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Interview with M.K. Nadall

M.K. Nadall

He is the writer’s name of a scientist, allied health professional, artist, and luthier. Home is Hobart, the capital of the island state of Tasmania.

Q.1 Tell us something about yourself not many people know?
I guess the obvious one is that most people who know me (many hundreds of patients) don’t know I’ve written this novel!

Q.2 Are we going to read more from you in the near future? Any new project you’re working on?
I like to alternate between science and art projects, so I think I’ll give fiction writing a rest in the medium term.

Q.3 What inspired you to write Return of the Yggdrasil?
I’m a marine science Ph.D., and the idea for Return of the Yggdrasil was initially prompted by my studies of marine microalgae. For, despite being mere single-cell life forms, some species are highly mobile and behave like animals. I think we human folk often tend to see plants as passive parts of the landscape, so to observe them moving in our human timescale was quite an eye-opener.

Later this led me to an interest in plant sentience and communication. There have been several excellent books on this topic in the last decade. Examples would be The Songs of Trees, The Hidden Life of Trees, and Finding the Mother Tree, among others. The idea that plants have senses and intelligence is not new: ancient Greek philosophers wrote of it; it appears in Indian subcontinent religions. Charles Darwin, his son, and his grandfather all researched in this area. However, in recent years scientists have at last developed the tools to measure the transfer of nutrients and information between plants.

Other interests of mine that converge in the novel are sustainable living, high-tech agriculture, food fashion, and divisive social media. I would like to think these themes and others are handled in a humorous way rather than a hectoring tone. I think this is apparent from the cover blurb-that includes an endorsement from a fictitious cat! Another minor theme was to introduce Jainism to young people in the west who are into sustainability, veganism, meditation, yoga, and so forth-but who have never heard of it.

Q.4 What is the most challenging thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
I don’t find it difficult - people are people.

Q.5 How do you develop your plots and characters? Do you use any set formula?
This is novel about new scientific discoveries in areas such a plant science, synthetic meat, increasing forest fires, the warming of the permafrost, high-tech greenhouses, marine farming, biohacking, etc. That was the starting point plot, and characters were fitted to this. However, as a satire of the reality TV genre and celebrity culture was a theme, many of the characters are “typical celebrities”: the sports star, the comedian, the celebrity blogger...

Q.6 What kind of research did you do for this book?
My background is in scientific research, so I was familiar with the primary science themes. I did a little research on reality TV and influencer culture - as I knew nothing about the latter. Some feedback I’ve had was that readers found a particular character really shallow and annoying - that, of course, was the idea!

Q.7 How do you see the future of science fiction literature? Will sci-fi maintain its independence or intertwines with other literary genres?
This is not something I’ve spent any time thinking about - the type of science fiction I like generally is that it poses questions about the human condition from an outside perspective or speculates on future trends based on new technological innovation. I’m not interested in the type of sci-fi that is essentially a war movie or a western in space. Sci-fi and fantasy are often lumped in together, and there is an element of that in my novel - but I would say it is a more traditional myth and legend themed than fantasy. (Yggdrasil is, of course, the World Tree from Norse mythology).

The other thing about this science fiction novel is that it’s meant to be humorous in the British writing tradition of PG Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, maybe early Bill Bryson (though he’s American). So there are some pretty thought-provoking ideas in the novel, and I felt this is best dealt with in a fun way using social satire, rather than a lecturing or apocalyptic way.

Q.8 To what extent can science fiction affect or improve the developments in science and technology in human life? Is it right to say that science fiction can change what human life looks like in the future?
It seems to me that much sci-fi tends to produce warnings about future events/societies we might wish to avoid; this is especially true in eco-sci-fi, e.g., the novels of Ursula Le Guin. So yes, it would be great if a scientist took my idea of people changing themselves through biotech so they could be at least partly photosynthetic! So I’d say sci-fi throws up ideas about possible futures, and sometimes they come true, but that doesn’t mean science fiction has changed the future.

I have found it interesting that since I published the novel Bill Gates has called for westerners to only eat synthetic meat (cell-cultured, not plant substitutes), and Singapore has actually licensed a commercial synthetic chicken product (this is a theme in the novel). Likewise, Elon Musk seems keen on brain-computer interface applications - what I call biohacking in the book. I doubt those two were influenced by my novel! However, they have tech backgrounds and so are interested in the application of scientific breakthroughs.

Q.9 In many science fictions stories, the existence of God is denied. Could we call science fiction an atheist literary genre?
Wow, that’s an exciting question, Aakanksha. I have not thought about it before, but broadly speaking, there is some truth in that idea, I guess. However, that is because science itself is broadly atheistic. Once you are genuinely searching for new knowledge, committed to the central concept of proof/disproof, changing your ideas when the facts change, then that is broadly incompatible with supernatural or magical thinking. I suppose, for example, someone might work as a medical technician and believe the world to be just a few thousand years old - but that is unlikely to be the case in a trained geologist!

Science fiction, especially with the presence of intelligent aliens, isn’t compatible with monotheistic religions. That view of a single god has created the universe, created the Earth for the benefit of humans, and made them in the creator’s own image is at odds with there being superior non-human life forms. There are some references in the novel to the consternation that the Yggdrasil arrival causes from that viewpoint.

Q.10 What do you think are the main reasons for the popularity of science fiction? To what extent has the film industry helped in popularizing the genre?
Hmm, I think it’s because it’s so different from other genres in that it can deal with real humans in situations that don’t currently exist. In this way, I think it’s a little similar to traditional mythology because that can read as totally outside the reader’s experience - especially when it’s from another culture. But of course, this is not to everybody’s taste. To quote my mother: “I don’t like reading things that are not real!”

Science fiction existed well before the film industry, and I haven’t examined the question of whether movies popularise and cross-fertilize the genre. My bias is for books above movies; they have more complexity than doesn’t always suit the assumed movie audience demographic. One exception I would note is Avatar by James Cameron - when I first saw that, I wondered if he was influenced by Susan Simard’s research on communication between trees - what came to be called “the wood wide web.” Subsequent reading I have done on that topic suggests this was, in fact, the case. So perhaps movies can be an entry point into sci-fi, but with an inevitable “dumbing down.”

Q.11 Ray Bradbury considers sci-fi as “the important literature in the history of the world because it’s the history of ideas and the history of our civilization birthing itself.” Do you agree with him, as many sci-fi stories do, indeed, depict disaster?
Hmm, as with many things, I would say things are not black and white; they are complex and not well suited to T-shirt slogans! The thing about sci-fi is that it speculates on new ideas in technology and how human societies might change. However, that can be adjusted for good or for evil. Certainly, disaster films are popular, and some might sit in the sci-fi genre and others not.

Q.12 Science fiction has a long history. Which era do you consider the most significant period in the whole history of the genre?
I’m afraid I really don’t know - I don’t have an academic interest in the genre's history. However, it is interesting to read Jules Verne and HG Wells from the dawn of the era and to see how well they hold up.

Q.13 If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Start earlier!

Q.14 Among all the supporting characters in your book, who is dear to you?
It was an exciting process, in that when I started, as I said earlier, it was more about the science and social themes. And the characters on the Celebrity TV show are, to an extent, caricatures, but with time, I did develop an affection for the main characters. As if they were independent entities outside my creation. Apparently, this is quite common. Anyway, having a favorite would be like having a favorite child!

Q.15 Who designed your book cover? How do you select him/her?
I considered having a 1950s alien invasion comic book style cover using elements from the book, but it seemed more effortless in the end to just hire a book designer and ask for an original World Tree graphic. So I just searched the internet and contacted a few and selected Emma from BrillantBookCovers in Australia. I considered a cover showing the Amazon on fire but decided on the Yggdrasil image in yellow.

Q.16 How do you select the name of your characters?
Once I had a fair idea of the character's age, I researched popular names in the year that person was born – it’s quite a multicultural cast, so I did this for multiple countries where possible! Also, there is something of what computer game developers call an “easter egg.” Many of the characters have the surnames of famous non-Anglo-Celtic Australian Rules footballers from the past. Nobody notices this, of course, except experienced followers of the sport.

Q.17 Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal
I did initially, being naïve in such matters. When I wrote my previous book (an illustrated children’s book), social media was not around, and I never saw a negative comment about it. Now I’ve decided life is too short to spend time on negativity, so I don’t read them. However, I do read my mail, and to date, this has been entirely positive and almost entirely from plant scientists worldwide.

Q.18 Which famous person, living or dead, would you like to meet and why?
Well, I’m not such a fan of fame for its own sake. I see considerable communication difficulties with dead people from the past in different cultures and language groups! What I’m more interested in would be bringing back from the past prominent religious figures and seeing what they make of the modern world and what their modern-day followers make of them. Under those circumstances, it would be interesting to meet them - seems a bit selfish to have them all to myself.

Q.19 What is your favorite book from other authors and why?
Probably the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams. The books are imaginative, quirky, have some fundamental science concepts in them, and some great social commentary and satire.

Q.20 Share the experience of your journey so far?
Well, writing a full-length novel is a different type of writing that I’ve done before and an interesting intellectual exercise. I think the highlight has been getting a hand-written letter about the book from David Attenborough. I put it in a frame, and that’s a great antidote to negativity.

In recent times I’ve had messages of support and interest from the Society of Plant Signaling and Behaviour, which is the international group that researches topics mentioned in the novel. It is pretty cool to get emails from Professors whose papers or books I’ve read. There’s a possibility they’re going to put the novel on their website (a novel on a science website!). Another pleasant, positive experience has been some contact with the Jain community in Australia and Britain.

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