Debut Author Scores with Medical Thriller
Shanon Hunt thought enough of this quote from George Eliot to put it at the top of her website: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”
A pharmaceutical industry executive for 15 years, Hunt has parlayed a powerful gene-editing mechanism called CRISPR with her own experience of cutting-edge medical advances into an edge-of-your-seat debut suspense thriller called THE PAIN COLONY (Narrow Ledge Publishing).
Let’s hope it’s not her last.
Hunt’s masterfully plotted and sequenced DNA-focused narrative with both good- and bad-intentioned characters attests to the durability of and fascination with the medical thriller genre, riding a 40-year wave of commercial prominence triggered by Robin Cook’s Coma and Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. Her work shows that even a debut author with a strong sense of craft can successfully crack the category.
The genre’s formula is to describe a medical breakthrough, project how it could be used in the future to advance or exploit society, and then wrap it around a nail-biting page-turner you can’t put down.
My nails are an indicator of whether THE PAIN COLONY succeeds.
“We live in an age where scientific and technical advances can, and frequently do, outpace our ability as a society to fully understand their future implications,” Hunt says. “This book pushes not only the boundaries of what’s technically possible in the very near future but also what’s ethically and morally acceptable.”
At the heart of the story is a drug that alters people’s DNA engineering such that they are immune to pain. We first learn about it at a conference presentation by Dr. Austin Harris, discussing it as an exciting journey into gene therapy. He is assisted in his lecture by his right-hand person Allison Stevens, who talks from the heart about a young patient who has progressed from a wheelchair to running in the playground with other children.
But how noble and well meaning is Harris’s work? One has to wonder when, during a post-lecture celebratory drink, he is suddenly arrested and whisked off by FBI agents. And how much does Stevens know?
Meanwhile, Drug Enforcement Agency Special Agent Peter Malloy is tasked with investigating the cause of six mysterious deaths. The victims, all athletic, seemingly tried to extend the limits of their physical abilities far beyond the norm and far beyond what they were even aware of. Did a pain-masking treatment reduce their tolerance for pain and as a result put them in harm’s way?
And what about the strange dark cult referred to as the Colony? Participants welcome physical pain as a crucial therapy to help them recall their “poisoned past”—which has been wiped from their memory—in order to free themselves from it and attain purity. The Colony is described through the voice of Layla, a patient who struggles to remember, embraces her treatment, works to please her staff of doctors and mentors, and hopes to reach the next stage of her life in harmony.
The Colony’s mantra: “With pain comes peace.”
Hunt, in her preface to the book, offers three definitions for the word “colony,” with the third being “an experimental unit of animals, typically housed together for the purpose of selective breeding.” Just saying.
If you’re intimidated by books with medical or technical explanations, fear not. Hunt does a great job of making these important nuggets very readable and understandable to the layperson. Even one of the experts, Dr. Jennings, talks down to the non-scientific level when he starts out, “You probably remember in Bio 101 that all cells in our body contain DNA…” And as he gets more detailed, he’ll stop and say, “With me so far?” as if talking directly to me—a former lousy biology student.
As you follow the book’s three threads and watch them develop, you figure they will come together at some point. While Hunt writes satisfyingly to advance the plot and its characters, she doesn’t waste words, and every action and utterance has a purpose.
As a first-time novelist, Hunt’s primary hope was that she could put together a fast-paced yarn with twists and stunning revelations—the goal, I imagine, of any suspense writer. Hunt has succeeded in spades. If you replaced her name on the cover with one of the genre’s iconic authors and put this title on the front table of any bookstore, I’m convinced sales would soar.
You know, maybe you won’t even have to replace her name.
We had the chance to interview the author for further insight into her work.
As a longtime pharmaceutical executive, how and why did you make the transition to becoming an author?
It was a bumpy transition for sure. When I left my pharma job, I didn’t have a plan for what I would do next. I waffled between looking for another pharma job and consulting. Then I found what I thought was my purpose in life—building puzzle rooms (escape rooms). I spent several months on this project, had a blast, and then realized it was nothing more than a hobby.
Still, I had one customer—a biotech company—who was interested in contracting with me to build a puzzle room for their employees. Something relevant to their business, which was—yep, you guessed it—CRISPR.
I began doing research in CRISPR with the intention of building a story around that science to incorporate into a puzzle room. Several days into it, I had a thought: This would make a much better book than a puzzle room.
I sat down at my computer, typed out a chapter, and showed it to my husband. Every day I did the same thing. It wasn’t until I’d done this for a few weeks before I finally committed to the novel.
The Pain Colony is chock-full of medical descriptions and explanations. How much did you know from your pharma experience and how much did you have to research to get it right?
My expertise over my career was in early clinical development (patient studies). Everything that Allison knew came easy to me. But to write Jordan Jennings (the hipster geneticist) was extremely difficult. My research into CRISPR Cas9, DNA nanotechnology, and the genes associated with pain, memory, sleep, etc., was extensive. Literally hours every day. I am extremely fortunate to have a scientist for a husband.
The book has many twists and turns. Did you have everything mapped out from the get-go or did you wing it as you went?
I wrote the story by the seat of my pants, every day a new scene thought up that morning while hiking with my dog. I collected every scene in color-coordinated Post-it notes on my walls. Since there were three stories going concurrently, it was challenging to get the scene placement just right. My wall helped me see the big picture and move scenes around.
There are many unique and well-defined characters in the book—Layla at the Colony, Allison, Austin, Malloy at the DEA. Did they derive from people you know in real life?
With the exception of my protagonist Allison, who I can only agree is too much like my younger self, all of my characters were entirely made up people who lived in my head and developed organically with each scene. Each one started out a bit amorphous—blurry and faceless, and with each scene they became more and more clear. Their actions and language became obvious until they were as real to me as my own family. It’s super creepy. A typical dinner conversation: “Can we talk about Layla for a minute? Because she’s in trouble, and I don’t know how to help her out.”
What writers have inspired you and influenced your work?
Dan Brown, first and foremost. I had tried to write a Dan Brown-style puzzle book. Transitioning from my escape room idea, I wanted to write a puzzle that the reader solves along with the character. But as soon as I learned about the concept of dramatic irony as a technique to heighten suspense, I knew I wanted to take that approach. One great big puzzle for which several characters each get a few pieces. And if only they’d come together!
I’ve also been inspired by the Stieg Larsson Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. The books were complex, with several POV characters and a story that weaved between them.
What’s your next project?
A sequel to THE PAIN COLONY, set in 2023. Layla continues on as a powerful leader at the Colony. But the world is a different place, and the Colony has evolved with a special position and purpose in society. This story will have a bit more of a dystopian feel, and I’m hoping it will be as chilling and thought-provoking as THE PAIN COLONY.
Shanon Hunt was a pharmaceutical executive for 15 years before turning her attention to writing. When she’s not plotting her next story, she enjoys being tormented by her Frisbee-obsessed Australian shepherd, hiking the wilds of northern New Jersey. She lives in suburban New Jersey with her husband Steve and their two teenage sons.
To learn more about the author and her work, please visit her website.
This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet: