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Gary Braver

an interview by Kilian Melloy

Gary Goshgarian steps out of The Harvard Book Store in Cambridge with a wide grin. It's a grey and drizzly day, and that suits Rough Beast coverthe writer just fine. Goshgarian remarks that the weather is reminiscent of Heidelberg's perpetually overcast winters; it's a huge coincidence that I have lived in Heidelberg, and we engage in a happy chat about Germany and Europe as we make our way to the Harvard Faculty Club a few blocks away. Along our route, Goshgarian points out a flat where he roomed as an undergraduate, in the days when he was studying physics. Now a professor at Northeastern Unversity in Boston, and the author of several text books as well as five novels, Goshgarian -- whose most recent books, Elixir (Forge, 2000) and Gray Matter (Forge, 2002), he penned under the pseudonym Gary Braver -- draws upon his interest in the sciences, and his own adventurous sense of intellectual curiosity, when developing his stories.

As we wait in the Faculty Club's Reading Room, for example, Goshgarian describes a hair raising, real life brush with mortality while doing underwater archaeology. Later on, over selections from the extensive buffet, Goshgarian asks for an explanation of deep tissue cross-fiber muscular therapy (one of the aspects of my day job). He finds it 'fascinating.' I wonder privately whether, in a few years' time, I'll find myself perusing a Gary Braver novel that somehow finds a murky and horrific aspect of muscular therapy around which to spin a suspense novel. It wouldn't surprise me.

Goshgarian's first novel, Atlantis Fire (The Dial Press, 1980) is a well executed, tightly plotted, and richly characterized adventure story set in Greece. In the book, Goshgarian explores the myth -- and the possible historic underpinnings -- of the sunken island of Atlantis. Avoiding all new-age and pseudo-science mummery, Goshgarian instead concentrates on present-day politics, placing academic prestige against solid-gold loot on the scales of human avarice. It's a finely wrought balance -- as is the juggling act inherent in the plot: local corruption, a murder mystery, and impending natural castrophe.

Since then, Goshgarian has tended more toward the horrific and technological, combining scary science with even scarier storylines, sometimes involving the supernatural -- as in The Stone Circle (Donald I. Fine Books, 1997), a ghost story that reads like The Shining as set on one of Boston's Harbor Islands. (A friend to whom I recommended the book reported later on that the opening pages so unnerved him that he refused to go on day jaunts to the Harbor Islands afterwards.) For Elixir, written under the moniker Gary Braver, Goshgarian forsook ghosts in favor of the ultimate in scientific discoveries: the key to eternal life. Just as surely as if spectral possession were part of the tale, though, the book's characters -- and the world at large, when word gets out -- are swept up on a wave of terror and exhilaration so compelling it seems to burst right out of the book's covers.

For his most recent foray, Goshgarian -- writing once more under the name Gary Braver -- has concocted Gray Matter, a tale about a remorseless neurological genius who has worked out a way to boost human intelligence. For those who can afford his services, and who agree to keep his work hush-hush, the novel's remorseless Dr. Malenko offers hope for learning-challenged children. For Rachel and Martin, parents of the sweet, personable, but clearly struggling Dylan, Malenko holds out thrilling promise: to Martin, intelligence is the sine qua non of a happy and fulfilled life, the handle to opportunity's golden doors. To Rachel, who has a secret and shameful past that may well have led directly to Dylan's low academic aptitude, Malenko's offer is something akin to salvation -- a way out of her guilt and torment.

From the start, things seem a little bit off kilter with Malenko, and with some of the local children he's 'repaired.' Then, of course, by degrees Goshgarian lifts the lid off Malenko's secret procedure and its sometimes gruesome side effects -- only to reveal the true, stunning price that society's well-off and numbers-conscious elite are willing to exact in pursuit of a guarantee on their own children's futures. As with all of Goshgarian's work, Gray Matter is a scalp-prickling read, its wonderfully written prose pairing up with its scientifically plausible reasoning to create a mood that insinuates itself under the reader's skin and make you wonder: could this horrible, inhuman thing truly happen? Could it leap from the author's imagination and into reality? For now, it's just a book. But who knows? With UFO cults laying (highly dubious) claim to creating human clones and biological sciences rocketing along into the future, anything might be waiting just around the corner.

Gary Goshgarian poured himself some tea, sat back in the handsomely appointed environs of the Reading Room, and graciously lent himself to a chat with infinity plus.

infinity plus: First off, how would you characterize your work? Atlantis Fire is a thriller, and The Stone Circle is an exceptionally scary horror tale, but the other books seem to balance between horror and science fiction.

Gary Braver: You ask a good question, because I don't know how to classify what I'm doing, particularly with an umbrella classification. The generic term that seems to cover it all is 'Suspense.' 'Thriller' I don't like because 'Thriller' implies something cheap and fast and with all the pejorative associations -- that it's not well written, that it's plot driven, that the characters are cardboard punch-outs, that the language is pedestrian, that there is little artistry -- all wham bam stuff. Gray Matter coverSo I usually avoid classifying my novels as thrillers, even though the publisher would say Gray Matter is "medical thriller."

infinity plus: For marketing purposes.

Gary Braver: For marketing purposes. But it's a turn off to some readers. I call it Suspense. Medical or Biomedical Suspense is how I would characterize Elixir and Gray Matter. Archaeological suspense for Atlantis Fire and The Stone Circle. As for Rough Beast...

infinity plus: 'Toxic Waste Suspense.'

Gary Braver: Toxic Waste Suspense! We have a whole new genre going for us.

infinity plus: In your books you tend to show a fascination with science: archaeology in Atlantis Fire and in The Stone Circle, biology in Rough Beast and Elixir, and now in Grey Matter you dive into neurology. Having previously studied to be a physicist, is it the case that you just really groove on the sciences in general?

Gary Braver: A couple things. I've been teaching Science Fiction for a long time and I always start off with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. So I have absorbed some of that caveat about tampering with nature (picking the forbidden-fruit in the Garden of Eden) which is a motif that you find in so much cautionary science fiction. And the other part of the answer is that three books back, the publisher said, 'We don't want to pigeonhole you, but we're going to pigeonhole you. We want you to do more biomedical thriller / suspense stuff.' So I'm kind of locked into that, which is fine because I have a background in physics. Before I started [my] research [for the books] I didn't know a zygote from a kumquat. But I do now know what a kumquat is: it's an orange that wants to be an olive or an olive that wants to be an orange. But the genre comes partly from what I've been teaching and partly what the publisher wants from me -- and partly from my own interest, too. I like writing stories that teach people something; and since we're always asking 'what-ifs' in this genre, I try to find something in the near future that might be a circumstance, an innovation that might 'improve' on human biology. I explore the light and dark potentials of tampering with human biology.

infinity plus: [Noted science fiction author] George Zebrowski has talked about the genre of science fiction in terms of it being a way of rehearsing possible futures -- how we'll get there, and how we'll survive it.

Gary Braver: That's a good line. I like that -- science fiction as a form of dress rehearsal. Yeah, I think that's what speculative fiction is about: you are asking, 'what if?', and hoping that it doesn't happen. There is a conservative strain in science fiction that fears that the possibilities you're writing about could be the beginning of the end. They raise some philosophical and social and ethical issues that we don't want to face. And those possibilities are the things that I'm dealing with in my writing.

I would love to live indefinitely, and Elixir deals with somebody who has that option, and faces all the awful paradoxes that could create. Parents would love be able to give their children the greatest advantage, which would be higher intelligence so as to enable them to have better lives. And, yet, in Gray Matter we're dealing with a woman who is twisted with guilt over the fact that she has probably caused brain damage to her son and now wants to have his I.Q. medically enhanced so he will have those advantages. But there are the hidden downsides. In my writing, I like to come up with ideas that are very tempting: 'Yeah, I'd like to do that!' But -- what about this [the downside]? So this is a rehearsal for those potentials.

infinity plus: You've taken a risk in Gray Matter that I think pays off nicely in that the mother, as you mentioned just now, has had kind of a reckless youth and may have precipitated her son's mental handicap. Then there's her husband, who acts more like one of the bad guys than a beleaguered hero. It's a fascinating decision to have made.

Gary Braver: It was exciting, because I could use both aspects. When you're writing, you live out psychodramas in your mind and take on contrary aspects of the same issue and find those parts of you that say, 'Yeah, I'd want to do that.' And so I imagine myself as the husband, who loves his I.Q., loves his M.I.T. degree, loves the fact that he works in the smartest zip code in the universe, and loves the life of the mind -- and he feels entitled to have a smart kid. It's part of the meritocracy that he lives in. I could understand taking that point of view -- of course, it would be more head than heart, and the heart is the mother who is anguished with guilt and says, 'Yeah, but if we boost his intelligence that will change his personality, and he may lose his ability to sing and his drive to play baseball,' his sweetness and charm. I'm not reducing the woman to all heart and the husband to all mind. But I think that those contrary aspects may exist in most people, and that's what I like getting to: a potential civil war in one person. Sometimes I take that conflict and decide to present it as two opposing characters in the same family unit.

infinity plus: And there's also the question, which I liked seeing, of feeling that you've made a mistake, feeling you can remedy it -- that it can be fixed for the right amount of money, with the right doctor's expertise. But that's not always a desirable way to handle your mistakes.

Gary Braver: No, but isn't that what our culture is all about? We're not shocked anymore by innovation. We live in such a highly technical time, we almost expect science to come up with solutions that we feel entitled to. And I think that's part of the expectation: 'Oh, science can do that: We don't want a kid with black eyes, we want a kid with blue eyes,' and you genetically catalogue-order your next child. I think that's become part of the ignorance of our society -- that we expect so much of intelligence.

infinity plus: Too much information...

Gary Braver: Exactly, more information than we have the wisdom to use.

infinity plus: Last summer you may have seen the news reports about the 'ratbot,' a rat kitted out with remote-controlled electrodes in its brain that made it turn left or right, or encouraged it to carry out more complex actions by stimulating its pleasure center. Now, in the abstract, one might expect a suspense novel about enhanced human intelligence to feature some sort of computer chip or mechanical interface, like the robo-rat, but you went for a more organic approach.

Gary Braver: I wanted meat. I wanted the enhanced intelligence to deal strictly with meat -- gray matter -- as opposed to Elixir coverimplanting genes. I wanted something that was more viscerally recognizable, that [they] go in there and suck out lesions and tumors and put in associated stem cells, or other people's brain matter. I liked that it was more vivid as opposed to, 'Okay, it's genetics, and I don't understand genetics, so it's something microscopic that does it. Or, a computer chip which asks the reader to accept it the way the we accept going from VCRs to DVDs -- in other words, some innovation that makes this machine work better than the previous one. In Elixir, I chose that the life-prolonging molecule comes from a rain forest flower rather than the result of gene-splicing wizardry. Also, taking brain matter out of a poor, brilliant kid and putting it into the head of a rich, dumb kid creates a nice allegorical tug-of-war that summons up some interesting moral and social issues.

infinity plus: There are lots of social issues to be found in your books. In fact, the idea of meritocracy that you mentioned before, and you examine in your book: Martin, the father, says 'Life is hard, but it's harder if you're stupid.' That reduces the idea of merit, though, doesn't it?

Gary Braver: But that's his more rarified view and a reflection of his narrow habitation in society. He works with brilliant people, and he sees them as being rewarded because he gets the smarter people, the more capable people, the better jobs, the better salaries -- so he is part of the meritocracy. He runs one little corner of it. But that's not necessarily the statement for the whole of society: obviously, these are products of a work ethic. [Another view is that] you work toward gaining merit in a moral way instead of just an intellectual way. It's your reward for being a nice person rather than just a smart person.

infinity plus: Do you see us as living in a meritocracy as opposed to a democracy? If so, is that a good thing? Is it a socially dangerous thing?

Gary Braver: Yeah, here we are sitting in the Harvard Faculty Club...

infinity plus: Discussing meritocracy.


Gary Braver: I think we do live in a meritocracy to a certain extent, because, you know, statistics show that people with higher I.Q.s and higher education are those who get the better jobs; and if 'better' is a measure of finance, then that seems to be true. I mean, I can imagine myself being very, very smart, and being very happy as a forest ranger who probably makes $18,000 a year. To the outside, it doesn't seem to be the result of a meritocracy, where I would be rewarded. But rewards are slippery: Rewards can be personal. That's part of what I'm trying to say in this book: You don't have to be a genius to have a happy life. You can accomplish 'small' things and still feel the reward.

One of the sticking points I try to bring up in this book is that intelligence is not just verbal and math aptitudes. Intelligence is emotional intelligence, it is spatial intelligence -- I mean, Michael Jordan puts his body through space as few human beings can do; and Tom Brady can move a football in a way that distinguishes him from most others. There are ballet dancers who have a kind of spatial intelligence. You don't have to score high on an SAT or an I.Q. test to be a great painter or a great musician. Likewise, we don't have tests for emotional intelligence where you pick up cues from other people, you feel compassion toward others, you understand their needs.

infinity plus: Culturally, our society seems to look at intelligence in a schizophrenic way. We accept the image of Albert Einstein as a kindly and benevolent genius, but we seem to concentrate more on the idea of Hannibal Lecter: that the very smart guy might actually be deranged and dangerous. Gray Matter plays with those conflicting views of genius: there's the meritocracy we were discussing and then there's the way your characters turn out, the enhanced kids with serious psychological problems, and the evil genius who gave them those extra I.Q. points, Dr. Malenko.

Gary Braver: I wanted to have a warning in the book about artificially making geniuses. They could not come out just being brilliant sweethearts. So my choices were to make them brilliant but also to have their behavior and emotional makeup altered in some repugnant ways -- the downside. I thought of the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers: We have these aliens who are brilliant, but they're all mind-linked and brutal, driven by Darwinian urges to take over. I didn't want that [for Gray Matter], but I liked the message in that story. What makes Kilian Melloy human is that not only are you an intelligent being, but you are an emotional being. And what distinguishes us from the robo-rats or any other sentient or semi-sentient creature is that we do have an emotional life, we have a conscience. I liked the notion of them being cold, so I made one person, Nicole, very cold. I also wanted to make her part of the meritocracy in the standard, narrow definition: 'I'm smart, I deserve higher grades, I'm Numero Uno.' So I made her craven and driven for good grades, in part to reflect her parents pushing her. I want to have the guilt spread around: She ain't just this brilliant kid who's cold and wants to get an 'A'. She's pressured by her parents. So the book also makes a statement on that kind of parental conduct.

infinity plus: Plus, she's beautiful.

Gary Braver: Plus she's beautiful and uses that beauty to exploit others. I made Brendan asexual and unemotional but someone who wishes he could cry, wishes he could feel, wishes he could love, he could feel horror. Either the needles going in or pulling out somehow screwed him up when he was surgically enhanced. Then there's something in-between, in that little girl Lucinda who puts other kids down and kills small animals. These examples of emotional dysfunction constitute the downside to enhancement, the warning part that by doing you might end up confronted by the unknown 'X' factors.

[For] Malenko, I needed some background. There's always a danger of creating a cardboard punch-out, a Victor Frankenstein type who just does things without ethical foresight or a soul. So I needed some baggage for that character. I decided to have him come from the Ukraine where he was brutalized; and I had to have that brutalization connect thematically to the rest of the book. Thus, I made him brilliant but also half-Jewish so that he was tormented by some of the obnoxious, dumber kids in his Ukrainian village -- bullies who beat him up resulting in losing his eye. The resulting psychological damage made him cold and egomaniacal and lacking in compassion. Also, he's traumatized from the brutal conditions of communist Russia, where he lost everything, and therefore he's driven to have as much material comfort and money as possible. So that made for the dark side and the downside. One is the result of bad brain surgery -- these kids. And the other is bad conditioning. One is nature -- tampered nature -- and the other is nurture.

Now, there is no psychoanalysis for Hannibal Lecter, which is part of the mystery of what makes this guy a monster. To have done that for Malenko would have been to re-do, poorly, Thomas Harris' maniacal monster -- thus I gave Malenko the background he has. What makes Hannibal Lecter so fascinating is that we don't know what made him what he is. When Clarice Starling asks him, 'What happened to you?' -- that is, what made him a psychopathic cannibal? he says to her -- it's one of the best lines in that book -- 'What makes you think that something happened to me?' That is, 'What makes you think I wasn't just born this way: without the sweetness gene?' And that suggestion (nature over nurture) is what makes him forever mysterious -- always at arm's length from us mere mortals, who do have compassion.

infinity plus: I thought the background you invented for Malenko was clever in that it allowed you to touch on another global concern -- the threat that comes from expertise and materials leaking from the former Soviet Union into the wrong hands, where it can be applied toward harmful uses.

Gary Braver: I never thought about that. Yeah.

infinity plus: If it was an accident, it blended in beautifully with the themes of the book just the same.

Gary Braver: Good. It was intentional!


infinity plus: It isn't just in Gray Matter that you explore social issues. As you mentioned, in Elixir you look at a man who finds he has the option of extending his life indefinitely. But then in the course of Elixir, that one man's option creates a huge problem -- an international conflict arises, because third world countries already feel exploited and only live half as long as people in industrialized countries. In the novel Rough Beast, you examine the issue of toxic waste dumping. When writing your books, do you think about social problems you want to explore and then find a suitable scientific angle to develop into a story? Or do you start with the scientific suspense element and then think about how to relate it to the social reaction it might create?

Gary Braver: All of that. I ideally try to find a scientific what-if that would have social implications, and if I've found one, definitely [I run with it] -- that is the scientific MacGuffin for my book.

infinity plus: What are you playing with now for ideas for future books?

Gary Braver: I'm working on a book called Flashback. I was looking for a big idea, and this kind of brought me back to Elixir. If looking for the Elixir of [extending] life would be the number one Holy Grail for the pharmaceutical industry, probably the number two Holy Grail would be the cure for Alzheimer's. I don't mean just stopping the gumballing of your neurons, I mean reversing neurological dysfunction -- regaining memory. So Flashback is about the discovery by a pharmaceutical company that is on the threshold of this trillion-dollar molecule, a miracle cure for Alzheimer's disease. I won't say much about it, but if you were Steven Spielberg and I were pitching this story to you, the log line would be something like this: 'If you could relive your childhood, would you? What if you had no choice?' I'm now working on the social issue aspect of that. The message is, Don't stop your researching of Alzheimer's and trying to cure it. But [the downside] is going to be that we may be rushing into something that has consequences we didn't anticipate. It's more of an indictment of the pharmaceutical race to be there first. That's part of what the story is about. That's all I'll say about it.

infinity plus: Speaking of Spielberg, when we spoke before, in the interview when Elixir had just been published, I thought you had said there was some interest in the story from Hollywood?

Gary Braver: Yeah, Elixir had been optioned, then re-optioned by Ridley Scott, but, alas, they passed. Somebody said they made 'Hannibal' instead. I don't even know if they made anything in place of [Elixir], but they didn't renew the option after the second year. There is interest again, I'm not sure who it is, and my Hollywood agent is wise not to tell me so as not to get me all jumping up and down. There is interest in Gray Matter as well.

infinity plus: I've noticed you like to drop references to other books you've written into your works -- you hint at Atlantis Fire in The Stone Circle and have a little plug for Elixir in Gray Matter. Do you envision ever bringing characters from different books together in any story you might tell in the future?

Gary Braver: Not really, but it's an interesting idea.

infinity plus: It sounds from what you were saying earlier like you spend a certain amount of time researching the social aspects of your novels -- aside from the research into molecular biology or chemistry, you want to try to determine what would be a realistic social impact for your scientific MacGuffins.

Gary Braver: Yes, to all of that. The science -- the pseudo-science, I think I've got that all worked out. Stuff is lined up in real science that would allow me to get from here to there and sound like it could happen. The social stuff I'm still in the process of exploring.

infinity plus: Gary, would you mind saying a little about the process you go through to determine what the likely social reactions in your books should be? Do you look at historical precedent for technological innovation and the response people had? Do you look at the highly charged nature of today's political climate, and contemplate what various 'identity politics' factions would have to say?

Gary Braver: Both of those. I consider the attitudes and consequences of scientific innovation in the past. I also consider the political and scientific climate of today. But foremost I consider how those innovations could affect my family and me since I'm always dealing with individuals who have families. To me that's where change matters the most -- how it affects ordinary people. And my readers are ordinary people.

infinity plus: Do you hope to one day jump out of the medical suspense genre?

Gary Braver: I'm running out of big ideas!

infinity plus: Maybe you could go back to the archaeology suspense genre some time?

Gary Braver: Oh, I love archaeology. I've thought that down the line I might return to a story with an archaeological slant and somehow tie it in with biology -- you know, some ancient microbe. I'm just now making this up as I go along, but as in The Hot Zone it could begin with an archaeological excavation that leads to a discovery of something biological from years ago. Thus, we could have both of those disciplines in the same adventure.

infinity plus: So we only thought we had figured out what happened to the Anasazi. Maybe we didn't realize there was more to the story.

Gary Braver: There we go! I'm going to have to footnote you, Kilian. Archaeology -- I'm fascinated with it. It's always beyond your reach. It's not quite a science as the other disciplines -- there's always those wonderful unknowns, the human cultural stuff that you can't put in a Petri dish or inspect under a microscope. There's always a black box that's a lot bigger than the black boxes of biology or physics.

Gray Matter cover
Elixir (2000) and Gray Matter (2002) are published in the US by Forge.

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