February 20, 2015

Interview with John Grant

As part of the Zest Books Rockin' Blog Tour, I'm reviewing the book DEBUNK IT!, giving a copy away, and interviewing the author John Grant.  Come back later today for the review!  On March 16, I'll be covering ROCKIN' THE BOAT by Jeff Fleischer.

John Grant has written approximately seventy books and has won both the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award.  He used to run Paper Tiger, a publishing company specializing in fantasy art books.  He's previously written nonfiction books, but DEBUNK IT! is his first nonfiction novel specifically for teens.


1. DEBUNK IT! makes the point that we're all fallible. What's one bit of misinformation that you can't believe you fell for?

One thing I know I was definitely wrong about until a couple of years ago was the protein content of mushrooms. Abstruse, huh? For some reason I’d got it into my head that, pound for pound, mushrooms had about the same protein content as meat or poultry. I said this in front of a friend at some point, and he told me (very politely) that I was talking absolute and complete twaddle – although, him being a good friend, that wasn’t precisely the term he used. I looked it up and he was of course right.

At a rather more significant level of false knowledge, I can remember many years ago clinging onto the steady-state theory of the universe far longer than I should have after the big-bang theory had become firmly established. This was really for sentimental reasons, because it was a prettier and more comforting theory, and also because I had enormous respect for one of the main steady-state proponents, Fred Hoyle. Once I finally realized that my brain was saying one thing and my heart another, I straightened my ideas out a bit.

2. How did you come to be interested in science?

Funny you should ask that, because it ties in perfectly with what I’ve just said! My dad was a biochemist, my mom a geographer and my (very much older) brother a mathematician, so I guess you could say that I had no way of escaping an interest in science. But what really did it for me was picking up my brother’s copy of Fred Hoyle’s book Frontiers of Astronomy. That book absolutely blew me away. Of course, I now know that much of the information in it was wrong – the steady-state theory, for example! – but what it did was stir my imagination and my emotions; it woke me up to the idea that the universe, though hostile, was a far wilder and more wonderful place than I’d ever realized, and that it was open to me in my lifetime to conquer that universe in the sense of finding out more about it, trying to understand it better.

Debunk It! 3. You've written science fiction (and several other genres) in addition to nonfiction. Do you approach science differently depending on the genre you are writing in?

The fiction that I write tends to be more fantasy than SF, although sometimes the fantasy is based on science-y ideas, or has science-y ideas chucked in. A new collection of my stories, Tell No Lies, was published a few weeks ago, just before Christmas, and I was intrigued that one reviewer, when talking about the collection, mentioned genres. This was almost puzzling to me, because I didn’t feel that difference when I was writing the stories!

So the answer I’m groping toward is that when I’m writing about science for real I try to keep my feet fairly firmly on the ground. I do like writing about speculative scientific ideas (assuming I can understand them!), but I take care to label them as speculative. When I’m writing fiction, though, all that reserve goes out the window. Sometimes I’ll base any science-y parts on actual science, but more often it’ll be loopy ideas that have popped into my mind and that I’ve liked the look of. Like the story of mine that was published in the science journal Nature (brag, brag) about the little boy who wanted a universe for his birthday . . .

4. Your book CORRUPTED SCIENCE dealt with misinformation for adults. Did you change your approach when writing for teens in DEBUNK IT!?

Not a great deal, to be honest. I think teens are actually brighter and faster-witted than adults tend to be, and they’re also mentally far more flexible; they’re just as likely to harbor false notions, but those false notions haven’t had decades to root themselves almost inextricably into the mind. So I kind of took that for granted as I was writing Debunk It! – that I was speaking to a smarter audience. It made the book a lot of fun for me to write, and a challenge, too.

5. Why should DEBUNK IT! readers trust you?

Well, as I keep telling my wife and daughter, they should trust what I say because I’m always right about everything . . .

Oh, you don’t believe me either? Well, let me put it another way:

If I were sounding off with my own pet theories in Debunk It! then I’d encourage readers to distrust me. However, the stuff I’m defending in the book is firmly established knowledge, so, if you disagree with it, it’s not me you’re disagreeing with but thousands and thousands of the best and most informed minds that humanity has to offer.

Golly – that makes me sound a little hidebound, which I assure you I’m not! I also do try to make plain in the book where science (in particular) is still working on a problem, so that there are valid rival ideas around as to how something works. My target for debunkery, though, is ideas that aren’t so much rival as nonsensical – that have been comprehensively refuted time and time again, such as (to choose one that’s much in the news at the moment) the idea that vaccines can cause autism. We have truly massive evidence that this cannot be true, and yet you still have showbiz personalities and unscrupulous politicians casting doubt on the matter. I mean, if you’d be happy to have a showbiz personality or a politician perform brain surgery on you, then it’d be reasonable to trust them on other medical matters. Me, I prefer to get my medical advice from the medical profession.

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