Friday, March 6, 2015

Interview with Janet Greger

As a professor in biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Janet Greger honed her story-telling skills as she lectured to bleary-eyed students at 8:30 in the morning. She says that her students remembered chemical reactions better when the instructor attached stories to the processes. 

Now she has two great passions—her Japanese Chin dog, Bug, and travel. She has included both in her novels: Coming FluMurder: A New Way to Lose WeightIgnore the Pain, and Malignancy. You can learn more about her at her website: and blog (JL Greger’s Bugs): She will also answer question directed to: The International Guy of Mystery interviewed her through a surgical mask in a secret laboratory.

IGM:     If you had to give a quick, one-sentence description of your novel to a Hollywood mogul, what would you say?

JG: Feel the tension as a woman scientist tries to escape the clutches of a drug lord in New Mexico and accepts a risky assignment for the U.S. State Department in Cuba in Malignancy.

IGM:   What inspired you to write it?

JG: As a professor in biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I consulted on scientific and educational issues in several developing countries—the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon. I enjoyed these trips, but they were not vacations. They were hard work and challenging. On each assignment, I stumbled onto tidbits of information, which might have been useful to individuals in the State Department. I never divulged or acted on the secrets I learned, but I thought what if? 

In Ignore the Pain, the prequel to Malignancy, my heroine, Sara Almquist, travels to Bolivia, for USAID to advise on public health problems. I’ve been to Bolivia and tried to paint a realistic picture of the poverty, malnutrition among children, and pollution from the silver mines. In the course of her work, Sara learns way too much about the coca trade. I don’t want to give away the plot, but she attracts the attention of U.S. State department officials.

In 2013, I visited Cuba. The tour guide claimed Cuban scientists had patented a drug for cancer. When I got home, I found researchers in Havana had patented a therapeutic cancer vaccine, which was supposed to rev up patients’ own immune systems to produce cells to slay certain lung cancer cells without injuring normal cells. This patent suggests two aspects of change in Cuba. At least several Cuban scientists are doing competitive science. The Cuban government recognized the importance of commercialization of their research. In June 2014, the president of AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) requested the U.S. government to sponsor scientific exchanges with Cuba. (Editorial “in the journal Science on June 6, 2014.)

I thought: Wow! Sara Almquist, the epidemiologist and heroine of Ignore the Pain, would be the perfect protagonist to set up exchanges between scientists in the U.S. and Cuba. Thus Malignancy was born.

IGM:    How did you come up with the title?

JG: I wanted a title for my novel, Malignancy, to suggest the importance of medical research to the plot. I also thought the drug trade, from which Sara if fleeing, is a type of societal malignancy.

IGM:    What gives you the most joy as a writer?

JG: I enjoy the story telling process and feel real satisfaction when I reread a section and know I’ve told a realistic and compelling incident.

IGM: What is the hardest thing about writing?

JG: Proofing the novel over and over again for typos and inconsistencies.

IGM: Tell a little about your process. Did you know how it should end before you started?

JG: Before I began to write, I created about five pages of points I wanted to include in Malignancy. Accordingly, I knew part, but not all, of the conclusions of the book. I didn’t know how the romantic part of the plot would be resolved.

IGM: Pretend you are fielding a baseball team with your favorite writers. List them by position.

Pitcher: Wallace Stegner
Outfielders with best batting averages: J. K. Rowling, Ernest Hemingway, Ken Follett
Catcher: Thomas Mann
Basemen: Michael Crichton, John Grisham. Fannie Flagg
Shortstop: Erich Maria Remarque

IGM: That is a great lineup! I can see Stegner shaking off Mann's pessimistic signals. OK:   Pretend your book is being made into a movie. What actors would play the lead characters? 

JG: Marcia Gay Hardin would be the ideal Sara Almquist—tough, smart, and attractive but not gorgeous. I patterned Xave Zack, Sara’s love interest, to be like the late Denis Farina.

IGM: Tell me more about Malignancy and Ignore the Pain.

JG: In Malignancy, men disguised as police officers shoot at Sara Almquist twice in one day. Albuquerque police suspect a drug czar, who Sara has tangled with several times, will order more hits on Sara. Thus when colleagues in the State Department invite Sara to arrange scientific exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba, she jumps at the chance to get out of town and to see the mysterious Xave Zack. Maybe, she should question their motives.

In Ignore the Pain, Sara Almquist couldn’t say no when invited to be the epidemiologist on a public health mission to assess children’s health in Bolivia. Soon someone from her past is chasing her through the Witches’ Market and churches of La Paz. Unfortunately, she can’t decide which of her new colleagues, especially the shady Xave Zack, to trust as she learns more about the coca trade than she ever wanted to know.

Malignancy and Ignore the Pain are available (paperback and Kindle formats) at Amazon and and at Oak Tree Press:


1 comment:

  1. Thanks John for hosting me. I hope I've given readers a view of Bolivia (in Ignore the Pain) and Cuba (in Malignancy) that gives them insights into international science diplomacy. It's not just a bunch of old men talking about abstract ideas.