An interview with Scott Britz, author of The Immortalist

Please welcome Scott Britz to the blog! His new book, The Immortalist, just came out in April from Simon451, and he answered a few of my questions about it, and more!

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Will you tell us a little more about your new book, The Immortalist, and what inspired you to write it?
Sometime in the next 10 or 20 years, we’ll see a scientific breakthrough that will add decades to the human life span. Maybe even centuries. That’s not fantasy. A tremendous amount of research is going on in this field, and some of it is starting to yield results. Being by nature an impatient person, I wanted to jump the gun a little. So, in my book, THE IMMORTALIST, I put together a virtual prototype of the kind of drug we are likely to see, using the technology that’s at our disposal today. (That technology, by the way, is already sophisticated enough to do the job.)

That’s the heart of the book—the gene therapy drug I call the Methuselah Vector. But, this being a sci-fi thriller, something has to go wrong. So I came up with its complement, the Nemesis virus, something as horrendous as the dream of the Methuselah Vector is beautiful. In real life, I hope we’ll be spared this. But, as THE IMMORTALIST points out, we need to be careful. In the words of Cricket, my heroine, “when the whole world tells you you’re right, double-check your math.”

I’ve written scientific papers and book chapters—so objective in form that the first person pronoun is never used—but a novel is quite different. You can start with a scientific premise, but sooner or later your characters will come to life and start dictating the book to you. The premise is still there, but now you start seeing it through somebody else’s eyes. They drive the plot. You know you’ve reached this point when things start happening in the book that you don’t like or that you find embarrassing. It’s subjectivity run rampant. You stop being a writer and become your book’s first reader instead.

You’re an MD and are an Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School. Did you have to do any specific research for the new book? Did your background help with that in any way?
I’ve done a tremendous amount of research for THE IMMORTALIST, most of it spanning years before the book was written or even conceived. Most of the molecular biology/scientific/medical stuff came naturally. I’ve never worked in a BSL-4 lab, but just about everything else that’s discussed is something that I’ve done personally at one time or another. I did research the history and layout of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which is the model for Acadia Springs Biological Research Institute. I also went to Rockefeller Center, where the story climaxes, and traced the footprints of each of the characters there (well, nearly so: not having the superhuman strength of Charles Gifford, I didn’t climb the wall behind the statue of Prometheus).

Will you elaborate a little on the science behind the novel?
The miracle discovery in THE IMMORTALIST, the Methuselah Vector, is based upon the (fictional) discovery of a gene called aetatin, that controls each cell’s ability to repair itself against the wear and tear of life. We already know of quite a few genes, like the sirtuins, that do this. Aetatin undergoes a gradual process of deactivation. Shutting it down allows aging to proceed, and aging leads to death. In other words, aging and death are programmed events that are meant to happen, and aetatin itself is the master clock that sets the boundary to our natural lifespan. We know that practically every living species does have a characteristic life span, implying that a biological clock must exist. There might be more than one controlling gene in real life, but the principle would be the same.

Charles Gifford, the Methuselah Vector’s creator, defeats this death program by introducing a new aetatin gene into every cell of the body—a modified form that can’t be deactivated. Thus, every cell is free to go on living forever, and the person treated with the vector becomes essentially immortal. Not only is each cell immortalized, but it is also optimized—that is, it begins working as perfectly as it was designed to do. Strength, endurance, intellect, immunity to infection—all are enhanced.

All of this is scientifically possible. The techniques for making a gene therapy drug out of aetatin are explained in detail in THE IMMORTALIST, and all of them are in routine use in laboratories today. So the book is what you might call “near” science fiction. Very, very near.

Speaking of background, have you always had an interest in writing fiction? Will you tell us a little about that progression?
I started writing when I was nine, mostly little horror and sci-fi stories meant to scare the bejeezus out of my friends. If, when I was ten or eleven, you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have answered without hesitation, “a writer and a doctor.” It didn’t occur to me then that these were two different occupations. I still don’t think they are. My medical work inspires my writing and gives me creative independence, so I can write what I please. My writing works its way into both my clinical and research work, and helps me to think outside the box.

That said, serving two masters is difficult. You have to train yourself exhaustively for both of them. I wrote constantly from junior high to the end of college—weird stuff like novels structured as stream-of-thought prose poems, or a textbook for a synthetic language. After college I focused on writing for a few years, trying to figure out how to produce something marketable. Although I did have an agent at one point, she wasn’t able to do much with what I produced. I did a lot of experimentation trying to find my voice. But the problem wasn’t really with my authorial voice. It had to do with knowing enough about life to have something important to say. About that time I noticed that I wasn’t getting any younger, so it was time to give medicine her shot before the window of opportunity closed. So I went through the MD-PhD-residency thing, which was intense enough that the only writing I could do was in my head. But I saved up a lot. So, as soon as I could catch a little breathing room, I started writing again. A couple of books materialized that are still in the drawer. But then I had the incredible good luck to latch on to Al Zuckerman as an agent. He’s an old-school, no-nonsense sort of guy when it comes to writing, and he drove me to revise again and again—not without a little grumbling and gnashing of teeth—until I had something salable: my first book, CODE WHITE. He and his staff ran me through the same wringer over THE IMMORTALIST. But I’m a better writer for it. A heck of a lot better.

What are a few of your favorite authors? Who has inspired you in your work, and in life?
You really don’t want to ask this question of someone who lives in a house creaking with 10,000 books. Okay, I’ll try to be selective. Just the books I would carry in one armload if the house were on fire.

Shakespeare is the king, and all must bow before him. For me it’s not just the poetry. He’s taught me a lot about how to construct a scene. THE IMMORTALIST, in fact, owes quite a bit to Othello. Charles Gifford is a tragic hero rather than a villain, while Jack Niedermann is Iago in a gray silk suit and power tie.

Among mere mortal authors, I like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dickens and Poe. Conrad is a long-time favorite, who I think would have been a fabulous science fiction writer if he had tried his hand at it. Then there are the Russians. I will only mention their names in hushed tones, because otherwise this blog would go on for twenty pages. Pushkin. Turgenev. Tolstoy. D-d-dostoyevski. Chekhov. Gogol. Bulkagov. Blok. Solzhenitsyn. I learned Russian just so I could commune with them. You should do likewise.

Among science fiction writers, I’ll cite Ray Bradbury first, because he’s not just a writer, but someone who gave me personal encouragement and inspiration. Standing with him are H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Crichton, Sturgeon, Ursula LeGuin, Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, John W. Campbell and Clifford Simak. Everybody knows the work of these people. I and the rest of my generation are no better than baby monkeys sitting on their shoulders.

Getting off the printed page, my wife is and has always been my biggest inspiration. (Conscience, too.) Others: Bill Fletcher, my Ph.D mentor; Peter Englert, my undergraduate professor in nuclear chemistry; Henry Wagner, one of the pioneers of molecular imaging; Al Zuckerman, my agent; Wallace Stegner, who encouraged me at the beginning; and Basil Pennington, living proof that the great mystery of life is simply love. Some of these people have gone on and I miss them. I wish we had a special day, like the Romans, when we could forget about ourselves and offer sacrifice to the memory of those we’ve lost.

What are you currently reading?
Like Samuel Johnson, I’m usually reading several books concurrently. Over the past month, these would include Shakespeare’s King John, Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, Henry Green’s Loving, Becoming Ray Bradbury by Jonathan Eller, Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, Tolstoy’s Confession, Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers, The Summing Up by Somerset Maugham, the Great Canon of Andrew of Crete, and Fundamentals of Inflammation by Serhan, Ward and Gilroy. I also try to read a little poetry each day; lately that’s been Wallace Stevens.

I imagine you’re very busy between teaching and writing, but when you manage to find some free time, how do you like to spend it?
Free time is one of the most indescribably precious things in life. Sometimes, in fine weather, it’s nice to just sit in the warm breeze and build sky castles or watch bees and dragonflies flit about. They need watching; every day they put on a show and they get very depressed when no one takes notice.

Kayaking can be almost as good as sitting and doing nothing, especially floating downstream on a river in the late afternoon. Just clear your mind and let the world glide past you, stirring every sense at once.

Listening to classical music can feel much the same. I’m not one of those who like to analyze what they hear. I like to take in the sound, pure and simple. Surrender to it. The music flows just like a river, only instead of water, the current is made of your own emotions.

When I feel like I have to actually do something, the first thing I turn to is usually my banjo. There’s a huge delight in just moving your fingers across those five strings, and listening while they find their own way. Bluegrass is the dominant sound with this instrument, and the most intuitive. But I like playing Elizabethan melodies, too, and I’m hoping to venture out into improvisational jazz as I get good enough.

There’s quite a bit of music in THE IMMORTALIST, as well as in my first book, CODE WHITE—classical, rock, Puerto Rican pop songs, Gregorian chant—you name it. It always means something when I put it in. So, as you read the book, I would suggest listening to some of it, as a way of deepening your experience. Or just for the heck of it.

What’s next for you?
While I do have half a dozen sci-fi or medical books in development, the book I am actually writing now is an attempt to create a new genre—something I would call a historical thriller. The working title is AND ALL FLESH SHALL SEE IT. It’s structured and paced like the IMMORTALIST and CODE WHITE, but the plot has to do with an attempt to assassinate the prophet Elijah in the 9th Century B.C.E. Translocated to the planet Arrakis or Mars, it might pass for science fiction. Crazy idea? Maybe, maybe not. Tom Doherty, the founder of both Tor and Forge Publishing, once told me that science fiction and historical fiction are ultimately one and the same thing. Both create new worlds. So I guess I’m putting his word to the test. Look for it next year, if all goes well.

Keep up with Scott: Website


About The Immortalist:
For fans of Robin Cook and Michael Crichton comes a medical thriller that melds cutting-edge science with ripped-from-the-headlines terror. What happens when a new immortality drug leads to an explosive outbreak of a deadly virus that, if not contained, could wipe out humanity once and for all?

World-renowned virologist Dr. Cricket Rensselaer-Wright abruptly abandoned her research in Africa after watching her colleague die tragically from the Ebola virus. When she returns to the States to reunite with her teenage daughter Emmy, her plans are sidetracked. No sooner does she set foot on the campus of Acadia Springs—the research institute where she grew up and Emmy now lives—than her onetime mentor Charles Gifford announces his discovery of the Methuselah Vector, a gene therapy agent that can confer immortality on a patient after a single injection.

Gifford’s air of triumph is marred when a young woman on campus dies suddenly from a horrific viral infection, eerily similar to the Ebola that drove Cricket out of Africa. Despite Cricket’s pleas to slow down the rollout of the Vector and run more tests, Gifford refuses. And when the unthinkable happens—when Emmy falls ill with the same mysterious disease—Cricket is forced to take matters into her own hands. But is it already too late?

Gifford will stop at nothing to release the Vector into the world. Mobs are clamoring for it. Cricket has only a few hours to find a cure for Emmy, and to convince the public that Gifford’s quest for eternal life may cost the very lives he hopes to save.


About the author:
Scott Britz has always aspired to live like a character out of one of his novels. After taking a chemistry degree at San Jose State University, he did a research apprenticeship in Jim Mullins’s lab at Stanford, where he picked up the techniques of molecular biology and contributed to a study of the way HIV mutates within the human body. Having gotten his feet wet in the lab, he went on to complete both MD and PhD degrees at Loma Linda University. He moved to Boston to pursue post-graduate training in pathology at Beth Israel-Deaconess Medical Center and in nuclear medicine in the Harvard Medical School Joint Program in Nuclear Medicine. His research since then has been primarily in the field of molecular imaging. He has performed over seventy autopsies, some under infectious disease precautions, although none as death-defying as the one performed in this book. Having turned his attention lately to literary work, he continues to practice nuclear medicine as a consultant in a number of hospitals in the Boston Metro area. He is an Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School, and an active member in the faculty of the Joint Program in Nuclear Medicine. Scott currently lives in Worcester, Massachusetts, with his wife, Evelyn, an artist who is wonderfully tolerant of his creative eccentricities. His son, Alexander, sees himself as a future Navy SEAL, or perhaps a running back for the NFL.

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