Interview: Allegra Goodman

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Living in Cambridge, Mass., Allegra Goodman is surrounded by some of the world's most advanced medical research facilities. It's a culture of high intellect, driven by intense competition for new discoveries and additional funding. She spoke by phone with Book World's fiction editor, Ron Charles, about how these issues influenced her new novel.

Ron Charles: In "Kaaterskill Falls" and "Paradise Park," you wrote with great sensitivity about the search for spirituality, but this book is about the search for a different kind of truth -- scientific truth. Do you see a connection between the two?

Allegra Goodman: The themes in this book resonate with themes that I've dealt with in previous work. I see similarities between the search for spiritual truth and the search for truth about the world that scientists embark on. The book is very much about faith and doubt. It's about religious people, except that their religion is science. I have a character named Marion Mendelssohn who tries to keep her doubt alive, to be skeptical all the time; she's a bit of an agnostic. And I have Sandy Glass, who's more of a scientific evangelist in the way he tries to convert people to his ideals.

RC: Recent events such as the South Korean cloning scandal, the Vioxx heart scare, and the low-fat diet hype have tested our faith in scientists. Do you think people are starting to feel that science is just another spin game?

AG: We live in an age of debunkings. My book is set in the 1980s when people began to get very alarmed about the specter of scientific fraud. There was all this interest in scientific oversight -- procedures that people should follow, a natural desire for accountability from people who have huge amounts of federal funding. Of course, I had no idea all this was going to happen in South Korea, and now in the literary world, with James Frey, we have all this concern about honesty.

I started this book four years ago, but writing about lying and dissembling turned out to be a fairly topical subject. I was interested in the struggle of scientists and creative people working under tremendous pressures of time and money. I have a huge amount of sympathy for those people. I believe 99.99 percent of scientists are honest and truthful -- we read the headlines about a very tiny minority -- but small groups of people under tremendous pressure and how that affects their relationships with each other are a great subject for me as a writer.

I've always enjoyed books that take place on ships -- and there is a kind of shipboard quality to a laboratory. My book is very much about family, except that the family here is professional. It's about the intense collaborations that develop at work. A lot of people can relate to feeling rushed. Anybody who makes a claim and is not believed will relate to what these characters go through. This book is about the line that people draw, the line between when they lie to themselves and when they don't.

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