Writers enjoy reading, and I especially enjoy reading mysteries with amateur sleuths, just as I enjoy writing them. I’ve discovered a newly published author, Kristen Elise, P.H.D. http://www.kristenelisephd.com/ who has a background as a drug discovery biologist. In her first book she brings historical mysteries to light and tells a suspenseful page turner. The book has a Dan Brown mystery quality, and the story’s settings are in exciting locales where historical artifacts abound. Kristen’s books and authorship are especially intriguing to me because she has a background similar to that of my daughter, who worked toward a doctorate in pharmacology before becoming a podiatrist.
Kristen has written two books. The Vesuvius Isotope was released July 1, available in both print (www.kristenelisephd.com and http://www.amazon.com) and e-book formats (www.amazon.com for Kindle, http://www.barnesandnoble.com for Nook, http://www.kobo.com for Kobo reader.)
San Diego biologist Katrina Stone finds her husband murdered just three days after he had inexplicably disappeared for a four-day period of time. Her husband – Nobel laureate chemist Jeffrey Wilson – has been shot to death in their home. The murder weapon was Katrina’s gun, and Jeff has left her a monumental fortune. Katrina bribes a mortician to hide his body, and then begins investigating his death.
It does not take Katrina long to find a suspicious international phone number – it appears in Jeff’s cell phone fifty-six times in five weeks. Katrina calls the number and reaches Alyssa Lacovani in Naples, Italy. When Alyssa answers the phone, she insists upon meeting with Katrina immediately.
Katrina catches the next plane to Naples. When she arrives, the lovely Alyssa claims to be a former classmate of Jeff’s and currently, an Egyptologist with the Naples Archeological Museum. Alyssa quickly directs Katrina’s attention to an ancient document, recently unearthed from beneath the ruins of the perfectly preserved Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum, site of the 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Alyssa claims that the document she has just translated is the first text in existence written in the hand of Queen Cleopatra VII. Alyssa enthusiastically explains the importance of the text: a lost fragment of history that – she believes – represents one of many similar documents yet to be discovered. Cleopatra, she insists, was famous for her education and knowledge, her fluency in nine languages, her diligent proprietorship of the Great Library of Alexandria, her flair for the sciences and her eagerness to dazzle an audience. Why, then, Alyssa asks, have we never found a single document of hers, prior to now?
Alyssa indicates that the text is what had led Jeff to Naples during the four-day time span that he had been missing from Katrina’s home. Cleopatra’s text details a rare medical phenomenon that successfully treated an aggressive form of cancer in women. And this phenomenon eerily resembles the advanced biomedical technology that had earned Jeff the Nobel Prize.
Her husband’s body reveals shocking details to the skeptical mortician in San Diego, and Katrina comes to realize that Jeff’s horrific death was only the beginning of an epidemic that now threatens thousands of lives. To halt certain impending disaster, Katrina races through Italy and Egypt on a quest for the solution to Cleopatra’s last riddle, the ancient remedy that comes to be called the Vesuvius Isotope.
Thank you for that captivating summary, Kristen.
Thank YOU for having me on your blog, Joyce!
Q: Katrina Stone, your protagonist, is a research biologist, as are you. Does she resemble you in other ways?
A: She resembles me physically, sort of. We are both petite and have a lot of wavy hair, but hers is red (mine is boring brown.) So she quickly learns that she stands out, even more than I did, walking around Naples and Cairo by herself. Fortunately, Katrina is much smarter than I am in dealing with the issues that come with this.
Q: What was your primary inspiration for this story?
A: I took a trip to Italy several years ago and was fascinated by the story of the Villa dei Papiri. It amazed me that the thousands of papyrus scrolls, preserved beneath the ash for two millennia, are still legible once unrolled. It shocked me even more to learn that most of the library remains buried to this day. This building was owned by the father-in-law of Julius Caesar! Why haven’t we excavated it the rest of the
way? This question prompted me to start imagining the types of documents that may very well still lie beneath the ash of Herculaneum.
Q: I understood some of the context surrounding the recent Papal election in Vatican City because of Dan Brown’s mysteries. Will your readers be immersed in factual, as well as fictional, content in The Vesuvius Isotope mystery? What kind?
A: I was actually reading Angels and Demons when Pope John Paul II died, so I was learning of the conclave process from the novel at the same time as it was actually happening in real life. Which was fascinating. The aforementioned trip to Italy was partly an excuse for me to visit all of those cool sites in Rome. So yes, Dan Brown is definitely an influence for The Vesuvius Isotope and there are several real-life themes presented in the novel. I’ll touch on one of them in the “Cleopatra” answer below.
Q: What research did you do for this book? Was more of it done through on-site travel or from books, documents, film/ video, Internet sources, and the questioning of experts? (Readers, for more info about experts, please see: http://www.noveltravelist.com/ )
A: All of the above. I learned a lot from the Internet, but I also traveled to the locations featured in the novel. While in Egypt, I kept a real-time blog of my travels and how they were playing into the research for the novel (this blog can be found at http://www.whatwouldkatrinado.blogspot.com, for anyone interested…) In addition to that, I read a number of non-fictional books to learn as much as possible about the themes I was exploring, in order to incorporate those themes in a fictional way while keeping many of them very close to reality. A list of references is found at the back of the novel in both print and e-book formats, for anyone who would like to know more. I also discuss many of these non-fictional pieces on my website at www.kristenelisephd.com.
Q: What made you decide to make Cleopatra’s writing the source of the ancient remedy for the disastrous epidemic threatening the world in your story?
A: Ha ha. Cleopatra decided it for me. Once the idea was seeded to unearth a medical text from the Villa dei Papiri, I started doing research on ancient Rome – something I knew absolutely nothing about – to find out who might have written the kind of document I was thinking about. Cleopatra was the obvious answer. Her interest in the sciences and pharmacology is very well documented. And despite the fact that she spoke nine languages and was the sole proprietor of the great library of Alexandria, we have never found a single document of hers. So it occurred to me that she could easily have hidden her writings elsewhere, something I also found ample evidence of once I started looking. And as mentioned before, the Villa dei Papiri was owned by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, and Cleopatra was Caesar’s last lover. So in short, she sort of wrote herself into the story I was already writing.
Q: In real life, you have researched cancer drugs. Will a deficit of understanding about biological molecular inhibitors and/or activators hinder your readers’ understanding of your book? If not, how have you made the scientific aspect of the story understandable?
A: My goal is to challenge the reader intellectually, but NOT to require that the reader have a Ph.D. There are a lot of tricks that I incorporate in order to make the science clear to the layperson. One of them is to have frequent dialogues between scientist characters and layperson characters. This requires the scientist to speak as I would speak when explaining what I do to my own friends and family who aren’t in the field. I also have a priceless group of honest readers/reviewers (my editor included,) who are not scientists, reviewing the writing as I go – so they tell me when their eyes are starting to glaze over. That’s where I end the scene, simplify it, trim it down, or present it in a different way. In fact, I think The Vesuvius Isotope is heavier in history than it is in science, but I try to break both the history and the science up with a lot of easier-reading action.
Q: The rapid fire back and forth in time narration sequences give the first two chapters an exciting dynamic of suspense. How did you decide on that style? Does it continue throughout the book?
A: I have always been an avid reader of page-turning thrillers, so I guess this style was one that just rubbed off. It does continue throughout the book – I’m not sure I can write any other way, ha ha.
Read more about Kristen Elise and her new books at http://www.kristenelisephd.com/