Interview with September Keynote September Williams
Today we have an in-depth interview with the first speaker in the launch of our speaker series: physician-writer, bioethicist, and filmmaker September Williams, M.D. She seeks a better understanding of and between ourselves and her work offers resilience for those who are suffering. She’s the author of The Elephant in the Room: Bioethical Issues in Human Milk Banking, which is representative of her nonfiction works covering health disparities, bioethics, and film, and a fiction writer as well. Chasing Mercury is a romance-suspense-memoir about families committed to human and environmental rights, and the first book of the “Chasing Mercury Toxic Trilogy.” The upcoming sequels are Weighing Lead and Mining Gold.
September is also a member of the National Writers Union (AFL-CIO/UAW 1981), the International Federation of Journalists, and the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. All of these organizations maximize the breadth of her work by informing, provoking thoughtful action, frequent tears and the greatest tool of all, laughter.
For more information see: http://www.septemberwilliams.com
Interview with Author September Williams
How do you stay intelligible to average readers without ‘dumbing down’ science or medicine?
I think of complex information in scenes of a novel as film script. You can’t just have a white screen showing with words — there has to be something pictured. That something has to be understood by others than myself — an actor, cameraman, special effects person, reader. I have to make the reader a participant in the scene. I establish a line that serves as a slug line in my head— Where they are and time of day. Then only the dialog drives the visuals after that. Then I write the science information, and I usually allow the reader to be touched emotionally by laughter, sadness or love — so the scene and the science stick with them.
The issue is that the details have to become visual for the reader just as they would for a patient or a medical student — and the “teacher” in the exchange get’s feed back from the learner and vice versa. I also make sure there is more than one purpose for the exchange of didactic information — so if science really bores you then you stick with it to hear the end of the part of the scene that interest you. In the example in the shot here the interlocutors are clearly flirting. But the scene is here as an explanation of the Seldinger technique—which is used to draw water samples to test for mercury. The purpose of the scene is for Sicily to understand how arduous and monotonous is.
Do you ever take liberties with facts to tell a better story? If so, how and where do you draw the line and make those decisions?
I do take liberties but I have rules.
- I never take liberties with scientific facts.
- I do take liberties with historic details that are not scientific because that would defeat the purpose of incorporating science into fiction.
- I never take liberties with facts around real people who are depicted in a scene who were really in that situation in that place even if their names.
In the novel Chasing Mercury the lovers meet in the Montreal Airport en route to a World Youth Festival in 1973 Berlin. I changed the dates of the festival. I did that because though based in fact the story is fiction. I wanted anyone who had been there to know that the story was fiction. I also did it because the timeline was set so that the main character would be 18 years old before the festival ended because she began having sex with a 26 year old man before the end of the festival. I needed her to do that on her 18th Birthday because of key things elsewhere in the story. Anyone who was in Berlin would know the dates were wrong.
All of the material related to The Queens Ballet in the book is accurate except for the name of the principal male dancer —this is because I couldn’t reach his estate and he has died. So I changed his name. However, I kept Rudy’s name because I know he would have wanted me to.
The farm the main characters visit in Grunwald was actually modeled after one in Karlmarkstad. But you can’t see the Berlin Wall from there—so the Horse couldn’t take Sicily to the water and it would be too cumbersome to explain the journey to Karlmarkstad. Fictional story based in fact but a work of fiction. But anyone who was there would also know many things happened in the city about which they were unaware.
Though I will own that the female protagonist Sicily is modeled after me, the male protagonist is modeled after many First Nation Brothers I was close to at the festival but with whom I did not perform. Though I did perform with a Canadian who was studying in Berlin before 30,000 people it was a reading of poetry and he translated and played the guitar for me.
I never took liberties with facts about people who have popular exposure and are real. For instance Angela Davis, or the sole survivor of the Massacre of Mali. Who were both at the World Youth Festival and the events surrounding them happened as reported not with a fictitious person but in fact with me—so the content was accurate.
Does the research you do ever end up inspiring new stories, or new plot points?
Constantly— I love the research and I still don’t understand how it makes me do what I do with it. I don’t write by outline but plot points which I recognize when I write them. In Chasing Mercury the Character Sicily has epilepsy not because I have epilepsy ( I do) but because seizures or Cat Dance disease was the key symptom in recognizing Minamata disease in Japan. I wanted one of the characters to have a visceral affinity with a diagnosed child or children in the story. Neurological damage to the body that looks more like cerebral palsy could have been a more visually recognizable option but I needed to link one of the main characters directly to the affliction that was being described. I did want to also have a child with a lesser manifestation of mercury poisoning to illustrate the subtlety sometimes as happens with lead poisoning.
Learning that private citizens contacted the Minamata Disease researchers in Japan for help in 1972 inspired me to write the story because it showed the same unity that resulted in the Minamata Convention on Mercury being signed into Law began 30 years before.
In fact while writing Chasing Mercury I also was a writer-bioethics consultant on a children’s book called Toxic Water Minamata Japan. One of the photos I chose for the book was of a woman who is one of the longest survivors of Minamata disease. In Geneva she told me that I had a selected a photo of he, in her first demonstration as a child. She inspired the character Sophie in Chasing Mercury just based on the photo.
How do you incorporate background information on a topic for your readers without taking them out of the story? Are you usually able to present all the knowledge readers need to understand a story within the narrative?
I definitely can’t provide all of the information. I try to figure out two things: 1) an over arching paradigm that connects the dots and 2) things in the near past that foreshadow things in the near future.
The over arching paradigm in Chasing Mercury’s themes are the attributes of the god himself. This created the characters in the book. Greed and commerce, medicine, moving around the world, duplicity.
Writing about things in the near past—I know what’s important because I’ve been following the science for 30 years and if I’m writing about something that was toxic 30 years ago I can bring the readers up to speed by bringing them back to the past. In Chasing Mercury the epilogue explains why the book exists. But the epilog is about events that happened the year I started writing it. The story starts in 1973—but it was stimulated by the events of both 1956 and 2017.
Don’t get me wrong I lived and breathed mercury for three years. I made friends with people all over the world dealing with mercury from artisanal gold miners to UN diplomats. That’s how I picked the time period of the main story. Picking the time period is important for how much information you have to deliver in the book. Weighing Lead required that I go back to a point when the first water-borne lead toxicity was being dismissed.
Does it require any sort of mind-shift for you to get out of ‘facts mode’ into ‘storytelling, imagination mode?’ How do you make the transition?
Definitely it is hard to get out of the fact-spewing mode. The facts are easy. They are in the literature and in my history in science and medicine. I read and research a lot because the science has to be accurate for the time period. I am kicking myself for not having kept 30 year old textbooks. So in a week I may absorb 100 pages of new data on a heavy metal. I’ve absorbed it but I have not massaged and learned it enough to condense it. That’s why it is good to have characters of different temperaments. I channel them. I let them tell me when to shift gears. I use those characters to get me out of didactics. The frictions in their relationships can shut down a boring diatribe in a heart beat. The Whistleblower Journalist protagonist is really more tied to facts than to his emotions—that is—he masks his emotions with lame humor. The ballerina drags him back to feelings forcibly.
In fact there is a scene in Zurich where the powwow dancer is going on and on about Algae growth in the Limmat River and the guy who discovered the cause. The ballerina takes a break by retreating into her own thoughts which are pretty funny including jealousy directed at the river. But I needed the water connection in the scene. I set the scene in Zurich to make that ecological concern the Powwow dancer expresses.
As for fiction inspired by science, what do you think are emerging new areas of science that will, or could inspire stories?
Of course the next direct hit on fiction and science is going to be CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) a family of DNA sequences found derived from DNA fragments of viruses used to detect and destroy DNA from similar viruses.
I think we will see stories first about therapeutic uses and then cosmetic uses of CRISPR. We will see stories of CRISPR insertions to black babies from getting sickle cell anemia, and removing hereditary diseases like muscular dystrophy. The bioethics will be a large sub theme because the risk is to further marginalize those who are “different” by assuming that they should be genetically altered. But beyond science fiction the stories and possible stories related to this technology will be told in espionage, in love, in heist tales etc. But if I write it it will start with Linus Pauling determining the genetic sequence of Sickle Cell Anemia Hb and working forward. Or the irradiation of malaria—and the bioethical battle related to doing that by erasing female mosquitoes from the earth without know what else they do beyond malaria. Yep it gonna be the new genetic fiction.
Next will be the environmental fiction—as a version of post apocalypse stories.
Any of these will be open for romance-suspense, espionage corporate and international, and mysteries.
I think we will also see bioethical stories about loss of speciation and it’s side effects but not in a science ficiton model but a domestic model.