It was 1982, and Leonard, a young research fellow, was telling his girlfriend’s mother and sister about his work on yeast genetics. He carefully explained the basics, noting that mating yeast cells have a crucial gene that comes in two versions.
Then he told them his research goal: “We’re trying to figure out why the progeny of a given cell division can acquire different developmental fates.” To find out, his lab was removing a gene from yeast and putting it in backward to see if the offspring developed differently.
The scene is fictional; it appears in a best-selling new novel, “The Marriage Plot,” by Jeffrey Eugenides. But when the geneticist Amar J.S. Klar read it, he said in an interview, he was flooded with 20-year-old memories.
The detailed description was of his own work. The yeast studies were ones that had made his scientific reputation. The fictional laboratory sounded just like his old lab at Cold Spring Harbor, on Long Island.
Klar, now at the National Institutes of Health, was not upset. He was astounded. Somehow a popular novelist had read and absorbed his work, describing it in detail and acknowledging his paper in the preface.
All the more surprising is that Eugenides is far from being an expert in genetics. He did not study science and does not even know many scientists, he said in an interview; his friends are mainly writers and actors. When he wrote those descriptions of Leonard’s research, he had never been in a yeast genetics lab, had never spoken to a yeast genetics researcher. He had never been to Cold Spring Harbor.
Eugenides’ feat — creating an accurate world of science and scientists — raises questions about how much research fiction writers must do to write about science and whether, somehow, they can figure out this most esoteric world without going near it.
It took five years for Eugenides to write “The Marriage Plot.” He started, he said, with a concept of two of the central characters, Leonard and Madeleine.
Leonard, he decided, was going to be the best boyfriend Madeleine had ever had — and the worst. But how would he convey that?
“I had to start giving him qualities,” he said.
Eugenides’ method, he said, is to learn a few facts and then use his imagination, working alone in his large Tudor-style house in Princeton, N.J., a short walk from the university, where he teaches part time.
“I wanted a character who was impressive in college for a range of knowledge,” he said. “I toyed with making him a physicist or chemist,” he said, but he settled on biology because that was a subject he had looked into when writing a previous novel, “Middlesex” (2002), about a person whose sex is ambiguous.
As part of the “best and worst boyfriend” package, he decided to give Leonard bipolar disease. Eugenides said he had never known anyone with the disorder, but looked it up online, finding symptoms and drugs and side effects. He asked himself what it might feel like to be manic, to be depressed.
“Maybe there was a time when I did youthful, risky things,” Eugenides said. “I stayed up all night. There were rare moments when I felt my most brilliant and my most conceited.” What might it feel like to be in that state for months at a time? What might Leonard say? What would he do?
He asked similar questions about Leonard’s science.
“What would he be doing in 1982? What science was current at that time?” He went to the Internet and stumbled upon studies of yeast mating systems. Perfect, he thought. It fit well with the theme of his book.
He labored for years, writing and rewriting, watching the book and its characters take form. But the only person who saw any of his work was a psychiatrist who helped get the drug doses correct for a person with bipolar disease in 1982. Other than that, Eugenides said, “I did not show it to a soul.”
Mark Rose, a yeast geneticist at Princeton, was asked by friends if he had tutored Eugenides. No, he said, he’d never met the man.
And yet, Rose said, Eugenides “really does manage to capture not only the field, but the setting.” In fact, Leonard took a yeast genetics course that was just like a course Rose had taught at Cold Spring Harbor.
“All of that was spot on,” Rose said.
In fact, Eugenides did consult a yeast geneticist, though not Rose. When the book was written, but before he turned it in, he said, he went to see the Princeton geneticist David Botstein to check facts and “spice up the scenes.”
Botstein took his visitor into his lab and announced, “I have here a novelist.”
Silverman remembers Eugenides coming to the lab, but does not recall details of his visit.
Eugenides, he said, “didn’t spend much time here.”
But he got what he needed.