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0 Comments | Dec 03, 2009

Q. and A. with Brian Kenneth Swain



Special to Living

Q. Where did you get the idea for “World Hunger”?

A. A tough question to answer succinctly, but one I get asked a lot. First, I am an engineer by trade (Columbia University Engineering School) and a business person as well (Wharton School MBA), so two of the essential ingredients have been in place for some time.

Still, I am by no means a biotech engineer, so that’s where the need for extensive research came in. I have had a long interest in genetically modified crops for the better part of the last 20 years or so, reading articles off and on, a few books, that sort of thing.

The opportunity to build a story around all of that arose back in the summer of 2003 when I went a year or so without working during one of Houston’s horrific post-Enron job crashes. As for your original question, I suppose the germ of the idea came from my pervasive interest in the subject combined with the general desire to write a novel. I also had a desire to make the topic one that would be accessible to people who read principally fiction. Whereas GM is covered ad nauseum in non-fiction writing, there has been no other fiction treatment of this topic that I am aware of, thus providing an opportunity to expose an entirely new audience to the GM world.

Q. You obviously had done a lot of research into “genetically modified” food. Was it difficult to translate that technical understanding into a dramatic story that would engage every-day readers?

A. The toughest part of this challenge was to not get too carried away with technical descriptions of things at the expense of the narrative. In fact, during the editing process, some significant technical sections got removed for that reason.

So, yes, I would say that striking a balance between the technical content and the story itself was a significant challenge during this writing. (Turned out to be even more challenging in my second novel, which is also complete and awaiting publication. That one concerns liquid natural gas tankers and a little-known military aircraft called the airborne laser platform. Check it out on Boeing’s Web site and you can pretty much guess how the novel goes from there!)

Q. I found your depiction of the corporate culture at Vanguard quite believable. Also of how the press, environmental activists, Congress, etc., work in response to an ecological catastrophe. Did you draw upon your own experiences in writing those scenes, or was it all from imagination?

A. My entire career has been in business of one sort or another, and always large corporations (Bell Laboratories, McKinsey & Company, etc.), so I have a good feel for the culture, which doesn’t vary all that much from one company to the next, irrespective of specific industry. I’ve never worked for a biotech firm, but it’s easy to imagine them being driven by the same motivators as any other public company, i.e., profits, risk mitigation, etc.

As for the environmentalists, activists, politicians, I have some level of experience with all of those because: a) I worked on the mayoral campaign for the current mayor of Houston, Bill White, and b) I work on the board of our local Pacifica radio station KPFT, which is very left-leaning and home to more than their share of environmentalist and activist types, so I’m quite familiar with that mindset as well.

Q. I confess the scenes in which the cutter ants and banana spiders do “bad things” were quite scary. Could you describe your own thoughts and feelings when you wrote the scenes of the EarthAlert group in the Calcutta cornfield and the UPS flight to Miami?

A. These are among my favorite scenes in the book, principally because they are so graphic and rather an abrupt departure (or shift in rhythm, if you like) from the more low-key corporate scenes that occur elsewhere in the book.

I should say that my two principle role models in writing fiction have been Michael Crichton and Stephen King, an incendiary combination which will probably not surprise anyone once they experience the tone of the book. I think the parts you refer to would be the Stephen King bits coming out! These were also by far the most fun parts to write, because they are so action-driven. It is great fun combining all of the research into scenes like this.

While some of the research is obvious, e.g., all of the GM stuff, other research, while just as extensive, is more subtle throughout the story.

For example, every bit of the technical detail of the UPS flight/aircraft is accurate and lifted directly from technical specifications for a 767 aircraft. Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I am an avid aircraft buff, and I take every opportunity to exploit this in my writing.

Q. As scary as your imagined ecological catastrophes might be, in some ways what scared me more was my own sense that the steps leading to those catastrophes were quite plausible. In other words, that corporate greed could result in hasty scientific experiments that had serious unintended consequences.

Have you heard from any readers yet in the corporate world, and, if so, what’s been their reaction?

A. I have had no communications from the companies who are the obvious models for Vanguard, (interviewers on radio stations keep trying to get me to name companies, but I resist this temptation for obvious legal reasons) although this may be simply because the book has not yet come to their attention.

Sales and publicity are still quite low and there’s no reason why they would yet have heard about it. Actually though, I’m kind of looking forward to hearing what they have to say if they do see it. I don’t believe they could fault the science, so one wonders what their reaction might be.

Q. I’m glad your novel didn’t wrap up everything in a nice tidy way. In your introduction, you clearly state your own belief that GM technology has some positive benefits to offer us. How do you reconcile that viewpoint with the events dramatized in your novel?

A. Even though the story is built around a host of negative things that happen as a result of GM technology, I hope that what I have done is provide some factual basis for people to dig deeper into the issue and arrive at their own conclusions. As I stated in the introduction, it was not my goal to write an anti-GM polemic and I sincerely hope it does not turn into that … although looking at it objectively, I suppose I could see how a reader might come away with that opinion, especially if they neglected to read the intro.

I think that even though there is benefit to be realized from GM technology, I have this lurking feeling that corporate judgment may in the end undermine those benefits, simply by causing corporations to give in to the temptation to put profits above safety. Real-life cases of corporate crisis management like Exxon Valdez, Bhopal, etc., would seem to suggest some reasonable likelihood of this taking place eventually.

Q. What kind of responses have you been getting from readers?

A. Almost exclusively positive comments so far (including a handful of positive reviews on the Amazon Web site). I think readers like the fact that it addresses a topic heretofore untouched in the fiction world.

People also seem to like the fact that it tackles the issue in an intelligent way that doesn’t dumb it down at all. Finally, I think (hope?) that it’s also not preachy about how people ought to feel about GM. As I said earlier, my goal was to provide a technical foundation for readers not familiar with the issue so that they can then go out and do more research and form their own opinions.

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