It’s time to meet another author and learn from their successful publishing journey. Today we meet Alan Porter, author of GM.
Geneticist Rachel Whitelock escaped the war in Zaire with a secret that could change the lives of millions. Now, eighteen years later, she is going back to oversee covert trials of the genetically modified crop that resulted.
But someone’s waiting for her, and he’s been waiting a long time for her to return what she stole from Africa.
Hunted across the jungles of Bengara, Whitelock must pull off a daring plan that could make or break her career... and change the course of a nation.
D.O: Thank you for joining us today on Authors' Curtilage book talk Alan Porter, and welcome.
AP: Thank you, Darmie, it’s great to be here.
D.O: What obstacles did you face in trying to tell the GM story?
AP: For me, any work of fiction works best where there is enough ‘telling detail’ to make it convincing. For GM I needed to do huge amounts of research - everything from the possibilities of genetic engineering to how to fly a Schweizer 330 helicopter; from west African street cuisine to the weather in Goma at the end of August 1996. Most of that research only gets a fleeing mention - it acts as the spice of the novel rather than its main ingredient - but it is vital to get it right. So, getting those details sorted out was quite an obstacle to getting the book into a form that it could go to my editor.
Of course, research can have its up-side. Flying a helicopter fifty feet above the rainforest is a whole lot of fun!
D.O: Mm. I'm impressed by the efforts you put into this. Quickly let us meet Dr. Whitelock in GM?
AP: Rachel Whitelock is an entomologist and geneticist. That is, she works with insects and tries to modify their behavior through genetic engineering. In GM she has developed a strain of rice that causes pest locusts to destroy each other rather than surrounding rice crops.
Rachel is one tough cookie! She lived and worked in Africa in the 1990s and got caught up in the horror that was the Rwandan civil war. There she met someone who put her on the path that ultimately leads to the events of GM.
There are surprisingly few genuinely strong female leads in books and films right now. I did not create the character of Dr Whitelock as a deliberate attempt to redress this balance, but she does her bit anyway. She does not rely on the help of a man, she is probably the most unromantic woman you could meet and she can hold her own with some of the most dangerous characters in west Africa!
D.O: What is her mission in the GM story?
AP: She wants - needs - to use her talents to empower indigenous African farmers and make the kind of difference to the lives of people in the third world that financial-based aid rarely does. But creating the GM crop is only the beginning. She has much bigger plans, and she has to dodge a lot of bullets to bring that plan to fruition! Whether she goes about it in the right way is for the reader to decide.
D.O: How rounded is this story & how many years did it take you to tackle it?
AP: The story is rounded in the sense that we see Rachel following a path that she has been driven to follow for nearly eighteen years. She has one goal in mind, and nothing is going to stand in the way of achieving it. I think the reader is taken along that path very effectively - especially as her back-story is revealed gradually and we see that she almost has no choice but to act as she does.
The end, however, is not rounded at all! Originally I took Rachel to the point she had been aiming at all those years, then showed some of the aftermath of the decisions she had made. But that insulted the intelligence of my readers. So I cut the end. Now we follow her as far as her goal - that is up the point Rachel herself has calculated - but no further. She did not give a great deal of thought to the aftermath, and I wanted to leave the reader to make up their own mind whether what she does is right or not.
The book took a year to write from its initial conception to agreeing the final draft with my editor.
D.O: A year? That wasn't long compare to some story which will just refuse to get up for many years. Anyway, what changes has this story formed in your life as its writer?
PA: I used to write psychological horror novels. GM does have some horrific moments, but it is a much more ‘conventional’ thriller. This is a genre I will continue with now.
"They are meant to turn cannibal to defend their food supply, but they are not feeding anymore. Their sole driving force is to destroy. This is way beyond anything we predicted."
D.O: Who said this in GM? What is she referring to?
AP: This is Rachel Whitelock observing the first large-scale test of the GM rice crop in a hangar in Surrey. In small-scale tests the locusts that ate the baited rice turned cannibalistic, but only when Whitelock sees the experiment scaled up to tens of thousands of insects does the true effect become apparent. She knows for sure now that the crop she helped to develop will be able to make a significant difference in Africa.
This scene also hints at things to come once Whitelock arrives in Africa to run field tests, but to say any more would give too much away!
D.O: [Smiles] Okay then, hold it right there. Briefly tell us what the underlying theme of this story is about?
AP: Let me start by saying this book is not really about genetically modified crops at all! They feature, and they kick the action off, but the underlying theme is more about the clash of Western power with third world need. For decades the developed world has poured financial aid into Africa. And yet war and famine are still rife, partly because millions of dollars of that aid is siphoned off by corrupt governments to buy weapons and displace ‘inconvenient’ populations. Rachel Whitelock is convinced there is another way. It is left up to the reader to decide whether she is right!
D.O: Is this story based on someone experiences or a pure work of fiction?
AP: It is pure fiction, although I have spent time with aid workers in Africa and some of the events in the book are derived from stories they have told me. The genetically modified rice is pure fiction… probably! Already cotton plants have been modified with Bacillus toxins to make them lethal to bollworms; cabbages have been genetically laced with scorpion venom to kill caterpillars; and tests have been run to develop hep-b and cholera vaccines administered through modified bananas. So a rice strain that can alter the behavior of locusts? Not yet, but it is only a step or two away...
D.O: What genre is this story?
AP: Broadly it is a thriller. That is a very wide genre, but it fits alongside writers like Michael Crichton and Frederick Forsyth.
D.O: Okay. What draws you to this genre?
AP: It’s what I like to read; I like to see and explore strong characters in tough situations. I am also committed to giving readers something a bit ‘different’. The first decade of the new millennium has seen commercial books and films become very bland and uniform. I enjoy tackling controversial subjects.
D.O: Okay. What do you hope people will take away from GM?
AP: First, they should enjoy it! If it makes the readers think in a different way about the third world, and the developed world’s attitude to it, that’s good. If it shows that there’s a whole lot more to a female lead character than her need for a man, perfect. But above all, enjoy it: it is a fast-paced adventure novel, not a political polemic!
D.O: All right then, Alan Porter, thanks for choosing Authors' Curtilage for your book promotion. I hope you'll stop by again for future promotion.
AP: I would be delighted to. Thank you.
GM is available worldwide in paperback and ebook: