Some really really fun questions authors get to ask!!!

Today I get to welcome Douglas E. Richards to my blog. He's the (New York Times best-selling!) author of a string of fast-paced sci-fi thrillers, including Wired, Amped, and, just released, The Cure. So, if you've ever wondered what goes on in the mind of a writer, and how they turn those scary ideas into stories, well... read on.

And thank you Douglas for visiting my blog.

Fun Questions Authors Get to Ask
“How can I poison this city’s water supply?”
by Douglas E. Richards

I write thrillers with accurate science and science fictional elements (in the tradition of Michael Crichton). I strive to make them fast paced, action packed, full of twists and turns, and with enough philosophy, ethics, and groundbreaking science to provide readers with plenty of food for thought. But above all, I strive for accuracy. Most of my research involves reading dozens of books, magazines, and journal articles—along with extensive research using the Internet, the most incredible resource in the history of the world.

But the really fun part of my job is when I get to do research by speaking with actual humans. The first time I did this was many years ago, when I was a biotech executive at BMS in Princeton and was writing my first novel (which, alas, I never finished).  I needed my villain to poison the water supply of an entire city, but I didn’t have the faintest idea how this might be accomplished. So I called up the guy who runs the water treatment facility in Trenton, New Jersey, on the banks of the Delaware. I took a deep breath and explained that I was an aspiring author and what I wanted. “If I brought over three or four pizzas for you and your team, do you think I could swing by during lunch and get a tour of the facility? And, um . . . you know, your advice on how to poison the water supply?” 

Now this was before 9/11 happened, but still—I half expected him to hang up and report me to the FBI. Several seconds passed. I thought he was weighing the pros and cons of telling a stranger how to kill millions of people. But I was wrong. He was pondering what pizzas he wanted. “Okay,” he said. “How about two cheese, and two pepperoni.” 

The tour was amazing. Taking water from a river, purifying it, and adding chlorine was a fascinating process and I took notes for a full hour. “What if the bad guy dumps a huge amount of poison right at the intake valve?” I said. “Where the water from the Delaware is sucked into the plant?” 

He shook his head. “Why dilute it that much?” he replied. “In fact, if you add the poison anywhere in the purification process, you lose punch along the way. I would just dump it in the reservoir. Because from there, the water goes directly to people’s faucets.”

I nodded. “How heavily is the reservoir guarded?” I asked, my pen poised above my notebook. 

“It’s not. There’s a fence around it, but it’s easy to climb. So easy that every summer we find local kids swimming in the reservoir. So you could dump your poison in there without being caught, no problem.”

I swallowed hard. This was troubling. It shouldn’t be that easy. And wait a minute, kids were swimming in the reservoir? “Didn’t you say this water goes directly to faucets? So how do you re-clean it after the kids swim in it?”

He shook his head. “We don’t. It still meets the parts per million purity requirement.”

My lip curled up in disgust. “Good to know,” I said evenly.

For my book, AMPED, I wanted a character to ambush another character on a yacht. But I knew nothing about marinas or yachts. So I called up a marina in Orange County. By then, I was a New York Times bestselling author, which was awesome, because it really helped me get accomplished scientists and others to chat with me. I explained to the person in charge of the marina who I was, and that I wanted to know how the many yachts moored to their docks were protected, and the best way to set up an ambush on one. Seconds later I was listening to a dial tone.

The marina expert had hung up on me.

Wow, buy a guy some pizza and he’ll tell you how to kill millions. But even if you’re a New York Times bestselling author, people are very touchy about revealing the secrets of yacht ambushing. (The good news is that I called another marina and got the help I was after)

Which brings me to my latest novel, THE CURE, which was just released. Allow me to take a moment to give you the gist of this novel:

Erin Palmer had a devastating encounter with a psychopath as a child. Now a grad student and scientist, she’s devoting her life to studying these monsters. When her research catches the attention of Hugh Raborn, a brilliant neuroscientist who claims to have isolated the genes responsible for psychopathic behavior, Erin realizes it may be possible to reverse the condition, restoring souls to psychopaths. But to do so, she'll not only have to operate outside the law, but violate her most cherished ethical principles. As Erin becomes further involved with Raborn, she begins to suspect that he harbors dark secrets. Is he working for the good of society? Or is he intent on bringing humanity to its knees? 

I got the idea for this novel after reading startling new research showing the brains of psychopaths differed from non-psychopaths, possibly accounting for their absolute selfishness, ruthlessness, and lack of conscience. I was intrigued. It seems we're in the middle of an epidemic of these monsters. 

I wondered, if psychopathy is related to brain structure, what if someone found a way to diagnose it remotely? Would society be justified in monitoring psychopaths? Even before they’ve committed any crimes? And even more intriguing, what if you could cure this condition? While answers to these questions seemed straightforward, the deeper I dug, the more unexpected complexities I found.

At that point I called Dr. Mike Koenigs at the University of Wisconsin Medical School. This is a researcher who goes into prisons and conducts brain scans on psychopathic murderers and rapists. Really. It was one of the most fascinating conversations I have ever had. They park a trailer on prison grounds with an MRI machine inside. “So when the guards bring you psychopaths to scan, are they wearing Hannibal Lecter masks?” I asked him.

Dr. Koenigs laughed. “No masks,” he replied. 

“Are they just handcuffed? Or are they put in leg cuffs as well?” I asked. 

“No cuffs,” he said. “The prisoners aren’t restrained in any way.”

I shook my head in disbelief. I mean, these were only harmless psychopathic murderers and rapists, but still . . . you’d think you might want to take some precautions. “Okay,” I said, “so how many guards go with you into the back of the trailer?” 

“None,” he told me. 

“None? None! Are you kidding me? Are you out of your mind?”

Sixty minutes later when I hung up the phone, I knew I had to write this book. And I knew that much of this conversation would have to be in it. 

Final thought before I end this post. Writing novels can be brutally hard work, but also great fun. And one of the greatest things about it is that a big part of my job is to call experts and ask them crazy questions. And only once have I been stopped in pursuit of the truth. By my wife. 

My son attends the University of Arizona in Tucson, and part of THE CURE is set there. I happened to be in Tucson while writing a scene in which a character steals something from the U of A bookstore. Later that day, my wife and I were in this very bookstore, so she could shop for a sweatshirt.  “Wait here,” I told her. “I’m going to find the manager and ask her to walk me through the security system and tell me the best way to steal from this store.”

“Oh no you’re not,” said my wife immediately, looking horrified. 

I never did convince her to let me do it. Go figure. Good thing she wasn’t there when I was asking the manager of the water treatment plant how to poison an entire city. I guess she just underestimates how helpful some people are willing to be.

Author Bio:
Douglas E. Richards has been widely praised for his ability to weave action, suspense, and science into riveting novels that straddle the thriller and science fiction genres. He is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of WIRED, its sequel, AMPED, THE CURE, and six critically acclaimed middle-grade adventures enjoyed by kids and adults alike.

A former biotech executive, Richards earned a BS in microbiology from the Ohio State University, a master's degree in genetic engineering from the University of Wisconsin (where he engineered mutant viruses now named after him), and an MBA from the University of Chicago.

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