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May 2006

Law Professor as Novelist

An interview with Professor Lori Andrews, author of the new novel Sequence


With all the legal writing you've done, what made you turn your pen toward fiction?

I got a glimpse behind the closed doors of genetics labs when I chaired the federal ethics committee advising the Human Genome Project. I was struck by the many ways that these technologies were entering our lives. The personal side of these issues seemed a natural for fiction, and because genetics is an exciting area where lives and money are often at stake, the mystery genre seemed the most natural way to tell these stories.

Many people fancy themselves as novelists, but few actually go through with it. What was the catalyst that made you decide to start working on Sequence?

I love to write, and in fact, I put myself through college and law school writing magazine articles and other things that I published in legal literature. I found, though, since I had written things that were almost always conceptual and oriented on the mind, I had a lot to learn about fiction writing. I had to learn the way to describe things in a totally different context that had to do with people's bodies, not just with their ideas.

A few years ago I wrote a biography of a former Black Panther. In the course of writing that biography, there was a lot of drama. In part, that book (Black Power, White Blood) prepared me to do something that was more in the line of mystery.

What were some of the similarities and differences between writing a book like Black Power, White Blood and writing Sequence?

There's much more of a freedom when you can invent the situations. In Black Power, White Blood, I had an entire 50,000-page trial transcript that dealt with an 18-month trial. And I found no "Perry Mason" moments. The way the legal system worked in reality was very hard to translate into a compelling story.

So I have a lawyer character in Sequence, and she can offer a very interesting opinion on the spot, or get judges to grant or deny things in very short order, because I'm not tied to the actual legal system.

What is the central plot of Sequence?

It has to do with a young molecular biologist, a geneticist named Alexandra Blake, who is on a fellowship at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) to sequence the Spanish flu genome. The military is concerned that it might be used for biowarfare purposes. But the AFIP gets a new head, who decides he wants to "out-FBI" the FBI by undertaking forensic investigation.

There is a series of murders of women outside Navy bases. Also, a female senator is appointed to head the FBI, and the AFIP is put in charge of investigating when her ex-husband is found dead. So, against her will, Alex is pulled into a forensic investigation, and it turns out that her unique genetics knowledge dealing with infectious diseases actually plays a pivotal role in solving the crime.

How much of Sequence is based on things that could happen in the future, as opposed to things that are happening right now?  

In the Genetics and Law class I teach, as a midterm exercise, I've had students each pick a science fiction book to read, and then write a memo on whether the problems that come up in the science fiction book could be resolved by existing laws, or whether we need new laws. Students are always surprised when they learn how close we are to the technologies in the science fiction book.

Science fiction has become science fact in many of the areas that I deal with, so in Sequence, the genetic technologies are all real. The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology setting, however, gives me the freedom to design fictional technologies, and there is a character who has a research and development lab where he designs new inventions and gadgets for the military.

How do some of the issues in the plot relate to your life as an expert on law and biotechnology?

In the book, Alex gets to address many of the issues that I'm concerned about in my own work, such as issues of genetic privacy--issues that our society needs to be able to answer. In part, doing a novel along these lines expresses the frustrations resulting from my experience with other mechanisms for trying to change policies so they are more protective of people's genetic privacy.

I've been to Congress with people who had lost their insurance or lost their employment based on a genetic test. I've actually been told by congressional staff that unless I could find a celebrity on the issue, they wouldn't even hold a hearing. In pro bono cases, when I've tried to get redress for patients whose genes have been patented without their permission, the hospital just changes its informed consent forms to deny people those rights in the future. Having found some problems with making systematic change in litigation and in legislative hearings, I thought it would be intriguing to bring these issues to the public at large.

What is the main character, Alexandra Blake, like? 

She's very opinionated. She's in her mid-30s, she hasn't really settled down yet in her life. When she shuts off the laboratory lights at night, she's less interested in being with other scientists, and so her circle of friends, other than her female lawyer friend, tend to be musicians, artists and men who make these short pit stops in her life.

What about Alex's best friend, the lawyer? Do you share any of her traits?

I think what's been interesting for me is that it's possible to put a little trait of yourself or someone you know into each character. I think some of the traits that the lawyer has--which I share -- are showing up at meetings with stacks of file folders, wanting to investigate everything to the nth degree. That cautious, methodical side can come out in her, and hopefully the more creative side of me can come out in this funky scientist I've created.

What does your writing process involve, in terms of developing ideas and doing research?

Actually, the idea for the whole book just came to me. In terms of the technologies, I've actually written a lot about them for my nonfiction books, so that was not problematic. I've spent a lot of time in genetics laboratories. But I love the wonders of Google for the odd little things. It's almost like Google and eBay become the places to go for filling in adjectives or descriptions.

One of my projects that resulted in a previous book, Future Perfect, allowed me to look at all the psychological, philosophical and anthropological studies about how the new genetic technologies affect individuals. A woman who finds out she has a mutation in a breast cancer gene sometimes feels like she has a time bomb ticking inside of her. I think those personal stories really helped provide a starting place for me in writing fiction.

Did you travel to do any on-location research for the book?

I have spent time at the National Museum of Health and Medicine and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. The AFIP is great because it is a real institution, with wide-ranging projects that involve national security, forensics, infectious disease investigations and so forth. It oversees forensic investigations in the United States and abroad involving the executive branch and all branches of the military. It seemed like an exciting setting where nefarious events can happen or can be investigated. The latest technologies can be applied, and matters of international importance can hang in the balance. Yet hardly anyone has ever heard of the place.

Did you draw upon the knowledge or experiences of colleagues or other experts in your research, or was it mostly your own experiences?

There's a forensic scientist, Bob Gaensslen, at the University of Illinois at Chicago--we actually try to have lunch once a month, and I ask him my forensic questions, and he asks me his legal questions.

I've also benefited hugely from working with two great people on my casebook--Mark Rothstein at the University of Louisville and Max Mehlman at Case Western Reserve Law School. We've divided up the entire landscape of genetics and law, and then we review each other's chapters, so I get the benefit of having three times as much knowledge.

Did either of them review the manuscript for Sequence?

No ... I'm really kind of shy about talking about it at this point with my legal colleagues. A few lawyer colleagues have read it, and a few physician colleagues have read it, just to make sure I wasn't going off in the wrong direction.

How long did it take you to write Sequence, and how did you balance your writing with your other work?

I actually wrote most of it while I was on leave at Princeton and didn't have any administrative duties. I also love to write on airplanes, because you don't get phone calls, you don't get up to make yourself a snack.

Do you plan to write more novels based on the same characters?

The publisher has asked me to do two more. Certainly, in the field that I deal with--emerging genetic technologies, reproductive technologies, nanotechnology, biowarfare and so forth--there are plenty of story ideas.

Is there any chance we'll be seeing Sequence on the silver screen in the future?

Two producers have asked to read it, but I think this one might be a little hard to adapt to the screen. Who knows?

For information about Professor Andrews' book tour, visit


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