Interview by MysteryPeople Contributor Scott Butki
With his new novel, Dust Up, Jon McGoran has written a book full of adrenaline, and plot twists, and the controversial and contemporary topic of GMO foods. His choice of topic makes sense since McGoran has written about food and sustainability for 20 years and spent some of that time advocating for labeling genetically engineered foods.
For an idea of how such a book reads, think the kind of adrenaline rush delivered by Jeff Abbott or Lee Child, but with information reminding readers of the potential problems of GMO foods.
Dust Up was my first exposure to McGoran, but I liked it enough that I now plan to read McGoran’s two earlier books in this series, as well as any new ones to come. Each of McGoran’s books features Detective Dolye Carrick.
I interviewed Mr. McGoran via email:
“He starts to pull at those and some other strange threads to reveal a massive plot involving genetically altered heroin, biopharming, designer pathogens, and what I maintain to this day is the most outrageously sinister utilization of butterflies anywhere.”
Scott Butki: How did you come up with this story?
Jon McGoran: A lot of the underlying ideas in the series as a whole are things I’ve been following for a long time, but the main ideas specific to Dust Up came to me from several places.
Character wise, I wanted to take a look at where Doyle Carrick, my protagonist, was after the events of Drift and Deadout: his increasing disillusionment with the police, his burnout, his growing awareness of the issues he’s been confronting. Where Doyle is in his life is an important aspect of the book that I started to think about as I was outlining Deadout, the previous book in the series. The political aspects of the plot originally came from an interview with John Ostapkovich, a reporter at Philly’s KYW-AM. We started talking about how the US aggressively pushes America’s biotech products around the world, especially among countries with more stringent regulations, applying all sorts of leverage through food aid and trade deals to get them to drop those regulations. There are some scientific ideas in Dust Up that emerged out of the research that I did for Drift and for Deadout. I’m really excited about the science at the heart of Dust Up. The idea at the heart of the book — which I don’t want to give away — came to me in a moment of cackling glee.
SB: Why did you decide to set part of the story in Haiti?
JM: I knew Dust Up was going to take place on an international scale, but I chose Haiti for a number of reasons. It has a history of rejecting genetically engineered products, sometimes in very dramatic fashion. It is a frequent aid recipient, often confronted by drought, and plagued with political instability, and it has a long history of unwanted foreign interventions.
SB: How did you go about researching this story?
JM: Generally the research jumps off from research I’ve done from previous books. Then I start doing broader research over the internet, determining who are the appropriate experts, and then establishing correspondence and interviewing the ones who are willing. The biggest piece of research was traveling to Haiti and staying with a group called Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP), a group that has been promoting sustainable agriculture, land reform and education for forty years, and who has been at the forefront of efforts to keep American biotech products out of the country. I was able to see the work they are doing and meet with MPP’s founder, Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, who shortly after our visit became a candidate for president. We were in Haiti in the middle of a political crisis, with the government on the brink of collapse and huge, sometimes violent protests demanding long-delayed elections. It was a little unsettling at the time, but it really helped me to better understand Haiti, as a country and as a setting for the book.
SB: This is the third book in a series. Can you summarize the first two for those entering this series on this third book? Should we read the first two first?
JM: You should definitely read the first two! But no, you don’t have to read them in order. I think it is important that every book works as a standalone, even though you might get a little more out of them if you read them in order. Drift, the first in the series, begins when Detective Doyle Carrick, who has just lost both his parents and received a suspension at work, finds himself in his newly inherited and unfamiliar house in the countryside, settling his parents affairs. He develops a relationship with Nola Watkins, a young woman running an organic farm next door, and learns she is being pressured to sell her land. At the same time, in this small town he starts to see faces he recognizes from drug gangs in Philadelphia. He starts to pull at those and some other strange threads to reveal a massive plot involving genetically altered heroin, biopharming, designer pathogens, and what I maintain to this day is the most outrageously sinister utilization of butterflies anywhere. This is Doyle’s first time encountering a lot of these issues, and in Deadout, he is drawn back into this world, through the relationships establishes in Drift — his girlfriend Nola and his friend Moose. Deadout is about colony collapse disorder, which is threatening to wipe out honeybee populations around the world. A biotech company creates a genetically modified honeybee that is supposedly immune to colony collapse and goes to extremes to secure a market for their product.
SB: You have an interesting background, writing about food and sustainability for 20 years How has that background affected your writing? Do you make a point to involve those topics into your novels?
JM: In the Doyle Carrick series, I definitely draw on many of the issues I wrote about as a journalist and an advocate. That background influenced the series in two main ways. I was pretty alarmed that these seismic changes in the technology of the food we eat were going on, this biotech revolution, and at the time, no one was talking about it in the main stream culture, so I did feel like it was an important issue to explore. But it’s also a perfect backdrop for a thriller: shadowy multinational corporations pushing untested new life forms into the food supply of an unsuspecting public. BINGO! That’s a thriller!
SB: Some writers do pure entertainment while others do a bit more edutainment, throwing some education and facts in their stories? Which category would you fall under?
JM: I definitely try to throw some ideas in there, and I think readers usually enjoy that. But as a writer, I am adamant that whether it’s humor, or topical issues or a particularly cool scene, nothing can get in the way of the story. If it doesn’t advance the plot and deepen the reader’s connection to the characters, you have to leave it out. And that hurts sometimes – leaving out the funny line or the fascinating factoid, but even if you’re primary goal is delivering a message, you can’t let that get in the way of your story, because if you lose your readers, you’re not delivering whatever your message is anyway.
SB: Tell me more about the group you are part of called The Philadelphia Liars Club. What’s the group’s goals and purpose?
JM: The Liars Club was actually created by Jonathan Maberry and Greg Frost, but the original members were Jonathan, Greg, Leslie Banks — who very tragically died a few years ago — and myself. Essentially, it is a group of published authors who are dedicated to helping other writers, promoting books and reading, and providing a venue for networking. Our focus has changed somewhat over the years – for a while
we focused on supporting indie bookstores and then libraries, with a series of parties that we would bring to those venues to show our support. We also published a short story anthology that helped to support literacy initiatives.
More recently our main focus has been on the Writers Coffeehouse, which Jonathan Maberry started and which has grown and spread to a number of cities, with more in the planning stages. The Writers Coffeehouses are monthly meetings, led by one or more moderators, but with a free flow of ideas back and forth. It is for writers of all experience and success levels to get together and primarily share information about the business of writing and publishing and the writing life, to network and support each other. It’s a great venue to share and gain information in a rapidly changing publishing landscape, and a great time to hang out with other writers, get energized and reinforce your awareness that you are not alone in what is often a solitary pursuit.
SB: Can you tell me about your advocacy work for the labeling of genetically engineered food?
JM: Genetically engineered foods could be perfectly harmless, but we have no way of knowing. There have been no long-term safety studies. They were rolled out so quietly. And without labels, it’s difficult to know what foods are or aren’t genetically engineered. Labels will allow consumers to make more-informed decisions about what they’re feeding their families, and will make it possible to do the type of long-term study necessary to answer questions about their safety. But even apart from health and safety concerns, labeling will help people make choices about what types of food systems they support. Again and again, surveys show 90% of the American public, from all parts of the political spectrum, says it wants labeling. There are a lot of good arguments for labeling, but I haven’t heard any arguments against it that hold up as legitimate when scrutinized. My advocacy takes the form of public speaking, writing op-eds, and working with groups like Food and Water Watch to strategize and to meet with politicians to explain our concerns and the reasons we think labeling is important.
SB: I understand you’ve also just published a novella – what’s that about?
Down to Zero is an ebook novella in the Doyle Carrick series, also from Tor/Forge, that takes place after Deadout and before Dust Up. My editor asked me if I wanted to write a novella to come out before the book. I really like the novella format, but I didn’t know if I had the time, then I had an idea that I was really excited about and I had to write it. I had been reading a lot about industrial espionage in the biotech world, and also about bee rustling, which is a real thing – with bees dying off all over the place, people are stealing beehives. Down to Zero is about corporate spies using bees for industrial espionage, stealing intellectual property in the form of pollen from experimental genetically engineered crops. It’s a really fun story!
SB: I see from your blog you’ve written other books under another name. Why use a pen name and what are those other books about?
I wrote a series of forensic thrillers for Penguin, and we used a pen name, D. H. Dublin, partly because of rights issues and partly to maintain a different brand from my other writing.
SB: I see from you blog you were attending the sci fi convention in Philly. Which books were you promoting there, or were you there to promote all of your books?
I had another novella, After Effects, that Amazon published on their Storyfront imprint that is horror/SF, plus some SF short stories, including a story in the new X-File anthology, The Truth Is Out There, but I also think there is something for SF readers to enjoy in science thrillers, so I was promoting the Doyle Carrick thrillers as well.
SB: What are you working on next?
I have a huge number of projects that I’m excited to be working on. I’ve been writing a lot of short fiction recently, I’m working on a couple of media tie-in projects that I can’t announce yet, and a screenplay, as well as several novels, both thrillers and SF. Most imminently, I’m working on a short story for an anthology Jonathan Maberry is putting together featuring stories written by other authors about his Joe Ledger character, so Doyle Carrick and Joe Ledger are teaming up. I’m having a hell of a lot of fun.
You can find copies of Dust Up on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.