Austin Duffy

Posted by Sue Leonard on Thursday 31st March 2016

Blending science with life, Austin Duffy’s retrained, yet hauntingly beautiful debut novel, centres on a New York based Irish oncologist who has retreated from the ward to the lab. He is trying to find a breakthrough in cancer treatment by experimenting with mice.

The author is also an Irish oncologist who is looking for a breakthrough treatment. But he is based at The National Cancer Institute in Washington DC, running experimental treatments with patients rather than mice. But his knowledge, and the way he blends science so seamlessly into his story, making it not just palatable, but intriguing to the lay person, makes this an important book to treasure.

What, I wonder, do his colleagues make of it all.
“They don’t know about it,” says Austin, who is over in Dublin to launch the book. “They don’t know about my writing.”

This isn’t, he says, through any embarrassment; it’s not shyness, and it’s not that he’s ashamed.
“On the contrary I’m proud of my book. It’s more for me, that the zones are separate. In the morning I get up to write; I do an hour, then write on the train during my commute to work. But once I show my badge and go through the gates to work I become a different person. I write first thing in the way some people do yoga, and others go for a morning run.”

He makes it sound easy, but that takes a lot of discipline; especially since the arrival of his two children, a three year old boy and a girl of nine months.
“It means I have to get up earlier, and in recent months, when I’m working on my laptop, my son’s head appears over the screen. He’ll be looking for his porridge and you can’t really explain that you’re working on your novel.”

He started working on the book back in 2008, and it has been through several drafts and reincarnations. But what gave him the basic idea?

“I wanted to explain about the cancer of science,” he says. “There are weird paradoxes there. The disease itself is related to a life force that is struggling, and that results in sickness and death; but on another level, the deeper process by which cancer occurs, that of genetic mutations is also the way in which evolution has occurred, and that is life as we know it. I’m fascinated by that intrinsic, if horrific fact.”

Although centred in a world of cancer, this novel is far from gloomy. There are laugh out loud moment as we follow the unnamed narrator through his days, gaining extraordinary glimpses into the characters of all those he encounters. He’s a reserved man, careful in his relationships since the break up with his wife, who remained in Ireland. But the love story at the book’s core, is heartbreakingly told.

Austin covers ethical issues such as IVF and disability, showing the latter, in the form of the narrator’s brother Donal, who has Down Syndrome, in a wonderfully positive way.
“All this was related to the central theme; which is about control, what you can control and what you can’t,” says Austin.

“In cancer care, most of the scientific advances come from America. Were it not for their enterprise and spirit, we would not have got as far in cancer care for sure. But the mentality is very much, if there is a problem there is a solution. Americans are confident about that and it’s admirable in a way, but when a problem isn’t curable, they’ll look for another fix for it. Down Syndrome plays into that idea of controlling things that are beyond our control.”

The narrator’s favourite mouse, Henrietta, is so called because she was given cancer with cells emanating from Henrietta Lacks, a woman who died of cervical cancer in the 1950’s. The cancer cells, taken from her at the time, and propagated, still live on. And that, I suggest, is way stranger than any fiction.

“One of our lecturers at Trinity College Dublin mentioned Henrietta and the HeLa cell line. I wasn’t a particularly attentive student, but that stuck in my mind. I thought it would be fun to play with it.”

The author finished This Living and Immortal Thing back in 2014. He has continued writing since then, and his second novel will soon be ready to send out to his agent, Faith O’Grady.
“It’s totally different from this first one,” he says. “I don’t want to be a doctor writer, or, God forbid, a cancer doctor writer, so the second one isn’t medical.

“It has been easier than the first one to write, but it’s not the book I thought I was going to write. By the time I had finished my debut, I had sorted the second one out in my head. I started writing it, and I thought, this writing is nice, but I became utterly bored by it. I was doing nothing and had a week of panic, then took a second idea from before. And I instantly relaxed.”

Austin has no plans to give up writing, but he’s not about to ditch the day job either.
“I will certainly stay in it in the short term,” he says. “I’m happy in my job. There are a number of programmes that I have started that I would like to see through. My area of work, the immune based approach to cancer, has really taken off.

“The National cancer Institute is an unusual place. We just do experimental treatments on people who have been through all the standard procedures. There is a lot of hope there, but the reality is that often the outcome is not what you want.

“I was the principal investigator in study on pancreatic cancer. Developing the concepts, getting access to the drugs and getting approval from regulatory bodies takes a long time. We have now started to enrol patients in new immune treatments.”

He ended up as an oncologist, rather by accident; discovering it at the end of a stint travelling around Australia and New Zealand. And it was when he was finalising his training in New York that he fell into writing.

“This was 2006. I was there with no car, no TV and no internet. I had enjoyed writing at school; we had a Canadian teacher called Sidney Peck who taught us that writing could be fun. I thought, if I want to write, now is a good time to try. So I joined the Writer’s Studio doing a course one evening a week, and I really got into it.”

His family had no clue he was writing, until he won the Frank McManus Short Story Award in 2011.
“That was good,” he says. “It was a cancer related story.”

A novel, though, proved rather more complicated. The first drafts were less restrained.
“I was hitting the readers over the head,” he says, crediting his wife, Naomi, an artist, for her patience. “She read through all those early drafts. And she turned out to be an excellent editor.”

What does he hope readers will most appreciate in the novel?
“I want them to find it compelling, and the human experience to be recognisable. I hope they will be entertained by all the characters, and feel a sense of sympathy for them all, even the mice. The educational aspect is secondary. People won’t absorb the science if they are not entertained first.”

This Living and Immortal Thing by Austin Duffy is published by Granta: € 16.99. Kindle: €12.19

Published in The Irish Examiner, on 26th March.

© Sue Leonard. 2016.

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