26 March 2019

The science behind Susan Hurley’s biotech thriller

Susan Hurley, author
by Katie Smart Author Interviews, From Our Students

Susan Hurley took our 6-month online novel-writing course back in 2016. Her debut novel (and the novel she worked on during the course) Eight Lives is out now in Australia, published by Affirm Press. We caught up with Susan to find out more about the science behind her biotech thriller and her writing techniques …

You were inspired to write your debut novel, Eight Lives, after hearing about a real drug trial that ended in tragedy – can you tell us about more about the inspiration behind writing this biotech thriller?
The trial took place in London in 2006. The drug was theralizumab, also known as TGN1412. It was a monoclonal antibody, a newish class of drugs that are now being used successfully to treat diseases as diverse as cancer and arthritis. TGN1412 had been hailed as a potential miracle treatment for diseases of the immune system and the London trial was the first time it had been tested on humans. But the six healthy men who received the drug all suffered a severe reaction and almost died. Their bodies swelled up – one man’s head ballooned to such an extent that he was described as the elephant man – they were writhing in pain and they suffered respiratory and kidney failure. The men were admitted to Intensive Care and put on life support.

When I read about it, as well as feeling extremely sorry for the men, it also struck me that such a trial would be a suitably dramatic starting point for a novel. Because testing a drug on humans for the first time is always a step into the unknown. Animal experiments, no matter how comprehensive, can’t completely predict a drug’s effects in humans.

And overseeing this step into the unknown are scientists and executives with reputations at stake. While on the other side, taking the step, volunteering for the trial, are people with much less power. Historically, trial participants have often been the powerless: prisoners, military personnel, people who are institutionalised. Even this century, in the United States, drug trials have been conducted on the homeless and undocumented immigrants.

So, you have an inherently perilous experiment and a moral dilemma. We want safe and effective medicines. Someone has to take risks for us to get them.  Who should that be?

There’s also a lot of money at stake.

It sounded like there was the bones of a story. A thriller.

You’ve worked in medical research and the pharmaceutical industry for more than thirty years. And you’ve had research published in high profile medical journals. Can you talk us through any of the challenges you faced switching from research papers to writing about science for fictional purposes?
In my research career, once I’d done the work and started on the paper, I always wrote the ‘Results’ section first. I found that the Introduction, Methods and Discussion sections then followed more easily. Similarly, writing Eight Lives, I had the ending in my mind and mostly written right from the get-go. I guess that makes me what the writing community refer to as a ‘planner’ rather than someone who flies by the seat of their pants, a ‘pantser’!

Otherwise, writing research papers and the science in a novel are completely different. As an academic I’d written ‘plain language’ summaries of research for non-scientific audiences, but they’re way too dry for a novel.

Instead, I used two techniques. The first was to describe the scientific concepts by analogy. I described the manufacture of the purported wonder drug in Eight Lives as having similarities to bread-making, and I represented a standard immunologic bench-top method as akin to making quince jelly. This may sound a bit odd, but readers of my early drafts told me it worked for them!

The second technique I used was to have non-scientist characters taking a shot at explaining the science. So, for example, Sally Southcott, the mother of one of the narrators in the novel, who describes herself as ‘more an arty person than a science person’, tells us that cancer patients don’t lose their hair when they’re treated with monoclonal antibodies like the one in the novel. And Foxy, the cynical fixer for the corporates, expounds with horror on his new-found knowledge about the risks of clinical trials.

Although it was fun to simplify and dramatize science in these ways, I was conscious that I might over-simplify and get it wrong. The scientists I talked with while I was researching Eight Lives very kindly checked excerpts to make sure the science was authentic, and one particularly generous immunologist fact-checked the whole novel for me. Pleasingly, I passed.

What was the first thing you did when you found out Eight Lives was going to be published by Affirm Press?
I was in Kyoto, Japan. I’d visited before and knew of a restaurant that does traditional Japanese food with a Western twist. Dishes like udon carbonara, which is nicer than it perhaps sounds. The chef/ owner is a woman who was formerly a TV star. She’s made a successful career change and now so had I. So, we went there for dinner. The restaurant’s called Gochiso Shiyo, by the way.

This is the novel you were working on during your time on our 6-month online course back in 2016. How did your time on the course impact your approach to the novel-writing process?
The course involved a lot of workshopping and it was the first time I’d shared my writing with people I didn’t know (and couldn’t see, because it was all online). I found it nerve-racking initially, but really it’s a rehearsal for when your work is out in the world. So, after the course I felt more relaxed about the prospect of having my novel published.

What’s one piece of advice that you wish you’d received when you first started writing?
Eight Lives is told by six narrators. A couple of people in the writing world advised me when I started out that multi-narrator first-person novels are hard to bring off, and suggested I try something easier first up. I ignored them. I wanted to give the reader the experience of knowing the story from multiple perspectives – and, in fact, at the end of Eight Lives the reader knows more than any single character.  Jodi Picoult made it look easy in My Sister’s Keeper, but my well-meaning advisers were right – it’s hard. All that said, I couldn’t have done it any other way.

Do you have any writing rituals or unmissable steps in your writing routine?
I write in 30-minute blocks. I have a timer on my desk and I stand up and move about when the timer goes off. After three 30-minute stints I take a longer break. I think it’s called the Pomodoro technique, because sometimes people use a tomato-shaped timer. But mine’s a timer that yoga teachers use.

This ritual makes sitting at a desk easier on my spinal cord, and if I’m struggling with the writing, I only have to concentrate for 30 minutes. How hard can that be?

Finally, what’s next for you – can you give us any hints towards future writing projects?
I think it would be great if non-scientists knew a bit more about science than they generally do. But many people aren’t interested in reading non-fiction, about subjects like drug trials, say. They would be interested in a thriller though. So I think there’s a place for fiction with a science theme. Readers of Eight Lives have told me that they feel like they’ve learnt something, as well as getting involved with the story and characters. I love hearing that. So I’m working on another novel that also has a sciencey theme.

To study with us online, like Susan, apply for our next Three-Month Online Novel-Writing course which you can take anywhere in the world, taught by critically-acclaimed author Suzannah Dunn.

Or, for an in-person course apply to our Three-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Charlotte Mendelson – this course has one HW Fisher Scholarship place available for a talented writer of limited financial means.

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