Jon McGoran, editor-in-chief of Grid magazine, is the author of the new thriller, Drift, the story of a Philadelphia narcotics detective who heads out to the suburbs to “get his head on straight.” While there, he falls for someone, beats back a few drug dealers and discovers a dangerous secret about genetically modified organisms and what could happen if the technology behind these Franken-foods falls into the wrong hands. It’s a topical piece of fiction that’s made its way to bookshelves just in time for the growing debate throughout America and the rest of the genetically modified world.
McGoran spoke to PW this week about his newest work.
What made you want to go the fiction-thriller route in Drift?
I’ve been writing fiction for years—since I was a kid, really. I had a series of forensic thrillers with Penguin Books a few years back, under a pen name, D.H. Dublin. I also have several short stories in anthologies, so writing fiction was nothing new for me.
Where’d you get the idea for Drift?
I’ve been writing about food and sustainability for a long time, as editor of Weavers Way Co-op’s newspaper, The Shuttle, and now as editor of Grid magazine. Over the years, I’ve seen the news about food getting weirder and weirder as our food systems have gotten more and more dysfunctional. There have been a number of food issues that seemed like they were more appropriate for thrillers or science fiction than the dinner plate—factory farms, irradiation, the rise of super bugs because of the way antibiotics are used. But with [genetically modified organisms], it hit a new level, both in how crazy, frightening and ill-conceived the actual story is, and in the level of possibilities for a writer looking for plot ideas. I’ve often said that the story of how GMOs have been pushed onto the world reads like a thriller on its own: corporations spreading new bio-engineered life forms across the globe and onto unsuspecting people’s dinner plates without any serious long-term study. That’s a scary story right there, but it also presents many different possible directions for where the story could go from there, and unfortunately, many of them are very plausible and could definitely come to pass. So, I’ve been writing about this journalistically, and at times satirically, but I have also been working as an advocate in support of labeling GMOs, alongside groups like Just Label It, Food & Water Watch and GMO-Free PA. I think it is an extremely important issue. And I have been struck by the lack of coverage of the issue, and how uninformed so many people are about how pervasive and under-researched GMOs are. Fiction presents different ways to explore an issue and to present it to people who might not be reached in other ways. So, on the one hand, I saw this really intriguing premise for a book, and on the other hand, I saw an important issue that would greatly benefit from a more thorough discussion. Drift is like a perfect storm for me: a compelling backstory, a rich premise with lots of potential, and an important issue that begged to explored.
The early reviews of the book have people wondering about their real-life food after reading the story. What kind of research went into it? And do you expect it to have the Da Vinci Code effect, in which people who read it feel like they’ve just read a non-fiction expose?
A lot of research went into the book, and frankly, the deeper I dug into it, the more alarmed I became. Much of what is in the book is based on fact, and I hope people do become more aware of the issues involved. There is a long and important history of fiction as an important tool in exploring social issues, and specifically food issues. You look at The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, which exposed some horrific truths about the meatpacking industry in the early 1900s, and you see how important that kind of exploration can be. Drift is a thriller, and some of the ideas in the book are extrapolated, taken to the next logical level, but the majority of what is in the book is real, and bizarre as it may seem, much of it an every day part of our food system.
How much of your writing do you consider "true to life," even if it's happening to your characters?
The scientific ideas in the book are all either real or firmly rooted in fact. Even the most fanciful aspects of the book mirror some of the practices and strategies at play in the world today. Clearly it is fiction, but it is definitely inspired by and reflective of some unsettling truths about our current food system. As for the characters, who they are and what they go through, hopefully that is even more firmly rooted in real life. Whether you like it or not or whether you intend it or not, the characters in your book are based on you and the people in your life. A big part of Drift is the impact on Doyle, the main character, when his mother dies, and then his stepfather. I was still writing Drift when my own mother fell ill and then died several months later. There’s a scene in the book where Doyle is sitting in his mother’s house, thinking it shouldn’t feel so unfamiliar and beating himself up over not having been a better son. That dynamic wasn’t a big part of my relationship with my mother—I was very present in her life, especially as she got older—but it was definitely in the mix, definitely informed by it. It wasn’t until a few weeks after she had died, when I was actually sitting in her house, waiting for some utility person and editing that very scene, that I realized the parallels. That may be an extreme example, and I might be particularly obtuse, but I think as a writer, even though you don’t always see how directly the relationships in your life inform your writing, you have to accept the fact that they do. Because really, what else do you have to draw on?
The book takes place in Philadelphia and the surrounding areas. How did you portray your home town and area in the book? And was Philly prominently featured due to a "you write what you know” sort of thing, or was it something else about our area?
I do think it is easier to write well about a location that you know well because you are aware of all the nuances as well as the locations, but also because I think Philadelphia is just a great setting for a book. All the D.H. Dublin books were set in and around Philadelphia, and I realized as I was writing those books how great Philadelphia is as a setting. Even from a purely nuts-and-bolts level, you can have scenes of great wealth, abject poverty, urban grit, verdant splendor all within a few minutes of each other. And having written a lot about Philadelphia, the fondness I feel for the city has grown. As a crime writer, you develop a particular kind of rapport with a setting once you’ve depicted a murder or other pivotal scene there. It may be morbid, but I love that, knowing when I am crossing the Walnut Street Bridge or St. Peter’s churchyard, I have a special bond with those places because of things I have written that took place there. Drift takes place mostly outside of the city, in the area around Hawk Mountain. That has long been one of my favorite places, but pivotal scenes take place on the mountain, so now that connection is even stronger. That is also where I proposed to my wife, so it has even stronger meaning for me.