Ripped from the Headlines

For many years, my daytime writing life and my nighttime writing life were totally separate. During the day, I wrote about food and sustainability. At night, I wrote fiction: mysteries and crime, thrillers, the occasional science fiction. But recently, a strange thing happened. The food issues I was writing about during the day started becoming more outlandish—and more chilling—than the genre fiction I wrote at night. It started with things like irradiation and superbugs caused by antibiotics and industrial-scaled livestock operations. However, it wasn’t until genetically modified organisms (GMOs) took over the food stream that I started thinking about food politics as a theme for a thriller. Ripped from the HeadlinesOn the one hand, the GMO story already had a lot of the elements of a thriller: powerful, shadowy forces using political and economic power to unleash into the environment poorly understood and inadequately tested new life forms that could spread and change with far-reaching, and possibly irreversible, repercussions. That’s thriller gold. Although I loved it as the backdrop for a book, I didn’t want to eat it for dinner. While researching and writing Drift, I became actively involved in efforts to label GMOs. This was something I cared about, something I think is important, and something that, at the time, no one seemed to be talking about. I hoped that Drift would help change that.In the time that passed since I first had the idea for Drift, things have changed. But while it has been exciting to watch the issue of GMOs and labeling come to the fore, it has been nerve-wracking as well. As an advocate, I hoped for a quick and easy victory, but as an author, in the back of my mind, I worried the topic would fizzle or go away. Of course, I needn’t have worried. There are too many forces lined up against labeling for the issue to be resolved so easily. But it made me realize how tricky it can be to write a thriller about something so current.The case of GMOs had specific pluses and minuses. Enough great factual material exists that it sometimes felt like I was starting out writing a sequel. And it can be a challenge coming up with twists and turns that haven’t already played out in the newspapers (although generally deep inside the newspapers, with tiny little headlines).The timing can be tricky as well. A compelling but obscure story can become headline news—or old news—while you’re still in the middle of your second draft. As Drift’s publication date approached, I was as nervous as any author would be, maybe a little more so, because the topic seemed so timely the book could capture the moment or miss it entirely.

This past May, millions of people around the world joined together to protest GMOs. In June, we saw headlines about GMO wheat mysteriously appearing in a field in Oregon, and super-fast-growing GMO salmon breeding with trout to produce hybrid offspring that grow even faster (no word on what the grand-fish will be like). In July, Drift came out. It seemed like pretty good timing.

The reviews have been very positive for the most part, and I’ve been gratified to receive some attention in the press. It’s too soon to tell what impact any of that will have on Drift’s overall success, but I know that a good portion of the attention the book has received is due to the topic, which started out as an obscure but important food story and has emerged onto the front page, where it belongs.

When I was still finishing Drift, I started working on its sequel. It would follow many of the same characters and many of the same topics, but I wanted to explore a different angle of the GMO issue. I am just finishing that sequel, called Deadout, which is also about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the mysterious syndrome that is causing billions of honeybees around the world to vanish.

A year ago, CCD was an obscure topic most people had never heard of. Last week, it was on the cover of Time Magazine. Next summer, when Deadout comes out, who knows? I’ll be hoping with all my heart that we won’t be living in a world without bees, because book sales would be the least of my worries if that happens. But I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a tiny part of me that hopes the situation isn’t completely resolved and forgotten, either.

Realistically, it doesn’t look as if any of these controversies are going to be resolved any time soon. And if they are, I hope Drift and Deadout will succeed on the strength of the writing, the characters, and the plot. Besides, if some time between now and next year it turns out that today’s headlines have become yesterday’s news, I can always try my hand at historical fiction.