You are well-known in the science fiction and fantasy genres for your highly-praised short stories and first novel The Games. What inspired you to write Prophet of Bones—a thriller?
The novel was actually inspired by a conversation I had with a co-worker about young earth creationism. In 2005 the Kansas Board of Education held a series of hearings in an effort to introduce intelligent design into science classes in public schools. Statistics show that there are a huge number of people who believe evolution to be false, and the reality is that some of those people are in charge of educational policies. I think I imagined the novel as a way of granting young earth creationists their argument. Here is a universe where the earth truly is young—provably, verifiably, by carbon-14 dating. But nothing else is different. The fossil record of the novel is identical to our fossil record, only now these bones must be faced within the context of a creationist world. It’s another window into the argument, and presents a case, I think, that a young earth would present a far more disturbing picture than the world we actually inhabit.
Prophet of Bones is an extension of your widely-acclaimed short story “Prophet of Flores,” which has been printed in several “Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy” collections and translated into several languages. Why do you think it struck such a chord with this audience? What was the motivation for expanding the story?
I honestly try not to think too much about what an audience might do with a story I write. It’s nice when a story gets good reviews or a positive response, sure, but the best writing always comes from a place of humility, and the last thing you want to ask yourself while writing is, Will people like this? I’m very much from the story-belongs-to-the-reader camp. It's totally up to the audience how to interpret a story, and the writer doesn't have any control over that. My main motivation for going back and expanding from the original premise was that I wanted to know what happened next. My mind kept returning to it again and again, and at some point I realized that I had a lot more I wanted to explore.
How did you prepare to write Prophet of Bones? What kind of research was involved?
I think my whole life was a kind of research for this book. I studied biology in college and have always read everything I could get my hands on—from scientific journals to scholarly tomes on human variation. I went to Catholic school growing up, but at the same time I was always very interested in science and evolution and genetics, so I had these two very powerful and contradictory dogmas competing for my attention and loyalty—or at least that’s how I felt at the time. I’m much less conflicted about it now, but I suppose it made an impact on me. Science and religion both seek the answer to similar queries—Why are we here; How did we get here? And these are questions I was particularly interested in for some reason. I was bombarded with these two very different perspectives, and most of my early experiences as a child trying to understand my place in the world were colored by the tension between these different worldviews.
The book is grounded, in part, by real science. Can you share some of the most important scientific foundations that were critical to your research?
Well, the most important bit of science critical to the story, of course, was the discovery of those strange fossils on the island of Flores. Without that discovery, I doubt I would have had a way to tell this kind of story. The science of genetics also plays an important part in the novel. As much as possible I tried to use real science in the story, though truthfully the genomics revolution we’re undergoing right now reads a lot like science fiction. Many of the great anthropological questions of my childhood are now being answered in no uncertain terms by genetics. It’s absolutely astounding what we’re able to learn from just a small bit of DNA.
In 2004, Mike Morwood actually discovered a human-like species known as “the Hobbit” on the island of Flores. This find plays a key role in the plot of Prophet of Bones, which is set in an alternate world where Darwin is discredited and the Earth is known to be only 5,800 years old. Why did you choose write the tale as a twist on the truth?
Twists on the truth always make the best stories, I think. I’ve always been drawn to intractable scientific arguments, and at the time when I first came up with the idea for the book, there was a lot of fighting about what this particular fossil might mean. There was one camp that felt the fossil was just a pathological human, and another camp that felt it was something far different. To some extent, I think, that argument is still going on, though evidence has certainly mounted in favor of one particular interpretation. I use a lot of my stories as a way for me to think about problems I’m interested in; and to a lot of people in anthropology, these fossils present themselves as one of the most unexpected and fascinating problems to have burst on the scene in a very long time. Also, as an outlier in the cannon of archaeological finds, the Flores fossils were a great tool for investigating what it truly means to be human.
Your resume includes a wide array of jobs: fast-food worker, housepainter, security guard, college tutor, zookeeper, laboratory analyst, endangered-species researcher, stage actor, and video-game writer. How did working in such varied environments help you write this novel?
I think for a writer, anything that broadens your experience can only be a good thing if your goal is to understand the world. Doing a bunch of different jobs over the years is certainly one way to gain a lot of different experiences. (It also could mean you’re just not very good at anything, so it is by no means always a mark of distinction.) I’ve always been experience hungry, so that might have played some part in my work history, though it’s hard to say. I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve been able to work in the fields I’ve been interested in. This novel probably draws most directly from my experience working in a research lab, and possibly a bit from my time as a zookeeper. They say that you should write what you know, so it was nice to have actually worked in the kinds of places I’m writing about.
You currently work as a writer at Valve, which is home to some of the world's most popular video games including Half-Life, Portal, Dota 2, Left 4 Dead and Counter-Strike. How is writing for a digital medium different than writing for a printed medium?
Writing for a digital medium above all else requires flexibility. The job can change a lot from week to week, depending on what you're working on. You get pulled in new directions all the time. In writing print fiction, you are the master of everything that happens in your story, but in writing for video games, you are a part of this large collaborative process. You have lots of really smart people to lean on and bounce ideas off of, which is awesome, and the process is in some ways very democratic. Your ideas have to win people over. The best ideas tend to win out in the long run, and then you go out as a team and institute those ideas.
The main character in Prophet of Bones, Paul Carlsson, is a scientist. You studied biology at Indiana University and went on to work as a lab technician. You also bred mice in your basement as a young boy, something Paul does in the book. How did your own life inspire Paul’s character?
I think I’m very much like Paul in a lot of ways. We’re interested in the same questions, and driven by many of the same motivations. I suppose we have a lot of the same fears and insecurities. But for him, it is all experienced through the lens of life lived in a creationist universe, whereas I live in one more consistent with evolution. So while we’re interested in the same questions, the answers will be very different.
You already have another book in the works. Can you give us any hints as to what it’s about?
Well, I haven’t pinned down a title yet, but the book will be a continuation of my early novelette “Divining Light,” which was nominated for a Nebula Award in 2010. It’s another lab-opera, and I’m beginning to sense a trend in my fiction. Stephen King writes about writers in trouble, and John Grisham writes about lawyers in trouble. I seem to write about scientists in trouble. So this will be my third novel centered around laboratories. And again, it’s me being drawn to another intractable scientific problem, in this case, the famous two-slit experiment. It’s a story about quantum mechanics, and in it, a researcher discovers that reality is not exactly what it seems to be. Life hangs in the balance.