Hazel McHaffie

Genotype

Week 2 of the Book Festival

I’ve now returned to my usual invisible self, my stint as official blogger for Genotype over, my press pass archived.

Two sessions to share with you this time. Friday morning was close to my own current preoccupations. How much responsibility should parents take for their children? How far would you be prepared to go to protect those you love? And when is it right to sacrifice the interests of an individual for the greater good?

Two books were under discussion: The Donor, by Australian Helen Fitzgerald, formerly a criminal justice social worker, working with rapists, murderers and psychopaths, (gives her a head start, huh?) and The Dinner, by Dutch TV and radio producer, actor and writer, Herman Koch. Both dark books with largely unsympathetic, unlikeable characters. Hmm. Do I like unlikeable characters?

Fitzgerald’s novel, The Donor, is billed as a ‘tense thriller’ – genres are rather elusive labels at times and I’d say this was a loose categorisation. It’s about single father, Will Marion, a passive, unproductive man whom one of his girls describes as ‘a rubbish dad‘. His teenage twin daughters are polar opposites, but both have inherited a kidney condition, which means they both need a transplant. Will has two perfectly functioning kidneys. What should he do? Naturally, given my need to read any novel on transplantation, I’ve got this one, but it wasn’t the sentimental tearjerker I was expecting. It’s set in a world of drugs and violence, crime and punishment, dysfunctional families and misplaced loyalties. ‘Gritty’ is my summary.

The Dinner deals with the sombre undercurrents that lie beneath middle-class respectability. Two very different brothers – one a teacher, the other a high-ranking cabinet minister a whisper away from becoming prime minister of the Netherlands – and their wives, are in a smart restaurant, exchanging polite but banal conversation. But behind the empty words lurks an horrific secret: their fifteen-year-old sons were together accountable for an act of terrible brutality. They weren’t identified at the scene of the crime so will the parents report them to the police, or will they protect their own reputation and careers? The actions of any one of them could affect them all.

Both authors talked about the triggers to their stories, their use of humour, how they balanced the story line with the issues – all issues relevant to me. I could usefully compare and contrast their decisions with my own. They too challenge the reader to ask, What would I do in such circumstances?

The Monday session was much further outside my comfort zone: Letting the Genome out of the Bottle. Genomics – essentially the study of all the genes of a cell or tissue at the DNA level – is a relatively new field of enquiry which has raised huge questions for society, and the knowledge it provides has widespread consequences for individuals, for families and for society.

My Beautiful GenomeThe author, Lone Frank is an internationally acclaimed Danish science writer with a PhD in neurobiology. Mercifully I’d read her book, My Beautiful Genome: Exposing our Genetic Future One Quirk at a Time, so I wasn’t completely lost during her talk, even though the sound effect of rain thundering down on the roof of the tent was rather distracting, and I was still suffering from motion sickness after almost 1000 miles on the road over the weekend.

Consumer genetics has been ‘portrayed as a panacea for the plague of diseases, a cornucopia of health and prevention – with the Holy Grail being the advent of personalized medicine, tailor-made for your individual genes.’ Frank was clear: illness is indeed an important aspect of genetics, but it’s only part of the picture. Clarity is something she aims for. And accessibility. She manages to make a complex subject engaging by taking us on her personal journey of genetic discovery. She became a research subject – no easy task given the family history of depression, mental illness, alcohol problems, breast cancer – unravelling the Lone Frank genome with all its strengths and vulnerabilities. She shares the accumulating secrets with her readers. Then, having reeled us in, she broadens the issues through discussions with an impressive array of scientists from around the world. A clever tactic.

The end result is a book that’s at once engaging, informative and intriguing. How about this for a withering aside to a pompous boss: ‘Whether you are a flu virus, a slime mold, a manatee, or a manager, your genetic code contains the same components‘? Or this to prick an over-inflated ego: ‘human beings share ninety-eight percent of their genome with a screeching chimpanzee, sixty percent with a skittering mouse, and even twenty percent with a lowly roundworm a millimetre long‘? Brilliant!

And her honesty means she doesn’t shirk the difficult questions about the consequences of biological fortune-telling. There were times when I felt decidedly genetically challenged, but I scribbled furiously, and came away with a rather reassuring picture. Consumer genetics isn’t about checking your genes for a diagnosis of specific diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular illnesses, or Alzheimer’s. Rather it’s a risk assessment; a collection of indicators that compare your chances of getting a disease against the same risk in the general population.  And if you’re fearful of knowing about your genetic underpinnings, remember ‘None of us are free of mutations and genetic weaknesses – the flawless genome does not exist.’ Knowing what these weaknesses are could potentially empower us to protect ourselves from developing those illnesses to which we are susceptible. But analysis of our genes will only take us so far. Exactly what tactics to adopt requires understanding of what turns the genes on and off – the new science of epigenetics to which attention is now turning. So we aren’t there yet. And secretly at times I was wondering if we were any further forward than the days when we simply looked to our parents and grandparents to see what we had potentially inherited.

There are though, many, many other issues to consider in this more scientific approach: privacy, questions of intellectual property, the consequences to relatives, the implications for prospective parents wanting to minimize genetic disadvantage in their children, commercial pressures, the implications for employers using these tests as part of a selection process, DIY genetic testing, surreptitious testing of celebrities, paternity testing, genetic dating … I was left reeling. There were clearly some experts in the audience – they challenged Frank to tighten up her language and thinking. No dumbing down for the uninitiated here!

But the last word has to go to Lone Frank. It was she who put herself in the firing line, exposing her own vulnerabilities for all to see, she who wrote this fascinating book, after all. Her conclusion is that her genome is ‘not a straitjacket but a soft sweater to fill and shape, to snuggle up and stretch out in … it is information that can grant me greater freedom to shape my life and my essence.‘ How comforting is that?

So, the Book Festival is over for another year. And for me it’s been one of the most enjoyable yet. Hats off to all those people who make it possible.

 

 

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A festival of good things

Well, our beautiful city has vanished under a welter of posters and stalls and people on stilts and tourists and tents and coffee booths and … well, pretty much anything you can think of. Even a loo for the exclusive use of authors!

Me, I’m lurking with intent amidst the marquees in Charlotte Square, (where the International Book Festival is held every year) and in the true spirit of the Olympics, wearing my ‘medals’ with pride!!Festival passesI have open access to the Press Pod but am rather intimidated by the real journalists who swagger in, laden with cameras sporting enormous lenses, who know everything there is to know about wifi, and type at breakneck speed. I periodically stroll in and out in a nonchalant way, as if this is all run-of-the-mill stuff for me, and that I’m preoccupied with the wording of my next scintillating copy, but then scuttle home to type up my blog on my own computer in the privacy of my own office where no one can see my cack-handed way of negotiating a keyboard. I mean, at least look the part!

Star experience-of-the-week for me goes to a personal first. My novels – MINE! – have featured in the 3for2 sections in Blackwell’s. How grown up is that? I’ve often wandered around these central aisles wondering what authors or their publishers did to get these coveted slots. Now here I am! Cool or what?Blackwells windowAs to the events I’ve attended, well, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much at a Festival event as on Tuesday afternoon when I listened to ‘tartan noir’ crime writer, Val McDermid, and the Director of the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at Dundee University, Professor Sue Black, who has a wealth of experience in the identification of bodies in places like war-torn Kosovo, in Sierra Leone, in Thailand after the tsunami. They are obviously great friends and sparring partners, and we had a fantastically entertaining as well as instructive hour.

Forensic science may be a regular part of our popular culture, thanks to novels, television and films, but developments in the world of pathology, and understanding of DNA, and related technology, proceed apace. Weaving today’s possibilities into a novel can make it out of date tomorrow. Even the criminals catch up and learn how to avoid incriminating behaviours. So how do authors keep up?

Sue Black may be a top-of-her-tree professor but she has a remarkable facility for reducing complex science to understandable and graphic images and language. We learned so many astonishing facts. Did you know that an embalmed pubic scalp looks like ‘tinned tuna with hairs on it’? Or that a body retrieved from a bog after 200 years resembles a ‘leather bag with a face on it‘? Or that the back of one’s hand is as unique as a fingerprint? Or that it is possible to tell from bones and teeth where in the world your mother was when she was pregnant with you? Or that when someone gets a tattoo, some of the dye is deposited in the lymph nodes, so that even if the limb is cut off, it’s possible to say unequivocally, this person had a tattoo which was X, Y and Z colours? Well, you do now!

I was impressed too by the lengths McDermid goes to to authenticate her stories. She sees it as something she ‘owes to the dead‘ – an unexpected and moving notion from such a flamboyant character. But recently she’s been given an opportunity to give something back for all the help the forensic scientists have given to crime writers. Dundee University needs a new state-of-the-art morgue, where bodies can be embalmed using modern techniques to keep them flexible. The professor was promised a £million if she could raise a second million. She turned to her crime-writing friend for help. McDermid’s approach is robust: we shall almost all require surgery at some stage in our lives; we want the surgeon to be as nifty with the knife as possible; let’s give him excellent corpses to learn on, not something that ‘resembles a three-day-old turkey’. Together they are campaigning to raise that sum – details at http://www.millionforamorgue.com/. For £1 you can vote for the new institution to be named after your favourite crime writer (anyone but Lee Child ‘because you can’t have a Child’s Morgue’!).

Another star turn was Professor Michael Sandel on Monday. He’s been described as a ‘rockstar morallist’, and he is hugely charismatic with a most engaging style of drawing the audience in to discussion as he explores difficult ethical and philosophical issues, forcing them to confront their own assumptions, biases, and lazy thinking. This week it was: What is the proper role of markets, where are the boundaries, and how can we protect the moral and civic goods that money cannot buy? Based on his latest book, What Money Can’t Buy.

He brought the subject to life within seconds with his accessible tales of cash incentives to drug-addict mothers, inducements of room-upgrades to prisoners, advertisements for Viagra. Clear, immediate and humane. He outlined actual examples of financial incentives being used: to overweight people to get them to diet and eat healthily; to a Swiss mountain village to encourage them to accept the dumping of nuclear waste close by; to homeless people to get them to queue and boost sales of different commodities; to children to encourage them to get good grades or read books or write letters of thanks.

And through the entertainment of these exercises, Sandel teased out important philosophical issues, demonstrating that money can change the value of the goods being exchanged – for example, the concept of gratitude behind a letter of thanks; or a kidney donated by a poor peasant in India to a wealthy American businessman; or a prostitute fuelling her drug addiction. Cash incentives can crowd out higher motivations like civic duty, family welfare. Society, he concluded, must ask how important these core intrinsic values are, and then decide where market incentives fit in.

Sorry, this is an extra long blog this week – and I could go on about all the other amazing events I’ve attended, but enough’s enough. I’m having a ball, keeping up to date with the official blogging, (Genotype), and amazingly it’s been dry almost all the time – a rarity for this Festival! What more could a body ask for?

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Official – in possession of a press pass!

August always promised to be a busy month. The Edinburgh International Book Festival – officially the ‘largest public celebration of the written word in the world‘ – is one of the highlights in my literary calendar. And it’s on my doorstep! This year it runs from 11-27th, but I always book tickets way in advance, as soon as they’re officially available, and even then some aren’t obtainable – an ongoing mystery to me.

But this year the month has just become a whole lot more exciting because I’ve been invited to be one of a team of official reporters at it! How cool is that? But … How come? I hear you cry. Good question.

Well, earlier this year the ESRC Genomics Forum organised an evening Salon where I was interviewed about my novel Saving Sebastian and the issues it deals with (watchable here). They subsequently asked me to write a guest post on their blog Genotype, which I duly did (here). And on the strength of that these same kind folk have now invited me to dip a toe into the dubious world of journalistic reporting for a fortnight. They were lovely people to work with, so I’m chuffed to be collaborating with them on this venture.

Basically what it entails is attending events – most of which I was going to anyway – and then blogging about them on Genotype. I even get a press pass! I’ll try not to let it go to my head.

In odd moments when I’m not fulfilling all the other commitments-that-I-wouldn’t-have-taken-on-had-I-known-about-the-extra-blogging, I’m trying to read a few of the books beforehand so I don’t come across as a complete twat. Time will tell.

My Beautiful GenomeOh, before I forget, I must share a gem with you from one of them (My Beautiful Genome) which I came across yesterday: ‘Whether you are a flu virus, a slime mold, a manatee, or a manager, your genetic code contains the same components.’ The author is a self-confessed specialist in sarcasm and bordering-on-cruel-honesty, but I can think of several situations where this knowledge could be applied with great satisfaction. OK, so I have a cruel streak too. I blame my genome.

But for now … well, this afternoon I and my unique double helix are off to give ‘a taste’ of Saving Sebastian as part of the Writers at the Fringe series of evenings organised by Blackwell’s. They’re free events but ticketed; five authors each evening, 6-8pm every Thursday in August.

To get a sense of the event and what works, I went to listen to the four authors and a songwriter who kicked off the series last Thursday. The line up included names like Sara Sheridan and Louise Welsh – and Iain Banks, probably the most famous, is listed for week 3 – so hats off to Blackwell’s for attracting real talent. To find 25 authors willing to commit to this in August is no mean feat in itself.

Is there any better city to be in than Edinburgh in the summer if you’re a writer or book lover? I doubt it.

 

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