Today’s special guest is Australian scientist and science fiction author, Melissa Jane Ferguson! I met Melissa recently at Swancon, where we did a panel together on the implications of immortality. I thought Melissa’s book, The Shining Wall, sounded great, so I just had to get her onto the blog for a chat about it. So let’s get stuck in, shall we?
Melissa, how did you come to be a writer? Was it always something you were interested in or did you fall into it?
I loved writing as a child, but I gave up for many years as I pursued an education and a career as a scientist. When I was in my early 30s I had my first child and subsequently suffered some health problems that made me reassess my priorities. I took the opportunity to complete a short evening course in creative writing. At first my writing was mostly memoir and realism and was a therapeutic exercise that helped me work through the events of a difficult couple of years. Then one day I’d had enough of that and started writing fantasy and science fiction and began having a lot more fun. Slowly, writing took over my life.
What were your favourite books/films/shows growing up? What kick-started your creativity?
As a child my mum used to take me to the mobile library bus at the local shopping centre every week. I read everything in the children’s section that looked like fantasy. I don’t remember the names of all the authors, but I do remember C.S. Lewis, Joan Aiken, Roald Dahl, and Susan Cooper. Some of my favourite films as a child were Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The NeverEnding Story, and The Dark Crystal. On television I loved She-Ra and Monkey.
I LOVE The Dark Crystal and grew up watching Monkey Magic too!
Your first novel The Shining Wall, has just been released. Congrats! Can you tell us a bit about it and what inspired you to write it?
The Shining Wall is set in a futuristic society where the divide between rich and poor has resulted in the emergence of a walled corporate run city surrounded by slums. There is advanced technology such as brain implants and also Neandertals have been cloned as a cheap labour force with none of the rights of Homo Sapiens. The story follows a young woman called Alida who lives in the slums as well as Shuqba a cloned Neandertal security officer. Their story unfolds as the unsustainable civilization around them collapses.The main question I was asking was: ‘What happens — especially to individuals, like Alida and Shuqba, who have no real power — when a society experiences extreme inequality?’
My initial inspiration came from the claim by Harvard geneticist, George Church, that it could soon be possible to clone Neandertals. I thought about why a society might bring back an extinct and closely related species of human, how they would employ them, and how individuals of this species would be treated, and The Shining Wall was born.
So, by night you’re an author, but by day you’re a cancer-fighting scientist. Can you tell us about your work?
I’ve worked in medical and biological laboratories for many years. The majority of my time has been spent on cancer biology and treatments. In particular umbilical cord blood transplants for patients with blood cancers and related disorders. I’ve also worked in a brain tumour research laboratory and did some research related to bowel cancer.
It sounds like your day job filters into/inspires your writing. It seems a great career to be in to write science fiction!
Writing science fiction is a great way to mash together my love of fiction with my love of science and allows me to explore ideas and phenomena that fascinate me. My biological science background compels me to be as scientifically accurate as possible in my writing. Sometimes I think this can be a drawback and can stifle creativity. My pursuit of scientific plausibility in the Neandertal cloning techniques for The Shining Wall pushed me into the difficult domain of futurism, as I don’t believe we have the technology and expertise to pull it off just yet. Even though no details of the cloning technique appear in the story, I spent hours researching and know exactly how it might be done.
You have a strong interest in Neandertals. So, lay it on us, what’s your favourite depiction, if any, of ‘early humans’ in popular culture (books, films, tv). For example: Clan of the Cave Bear, Encino Man, etc.
I remember reading the Clan of the Cave Bear books when I was much younger. Jean M. Auel’s Neandertals are far more brutish than mine. This is probably due to them being based on the paleo-archaeological evidence available at the time. The more we learn about Neandertals the more apparent it becomes that they were very similar to us in terms of abilities and thinking.
My favourite Neandertal depiction is probably from Isaac Asimov’s 1958 story The Ugly Little Boy. Even though it was written so long ago, the child is portrayed as being intelligent and lovable and is closer to how I imagine my own fictional Neandertals.
You’ve written a bunch of short stories too. Do you have a preference for either format? How do you find the process of writing each?
My favourite format to read and write is the novella. I’ve pretty much given up on writing short stories now, as I don’t think I’m very good at it!
If you weren’t a writer, what would your dream job be? Do you have a secret passion we don’t know about?
I’ve always wanted to be a dietitian or a nutritionist. I began a Masters in Human Nutrition a few years ago, but it cut into my writing time too much and I exited with a certificate. If I wasn’t writing I would probably be trying to make a go of a career in nutrition.
What’s the one piece of advice you wish someone had told you when starting your writing career? What do you know now, that you wished you knew then?
To go with my instincts when something doesn’t feel right.
Amen! So, what can we expect from you next?
By the time I’d finished The Shining Wall I’d written three full-length novels in the space of five years. As a result, I felt the need to take on a more wieldy project, so I wrote a novella set in the world of The Shining Wall during 2018. It’s out on submission at the moment (fingers crossed). I’m currently working on what I think will become a full-length novel that features a post-apocalyptic Earth as well as a distant planet colonized by humans. My plan is to keep exploring ideas that interest me with the hope that other people find them interesting too.
Thanks for being my guest today, Melissa!
Readers, if you’d like to find out more about Melissa, you can do so here:
And you can buy her book here: