Whodunnit? It was probably this scientist...

April 1, 2005

Cancer researcher Chris McCabe has just completed his most novel experiment to date. Or more precisely, he has just completed his most experimental novel to date.

Dr McCabe is a lecturer in Birmingham University's medical sciences department. He specialises in pituitary and thyroid cancers and manages a laboratory of about eight people. He also supervises several PhD students.

Combining this role with being a hands-on father to two young boys would make for a busy life by most people's standards. But in the past seven years, Dr McCabe has also published five novels. He has just finished writing his sixth -and admitted that he was itching to get stuck into his seventh, even before he finished editing its predecessor. The first five were fast-paced comedy thrillers, based around male thirtysomething characters with girlfriend problems. They are usually described as "lad lit" or "dick lit".

Dr McCabe would spend his days writing scientific papers and research grants then, in the evening, he would settle down for a couple of hours of novel writing.

But for his sixth book, Dr McCabe wanted to try something different. His aim was to see if he could apply the principles of his day job - writing up scientific papers and applying for research grants - to the process of writing a novel. "There were a lot of lessons I thought I could take from writing science and apply to writing a novel," he explained. "The mechanics of writing scientifically could lend a lot to literature. It's a very taut, precise, structured, chronological and sparse kind of prose."

Dr McCabe applied for a grant from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts under its Dream Time programme. He was awarded Pounds ,000 - enough to enable him to take a year out from his job at Birmingham to concentrate on his writing experiment.

True to form, he completed the book within the deadline. It is a thriller based around a team of forensic scientists who are murdered one by one. Dr McCabe is pleased with the result and reckons it is very different from his previous work.

"My other books are light comedy thrillers. Often, I'd write two pages just to get what I thought was a decent joke in," he said.

"This year has been a crazy, mad-scientist experiment."

As the experiment progressed, Dr McCabe realised that there were some parts of novel writing that needed to remain sacred. He found that there was no point sacrificing thrills for theory.

"It wasn't going to be a turgid, awful book that reads like a scientific paper," he said. "You can't emulate the lack of character you have in scientific writing. A book is all about character development and human interest."

What he could take from science is precise prose and a chronologically ordered structure. In his new book, there are no flowery sentences, it doesn't go off on tangents and no words are wasted. Working in this way led him to understand the different roles that truth plays in the separate arts of novel writing and scientific writing.

He explained: "When you write a novel you spend most of your time lying to the reader because you're trying to lead them in a direction that isn't the truth -to think character A is the killer rather than character B."

While a scientific paper also tells a story, it gives a factual and chronological description of what happened. Dr McCabe realised that in literature this approach would be suicidal. "You always have to be lying to give yourself that latitude to pull out surprises," he said. "But if, in a scientific paper, you said, 'Actually, it was gene Z all the time!' it wouldn't really work."

His research team is supportive of his outside interests. In particular, his boss was flexible about him rushing off at short notice to attend publicity events. But Dr McCabe cringes when he recalls the reaction of colleagues after he incorporated his experience of working in a research laboratory into his novel writing.

"My second book, Paper, did draw on some of the personalities of people I work with," he said.

"I tried to disguise them a bit, but maybe not enough. I got into a bit of trouble about that at work."

Dr McCabe said that when he returns to work in April, he is unlikely to be able to sustain the same prolific level of literary creativity. With increasing demands on his time coming from his family, as well as increasing pressure in the laboratory to apply for grants and perform well in the research assessment exercise, he does not expect to keep up the novel-a-year output.

And although he has enjoyed his year as a novelist - and yes, he does hang out at the Groucho Club with the London literati - he has no intention of giving up the day job. His previous novels have consistently sold between 20,000 and 30,000 copies each, bringing him a modest income, although not quite enough to bring up a family.

"Having two careers is great," he said. "I like writing and I'm not fed up of it yet. But I wouldn't want to drop my science - I've put too much in and it's a lot of endeavour to walk away from."

But as anyone who has tried to juggle two careers may recognise, Dr McCabe has a nagging worry that just won't go away.

"You're always thinking, could I have been a better scientist if I didn't write, could I have been a better writer if I wasn't doing science?"

caroline.davis@thes.co.uk

Chris McCabe's first five novels were published under the name of John McCabe.

I GRADUATED FROM Sheffield University.

MY FIRST JOB WAS as a post-doctoral research fellow at Birmingham University, aside from numerous factory jobs as a student.

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS developing my two careers independently.

WHAT I HATE MOST
is the spinelessness of the Government in addressing our excessive carbon habits.

MY FAVOURITE JOKE
Q. What's brown and sticky?
A. A stick.

BEST TV PROGRAMME
The Simpsons , by a country mile.

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