By Ethan Cross
Publisher’s Weekly stated that author John C. Boland “excels in rendering epiphanies.” And his new novel, Hominid, is no exception as it explores evolution, genetics, archaeology, and a centuries-old mystery.
Evolution is Deadly. Archaeologist David Isaac joins a team excavating a crypt on a remote island where a colonial-era family lies buried. By local lore, the family were “devils.” The expedition’s leader hopes to revive his career by proving they were murdered by neighbors in a burst of religious hysteria. But these cadavers harbor an older and deadlier secret–evidence that a new humanoid species has emerged.
I recently had an opportunity to interview the author.
Many of your past books have been mysteries. How would you classify Hominid? Mystery, thriller, scientific thriller, etc?
Hominid is a science thriller that develops as a series of mysteries: what happened among early colonists on Ewell Island? why were three of them buried in lead-shrouded coffins? why were a four-year-old child and her father murdered? why is the mother’s coffin empty? who is sponsoring the island excavation and why? The big question comes a bit later, and it concerns deviations in the child’s DNA from the normal human genome.
Is Hominid entirely fictional or is it based upon actual local lore and legend?
It’s fiction with many factual reference points—starting with the discovery in St. Marys City, Maryland, twenty years ago of three lead coffins buried in a church dating from the 1660s. The use of lead coffins wasn’t uncommon in England, but it taxed the resources of an early American colony. So the reality was fascinating. I shifted the location to a nearby island, where St. Marys dissidents in fact had settled, and created the “local lore” that the buried family were viewed in 1700 as “devils.”
Where does “science faction” end and “science fiction” begin within the novel?
Publishers Weekly called the novel “science fiction,” but I don’t regard it as such. The science is well-grounded. The key speculation is fictional, but it’s also consistent with everything we know about Darwinian evolution. The pressure on scientific research by government is also factual—as is the misuse of science by government and other institutions, witness the eugenics movement in the United States that led to forced sterilizations. So there’s a very dangerous mix of competing interests and beliefs.
Hominid deals with the discovery of a new humanoid species through the unearthing of some colonial-era cadavers. Is the book focused upon the mystery of what happened in the past or are there current dangers that arise because of the discovery?
The dangers appear in the first chapter, when a young archaeologist is killed in the deep excavation and the main character almost loses his life. It gets worse. The story occurs entirely in the present. The role of the past is to provide evidence of what has been happening for perhaps millennia, unseen and unsuspected: the development of a human variant that threatens to supplant us. This raises the philosophical and moral question: Threatened by extinction, would we stand aside and let evolution take its course? Or would Homo sapiens sapiens launch an extermination campaign against the newcomer?
What kind of research did you do for your new book?
The research was fun. I visited genetic testing labs. In New York, I toured Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. I read dozens of books on evolution and speciation. The challenge was to keep the research OUT of the novel—the idea was to tell a good story that wasn’t inconsistent with what is known. There is a reading list at the back of the book in case anyone is interested in this fast-moving branch of science.
Was there anything particularly interesting that you discovered during your research that didn’t make it into the novel or something that you’d like to highlight?
The key thing made it in, and I’m intrigued by it. That is, how plausible the idea is of a human mutation developing within an island population, and secondly how rapidly evolution occurs under strong selection. There’s a fellow at the University of Chicago whose work suggests that one very useful gene, the “lactase” gene that permits adults to metabolize milk, has penetrated most of the European population in about seven thousand years. I speeded things up for the novel, but I wonder by how much? We had a tiny hominid cousin, Homo floresiensis, living in Indonesia as recently as thirteen thousand years ago. I’d better add right now that Hominid isn’t a treatise on evolution: it’s a thriller, full of immediate conflict, a love story, and a lot of mayhem. I really laid on the mayhem.
What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books/authors and who has had the greatest influence upon your own work?
Right now, in truth, for some reason I’m reading the old Perry Masons. They’re almost straightforward “story.” I can picture Della Street from the TV series, but Gardner sure doesn’t tell us what she looks like. I liked the early Dick Francis novels a great deal, probably for bad reasons: there was quite a dollop of sadism in them, but the hero always pushed ahead, and the romantic subplots appealed to me, especially in Nerve. I loved some of Geoffrey Household’s thrillers: The Courtesy of Death (which also has an archaeological aspect) and Dance of the Dwarfs. Intelligent, elegantly written thrillers. Among contemporary writers, I admire John Sandford and Lee Child, both of whom produce smooth, fast-moving prose. On the science front, I’m reading a superb book by Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth, which should be part of every high school science curriculum.
What’s something that you’ve learned about the publishing business that you weren’t expecting?
That sixty or more literary agents can decline to represent a novel that gets a starred review in Publishers Weekly.
Do you have any advice for aspiring (or struggling) writers out there?
They should read the answer to the preceding question. It cuts two ways. And for heaven’s sake, develop a good income outside this field.
Are you currently working on a new book? Can we get a sneak peek?
I spend a fair amount of time writing short stories for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. One novel I’m tinkering with is altogether different from Hominid. It’s called The Man Who Knew Brecht, has an artist heroine, and deals with murder growing out of old far-left political activity. (And apropos the previous question: if you want to self-sabotage a writing career, write novels that explore widely different themes and settings. I’ve found this technique works very well.)
John C. Boland’s short fiction has been appearing in Alfred Hitchcock’s and other magazines for thirty-five years. He is the author of about a dozen novels, under his own name and pseudonyms, from St. Martin’s, Pocket, and Perfect Crime. A nonfiction book, Wall Street’s Insiders, was published by William Morrow. His shorter nonfiction appeared for a number of years in Barron’s, The (Sunday) New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.
To learn more about John, please visit his website.