An Interview with author Eugene Linden, author of DEEP PAST
Q: You’ve had a long career documenting breakthroughs in science, particularly in climate change and animal intelligence: what made you decide to create your own breakthrough in fiction?
A: I chose fiction because that was the most natural way to bring together all the various strands that fed into the idea that some other intelligent creature may have come and gone before we emerged as a species.
I first got interested in animal intelligence in my college years when I heard about experiments teaching language to chimpanzees. The research was revolutionary since one of the underpinnings of Western thought has been that we are the only sentient creatures on the planet. The experiments suggested instead that intelligence and language lie on a continuum, and don’t represent some step change –about as profound a challenge to our received wisdom about our place in the natural order as might be imagined. And yet, over the decades the notion of a continuum for higher mental abilities has only grown stronger, and today there is a drumbeat of research showing that some degree of awareness and problem-solving abilities is widespread among living creatures. Given that human scale intelligence evolved in what is a mere blink of an eye in geologic time, I began wondering whether similar adaptive pressures might have produced a human scale in some prior, now extinct creature. Fiction offered the most vivid way to develop this thought experiment but doing so credibly required building on ideas and research I had been pursuing for decades in non-fiction and journalism.
Q: You’ve won all kinds of acclaim and awards for your nonfiction and have a distinctive narrative voice—was it hard to shift and find your main character, Claire Knowland’s voice?
A: Yes, very hard. For one thing, there’s the small issue that Claire comes from a different gender. Also, the last thing I wanted to do was create a protagonist who sounded like me. Fortunately, over many years researching animal behavior and animal intelligence, I’ve interviewed many female scientists and spent time with a good number of them in the field. Though there’s no one personality that characterizes all of them, but most of the women I’ve met in the field share some common characteristics: a strong sense of purpose, self-reliance, both moral and physical courage, a deep affinity for the animals they’re working with, and, importantly, intelligence, wit, and humor.
Q: Was there a woman scientist you’ve met who was the inspiration behind your main character, Dr. Claire Knowland?
A: Yup, but more than one. Claire is not a composite – in the course of writing and rewriting the novel she took on a life of her own – but her creation was informed by years of working with some singularly brilliant and charismatic woman scientists over the years including marine biologists, anthropologists, comparative psychologists, geophysicists, wildlife biologists, and on and on. In some attic portion of my brain, I had stored a trove of anecdotes and impressions that never made it into my journalism or books, and which I drew upon as Claire confronted academic, moral, and physical perils in the course of the novel. Ultimately, though, when Claire was in some impossible situation, I wouldn’t be asking myself, what would X do here, but, rather, what would Claire do here?
Q: What drew you to the idea behind the novel—what came first, the thriller or the thought experiment?
A: I pondered the thought experiment for a long time before I began the novel. Once I decided to write about it though, I knew it had to be a novel because no other form could bear the weight of all the ideas I wanted to explore and bring to life. I also knew early on what species my imagined long gone intelligence would turn out to be – I won’t spoil that surprise here, though.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced in shifting from nonfiction and reportage to fiction?
A: In nonfiction, a writer will have a more patient audience because readers are usually drawn to a book by a pre-existing interest in the subject matter. In fiction, as a novelist friend once told me, you have to give the reader a reason to turn the page every single page. In non-fiction, the challenge is to vividly present real people, all of whom have histories and peccadillos that help you enrich how they can be described. In fiction, you have to create believable characters ex nihilio, each with his or her own history, ambitions, and voice. Moreover, in a thriller, the writer has to take pains to manage the varying knowledge states of the characters, given that who knows what and when can be a major tension-creating device.
Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, is convincing whatever audience you’ve developed as a non-fiction writer to follow you over to fiction.
Q: How did you work to make the science keep up with a thriller’s pace?
A: Two things: 1) make it engaging. One of Elmore Leonard’s pieces of advice for novelists went something like this: “You know those parts you skip over when reading a novel? Don’t write them.” I hope that there’s nothing in Deep Past that a reader will want to skip over.
2) Offer as much scientific background as essential to the story, but not a bit more. I spent some years at TIME Magazine, where every article was squeezed down to its essence, and the editors placed tremendous stress on moving the reader along. I spent a good deal of time trying to make the science both compelling and compact.
Q: What do you think the form of a thriller allows a writer to explore that wouldn’t be possible in a nonfiction book?
A: The very nature of a revolutionary discovery lends itself to being told through a thriller. When a discovery is first made, before it becomes public, there is the question of who made the discovery, who owns it, who covets it, who or what is threatened by it, as well as the perils attendant to its announcement and acceptance by the scientific community and the public.
As often as not, major discoveries take place in remote or unstable parts of the world. Witness the controversies over the discovery of the so-called “hobbits,” a diminutive offshoot of the hominid line, whose remains were found in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores. The scientists who found the remains faced intense scrutiny from the paleontological establishment, and an Indonesian scientist even took possession of the bones for a couple of years, denying access to the scientists who made the discovery.
So scientists don’t just have to deal with a skeptical establishment, often they also have to contend with corruption and political instability in the region of the find.
The geopolitical backdrop provides a second layer of intrigue and tension. Placing the discovery of this ancient intelligence in an unstable region coveted by both great powers and oligarchs left Claire, the protagonist of Deep Past,exposed to multiple levels of jeopardy, ranging from reputational to mortal as she fought to keep control of the discovery, introduce it to the world, and stay alive while doing so.
What I could do by presenting the discovery as the central plot line of a thriller is try to bring alive all the different aspects of a scientific discovery, many of which have nothing to do with science.
I also love the thriller form. I’m a voracious consumer of them, and given the choice, I’d much rather encounter a new idea delivered through a narrative than in a footnoted disquisition.
Q: Were there some thriller writers who helped you understand the demands of the form better?
A: Absolutely! Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are masters of integrating scientific curiosities into their story lines. They’ve achieved the opposite of Elmore Leonard’s admonition in that their diversions into esoteric science offers another level of intellectual engagement for readers. Lee Child’s novels offer emotionally satisfying encounters at the frontier where a simple sense of honor encounters avarice and evil. The reader knows what’s coming, but is eager for the journey nonetheless. In Thirty Signs of Rain, Kim Stanley Robinson showed how to bring to life a climate changed future.
As for other influences, they are too numerous to mention. Any list is going to leave someone out. How could I mention Dashiell Hammett and not Raymond Chandler; Len Deighton and not Philip Kerr; Turow and not Grisham; Eric Ambler and not John Le Carre, all of who are exemplars of various aspects of the genre. I will, however, single out one unappreciated masterpiece of suspense fiction: The Big Clock, written in 1949 by Kenneth Fearing. It’s a tour de force because you know who did it from the very beginning and Fearing creates unbearable tension as the murderer, who heads an organization very much like Time Inc., assigns a reporter (who, unbeknownst to the murderer has actually witnessed the crime) to write on the crime so that the killer can keep tabs on the investigation. For me, reading this book many years ago was a master class in how to use varying knowledge states of both readers and characters to create extreme dramatic tension.
Q: You’ve interviewed many scientists both in labs and in the field, have you ever come across the kind of pressure you put your anthropologist under from the local officials?
A: Yes, many times. From Borneo to the Congo to the Amazon. Female scientists, in particular, were often under pressure for bribes or unwanted advances. Even in reporting, I’ve had to flee angry mobs and deal with tin pot would be dictators demanding bribes.
Q: You don’t let academia off easily here—why was it important to include them as another impediment in the plot?
A: One of the underlying themes of the book was to try to show that intelligence occurs in a social context; that knowledge advances in a social context. To put this another way, a discovery is only a discovery if someone important believes that you have discovered something. Science rightfully demands rigor from its practitioners, but sometimes this rigor can be used to defend entrenched ideas and as a barrier to knowledge that would threaten those ideas. I saw this first hand during the so-called “chimp wars” in which the immune system of the behavioral sciences reacted massively to the experiments trying to teach various languages to great apes. In the case of the discovery in Deep Past, Claire knew that she had to obey an arcane set of procedures if she was to get a fair scientific hearing and not have the find be relegated to tabloid crypto-zoology.
Q: In some ways you’ve taken two genres—thriller and clifi—and fused them for this thriller—were you conscious of taking on the narrative imperatives for both of those forms?
A: Very much so for the thriller genre, but, while the role of climate change in shaping life (both ancient and modern in Deep Past) figures large in the book, I took great pains to make it a natural part of the narrative.
Q: What is striking is that Claire’s find—momentous, life-changing—is under siege from every imaginable and conflicting series of interests from geopolitical to capitalist to academic and yet what she and her team discover rises up all those concerns and almost says all of those fights are parochial and meaningless if we don’t attend to the facts before us. That’s more than a plot point—what were you driving at with that ending?
A: Deep Past will live or die as a thriller. But for those interested in going deeper, the novel explores the multiple layers of irony in the discovery of an ancient intelligence that was both forged and destroyed by climate change even as we modern humans face the same fate, but remain unwilling to confront that danger. In the case of my imagined intelligent species, the climate upheaval they faced was a natural event. In our case, it’s self-inflicted. And this, in turn, raises the ultimate question of our age: If the hallmark of intelligence is that it gives us the ability to anticipate that by our actions we are heading off a cliff, how intelligent can we be if we ignore those warnings and head off the cliff anyway?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Eugene Linden is an award-winning journalist and author on science, nature, and the environment. Deep Past draws on his long career in non-fiction as the author of ten books, including his celebrated works on animal intelligence and climate change: Apes, Men, and Language, the New York Times “Notable Book” Silent Partners, and the bestselling The Parrot’s Lament. His book, Winds of Change, which explored the connection between climate change and the rise and fall of civilizations, was awarded the Grantham Prize Special Award of Merit. For many years, Linden wrote about nature and global environmental issues for TIME where he garnered several awards including the American Geophysical Union’s Walter Sullivan Award. He has also contributed to the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, and National Geographic, among many other publications.
By Eugene Linden
Publication date: May 14, 2019
Hardcover / $25.99