Biological weapons, robotics, fungi abound in Paul McEuen's debut thriller novel, 'Spiral'

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Blaine Friedlander

Nowhere in Paul McEuen's long list of research accomplishments is there any mention of fungi, or microrobotics -- or biological weapons, for that matter.

But for the subject of his debut novel, McEuen, Cornell's Goldwin Smith Professor of Physics, wanted to delve into science he didn't know. The result was "Spiral," a nearly eight-year endeavor that's hitting American bookstores March 22 through Dial Press, which is part of Random House Publishing Group.

"One great fun of being a novelist is you get to learn about something you don't know anything about," said McEuen, who is also director of the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science, and whose research expertise is in the electrical properties of carbon nanomaterials. "It's a great opportunity to push your knowledge."

Where he pushed was mycology, which formed the basis for his scientific thriller about a fungal organism that's the key to a terrible biological weapon dating back to World War II. There was no singular moment when he settled on fungi, although he recalls reading about ergot poisoning during the Middle Ages and the French Revolution, and its possible role in the Salem Witch Trials.

"This little organism had had all these interesting effects on history, so I got sort of fascinated by it and that just became my organizing principle," he said.

Evenings hunched over an undergraduate biology textbook were soon bolstered by Internet searches that led him to Kathie Hodge, Cornell associate professor of mycology in the Department of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology. He asked her for help with the science, and as he continued to write, she greatly influenced the development of a central character, Maggie Connor.

Not everything had to be heavily researched. His novel is set at -- where else? -- Cornell, and his main characters are scientists who become ensnared in an international conspiracy involving biological warfare. He describes Cornell in vivid detail, and the pages are peppered with Ithaca references, from the Cayuga Dog Rescue organization to a nature preserve in Ellis Hollow.

He also drew plenty of inspiration from colleagues around him -- Hodge, of course, as well as those who helped him create protagonist Liam Connor, who is an elder statesman in his field. McEuen describes him as a sort of fictional mash-up of Freeman Dyson and Thomas Eisner, with a sprinkling of Hans Bethe.

McEuen started seriously devoting time to the novel during his 2004 sabbatical year. With the help of his agent, he finally sold it in 2007. He recalls, with a chuckle, a "power lunch" in New York with his agent and editor after he'd sold the manuscript. By the end of the meeting, he timidly pointed out that they were, in effect, asking him to toss his "completed" draft and start over.

"So I rewrote it completely, again," he said.

Being a scientist might have prepared him for that.

"Sometimes you do an experiment, and your beautiful idea doesn't work," McEuen said. "So you throw it out and keep going. We're used to working really hard on something, trashing it and moving on."

The hard work is paying off. McEuen has sold the novel in 16 countries, and he is working with a screenwriter on a screenplay adaptation, as the book has been optioned for film by Chockstone Pictures (with no guarantee that a studio will actually produce it). An audiobook will be released with the hard copy. He is already working on a second novel.

McEuen will introduce "Spiral" to the Cornell community April 6 at 4 p.m. in Schwartz auditorium, where he will be interviewed by Hodge and read an excerpt. Copies will be available for sale, and McEuen will sign books after the event.


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