I like the idea of combining scientifically-based ideas with a fictional narrative as a way of conveying how fascinating science is to a wider audience.
Long Story, Short Journal presents the next instalment of our interview series: a conversation with Dr Richard Roche, author of our December 2015 story ‘Motorcycle is the Best Sauce’. Interview by Laura Perrem.
Laura Perrem: Where are you at the moment?
Richard Roche: I’m in my office in the Psychology Department in Maynooth University, which is about 40 minutes west of Dublin.
LP: You work and study in the field of neuroscience/neuropsychology, and have published extensively in these fields. Can you speak a little bit about how your creative writing practice began?
I always enjoyed creative writing back in school, but when you start to train as a scientist one of the key things you are taught is how to write scientifically, which is much more formal and pragmatic. So for about eight years, while I was completing my undergraduate and postgraduate studies, I did no creative writing at all, focusing instead on learning how to write good scientific papers. That’s not to say that there isn’t scope to write creatively and with imagination within science, but it’s a different animal with a different purpose.
But in terms of creative writing, I only started again in 2003 when I began the collaboration with Derek Fennell which eventually led to the novels. At that point I started a personal blog as a tool for writing practice, having seen how useful blogging can be from Derek’s own blog and that of our mutual friend Tony Cuddihy. So I had a long hiatus from creative writing, but I’ve been back to it pretty regularly since then.
LP: What does a ‘writing’ day look like for you?
RR: A writing day for me is usually a writing night, as I’m definitely an evening person. I have a little ritual whereby, when I decide or know I have to write something, I won’t start writing it there and then – I’ll often spend up to a week or two just thinking about what I need to say, mentally toying with different possible ways to express things, working through structures. Then I’ll deliberately not think about it for a few days. Finally, I’ll sit down to start writing it, and often it seems like during that period of not thinking about it, the words have almost sorted themselves out into a coherent order so that it becomes much easier to get them down on the page. It sounds strange but it works for me. I’ll usually have some music on in the next room while I’m writing so that it’s not too loud, and I’ll typically write until 2 or 3am, or until it’s finished.
LP: ‘Motorcycle is the Best Sauce’ is presented to us almost as a case study by a scientist/researcher. Is this character based on yourself?
RR: A little bit, yes—and I’m actually working on a case study of synaesthesia at the moment, which is probably where the idea of having the scientist in there came from (see below). But I’m also a synaesthete myself so there’s a trace of me in Simon’s character too. I don’t have as interesting a form of it as Simon though, I just have coloured days of the week, and also shapes and personalities for numbers. And the character’s name – Simon Foxe – is a nod to two neuroscientists who have studied synaesthesia, Profs John Foxe and Simon Baron-Cohen.
LP: What is it about synaesthesia that you find engaging?
RR: Well being a synaesthete myself definitely piqued my interest in it—I had never heard of the condition until my first week of university, so I had no idea that it was a well-studied phenomenon. It’s always interesting to try to study and understand the idiosyncrasies or people, but particularly so when the rare experience applies to you! And the number and variety of different types of synaesthesia – from coloured alphabets to tasting shapes or hearing colours – is remarkable, so understanding what is happening in the brains of synaesthetes is a huge challenge. But it’s a fascinating phenomenon also for what it can tell us about the brains of non-synaesthetes. In fact, there is an idea that everyone must be a little synaesthetic in order to use written language – we need to be able to connect a visual phenomenon (e.g. how the letter R looks) with an auditory sensation (e.g the sound of R). So it’s possible that the cross-wiring between sensory areas is present in everyone, but persists in synaesthetes while it diminishes in everyone else. If so, why is that the case? Synaesthesia throws up all sorts of interesting questions like this.
LP: Is Simon based on patients that you have worked with?
RR: No, he’s based pretty directly on James Wannerton, who’s mentioned in the story, and who the BBC documentary Derek Tastes of Earwax is about. He’s currently the President of the UK Synaesthesia Association. But at the moment I’m working with colleagues Kevin Mitchell and Francesca Farina on a case study of two rare synaesthetes who perceive colours for music and coloured auras for people, and who – remarkably, and for different reasons – both lost this ability for a period of time, and for whom it has returned. That should be a really interesting paper to write up.
LP: Is the blurring of reality and fiction something that is present in your other writings? Something that you are interested in?
RR: I actually haven’t written anything like this before—I did have a short piece a few years ago about the use of analogies in science (http://blog.wellcome.ac.uk/2012/10/29/lost-in-translation/ ) which was my first attempt at science communication, but this is my first ever short story. I like the idea of combining scientifically-based (or at least, scientifically-plausible) ideas with a fictional narrative as a way of conveying how fascinating science is to a wider audience. I think that can probably be traced back to reading novels from people like Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey; 2010: Odyssey Two etc.) and Carl Sagan (Contact), scientists who wrote incredibly imaginative and creative stories which were rooted in scientific facts or ideas. And we’ve seen this transfer to film too, most notably in Christopher Nolan’s Memento, in which the protagonist’s memory dysfunction is based on the real case of Patient H.M. Ex Machina is another recent example of this. But the other writing that I’ve been doing – which I talk about below – is very different from this.
LP: Your first novel is due to come out next year, which you co-authored. How did you find the process of co-writing?
RR: Luckily my co-author Derek Fennell (whom I’ve known since school) and I have a very similar writing style – or so we’ve been told – so that certainly makes it easier when reading and editing each other’s work. We adopted an effective system of taking different chapters each, once we had discussed the structure, and then we would exchange and edit the other’s chapters in a few rounds of fine-tuning. This became a good internal quality control mechanism, as I found it easier to trim or refine the pieces he had written and vice versa, particularly when we included too many adjectives—something we’re both guilty of very often. So in a way, the text had already undergone a round of edits before it reached the editor, which helped I think.
LP: Does your novel take place in this world of psychology/neuroscience?
RR: No, far from it actually! The novels – there are three – are a re-telling of the ancient Irish mythological stories that form the Ulster Cycle, which deal with the fantastical Irish hero CúChulainn. These are some of the world’s oldest mythologies, dating back to the ancient oral storytelling traditions of early Ireland, and they contain many archetypal elements which surface in other well-known stories and myths. But they suffer from the fact that they are essentially a collection of unconnected vignettes which happen to contain the same few characters—there was never a coherent story arc or plotline. So we attempted to construct one that would allow us to link the most important elements of the original stories, remove some of the contradictory or nonsensical elements and invent some new parts to produce a coherent saga that would appeal to a contemporary audience. In effect, we were trying to give these stories a Tolkien-like treatment, or maybe a slight Game of Thrones feel (although we started this project long before Game of Thrones became the global phenomenon it is now). The first one is due to be published by Wolfhound Press in the coming year, and there’s talk of developing a TV series based on them, which is very exciting but is also slowing the process down quite a bit. So it really couldn’t be further from science communication!
LP: What authors would you say influence you?
In terms of science writing/communication, I think the late Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) was the first writer to really demonstrate to me how it’s possible to describe and explain the fascinating and bizarre effects of brain injury in a very poetic way, while also conveying the humanity of the sufferer. Paul Broks (Into the Silent Land) does the same. Carl Sagan was, I think, the best communicator of science I’ve ever encountered; he had a profoundly poetic way of explaining all manner of scientific ideas. Richard Feynman was another. And the scope of Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination still astounds me. Plus there are a large number of excellent science communicators working at the moment to whom I’ve been exposed via Twitter – people like Ed Yong, Mo Constandi, Neuroskeptic and others – who are doing an amazing job of bringing science to a wide audience. And there are some scientists who bring tremendous writing into their academic publications – I’m thinking of people like Hugo Spiers and Yadin Dudai, amongst others.
With regard to the non-scientific writing, obviously Tolkien is a huge influence for the novels, but people like William Horwood, Sebastian Faulks, Ian Rankin, Graham Greene have all had a huge impact on me over the years.
LP: What are you working on at the moment?
RR: Writing-wise, I’m working with Sean Commins and Francesca Farina on a book about art, science and brain, and how art has influenced science – and vice versa – over the years and continues to do so. That’s due to be published late next year by Routledge. And I’ll keep writing the occasional personal blog post as a way of keeping in practice. Aside from that, I think it will depend on what comes along—most of the things I do, like the ‘Motorcycle’ story or the Brain Art Map, I just tend to do to see how they turn out, with no end purpose in mind; it’s only afterwards that I try to figure out what to do with them. So I’m very pleased that ‘Motorcycle’ managed to find a home at Long Story, Short Journal.
Richard Roche is a lecturer at the Department of Psychology, Maynooth University, where he has been employed since 2005, following undergraduate, postgraduate and postdoctoral study at Trinity College, Dublin. His areas of interest are neuroscience/neuropsychology, particularly memory, stroke, psychosis and synaesthesia. He has published 24 research articles, several book chapters and one book, and has a forthcoming book on brain, art and science due for publication in 2016. He is also strongly committed to science outreach and public engagement, and has recently hosted ‘The Brain Box’, a 2-part radio documentary about the brain on NewsTalk 106-108FM. The first of his three co-authored novels is due to be published by Wolfhound Press within the next year. Learn more about his interest in neuroscience at The Brain Art Map or follow him on Twitter @RRocheNeuro
Laura Perrem is a Fine Art graduate of the Crawford College of Art and Design. She practices in both visual and written media. Her written practice includes poetry, short stories and art criticism. She has had poetry published in the Belleville Park Pages and is working towards her first collection of poetry.
The December 2015 contributing photographer is Mark Guider, an American photographer. Originally from Philadelphia, he now lives in Los Alamos, New Mexico. View more of his work at DeviantArt.