Sunday, 14 December 2014

Sissel-Jo Gazan on The Difficulty of Sequels

Danish born Sissel-Jo Gazan is a biology graduate from the University of Copenhagen. Her major public break-through came with The Dinosaur Feather in 2008, with which she stepped into the realm of crime and suspense. The book  was named the best Danish crime novel 2000-2010.

I think everyone will understand what I mean when I talk about ‘the difficult sequel’. The difficult sequel is the novel you would really, really like to write after the novel that finally earned you success, gave you a big reading audience and the acknowledgement you had worked towards for years. This is the difficult novel to write, and this is where performance anxiety really kicks in. Because how do you do it again? How do you repeat the success without repeating the actual novel?

These were my thoughts in autumn 2008. I had just published my fourth novel and first crime novel in Danish, the scientific thriller The Dinosaur Feather, and I was submerged in success and acclaim. The novel was the talk of the town, it won several prestigious literary prizes in Denmark, was climbing the book charts and stayed in the Top 3 for weeks and weeks. Was I happy? Of course! Ecstatic! But I also began feeling the pressure, and slowly but surely I began lying awake at night. How could I ever live up to my own success?

My biggest worry was my own ambition: I wanted to write a sequel as scientifically well-researched as The Dinosaur Feather, which, back when I wrote it, had been based on my own biology thesis. But in the meantime I had got my degree and left university; in fact I had moved to Berlin and was writing book reviews for a woman’s magazine, very far from the scientific world. So how would I ever be able to follow up the success of The Dinosaur Feather, when I no longer spent every hour of the day with my head buried in science, when I no longer had a bunch of senior scientists sitting two offices away whom I could bother with all my investigating questions, and without 24-hour access to a huge online university library? It simply seemed impossible, and I began to think that The Dinosaur Feather had not only been the peak of my writing career, but also the end.

Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks’, they say, and one day I mentioned my ‘crisis’ to a journalist, who subsequently wrote a very interesting piece on how the period following success can be almost paralyzing for a creative person. And then something magical happened! The article was read by a Danish doctor, a professor and critical vaccination-researcher working at the Danish Serum Institute. She was also in a crisis.

For years she and her fellow colleagues had done research in West Africa, and for years they had been able to show how vaccinations have both positive and negative non-specific effects, meaning that some vaccines, for instance measles and BCG-vaccines, do more good than just protect against measles and tuberculosis, but in fact give the child an overall immune-system boost, so that the mortality rate drops considerably. Whereas others, like the DTP vaccine, do the opposite, by weakening the child’s immune system, increasing mortality. For years the doctor and her team had tried to persuade WHO, the World Health Organization, to look further into these alarming observations, but without any luck.
Only a few days after she read my interview in the newspaper, she contacted me to pitch the situation: a scientific controversy that had reached deadlock. Maybe for a future novel? Oh yes, please! And this was the beginning of a wonderful and challenging journey that led to The Arc of the Swallow, my latest novel out in the UK right now.

For the next two years I followed the group’s work in West Africa.  I was given total insight into their research, and was allowed to ask as many questions as I desired. I read scientific articles about immunology until I was blue in the face, and finally I was ready to write the sequel I had feared so much; as a matter of fact more than ready! The police officer, Søren Marhauge, whom I introduced in The Dinosaur Feather, was revived and so was his hot-headed girlfriend, Anna Bella. They both play more supporting roles in The Arc of the Swallow, giving way to a brand-new protagonist: the intelligent, but somewhat oppressed young immunologist, Marie Skov, whose controversial supervisor and mentor, Kristian Storm, is found hanged at the start of the novel. Suicide, the police claim, but Marie doesn’t believe it. After years of research Storm was finally ready to publish the scientific article of his life, in which, once and for all, he would prove the severe problems connected to some vaccinations. To Marie it makes no sense that Storm would kill himself. Desperate to prove the police are wrong, Marie begins her own investigation, which not only makes her realize someone is willing to kill to cover up the truth, but also leads her to discover some rather unpleasant truths about her own family. Police investigator Søren Marhauge has suspicions and private problems of his own, and it doesn’t take long for the two to join forces.

Readers tell me I have – once again – written a 3-in-1 novel, where I mix my three biggest passions: natural sciences, crime fiction and family secrets. Can I do it again? Only time with tell, but I am definitely less afraid now.

You can find more information about the author on her Facebook page and you can also follow her on Twitter @SisselJo

THE ARC OF THE SWALLOW by Sissel-Jo Gazan is published by Quercus, hardback, £16.99.

No comments: