s protagonist.

The plot unfolded as I imagined the university’s reaction to the kidnapping: how the faculty council would respond; what the administrators would do; how the trustees would view the attempted extortion.

BookTrib: One of the central themes of Aldo is genetics – genome modification and gene therapy, among others. For such an in-depth, complex field, you explain it very easily and very naturally. How did you go about researching such a complex field? 

BJC: I was only superficially acquainted with the emerging science of genome modification. So I had much to learn. I learned as I wrote. I consulted many online sources of information about Huntington’s Disease and about both somatic genetic modification, which is the modification of a gene to alter the disease in the affected individual, and germline genetic modification, which is the modification of a gene in the affected individual’s reproductive cells to eliminate the disease in the individual’s descendants. And I consulted my good friend John Avise, a geneticist whose book ‘The Hope, Hype, and Reality of Genetic Engineering’ I had read fifteen years before in manuscript.

I had to explain genetic therapy to my readers through believable dialogue and an intriguing story. So I showed my novel to John to make sure my explanations were accurate.

The web is a marvelous library. Good friends in other disciplines are marvelous assets.

BookTrib: You were a professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Georgia for almost forty years – can you talk to us about the changes you’ve seen in academic freedom with the influence of politics?

BJC: The principle of academic freedom and tenure was developed in the nineteenth century to protect intellectually accomplished faculty’s ability to teach, study, and publish the results of their inquiry free of political or administrative pressures, free of the fear of job loss. In the nineteenth century, tenure gave biologists the freedom to investigate Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection without fear of powerful politicians and theologians who considered Darwin’s ideas blasphemous. In the twenty-first century, tenure gives biologists the freedom to investigate embryonic stem cells without fear of powerful politicians and big donors opposed to the development, use, and destruction of human embryos.

The principle of academic freedom, essential to a free society, ensures that nobody—whether theologian, politician, or university administrator—can restrict the public’s access to knowledge obtained by scholars. It thus protects not only the scholar engaged in cutting-edge research but also the public, which will benefit from that research. 

Academic freedom has always required vigilance on the part of those academics charged with its protection. However, where not vigorously enforced by administrators and faculty, it is endangered by institutions’ need to please private donors.

Over the course of my academic career I have witnessed a decrease in the percentage of financial support from the state and an increase in the percentage of financial support from private donors. The trend is nationwide. University administrators must now raise billions of dollars to maintain the quality of their academic programs. Unsurprisingly, administrators may experience pressure from big donors who want the institution to use their financial contributions to advance their favorite causes, for instance, to establish a chair or a program in a particular religion, a particular field of inquiry, or a particular ideology. Administrators do their best to protect the curriculum designed and established by their faculty, but they are certainly aware of the desires of their biggest donors.

BookTrib: In addition to being a suspense story, Aldo is also a novel-within-a-novel. Did you know when you started writing that it would take this format, or was that something that you decided upon as you were writing the book?

BJC: I did not know the story I would tell when I began writing. Nor did I know that I would embed the story of Aldo’s threat to academic freedom in a love story. I knew only that I would explore the consequences of a threat to a university president by a self-proclaimed revolutionary willing to break the law to accomplish his goal.

Writing ‘Aldo’ was a journey whose final destination I didn’t glimpse until well after I embarked. First, I decided what I wanted to explore; then I created a crime that would launch me into an exciting story; then I created characters whom I liked and with whom I wanted to spend a year; and then I watched how they interacted with each other in relation to the crime. Along the way I became aware that the crime story was the core of a love story.

BookTrib: Talking about your characters for a moment, Isabel not only occupies the role of associate director, but she’s a woman of color, a mother and a scientist. Can you tell us a little about the creation of the character, and how she really affects the people and plot of the novel?

BJC: Once I had decided to write about genetic therapy I imagined a young, talented, female scientist who has hopes for both a successful career and a family. I created Isabel Canto, who came from a loving extended family in Mexico, earned her PhD at the University of Washington, competed a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Texas, dated many men but found no great love, and now, as an associate director of the Institute for Genome Modification at prestigious Pembrook Atlantic University, discovers she is pregnant.

Isabel’s pregnancy affects her relationships with the other members of her lab: Linus Winter, the director of the Institute for Genome Modification; Franklin Marks, a post-doctoral fellow there who is the father of her child; and Eve Huerta, Linus’s twenty-seven-year-old African American PhD student. To get some humor in the novel, I turned Eve into Isabel’s best friend, an irreverent, clever, and funny companion.

To show that Isabel eventually got what she wanted—a successful career, a great love, and children—I had to set Aldo’s story in the past. So I told Aldo’s story as a novel that Isabel wrote and presented to her son Lino on his sixteenth birthday. Her messages to her son intercalated in the novel exhibit the wisdom and emotional equanimity she has achieved over the sixteen years.

BookTrib: Finally, can we expect to see more books coming from you, and do you have any advice that you would give to aspiring or struggling writers?

BJC: To answer your first question, Yes, oh, yes! ‘Aldo’ is my fourth novel, and my first thriller. I hope to keep writing novels as long as I can keep body and soul together!

I have written and published (with Black Opal Books) three “cozy mysteries” in my Witherston Murder Mystery series: Downstream (2014), Fairfield’s Auction (2016), and Dam Witherston (2017). I am working on another Witherston Murder Mystery now, with the expectation of publishing it in 2019.

My advice to aspiring writers: If you want to write a novel, get started. You can write it if you really want to write it, and you will learn how to do it by doing it. Writing not only exercises the imagination, it makes you a better writer!

Finally, don’t be afraid of a steep learning curve. In ‘Aldo,’ as in all my other books, I have written about what I wanted to learn, not what I already knew. I like a steep learning curve, for I believe that a steep learning curve inspires one’s best.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed for space. 

Aldo‘ is now available for purchase. For more information on the author, please visit her website at bettyjeancraigebooks.weebly.com

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Betty Jean Craige is Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature and Director Emerita of the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts at the University of Georgia. She has lived in Athens, Georgia, for almost forty-five years, and published books in the fields of literature, history of ideas, politics, ecology, and art. Her most recent non-academic books are Conversations with Cosmo: At Home with an African Grey Parrot (2010) published by Sherman Asher Publishing, and three Witherston Murder Mysteries, Downstream (2014), Fairfield’s Auction (2016), and Dam Witherston (2017), published by Black Opal Books. Her latest work – Aldo, a very different kind of novel, a suspense thriller – is set for release in March 2018 with Black Opal Books.

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