Dr Robin Hesketh signing copies of his book in Peterborough

Inside every scientist is a writer struggling to get out – or is there? Dr Robin Hesketh, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Biochemistry, describes the trials, tribulations and unexpected treats that accompanied the writing of his book Betrayed by Nature.

Meeting these wonderful people was not on the menu when I sat down to write Betrayed by Nature.

Dr Robin Hesketh

Once upon a time I sat down to write a novel. It was about cancer – not yet another of those estimable but rather uninformative accounts of ‘battling against the odds’ but rather a 'sci-nov' – a book that reads like a novel but where science (and the folk that do it) make the story. In ‘sci-nov’ I may have invented an acronym but certainly not a new genre. Writing science as a story is to walk in footsteps of the brilliant Steve Jones and Matt Ridley, to mention only two luminaries, and experience the trepidation that assailed Brahms in trying to write symphonies after Beethoven had a bit of a crack at it.

An old adage holds that everyone has a novel in them – and there’s no shortage of advice out there on how to set about it. Précis the plot, write out a detailed plan, discuss it with your publisher (all signed up and ready to go) and devise a precise schedule: rise at 5am, 3,000 words by lunchtime, two hours kip, another 2,000 words, dinner, bed, reprise next day until finished. Finally, select the exotic location to which you will retire on the proceeds.

Follow the above instructions and Bob’s your uncle. Except I didn’t do any of that. I just told myself someone should write this story – so get on with it. And I started with the first thing that occurred to me as dimly relevant – a stroll through the history of cancer and related matters. But after a couple of sentences I hit a problem. Proper authors reading this are doubtless smirking, “Bit early to get writer’s block”, but it wasn’t that.

For me the problem is called being a scientist. It’s the utter pain of having ingrained into you the notion that there are facts and that where facts are known, you should jolly well get them right, as well as making them contribute to a clear and fascinating story. Oh, to be scratching away at chick-lit or similar drivel. So by dinner-time on Day One I had the grand total of 39 words. I’d spent hours trying to discover the birthday of William Norris (he was the first to spot that cancers might be heritable), judging the fairness of describing Jim Watson (the DNA double helix chap) as untidy and in deciding whether to note the annual number of cancer deaths in the world as 7½ million, 7.5 million, 7,564,802 or just round it up to eight million (thank you, World Health Organization).

If someone had told me I’d got lucky that morning I would, of course, have given up – but it did indeed transpire, seven years and 100,000 words later, that on Day One I’d managed what was to become, almost exactly, my average daily rate.

But no-one was there to utter such dire prophesies and so, one May day in New York in 2012, I found myself autographing my first fly-leaf dedication. Astonishing? I’ll say – sci-nov becomes sci-fi – but, remarkable to relate, this wasn’t my first amazing ‘author’ experience. Several months earlier I was beginning to grasp that popular science is a different world – a parallel universe to that of ‘normal’ science. Where I normally live, once something’s published it pretty well disappears into the facts mountain and you get on with the next experiment. In the ‘pop’ world you have to publicise – or to put it more painfully – self-publicise.

The first intimations of this came in a brief lecture from youngest son: “If you think it’s worth writing you must make an effort to tell everyone about it. You need a blog, Squire.” A quick visit to Wikipedia revealed that he was talking about a web log – a discussion or information site. But what to discuss or inform about? All I wanted to say was ‘read the book’ (subliminal message: it’s terrific). Re-consulting the Son Oracle elicited the instruction that: “You need to pick up current cancer stories and explain them simply and clearly – that is, do it better than the science journalists. Should be a doddle for you. Let me have a look at your first effort and I’ll tell you if you’re on the right lines.” Gee, one’s nearest and dearest can be so annoying.

That was how I met Susan. Our courtship was a paradigm of our times, conducted most chastely through the medium invented by Sir TimBL. She was looking for distraction from embarking on post-surgical chemotherapy for bowel cancer. As a virgin blogger I was desperate for someone experienced to tell me what to do. In traditional male fashion my overtures were very much of the hope rather than anticipation variety – even with my manic enthusiasm for cells and molecules I had to admit that someone grappling with colorectal carcinoma might find less than irresistible the post of Reviewing Editor (unpaid) for articles on cancer. But no! Susan said yes!! She stuck to her word by marking my first essay – with disconcerting perception – within 24 hours (university tutors please note!). And so our secret affair has blossomed and in the process we have become the best of friends.

I know it’s a tear-jerker – but try this for a twist. Coincidentally with the book coming out – almost to the day – Susan had a meeting with her oncologist after which she vividly described the moment when he said what must to her have been almost unbelievable: “Congratulations. You appear to be in full remission.”

All that before becoming a sci-nov author – clearly life-after-birth was going to be one long anti-climax. Well, that’s not exactly how it’s shaping up. I’d scarcely staggered from the literary delivery room when I was asked to talk at a meeting organised by Peterborough NHS – to tell people about cancer. I found myself sharing the platform with someone called Jean who, after I’d warbled on about DNA and cells and coerced the audience into performing a bit of molecular theatre, told them what it had been like to find she had cancer. She used her experience to explain the tell-tale signs of the major cancers and then talked simply and clearly about how she had dealt with the stress arising from her particular version. Witnessing her courage in re-living difficult times for the benefit of others was quite an experience. I’m not sure how much attention they paid to me and molecules, but when Jean was speaking a falling pin would have been a serious distraction.

Meeting these wonderful people was not on the menu when I sat down to write Betrayed by Nature. There were three simple aims: write something enjoyable to read, get people interested in biology, and help folk deal with cancer. It never crossed my mind that becoming an author could confer the privilege of meeting Susan and Jean. I don’t know how successful the book will be but if it has a fraction of the effect that they have on those who hear their stories, no exotic retirement spot could offer equal contentment.

Robin Hesketh PhD has been a member of the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Selwyn College for over 25 years. He’s talked about science and cancer on BBC television and radio programmes, and has published in many leading journals, including Nature. His book Betrayed by Nature: The War on Cancer is published by Macmillan.


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