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Q&A with Fiona Erskine and Bridget Lawless

Bridget:  Jaq Silver could be a female Jack Reacher – though with a more solid career in chemical engineering… Whether we’ve seen them yet or not, what qualities, physical or psychological, did you want your protagonist to embody when you created her, and were they very specifically female? A small cheer, by the way, for a female protagonist who gets her period and back ache – presented as a passing fact, not a weakness.

Fiona:  I always knew my hero would be female. Bored with victims, sidekicks, femme fatales and superheroes, I wanted my main character to be capable but real. Jaq is strong because she uses brains rather than brawn. She understands how to use gears and levers (and explosives) to amplify her effect. She is a sexual being – takes and gives pleasure, loves and is loved – without it defining her.

Thanks for the cheer. I was shocked to discover that teenage school-girls were encouraged to take the pill to avoid the ‘inconvenience’ of periods while trekking. Have we gone backwards? Control of our own bodies and reproductive choices is supremely important – but must remain a personal, and proportionate, choice. Women menstruate; deal with it. We do.

Bridget:  Your own career as a chemical engineer takes you all over the world where presumably there are far more men than women in the field. What challenges have you faced being a woman in STEM, and how have they informed your writing?

Fiona:  My own experience is that England is one of the worst places for the male-female divide in STEM. I blame an education system that forces a binary choice far too early (unlike Scotland). When I worked in Portugal, professional engineers and scientists were as likely to be female as male.

I’ve also worked with female scaffolders in China and female labourers in India. The truth is that in many countries, women still do the most physically demanding and lowest paid jobs.

Of course, I’ve encountered discrimination, but both positive (my first job offer) and negative (later overlooked for  promotion). You have to tackle unfairness where you find it…or move on. With self-esteem comes the power to walk away. That’s why everyone should read, make music, explore the natural world, love, play – whatever makes you happy. It’s the ‘soft’ skills that make us resilient enough to get through the toughest times.

But on balance, I’ve led a charmed life and worked with some fantastic people. And some bastards too. There is more natural variation among human beings than can be predicted by gender alone.

Bridget:  The importance and value of rare earth metals plays a role in this novel. What’s your prediction of the part they’ll play in the future and survival of humankind?

Fiona:  Rare earth metals are essential to modern communication – your mobile phone is packed with them. Most of the seventeen rare earths are not actually rare at all: abundant in the earth’s crust, but so widely dispersed and tightly bound to other elements that they are hard to get at. As easily extracted supply diminishes, the price goes up, and the search for alternatives intensifies.

The price of Cobalt started rising when the despotic President of Zaire – Mobuto Sese Seko – seized control of supply from central Africa. The need to find an alternative to cobalt-samarium magnets led to the discovery of much more powerful magnets made with Neodymium, Iron and Boron (NdFeB) and a touch of the magic ingredient: Dysprosium. This technology leap has enabled a green technology revolution – from wind power to electric cars. 99% of the Dysprosium used today comes from China. But our green technology comes at a price, past processes for extracting these metals can be crude and filthy, damaging people and their environment.

I am an optimist. I have great faith in the human ability to adapt. I am lost in admiration for the inventive scientists and engineers who take on the world’s greatest challenges. If my stories about these fascinating and difficult technical conundrums interest a non-specialist audience, then it makes me very happy.

Bridget:  The chapter headings and the elements chosen for them puzzled me – can you elaborate?

Fiona:  Ooh, so glad you asked me that! There are seventeen rare earth metals and the symbol from each one  is used for the name of at least one character in the book.

Scandium                    21        Sc        Sophie Clark and Sun Chang

Yttrium                        31        Y          Madame Yun (Disgraced head of the Art Squad)

Lanthanum                  57        La        Lang Lai (Mr Smiles)

Cerium                        58        Ce        Chang En (Brad the sloth)

Praseodymium            59        Pr         Peng Ran (Speedy)

Neodymium                60        Nd       Ning Dan (Dan)

Promethium                61        Pm       Pang Mo (Sharp suited chauffeur)

Samarium                    62        Sm       Sam da Silva and Sun Mico

Europium                    63        Eu        Eusebio (Lisbon stripper)

Gadolinium                 64        Gd       Mr Gao Ding (Accountant)

Terbium                       65        Tb        Ting Bo (Harbin stripper)

Dysprosium                 66        Dy        Dmytry (Russian engineer)

Holmium                     67        Ho       Holger (Stockholm stripper)

Erbium                         68        Er         Ernest (Durham stripper)

Thulium                       69        Tm       Timur (Vladivostok stripper)

Ytterbium                    70        Yb        Yan Bing (Acting head of the Art Squad)

Lutetium                      71        Lu        Lulu

I used 10 of the elements for section headings.

Sometimes it’s a simple connection. For Section 1, I chose Promethium (Pm) Prometheus was the god of fire and sent the storm that almost derailed Jaq at the start of the book.

Sometimes it focuses on a character.

Thulium (Tm), the element named after Thule – the ancient word for the far north, shines bright blue under ultraviolet light and is used in euro banknotes (along with Europium for red and Terbium for green) to protect against counterfeiting.

TmTimur Zolotoy is a thief. The silver-tongued Russian athlete, a champion swimmer, is forced to find other sources of income while a shoulder injury heals. He finds himself manipulated by three women – his employer; the woman he falls in love with; and a shadowy figure who holds the key to his family secrets.

Sometimes there’s a character hint that gives a very big clue (spoiler alert), but sometimes it’s a red herring (烟雾弹 – smoke bomb in Mandarin).

I love a spot of chemical cryptography. There’s lots more about this on my blog

Bridget:  Other female action thriller writers tell me that they are sometimes criticised for acts of bravery, daring, physical strength, resourcefulness, and so on, that their female character demonstrate. Have you faced that with Jaq Silver, and if not, how would you answer if someone were to question those characteristics in your protagonist’s toolkit?

Fiona:  I think I could defend Jaq from such criticism. I always knew that she would never be as good a fighter as Jack Reacher (while sharing his moral compass) or as dispassionate an assassin as Bond (while sharing his sex drive).

Women can be unbelievably brave, but their courage and resilience often goes unseen, unrecognised and unrewarded. Physical strength is useful but selecting the right tools and techniques, and choosing good teams to work with, is much more efficient. And discretion is the better part of valour. Jaq Silver also knows when to walk away from a fight.

Bridget:  How did you decide on the stolen Chinese artefacts that feature in the novel?

Fiona:  Whenever I find myself in a new place for work, I try to visit local museums and art galleries. But when I tried to visit the Henan museum in Zhengzhou, it was always mysteriously closed. Sometimes the doors closed as I approached. As a foreigner in China, you often feel you aren’t being told the whole story.

I read an article about the disappearance of Chinese artefacts from western collections, including our local favourite, Durham University Oriental Museum. I began collecting pictures of the exquisitely beautiful, and handily portable, objects involved. I scoured the internet for auction catalogues. I had a lot of fun associating the jade treasures with characters in my blog. So sexy Timur gets a magnificent jade bull to represent him.

Maybe those thefts-to-order were for expat Chinese billionaires, but the idea of illicit repatriation to Chinese museums took hold of my imagination: philanthropic atonement.

It would explain why the museum collections were closed to foreigners…

Bridget:  You obviously have great fun using your knowledge of chemistry to create a story with exciting world locations and relevant contemporary issues. Do you feel that it’s part of your responsibility as a writer to highlight the role chemicals play in our lives, as well as tell a cracking good story?

Fiona:  I’m glad it comes across as fun. I don’t want to bore or alienate but I am passionate about this.

Yes. I do think there is a dangerous and artificial arts-science divide fostered by a narrow education system which hampers a serious debate about how to live well. We all need to stop thinking in binary terms – natural/chemical, nice/nasty – it’s all about balance.

But it cuts both ways; scientists and engineers also need to improve their communication skills.

Bridget:  You get some great coverage in the chemical industry press. Do your own colleagues enjoy Jaq’s exploits? And are you bombarded with ‘helpful’ story ideas?

Fiona:  I write the stories I want to read. I use a pseudonym to avoid any embarrassment to my employers and professional colleagues. So far, I have been pleasantly surprised by the reception. No offers of story ideas so far; I have so many of my own queuing up to be told!

Bridget:  Who are your own writing heroes and heroines?

Fiona:  How much space and time do we have? Primo Levi for writing about my industrial world in a way that fascinates non-chemists. Tolstoy for epic stories. Alice Munro for her simple, beautiful prose. Graham Greene. Ursula-le-Guin for abandoning the heavens of excellence to write the kindest book for writing novices – Steering the Craft. David Mitchell. Haruki Murakami. Lionel Davidson. Olga Tokarczuk. Cixin Liu. Gaia Vince. Robert Harris. John le Carre. Philip Pullman. Sarah Armstrong. So many books, so little time.

Bridget:  What are you working on at the moment?

Fiona:  I’m finalising the next two Jaq Silver books; I always started out with at least a quartet in mind. I’ve also just completed the edits for a stand-alone novel, Phosphate Rocks: A Death in Ten Objects, to be published by Sandstone Press in June 2021. And I keep returning to the first thing I ever wrote, a story centred on the 1984 Bhopal tragedy and continuing scandal.

Oh, and I have a full-time job.