Fungus Among Us
by New Times Staff - Friday, March 30th, 2012
In Spiral, the first novel by Paul McEuen the scientific details are plenty.

Avid readers would expect a thriller set at Cornell University, in which three of the main characters are science professors, to be heavy on technical minutiae. In Spiral (The Dial Press, New York City; 320 pages; $25/hardcover), the first novel by Paul McEuen—himself Goldwin Smith professor of physics at Cornell—the scientific details are plenty and, in McEuen’s capable hands, completely believable.

But what sets this thriller apart is the skill McEuen has used in establishing the emotional lives of the characters as they try to contain a potential biological catastrophe. Loss, fear, maternal instinct and romantic longing figure prominently in Spiral’s storyline.

McEuen, 47, says the process of building believable, multidimensional characters into an intricate web of story twists that begins in 1946 was something he worked hard to accomplish. “Since this was my first book, I was learning on the fly about novel writing,” he says, adding that the story actually evolved over a period of seven or eight years, and many rewrites. “You learn an incredible amount through what you did wrong,” McEuen admits with a laugh.

McEuen will discuss Spiral and take questions from readers on Wednesday, April 6, at 4 p.m., at Cornell University’s Schwartz Auditorium. Call (607) 255-9735 for more information. McEuen says he is looking forward to discussing the book with the Cornell community, as the Ivy League university figures so prominently in the storyline. “As a writer, you write what you think makes sense,” he says.

As the book begins, Liam Connor, already the country’s foremost expert on fungi, assesses a plague that has hit the crew of the U.S.S. Vanguard. Turns out the Japanese had developed a fungal pathogen called the Uzumaki (Japanese for spiral) for potential use as a biological weapon.

The story picks up more than 60 years later.

Liam has found personal and professional contentment as a family man and Nobel Prizewinning mycologist. His Cornell colleagues respect him to pieces, especially physics professor Jake Sterling. His granddaughter Maggie inherited his interest in fungal genetics, and his 9-year-old great-grandson Dylan is endlessly captivated by Liam’s still-nimble, first-class mind. But the events on the U.S.S Vanguard never really went away for Liam Connor.

Toiling away with his fungal experiments at Cornell, Liam had developed MicroCrawlers, tiny mechanical “bugs,” devised to tend to his massive collections of fungi. He envisioned them as having a positive environmental effect: they can run on self-created ethanol.

But these scientific and emotional worlds collide when Liam is found dead at the bottom of one of Ithaca’s famed gorges. Maggie and Jake want answers, but they don’t realize that their associations with the patriarch have put their own lives at risk. As the story progresses, readers understand how Connor’s past life has, unfortunately, caught up with his seemingly idyllic current one. And the results could be far-reaching and catastrophic.

It’s up to Jake and Maggie to decipher Liam’s carefully hidden clues about those connections. But an Asian villain with a mission (and mind for squirm-inducing torture) has plans for each of them, and young Dylan, too.

“I really wanted to humanize Liam. {His} relationships with the other people in the story were important to establish with the reader, to show what was at risk for him,” McEuen says, explaining how crucial Liam’s personal life and the relationships therein were in strengthening the emotional impact of the story.

McEuen’s own work as a physicist made it possible for him to convey the urgency of the government’s interest in what Connor knew, and why the Japanese would be interested, too. McEuen, who has been at Cornell since 2001 and currently works primarily with the creation of molecular nanostructures, has done some advising for the U.S. government on synthetic biology and its potential uses as weaponry. The triangular relationship between Japan, China and the United States that is portrayed in the book is more firmly rooted in reality than many Americans would like to believe, McEuen says.

“These concepts are very, very real and very worrisome,” he notes. “Like Liam says in the book, if you have a cure, you have a weapon. And, in today’s political climate, there are no easy answers. The relationships between Japan, China and the United States are evolving. How do we manage that process? It’s something that is going to be very important over the next 20 years and I certainly didn’t want to cartoonize that.”

That Liam Connor kept secrets about what he learned on the U.S.S. Vanguard from his loved ones was not coincidental. McEuen says he thought about his own grandfather, a World War II veteran, when developing that aspect of the story. He kept a purple heart from his grandfather’s service close at hand when he was writing Spiral.

“My grandfather was certainly affected by what happened in the war,” McEuen says. “Those internal conflicts came into his relationships with other family members. These things don’t go away.”

Since Spiral was such a long-term endeavor for McEuen, establishing a balance between his writing, academia and personal life proved challenging. His wife Susan got used to the mornings and weekends he spent working on the manuscript. “She was so supportive throughout the whole process,” he says. “Even though she had read it so many times, when I got that first copy from the publisher on Oct. 1, she sat down and read it again. She and my mom are my biggest fans.”

A native of Oklahoma, McEuen taught at the University of California at Berkeley prior to joining the Cornell faculty. But he finds the intellectual environment and even the weather in Ithaca better suited to his lifestyle. “I love the area,” he says. “And Cornell certainly has a respect for people who are trying to do things that are a little bit unusual.”

Spiral, which has already been published in 17 countries, is currently being optioned for the big screen by Chockstone Pictures. But McEuen says he’s not letting himself get caught up in that possibility; he’s too busy. He is actively working on his next book. “It will definitely be a scientific thriller,” he promises.

 

Paul McEuen on his first book, a science-based thriller: “In today’s political climate, there are no easy answers. The relationships between Japan, China and the United States are evolving.”