The Febrile Muse, Musing – an interview with Cindy Doran

This interview originally appeared in slightly different form at Scientific American Books/FSG.

Shameless self-promotional plug for the book that I happen to be in.
The book in question.

Among the ever-lengthening series of interviews of authors of pieces in this year’s edition of the OpenLab series, The Best Science Writing Online 2012, is this contribution, my interview with pharmacist and author Cindy M. Doran. Cindy’s guest post at the Scientific American blogs, entitled Tinea Speaks Up – A Fairy Tale,  is unique among the fifty-one pieces in the book, in being set as a fairy tale – an approach that is charming, clever, and engaging. I wanted to find out more about her inspiration for the story, and how she went about making characters out of a diverse set of fungi.

Richard Wintle: You have a background in clinical pharmacy and infectious diseases – and clearly quite a knowledge of the “tiny fungus” featured in your piece, as well as a lot of other species that you feature. Did you have to do a lot of background research when writing it?

Cindy Doran: There is always more to learn, but being a clinical pharmacist (Pharm. D) with infectious disease fellowship training and experience teaching infectious diseases to pharmacy students certainly helped support the infectious disease material of the story. I did read and check over the science, such as the characterization of the large and tiny fungi in this piece, to make sure I wasn’t about to pass on bogus information. For me, however, the true challenge in this piece was learning how to find and reference specific fairy tales.

I knew of some tales I wanted to use, ones I found in Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales. But Jack Zipes (author of The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales) pointed me (after I had asked) to Uther’s The Types of International Folktales. In addition, the proofreaders/copy editors and other editorial staff at Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux were amazing. I learned a great detail about the origins of various fairy tales from them too.

Richard: I hadn’t realized the extent to which you had to research fairy tales to make this piece work. Did you find out anything particularly unusual in the origins?

Cindy: Fairy tales have types ascribed to them, and within these types, various topics are cataloged. Uther’s reference I mentioned earlier led me to specific stories. Within these stories are numerous variations; ascertaining who was the true author of each variation was a little tricky, as each time they are told, they change a bit. I learned that a particular retelling of a fairy tale may be ascribed to a particular author, but not be particularly true to the original wording of that tale by that author.

We think of science as being exact, but the humanities are as ever bit rigorous in citations. I loved discovering this.

Richard: Anything that surprised you, or that screamed out “I must include this!” ?

Cindy: It was probably when I read the notes on Italo Calvino’s “The Ship with Three Decks.” I don’t have his notes handy right now, but in one of his notations to his three stories that I included in the piece, he gives a brief history of scald head in folktales. I was sitting on the beach at the time I read it and bolted forward in my seat thinking I need to use this somehow. It literally was plopped in front of me, something to run with. Then I had to figure out how.

Richard: You chose to write your piece as a fairy tale, which is a different approach from your other posts at The Febrile Muse. How did that choice come about, and was this something you’ve been wanting to do for a while?

Cindy: Once upon a time my parents read me fairy tales, in different voices. Now, as a parent, I read them aloud to our kids. I love them. It is true that much of the material on The Febrile Muse is more straight nonfiction, discussion of how infectious diseases are portrayed in literature and the arts. And when I started the website, I had never thought of writing a story like this one. But when it got started, it felt natural. The joy I had in writing it was like the joy I feel while reading folktale picture books and fairy tale collections (dramatically, of course).

Let’s call the path to this story serendipity… and curiosity. In the summer before last, Italo Calvino’s stories led me to scalp disease, scald head and the mange (the idea of using in a story, not the disease itself, on my head). I came home from vacation and Googled “fungi and fairy tales” and found Frank Dugan’s Fungi, Folkways and Fairy Tales: Mushrooms and Mildews in Stories, Remedies, and Rituals, from Oberon to the Internet. I had no idea that fungi played such a huge role in storytelling, and the thought excited me.  I couldn’t help but pitch my fairy tale to Bora, the blog editor at Scientific American. I have other story ideas, some fairy tales, but I plan on continuing with Inflammatory Language and other nonfiction pieces too.

Richard: I could envision a whole book of “scientific fairy tales” – any chance you will write enough of them to fill a book? What about other styles? OpenLab has traditionally included a poem in each edition, for example.

Cindy: The thought of a book makes me giddy—and terrifies me. But the desire to tell stories is very strong. I’m not sure, however, that I am the best judge of my own work. Would anyone want to read them? I have a couple stories in editors’ hands at the moment, and I have over 30 ideas for stories (not all are fairy tales). Perhaps these stories will continue to add to my rejection pile, but I am lucky that this particular piece has escaped it.

I don’t know if I could write poetry. I enjoy reading it, and it inspires me, but I think I would get too caught up in form. But music lyrics? Hmm. I’ve tried to figure out how I could set a story of TB to the Raindrop Prelude (Chopin). [laughs] Sometimes a crazy idea turns into something.

Richard: In your mind, is there any tension between the more whimsical writings like your OpenLab/TBSWO piece, and the more serious nonfiction writing you do? Do you ever feel like you should be doing more of one than the other, or fall into the mindset of “needing to write serious stuff”? This is something, I think, that plagues many authors. What’s your view, and what has your experience been?

Cindy: No, I don’t feel any tension. Perhaps this is because I am no longer in a tenured type of position. I like writing both styles, but stories are a bit more natural – to find a voice, that is. I like to mix it up –whimsy with straight science–like in a recent post I did that mixes monocyte outer membrane structure with fashion. I like to find ways to teach inflammation and infectious disease science that are different from academic writing. Journals don’t usually accept research papers with dialogue or colorful descriptions within the methods section.

Richard: Well, I can think of one example that used O’Darby’s Irish Cream Liqueur as part of a reagent cocktail in a molecular biology experiment. That might actually have been serious, although I prefer to think it was a joke that got past the editors.

Cindy: The writing has to be fun and not overly pedantic. Although I can write strict academia style, I don’t have the same passion for doing it that I did with writing Tinea. One of the great things about having a website is writing whatever I want, but I try to have a mix of straight nonfiction and fun story pieces. It’s a work in progress.

Richard: “Not overly pedantic.” That’s something good for me to remember. Thanks. Your bio says that you review books for the New York Journal of Books. Has reviewing books helped you with your own writing, for example in determining what makes a good story, and what doesn’t? Care to share any you’ve reviewed that really inspired you?

Cindy: I wouldn’t say that being a reviewer has made me a better writer or storyteller, but I read things a bit differently now. I’m also more critical, which is not always good for a writer – for the first draft anyway. I think what helps me determine best what makes a good story is reading – a lot. No one type of story works. Just thumb through the anthology. The different paths that the authors, such as yourself, take through science amazes me as to all the possibilities for writers.

Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution by Holly Tucker was my first review for NYJB, and I learned a lot from reading the book and from writing the review. I’m very glad I had an editor. She helped me identify the points I wished to make about this fantastic story of early blood transfusion science. The Picture of Health: Medical Ethics and the Movies edited by Colt, Quadrelli, and Lester is a book I reviewed that I continuously go back to. It is a collection of essays depicting how different films can be used to teach medical ethics. As you can imagine, there are a lot of genetics references in it. But this book helped reignite for me that art/science/teaching excitement that had led me to start The Febrile Muse in the first place.

Richard: Last question: what’s next? Any big projects underway that you’d care to share? Is writing going to become an increasing part of your career?

Cindy: My collection of stories, of course! [arms up, laughing]

I’ll have to play it all by ear… see where it all goes. Really, my family is the biggest thing going right now – my husband and I have five kids spread over nine years. I’ll continue to write away, amongst family life (school, sports, and Drivers Education), reading, and my clinical pharmacy work with fantastic people at a rural hospital in Wisconsin.

Richard: Well, that sounds like plenty to keep you busy. Thanks for speaking with me, and good luck with your future writing, work and, of course, your very busy-sounding family.

 


 

If you’d like to read the other half, Cindy’s interview of me, why not head on over to her blog, The Febrile Muse?

About Richard Wintle

I am Canadian by heritage, and a molecular biologist and human geneticist by training. My day job is Assistant Director of a large genome centre, where I do various things along the lines of "keeping the wheels on". In my spare time, I tend to run around with a camera, often chasing race cars, abandoned barns, and sundry wildlife.
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