The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Marcus Chown

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Marcus Chown


Summary: We've always enjoyed Marcus Chown's work, from Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You to his children's book Felicity Frobisher and the Three-headed Aldebaran Dust Devil. After devouring We Need To Talk About Kelvin, we leapt at the opportunity to ask Marcus some questions.
Date: 25 October 2010
Interviewer: Keith Dudhnath
Reviewed by Keith Dudhnath

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We've always enjoyed Marcus Chown's work, from Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You to his children's book Felicity Frobisher and the Three-headed Aldebaran Dust Devil. After devouring We Need To Talk About Kelvin, we leapt at the opportunity to ask Marcus some questions.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Marcus Chown: Me! I'm really writing to get things straight in my own mind and to entertain me.

My criterion of whether I understand something is whether I can explain it to someone waiting for a Number 26 bus – or my wife, who has no science background, gets bored very easily and reaches for the TV remote control. Consequently, writing for me turns out to be exactly the same as writing for a general audience (or unfortunate people who happen to find themselves sitting next to me on a 26 bus!)

  • BB: We love the title! When in the writing process did you come up with it?

MC: Titles are the most difficult things and I drive my wife up the wall on holiday, going through endless poetry books, song titles, and so on, looking for that elusive title. This one just popped into my head during the writing of the book. In fact, I can remember exactly where it was. I was coming down the stairs from the first floor to the ground floor of our house and it just popped into my mind. I'd of course read Lionel Shriver's novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. In fact, later, I went to a talk given by Shriver at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. Unfortunately, I was too shy to go up afterwards and ask whether she would write an introduction.

I'm so glad you like my title. I can honestly say I have never had such a response to a title. In fact, at the ceremony for the 2010 Royal Society Book Prize, someone came up to me and said: I laugh every time I hear your title. But I do agree with your review of my book that Here's Looking at Euclid is genius! Wish I'd thought of that one.

  • BB: We Need To Talk About Kelvin has been shortlisted for the Royal Society Prize for Science Books 2010 - congratulations; it's richly deserved! Have you read any of the other shortlisted books? What did you make of them?

MC: Thank you very much. In fact, it's now after the event – and, sadly, I didn't win. But I was so happy to be short-listed. And I had a brilliant evening at the Royal Society in London. Oldest scientific society in the world. Founded 1660. It was a real privilege to be there.

I haven't read the other books. However, all six of us on the short-list had to get on stage with chief judge, Maggie Philbin, and read a 3-minute excerpt from our books. Mostly I didn’t hear because I was so nervous about getting up and reading my bit. But I knew, as Nick Lane, read his excerpt that his Life Ascending was probably going to win. It was beautifully and evocatively written. I stole a copy as I left the Royal Society. And I am really looking forward to reading it.

  • BB: Which scientific concept do you find most satisfying to be able to explain to non-scientists?

MC: The ones that other popularisers and scientists have failed to explain. Take my book, Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You. (Quantum theory, by the way, is our very best description of the microscopic world of atoms, the building block of you and me. It is hugely successful. Not only has it given us computers and laser and nuclear reactors but an understanding of why the sun shines and the ground beneath our feet is solid) The reason for writing the book was that I had read many books purporting to explain quantum theory to non-scientists - and I couldn't understand them, even though I have a physics background! So I thought: There must be a better way. Einstein said: Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone. I completely believe that.

  • BB: Who or what inspired you to become a scientist, and likewise an author?

MC: My dad. He left school when he was 15 and never had any opportunities because of growing up during the war. But, when I was about eight, he bought me a book called Dr H. C. King's Book of Astronomy. I have no idea why he bought it and my dad is dead now, so I can't ask him. But it caught my imagination. As for writing, the two things I loved at school were English and science. I think I wanted to be a writer from very early on too. But the idea certainly crystallised in my mind during my teens.

  • BB: Where and how do you write?

MC: Computers are an enormous distraction – especially when you are constantly tempted to look up your Amazon sales ranking! So I tend to write on a pad of paper with a pencil. Recently, with a particularly high-pressure project, I was often scribbling things in a notebook as I walked down the street to a coffee bar, where I scribbled yet more.

Because I am a crap typer, I use Dragon Naturally Speaking to read what I have written into a word-processing document. Not perfect – especially when you get a cold and it refuses to recognise your voice – but better than nothing.

  • BB: How do you find switching between writing popular science books and children's books?

MC: It's no problem. In fact, I enjoy writing fiction more. I've always thought of myself as a writer rather than a science writer. It's just that my evolution has been scientist to science journalist on New Scientist to writer of popular science books – principally, because publishers will pay you an advance for non-fiction but not for fiction, unless you're Doris Lessing.

My principle problem is getting the time to write fiction. I am currently writing Felicity Frobisher and the Newly Wedded Capellan Toast Weevil. I also have a third Felicity Frobisher book plotted. It will be good to finish them and launch them as a trilogy, since publishers – and children – like series.

By the way, the Bookbag reviewer really got Felicity Frobisher. It's the best review I have every got for any book – non-fiction or fiction.

  • BB: Wow! High praise indeed. Ruth will be delighted to hear that! What was your favourite book as a child?

MC: Foundations of Relativistic Astrophysics. No, I'm joking! That's a difficult one. I liked all the classics. Winnie the Pooh. Wind in the Willows. Today, I really love anything by Roald Dahl – particularly The BFG. And I like Jacqueline Wilson and Malorie Blackman, although only her teenage stuff.

  • BB: Very good choices! What are you reading at the moment and how are you finding it?

MC: I almost always read novels but, bizarrely, you have caught at a time when I me reading an autobiography. It's by a 91-year-old who worked on the Burma Railway and later felt the blast wave of the Nagasaki atomic bomb. Nowadays, Alistair Urquhart does ballroom dancing and teaches old people computers.

I would never have picked up Urquhart’s The Forgotten Highlander if I had not gone to an event he did at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. He was interviewed on stage at the Everyman Theatre. His story of survival was deeply moving. He has never received a military pension or an apology for atrocities committed by the Japanese army. As the hour came to an end, I had decided that – even if nobody else in the theatre stood up to applaud this man – I would. The event came to an end. And absolutely everyone in the theatre got up spontaneously and gave him a standing ovation. He was very moved. We all felt that something very special had just happened. Actually, it's bringing tears to my eyes writing this! It's always like this at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. There's always something that blows you away. If you ever get the chance, go.

I queued up to buy his book afterwards. And he was a lovely man. Accompanied by his ballroom dancing partner.

How am I finding the book? Very well written – and harrowing. On stage, Urquhart could not describe what it was like packed into the boiling-hot hold of a ship crossing to Japan with no water or food even. He choked up. The book says it. Imagine people so maddened by thirst they kill other people to drink their blood. And imagine having survived that. When the ship was torpedoed, and he was tossed into the South China Sea, Urquhart actually saw it as a chance to live.

  • BB: My word. What an amazing story! So moving. What's next for Marcus Chown?

MC: If I told you I’d have to kill you! Seriously, have been involved in a very interesting project, which I cannot divulge yet. But it'll be out for Christmas.

  • BB: Ooh, intriguing. We can't wait to find out what it is. Thanks so much for the fascinating responses, Marcus.

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