I'm all about women in STEM and I'm especially excited when I read a science-y or tech-y book written by an author with specialized training. I reached out to Rebecca Enzor for an interview not because she has some kind of special training in mermaids (though, if she had...), but because out of all the authors I've come across in the past couple of years, she's the first with "nuclear chemist" after her name.
In her debut novel, Speak the Ocean, Rebecca takes a classic fable (Little Mermaid) and weaves it into a twisted imagining of our present time,* in which merfolk are harvested and kept in captivity in the way orca are in SeaWorld today. There's a seriousness to the subject matter—the human propensity to dehumanize when it suits us—yet I could tell Rebecca had fun exploring the "what if" of the Mer. The merging of myth and science makes for compelling fiction, and I had questions.
Jennifer Klepper: Your author bio says you are a “nuclear chemist.” What’s the pitch for what you do in your job?
Rebecca Enzor: I test water, soil, vegetation, and tissue samples for radioactive contamination, PCBs, pesticides, and herbicides.
JK: The topics covered by debut novelists often overlap with the authors' own lives and experiences (attorneys write about legal matters, doctors about medical matters, and so on), but Speak the Ocean doesn’t seem to have derived (at least not directly) from your professional life. How did you avoid this common debut path?
RE: I actually didn't avoid it as much as you might think. I went to college for fisheries biology, so my background is perfect for a book about mermaids who are more fish than human. My book is as scientifically accurate as I could make a mermaid novel, especially the parts with the electroshocker, because I once shocked myself collecting fish in a river and know exactly how painful that can be. I also stole the structure of the training manual sections from my Standard Operating Procedure documents at the lab. The topics are different, but the numbered structure is the same.
JK: Will there be a nuclear theme in a future novel, one that really lets us in on all you know about the topic (and probably completely freaks us out)?
RE: I have written a book that takes place in a nuclear chemistry laboratory, but it was more of a cathartic "I killed all my annoying coworkers" type book than something I plan to publish. Who knows, though? It was a really fun book and sort of in the same mythology-meets-science vein as Speak The Ocean.
JK: What super powers do you have as a writer as a result of your professional training as a nuclear chemist?
RE: I can write ANYWHERE. And on ANYTHING. I don't need the perfect setting to write - I can be in the midst of noisy machines or noisy break rooms or just about anywhere as long as I have a scrap of paper and a pen. I wrote huge chunks of some of my older novels (especially the one where I killed my annoying coworkers) on sticky notes in the lab (I wasn't allowed to take a notebook into/out of the lab because of contamination, but I was able to take stickies in and out because they stayed in my pocket and weren't as susceptible to contamination). It's a very handy skill to have as an author.
JK: If you could do a Freaky Friday swap with someone for a week to try out a different job, what (or who) would that be?
RE: I want to be a geneticist! The advanced genetics lab was the only class I couldn't fit into my schedule in college, but I loved the intro genetics lab and would love to learn more about genetics.
*No comment on whether we are already living a twisted imagining of our present time.
You can learn more about Rebecca and her book here.
Rebecca Enzor is a fantasy author and analytical chemist in Charleston, SC, where she lives with her husband, two dogs, three cats, and sometimes chickens. Her articles on writing science in science fiction can be found in "Putting the Science in Fiction" from Writer's Digest Books. Obsessed with everything ocean, she studied fisheries biology in college and electrocuted herself collecting fish in a river, which inspired several key scenes in her debut novel. She's represented by Eric Smith of P.S. Literary. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook.