Mary E. Pearson spoke with Bookshelf about her forthcoming novel, The Adoration of Jenna Fox (Henry Holt), a thriller that explores the limits of medical technology and the depths of a parent's love for a child.
Your newest book, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, is set in a sort of dystopian America. Did you choose the futuristic setting to distinguish it from your previous books?
This could have been written in a present-day setting with some tweaks, but trying something new is challenging for me. The next book is new territory, too. I guess I’ll keep doing that until eventually I run out of new territory.
What struck me was all the world-building you had to do, like creating the World Seed Preservation Society (necessary because engineering to eliminate pests has wiped many original species from the planet) and inventing products like Bio Gel that test the limits of what medicine can do.
True, and I could have done research on all those topics forever. It’s a great delay tactic. With things like seed preservation, I searched online and read everything I could find about existing groups and then created an imaginary organization based on that. With the medicine, I loved reading about all the new frontiers, even if some of the science was over my head.
And then there’s the fact that the U.S. has just elected its first president of Nigerian descent, the second women president!
Initially, I thought it would be fun to refer to the first women president but then Hillary made me think I better change that, so I made it the second woman being elected. Fifty years in the future, I should hope we’ll be on our second women president, at least.
Was it intimidating to take on a topic that required so thorough an understanding of the possibilities of bioengineering?
Absolutely. I ran the idea by a friend, telling her I wanted to write a “near future” book about medicine and ethics [and] I was worried I couldn’t handle the science. I wanted the world to be believable but I had to be careful not to date the book and not to make it read like a science textbook. It required me to learn a lot of stuff about medical technology and ethics and then forget it so I could write the story.
What was the original spark for the story?
There were a lot of different inspirations but the biggest one was that my youngest daughter, Jessica, was diagnosed with cancer in 2000. As any parent would be, I was terrified. She was 17 years old. Spending all that time in the world of medicine and hospitals, I realized how incredibly lucky we were. Fifty years earlier she would have died from it. [Jessica, now cured, had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.] Now, there’s an excellent cure rate. So that got me thinking, what will medicine be capable of doing 50 years from now? And as she was going through the treatment, we met a lot of children who were far sicker, or who were tiny little babies. At least my daughter could talk to me. I spent a lot of time thinking about what those parents were going through and the question gnawed at me, “How far would a parent go to save a child?”
And yet in your future world there are some old standbys. Lily, Jenna’s grandmother, for instance, is a devout Catholic.
Catholicism has been around a long time. I imagine it’ll still be around 50 years from now. I’m not Catholic myself but I needed to ground the story in something spiritual so I could raise the issue of the soul. I used Lily’s Catholicism as a touchstone. I like exploring dilemmas and gray areas and ethical questions. One of the themes in the story is change. What we think is ethical today, we may not have thought ethical five or 10 years ago. Cloning, stem cell research? However we feel about those things today, we may feel differently 10 years from now.
And you may feel differently tomorrow if your child is the one who could benefit from that research.
Right. I hate to even bring this up because it sounds implausible, but I was about three-quarters of the way done with this manuscript when my other daughter, Karen, was diagnosed with the same cancer as Jessica. That diagnosis was practically my undoing.
Oh my gosh—what are the chances? Is it genetic?
It’s not! You can have a predisposition, but it’s one of those “northern Europeans have more of a tendency to get this” type of things.
I’m astonished that you have actually accomplished anything other than surviving, never mind completing a novel.
Karen and her husband were reading the manuscript as I was writing it and when she was diagnosed, I just stopped. I couldn’t go on. And it was Karen who said, “Mom, you have to finish this story,” and at some point her nagging clicked. I felt so helpless, I thought the least I could do was finish the book for her. And she’s so positive, her response was, “See, something good came out of this—I got you to finish your book!”
And is Karen recovered now, too?
Thank goodness. And not only did she get you to finish the book, but it’s going to be a movie. Tell us about that.
Rosemary [Stimola, Pearson’s literary agent] knows [film agent] Jason Dravis. She gave him the manuscript over a year ago. He fell in love with it and started the process of finding someone who would be interested in the film rights. At first, I was kind of skeptical, but he found several producers who were interested and now Julia Pistor has signed on as the producer, and Brad Silberling as director [film rights were optioned by 20th Century Fox]. I am totally blown away by this.
How involved do you think you’ll be in the project?
Jason has been really great about putting this together, wanting to make sure I was with like-minded people, which was really, really important to me. They are asking my opinion. I think they will include me as much as they can.
Have you already cast the principals in your head?
My daughters are doing that like crazy. And giving me music for the soundtrack. I have someone I’d like to see play Lily, but I’m not going to say who it is so I don’t jinx it.
I’m trying to imagine the movie posters—I’m guessing they will pitch it as a thriller?
The word “suspense” came up several times when we were talking. They want to reach adult audiences as well, so I think the adult characters’ roles will be upped a little bit in the screenplay.
Any word on who is going to write the screenplay?
There’s a name but it’s not official so I must remain silent on that.
So what’s next for you?
I have a manuscript that I’m almost done with but I’ve been saying that forever. I’m on what I think will be the second-to-last chapter. It’s a story about chance and coincidence. One of the things about my daughters’ illnesses: Not only did they both have the same kind of cancer, they were both diagnosed on the exact same date—January 19th—six years apart. So I wanted to think about chance, how it comes into lives, and how we deal with it.
The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson. Holt, $16.95, 978-0-8050-7668-4 ages 14-up