paul mceuen
paul mceuen
paul mceuen

Q & A

What is your day job?

A: By day, I'm a physics professor at Cornell. I specialize in nanoscience, the study of objects at the boundary of the molecular and microscopic worlds. Our group has made a transistor from a single molecule, along with as the world's smallest guitar and the world's thinnest drum (with a drumhead only one atom thick.) All the science and technology in my day job makes great thriller fodder. I'm constantly asking my colleagues if they have any new ways to destroy the world.

How long did it take to write SPIRAL?

A: I started SPIRAL about seven years ago, while on sabbatical. I'd spend mornings writing my thousand words, then head into the lab in the afternoons as a break. I had a vague idea about the plot, but I proceeded mostly on instinct, learning the fundamentals of story structure and character development the hard way—by doing it wrong over and over again. I found novel writing is not unlike exploratory science, a blind stumble in the dark for months on end in search of a goal sensed more than seen. In the years since, there have been about 15 major rewrites with only the three main characters (Liam, Jake, and Maggie) and a bunch of spider-sized robots making it through unscathed. For the next one, I'm outlining.

Are the characters based on real people?

A: The character Maggie was modeled in part after Cornell professor, fungus expert, and good friend Kathie Hodge. And I must admit, there's a bit of me in Jake. A fun fact: a bunch of characters (Jake, Maggie, Dylan, Sadie, Harpo,) and the two dogs (Turtle and Duke) in the book are named after our dogs (past and present, see bio page for pics). My wife, who is a psychologist, runs a dog rescue in her spare time, and we've always got a nice houseful. Our newest dogs are named Snickers and Elfie, presenting me with a real challenge for my next novel.

Cornell and its surroundings form the scenery for a major part of your book. Was this just practical for you or did you want to pay homage to your university?

A: I always thought that Cornell would be a great location for a thriller. The scenic beauty of Ithaca juxtaposed with the high technology of Cornell University makes for a wonderful combination. One experience that set the book in motion for me was the sound of the geese overhead, flying south for winter. It is so forlorn, yet beautiful. I began to wonder what would happen if they carried something created in a scientific laboratory, something terribly dangerous.

Many of your characters still cope with their experiences as soldiers. Are these authentic experiences that you or someone in your family had?

A: I have never served in the military. However, my grandfather fought in World War II, in the Pacific, and had the unenviable task of trying to extract Japanese fighters from the caves. He was injured seriously twice and nearly died. He didn't like to talk about the war, but even as a child I could tell that it affected him deeply—he couldn't stand to see anyone in pain. I keep some of his medals in a box that I looked at often while writing the book. My grandfather didn't hate Japanese soldiers in spite of all he'd endured—he clearly saw them simply as men, and sometimes boys, trying to protect their families and their homeland. The soldier on the ground suffers terribly, and this pain is never fully erased.

As I learned more about the Japanese, I became fascinated in particular by the kamikaze pilots who had survived the war. I wondered what it must be like, to know you are to sacrifice yourself, to be one of the walking dead, but then not to die. From this came the character Hitoshi Kitano, a Japanese billionaire still trapped psychologically in the failed mission he'd been sent on over 60 years before.

How about a film based upon SPIRAL?

A: Of course I would love to see SPIRAL on the big screen! The film rights have been optioned by Nick Wechsler and Steve and Paula Mae Schwartz of Chockstone Pictures, a great team whose last film was the brilliant adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD. They've hired an accomplished screenwriter, Robert Gordon, to do the screenplay. It's been a pleasure—and a great education—watching them work and helping out when I can.

Screenwriting has a great deal to teach a thriller writer. One of the truly great instructional books about plotting a novel, STORY by Robert McKee, is actually about writing screenplays. One of my all-time writing heroes, William Goldman (MARATHON MAN, THE PRINCESS BRIDE) is both a fantastic novelist and an Oscar-winning screenwriter.

Are you working on a new book and will it be a sequel?

A: I plotting away on a new book. It's not a sequel, though the main protagonist will be a professor at a top-notch research university. All I can say for sure about it is that you will learn a little bit of science and many bad things will happen.

Who is your favorite character in the book and why?

A: Liam Connor. He was a genius, a Nobel Prize winner, but yet extremely grounded and down to earth. He was able to see the complexity of situations, and didn't simplify issues in order to make it easier on himself. He never lost sight of what things were most important, and acted accordingly, even when it cost him his life.

What ended up on the cutting room floor that you miss the most?

A: Vlad, Jake's quirky Russian friend, had a lot of funny lines that got cut because the plot changed. In that version, Jake spent the last third of the book in an exoskeleton suit (designed by Vlad) fighting off the bad guys while hallucinating wildly on the fungal alkaloids. Lesson: not all of your ideas are good ones.