For the first time, available now by itself: “Lemmings in the Third Year” for your Kindle, iPad, e-reader device.
Arctic researchers stuck in a land of talking animals, comedy, runner up to the Fountain Award. The idea started with Iron John: a Book About Men and ended up being about Women in Science instead. How did that happen?
It was the summer of 1992 when I moved to Missouri to sit outside the gates of the University of Missouri-Columbia and hope that I got in to their Masters program. It was foolish. I can’t believe the belief I had, the sheer power of conviction that they would pick me if I waited right there. To wait the year–in order to get in-state tuition too—I worked at Taco Bell, next-door, and I was just barely getting by. I lived in a house with four roommates, but the rent was about 400 a month for a bedroom. In the fall, I saw an ad in the Maneater (the student newspaper) for a cartoonist. It paid 12 dollars a cartoon. You had to produce 2 cartoons a week, but you had an open subject, any style, whatever you wanted to do.
I was not a student at the time, but maybe they made an exception for me. I could draw. I had imagination. I could do this. But what would I write about? I remember that I was reading Iron John: A book about Men, and was very confused by it. There was a lot I loved, and I lot I argued with. Robert Bly brings that out in people–and that’s okay. I had also picked up a book about polar bears from a discount shelf inside an old Hastings store. By mashing Robert Bly and polar bears I created Captain Bly and submitted six cartoons for consideration. I got in! It meant that I had nearly 100 extra dollars a month! I was thrilled.
I kept that cartoon strip going for four years. After the year waiting outside, I did finally get into Mizzou, but I kept the Taco Bell job too. The strip started out being about men, and about bears (I didn’t have a clue that I was a gay man who loved “bears” but drawing them made me happy). But soon it got into science, and I created three biologists who journey north and are stuck in a north where all the animals talk to them.
After graduating with my Masters, I wanted to turn that idea into a novel. I worked and worked on different angles with the bears—taking them fictionally to Texas for awhile—and I couldn’t seem to catch what I wanted to do with the story. I’m sure that part of it was the part of myself that was eluding me—that I was gay. But I think I hadn’t found the story yet.
Fast forward to 2001, when I decided to go north to the Yukon on a Fulbright Fellowship. I decided to take that part of the story—the scientists, the talking animals, the North–and make that into a novel about first contact between researchers and those they research. Even some of the human lessons researchers learned in the North, came into play: We will never understand those we research until we treat them as equals. I did a lot of research about women in science at the time, and the numbers of women in science were dismal, and there was an active push to get more girls into science courses and women into science degree programs. This interested me even more than the bears.
And suddenly, what started as a comic strip about the men’s movement turned into a novel about a young female grad researcher who goes North to make a name for herself and gets stuck in the Arctic–with all the animals she could want, all the landscape and botany they could research, but absolutely no way to publish or use that research. It was a story ultimately about why we conduct science in the first place. She’d been a go-getter, doing everything right, working her way up the ladder of success, determined that she was going to beat the odds by sheer force of her conviction. And then everything changes when her plane crashes, when they are saved by talking bears, when the only other “people” who will talk to her are lemmings.
I started working on the novel in 2001-2004, and did so much research that I realized how much I didn’t know, and how much I was too inexperienced to write about. But I did get a first chapter, of sorts, written, and it morphed into a short story, “Lemmings in the Third Year.” It’s not an Arctic thriller as I thought it might be—it’s a strange meditation on the scientific method and an existential view of why we do science—punctuated with funny, talkative lemmings who are researchers themselves.
The link above on the short story takes you to the new Amazon page where I’m offering it for the first time as an e-story by itself. I am very proud of it. I hope one day to work more on it to expand it. I think Kate is an interesting character—full of determination, and now frustration, at having her life take this left turn.
I think getting more women in science will take more work. It will require taking amazing bright women seriously when they say they want to work in science. It will take more than uncles and fathers and brothers and mothers and sisters encouraging. They need to see it in the culture around them. They need to see it in the movies. They need to see it in pop culture. They need to see it in fiction, science fiction, literary fiction. They need to have more and more stories that feature women as scientists–who aren’t always dressed to kill, or sexual objects, or made for romance. We need Julie Verne. Sometimes I think she’s inside Julie Czerneda —who populates her stories and novels with strong women, and some strong women of science.
Vivian Gornick has a good book on Women in Science: Then and Now, a history and a strong book for women considering going into science.
Emma Ideal and Rhiannon Meharchand have a book Blazing the Trail: Essays by Leading Women in Science
Very thankful we have a collection of books called Women’s Adventures in Science made for Grade 6 and up. Accessible books that show women in science.
When I thought of Kate, I read everything I could on Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, who worked as much in animal communication and behavior as they did in biology. They inspired me.
The story I wrote, “Lemmings in the Third Year,” was runner up to the Fountain Award and got a lot of nice reviews from critics. Lately, I just felt the urge to bring it back out again and see if I could find a new audience. I hope you enjoy “Lemmings.” Let me know what you think. Please tell me what books you know of that have women scientists as characters, too. I’d love to read them.
I’ll always have bears now…. I just need more good strong women scientists in my life.