Please welcome Michael Ransom to the blog! His new book, The Ripper Gene, was out in August, and he kindly answered a few of my questions about it, and more. Also, we’ve got a copy to give away to one lucky US reader, so be sure to enter to win at the widget below the post!
What inspired you to write The Ripper Gene?
An article in the journal Science was the literal inspiration for the scientific premise of the book. In that study, researchers found a genetic difference that influenced incarceration rates in boys from troubled backgrounds…boys who lacked one or both normal copies of this gene were more likely to exhibit antisocial behavior than those who two normal copies. The gene in question was MAO-A or monoamine oxidase A…also known as ‘the warrior gene’… a catalytic enzyme responsible for synthesizing several key neurotransmitters in the brain. When this gene is repressed or abnormal, levels go down and individuals are typically not able to repress aggression to the same extent that “normal” individuals (persons with two normal copies of MAO) can. It was a seminal finding that identified a specific gene that is undoubtedly partly responsible for the overall genetic component implicated in violent behavior.
This scientific finding, that an alteration in a gene could ‘predispose’ an individual to a slightly more violent, or impulsive, or non-empathic trajectory in life… was at first merely an interesting scientific observation to me. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed ‘unfair’ in a world where we’re taught that everyone’s created equal, and that everyone has ‘free will’ to choose between good and evil… those precepts suddenly seemed endangered to me on the basis of this scientific finding. That is when I chose to write a book with this as a theme- when I realized that as they often have in the past, once again science and religion were going to be at a bit of an impasse with respect to genetics and behavior. I merely wanted to highlight the complex moral and ethical issues related to the question of our genetics and our propensity to choose ‘right from wrong’… and I believe The Ripper Gene was fortunately able to do that.
What would be your elevator pitch for the book?
In The Ripper Gene, Dr. Lucas Madden is a neuroscientist-turned-FBI profiler who discovers a pattern in the DNA of the world’s most notorious serial killers…and must confront his painful past when a psychopathic killer terrorizes the same Mississippi countryside of his mother’s unsolved murder more than two decades ago.
Lucas has an interesting background, having been raised down South by a Mississippi Baptist minister who became a widower at a relatively young age and single handedly cared for Lucas and his two younger siblings throughout their childhood. Lucas is highly intelligent, having been an M.D., a neuroscientist and ultimately an FBI profiler. He was a successful neurogeneticist and yet he gave it all up in order to join law enforcement. He has a dark side that makes him very human, best exemplified by his bitter rejection of the church at a young age after the death of his mother. He’s not the easiest guy to love, but he has a soft side that comes out when he needs to protect those for whom he cares, which is especially apparent in his attitude towards his younger sister and his nieces. He is an animal lover and he lives with his two dogs Watson and Crick in a pretty remote location in a beautiful old antebellum home that he’s slowly restoring. He has a passion for the ancient sport of falconry and rehabilitates wounded red-tailed hawks and others whenever the local vet brings them in. I’m always a bit surprised when I hear from readers and book-clubs that Lucas is so compelling but I’m very glad that he is. I look forward to layering on even more details about him as the series goes forward.
What supporting characters did you particularly enjoy writing about?
Most of them! I would say Mara was very fun to write because she had to have this femme fatale vibe but couldn’t be a caricature, so I tried to give her as much depth as I could expend (in terms of page real estate). She’s also mentally unstable, so it was a good challenge to try and inhabit her mind and come up with the way she’d converse, the way her moods might swing, the non-sequiturs she might blurt out. (Alan) Parkman was a blast because he’s just such an ass to Madden, and I strove to write him as one of the types of colleagues most people have had, the type who is so threatened by you that the only thing they can do is criticize you and berate you mercilessly. I also really enjoyed writing Woodson because she’s such a strong and independent female lead who completely carries her weight in the novel, can go toe-to-toe with Lucas or Donny or Raritan, and who is similarly brilliant with her own insights into the case and is in fact vital to its ultimate resolution.
Will you tell us a little more about the science of The Ripper Gene, and what kind of research that you did for the book?
After I read the initial scientific article that I mentioned in answering your first question, the article that reported the discovery of a gene (monoamine oxidase A) and how naturally occurring variants of this gene seemed linked to antisocial behavior, I wanted to know more. That field of study (the biological basis for anti-social behavior) was not my area of expertise. In my own scientific career, I’d mainly focused on pathological diseases to that point- things like cancers, asthma, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, etc. The only research I’d done in my career that was related to psychologicalmaladies was supporting the development of a drug for depression, but that was it. So I researched this area on my own. I was surprised to learn that a lot of research has been conducted in this area and in fact, a professor from Penn where I’m also an adjunct professor is one of the world’s leading experts in this field. His book entitled The Anatomy of Violenceexplores much of the various lines of evidence that support a strong biological contribution to violent behavior. Twin studies support the genetics of violence, since identical twins (more than 99% identical) exhibit higher coincidence of antisocial behavior than fraternal twins (only 50% identical). Several other types of twin studies similarly support the genetic basis for violence. In addition to genetics, abnormal brain function (which can be the result of genetic variation but can also be due to TBI or traumatic brain injury, or other factors) can also be a highly accurate predictor of violence. Both the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala are key brain structures involved in empathy and aggression, and this is why genetic variants that influence their function are beginning to be identified as involved in these characteristics. It’s a fascinating area of science and one of which I’ll continue to stay abreast in the future.
Will you tell us a bit more about yourself, and how your profession makes you a natural at writing this kind of story?
I grew up in northern Mississippi and had planned to be a medical doctor myself, receiving a National Merit scholarship to college and then receiving a full scholarship to the University of Mississippi School of Medicine on the basis of GPA and my MCAT score…however, I realized in the 11th hour that I didn’t want to practice medicine, so I respectfully declined the scholarship and retreated to Idaho (where my parents were living) to try and figure out what I wanted to do. While working as an environmental chemist at the University of Idaho I took numerous creative writing courses. I ultimately realized I wanted to be a scientist but knew that I would always be a writer on the side. I received a PhD from Penn in Pharmacology and began a career in the pharmaceutical industry shortly thereafter. I don’t think the scientific career helps me with the craft of writing, since the writing styles are so incredibly different (scientific writing is no-nonsense and only the facts)… but science certainly gives me ideas for scientifically themed novels which helps me come up with the premises for my books.
How do you balance your writing with your dayjob? What is your writing process like?
The day job gets my attention during the entire day, and my night job gets my attention during the night-time, to be honest. The writing-time available at night is only a small fraction of the night for me, since there are other things going on after work which take up my time (such as playing with my young kids, having dinner with family, enjoying the evenings together). I typically write after everyone has gone to bed or before anyone wakes up. My writing process is similar to what I recently heard is the process for Greg Iles (another Mississippi writer)…I’m actively writing the story in my head for several months, wrestling through knots in the story, making sure the plot holds water, figuring out the twist, ensuring I have the ending I want. And then there’s a point where it all needs to get down on paper as fast as possible. In the past its still taken me far too long to get the first draft down, so I’m experimenting with process myself this time around. I’ve pretty much got my next novel in my head, so I will be participating in NaNoWriMo this year to find out if I can pound a novel out in a month as a first draft and speed that process up in order to focus on revision. You have to constantly strive to be extremely efficient and highly productive when you can only find one to two hours in a day to write.
You’ve wanted to write from a very young age. What’s one of the very first things you remember writing?
Actually I was just down in Mississippi to receive an Alumni of the Year award from my alma mater (Mississippi College) and on the way down, I stopped for a book signing in my hometown of Corinth, Mississippi. While there I saw several former teachers, including several years’ worth of English teachers, and eventually the conversation wound around to this very question- what was the first piece of writing that I remembered. I wrote my first short story in eleventh grade- I was lucky enough to attend The Mississippi Governor’s School that summer, and one of the classes offered was entitled “The Need for Narrative: Songs and Stories of the South”. We read and critiqued and studied stories and novels by Faulkner and Welty, and at the end of Governor’s School we compiled a class book, a limited edition of 100 copies, entitled The Unpublished Thoughts of the Offended. It included my first short story ever, a story entitled “The Unanswered Question,” which followed the short remaining life of a Confederate soldier at the bloody Battle of Shiloh. I’d been to the monument and the park and simply imagined what it must have been like to be there. In rereading it in more recent years, I realize its very similar to Neil Young’s song “Powderfinger,” to which I was introduced by The Cowboy Junkies. Which makes me happy because I’m a huge Cowboy Junkies fan.
What authors or books have inspired you the most?
A number of authors have inspired me for different reasons. J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and (Dragonlance authors) Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman awakened me as a reader with their spectacular works of fantasy. Faulkner, Welty, and O’Connor inspired me as a youth because of their Mississippi ties and their ability to tell stories, often dark ones. Vonnegut, Burgess, Kafka, Camus, Salinger and Stephen King all captured my imagination and showed me that one can create stories from everyday life and still make them absolutely fantastic if you’re creative enough. Michael Crichton, Michael Palmer and Robin Cook all showed me that an author can bring science into their fiction and make it incredibly interesting and thrilling. Patricia Cornwell, Michael Connelly and Harlan Coben all inspire me with their ability to spin crime stories, and Greg Iles and John Grisham inspire me because I’d like to follow in their footsteps as a Mississippi writer with entertaining and thought-provoking stories to share all my own.
If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
Well, this question wins the title of “my favorite question of recent months”! Wow. Let me tell you which it would be. It would be The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. The reason is that this book was my generation’s Harry Potter… for many of us, it was our first exposure to literature and it was fantastical and symbolic and just lovely. And I read the book over a relatively short time span in elementary school. And I remember like yesterday reading the part where Aslan dies…and the land falls into a desperate sadness… and I was on the school bus, and crying because the story had gripped me so intensely… but soon thereafter several of the older boys began to tease me for crying and I had to repress my emotions and deny that I was crying and hide the book in my book satchel…and that whole experience really ruined what could have been such a beautiful story for me to experience as a reader. If I could, I’d go back and reread that story for the first time, not knowing what awaited or how it would end, and I’d do it in a place where I could cry if I felt like it and not be insecure or worried if anyone would see me, so that I could make sure to experience the full effect of that beautiful story again, unadulterated, all on my own- just me and the four kids and Aslan and the land of Narnia.
What are you currently reading? Have you read any good books lately? Anything you can recommend?
I am one of those ridiculous people who read fourteen books at a time. So I won’t go through the entire list but I’m just about finished with The Woods by Harlan Coben. My wife was a big fan (she’s a far more avid reader than me) so I finally gave him a chance and just can’t put him down now. Interestingly enough, he lives one or two towns over from us in New Jersey and we have several friends in common so I think we’ll probably cross paths at some point… but I can honestly say he’s a fantastic author. I’m also reading World War Z by Max Brooks, The Treatment by Mo Hayder (very good so far!) and just started The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. I just finished The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells and Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. So just based on the last couple months of reading, if you pick up anything by Harlan Coben, Mo Hayder or Gillian Flynn, I’m thinking you probably can’t go wrong!
About The Ripper Gene:
A neuroscientist-turned-FBI-profiler discovers a genetic signature that produces psychopaths in The Ripper Gene, a thrilling debut novel from Michael Ransom.
Dr. Lucas Madden is a neuroscientist-turned-FBI profiler who first gained global recognition for cloning the ripper gene and showing its dysfunction in the brains of psychopaths. Later, as an FBI profiler, Madden achieved further notoriety by sequencing the DNA of the world’s most notorious serial killers and proposing a controversial “damnation algorithm” that could predict serial killer behavior using DNA alone.
Now, a new murderer-the Snow White Killer-is terrorizing women in the Mississippi Delta. When Mara Bliss, Madden’s former fiancée, is kidnapped, he must track down a killer who is always two steps ahead of him. Only by entering the killer’s mind will Madden ultimately understand the twisted and terrifying rationale behind the murders-and have a chance at ending the psychopath’s reign of terror.