This interview with Urno Barthel was updated in August 2015.
Q: Why did you decide to write Death By Probability and your other books?
A: I wanted to share the things I love: the special world of the laboratory, a private world where there are secrets within secrets; and the local color of the Malibu hills, full of beauty and danger. I want to make all this sing for a reader who is not a scientist.
Q: Who is your target audience?
A: Death by Probability and its sequels are relaxed mysteries, plus a bit of a thriller. There’s a puzzle that urgently must be solved, and its solution requires some technology.
So here’s the audience: Mystery buffs who like believable stories. Fans of techno-thrillers. And readers of science fact and science fiction who enjoy a puzzle, and don’t mind a bit of sex along the way.
Q: Why do you write under the name Urno Barthel when people know who you are?
A: I share the name Arthur Chester (and its inversion) with some famous people, so it’s difficult to Google me and my work. However, Urno Barthel is distinctive — if you search Urno Barthel, you should be able to find my novels without any trouble! In addition, writing as Urno Barthel emphasizes that the work is fiction, not a memoir, and that no one should be tempted to compare the people and places in my novels with real life.
Q: What are the difficulties in writing about lab life?
A: My biggest concern is that the technology will get in the way of the story, and lose the reader.
To a researcher, the science is the central thing. Even if you aspire to do something useful for the world, and make a good living for your family, you’re in love with technology: you chose this particular career because you have a talent and an affection for science. However, to tell a story about what it’s like to be in a research environment, the science has to step aside, and get out of the way of events.
Q: What is it like inside a research lab?
A: It’s like a small town, with anywhere from a few dozen to a few thousand people, isolated from the bustle of the world. And not just anyone can walk in there, especially in our dangerous modern world. There are physical boundaries to exclude outsiders.
There are psychological boundaries too – scientists with advanced degrees are “insiders”, directly contributing to the research mission, but everyone else is “merely” Support. And there’s an inverse hierarchy as well, in which scientists may be so focused on their projects that they are ignorant of the friendships and intrigues that create the dynamics of the lab.
Q: Is a lab a great place to work? Or only if you’re a scientist?
A: The rewards are different for scientists and non-scientists, but either way, an R&D lab is a wonderful place to work. Because it has a long-term mission and (usually) long-term funding, it’s a stable environment. The combination of isolation and low employee turnover means that, for better or for worse, you really get to know the people around you.
Q: How do you talk about science or technology to a reader?
A: I try to give just enough detail that the reader gets an idea of what’s happening without it slowing down the story. This mirrors the actual situation in a lab: no matter how smart you are, just down the hall is someone who knows a lot more about his or her specialty than you do. If you ask that person what they’re doing, you’re only going to understand a fraction of what they say unless you really study the topic.
Q: But surely the details are important?
A: The technology needs to be believable, but its details are not critical to tell a story. But yes, if you’re a researcher who’s actually creating new technology, or improving on what we call “the state of the art”, the details are absolutely critical.
There’s a TV commercial about getting oil and gas out of deep deposits that says “you just have to have the idea.” That’s an oversimplification. The idea is just the start of a big effort, usually involving many people and much time, before a new idea becomes accepted and practically useful.
Q: How accurate is the science in your novels?
A: The stories and novels are set several years in the future. Within that time frame, I can make an intelligent guess about what can actually be done, so all the technology is stuff that you could plausibly find in a research lab then. If you go far into the future – say 100 years – you have science fiction, which is fun in its own right but depends on speculation. My writing is not science fiction — it’s fiction about scientists.
Q: What are the equations that appear in some of the photos on your website?
A: Those equations are foundation stuff for someone in the physical sciences — a taste of Electromagnetics, Quantum Mechanics, Relativity, Quantum Optics and Thermodynamics. But they’re in the background, to get out of the way of the story!