Novel's Mind-Bending Plot Clones Grandma
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Science is often muse to literature. It's been that way for Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," through the mindscapes of Kurt Vonnegut, to the social biology of Margaret Atwood. Novelists routinely take contemporary scientific breakthroughs, sizing them through their imagination, and project their efforts on human behavior.
"Mary Modern" by author Camille DeAngelis is such a novel. Her main character is Lucy Morgan. Morgan is a genetic research scientist who's unable to have her own child. So she decides to clone her grandmother. But the experiment is flawed. The clone is born not as baby but as a 22-year-old woman. What's more, her previous memories as a 22-year-old are still intact; and that makes the modern world all that more disorienting.
Camille DeAngelis is in our studios in New York. First, welcome to the program, Camille.
Ms. CAMILLE DeANGELIS (Author, "Mary Modern"): Thank you.
HANSEN: Where did you get this storyline?
Ms. DeANGELIS: Well, a few years ago, my aunt Eileen gave me a copy of my great-grandparents' engagement portrait. And it's a really striking portrait, in par because my great-grandmother - her name is Anna. And most of what I knew about her was really sad. She had a hard life. She died in childbirth, and she's only 33. So I was just sitting there, staring at this photograph and I had this thought that Anna, at the moment that photo was taken, new nothing about her future life and I knew too much. So I started wondering what kind of fantastic scenario would allow us to communicate and the premise for "Mary Modern" grew out of that.
HANSEN: So you basically just wanted to go back and talk to your ancestors or maybe learn something about them.
Ms. DeANGELIS: Exactly. I guess I was sort of fascinated with the setup of having this chat with your grandmother but she's actually younger than you are.
HANSEN: Stem cell research, cloning - all very controversial subject in contemporary society. Your book is actually set in 2009. So we can call it the near future. Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" was a cautionary tale against the potential evils of the industrial revolution. Should readers, perhaps, take your book as a warning?
Ms. DeANGELIS: You know, the book does have a lot to say about reprogenetics and stem cell research, the humanity of a hypothetical human clone, you know, the overwhelming arrogance of scientists and evangelical Christians alike. However, all of those issues were secondary within the novel. To me, ultimately, the book is a meditation on how love of one's family survives death, and how it's - how family and home can fortify and strengthen us and also restrict us, and how, you know, getting caught up in your own history can really hold you back.
HANSEN: So it becomes more of a metaphor in many ways?
Ms. DeANGELIS: Yeah. Yeah.
HANSEN: There is technical detail in here, obviously, about how Lucy manages to clone her grandmother. Was there any time in the writing or the publication process that it was suggested perhaps that this book belongs in the science fiction shelf?
Ms. DeANGELIS: No. No. We always knew - well, I knew it right from the outset that it was literary fiction that huddle a lot of other genres mixed in. You know, it's sort of soft suspense and it's got some romance and there's, you know, definitely a mystery involved, and it's super-gothic.
HANSEN: Do you think, though, the lines might be blurring between science fiction and, as you say, you know, literature?
Ms. DeANGELIS: Yes, absolutely. And I think there's been - there's definitely been a trend in literary fiction in recent years. I think a lot of people are writing literary fiction that have a lot of fantastic elements to it that is really - I think it appeals to people so much because people want to exit ordinary life. And at some point, you get kind of tired of reading about missing children and cheating spouses and all that kind of thing. And you want to read something that could never happen in real life, something totally fantastic that really takes you out to the far reaches of your imagination.
HANSEN: Camille DeAngelis is the author of the novel "Mary Modern," available from Shaye Areheart Books. And she spoke to us from our New York bureau.
Thanks a lot for your time.
Ms. DeANGELIS: Thank you, Liane.
(Soundbite of song "Clonie")
Ms. NELLY McKay (Singer): (Singing) My oh my walking by. Who's the apple of my eye? Why it's my very own clonie. Oh if I should…
HANSEN: Was I talking to the real Camille DeAngelis? So you didn't send your clone, did you?
(Soundbite of song "Clonie")
Ms. McKAY: (Singing) …clonie. We are pals. It's cool 'cause we're not lonely. Shallow gene pool. There's nothing to my only clonie. Me and you, hustlin' through. Holdin' on through thick and thin. Just day by day our DNA.
HANSEN: You can read an excerpt about the first moments of Lucy's encounter with her cloned grandmother at npr.org/books. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.