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Interview: John McCabe - Science of writing a best-seller; Terry Grimley meets John McCabe, Birmingham scientist turned best-selling novelist.

Unless you have been forewarned, you are likely to be puzzled by the message on John McCabe's answer phone inviting you to leave a message for "Chris".

So what is the relationship between novelist John McCabe, whose first book Stickleback is currently riding high in the best-seller lists, and geneticist Dr Chris McCabe? They are, of course, the same person.

"The use of a different name is purely to do with my work, in that I publish scientific papers and I don't want the two to overlap," he explains. He is also wary of identifying the Birmingham hospital where he is involved in research into tumours of the pituitary, reflecting that very British reluctance to let two very different professional worlds collide.

But then scientific research and writing fiction are not the only strings to his bow. He can also be seen once a fortnight at Wolverhampton Civic Hall, DJ-ing to audiences of up to 1,400 people.

"I've been doing that for years, since I was a student at Sheffield University," he says. "It's quite a good way of earning a lot of money when you're a student. I play guitar-based stuff - Radiohead, Pulp, Oasis. Someone at Radio Sheffield asked what ki nd of stuff I played and said 'Oh - mainstream' , and I suppose it is now, but when I started it was very alternative."

Born in Vancouver in 1967 to parents originally from Yorkshire, his family returned to settle in Somerset. He graduated with a first class degree from Sheffield in 1990 and arrived in Birmingham that year to take a PhD.

"Unfortunately I didn't do any work at all", he recalls, "and missed the grade I needed by one point. But I got an offer from Sheffield to read genetics. I realised I have a need to do nerdy, physical, technical things."

Although he had always been interested in fiction he had never tried his hand until he finally sat down to write the book which became Stickleback. Not for him the long struggle of many novelists, working their way through rejected drafts and short stori es to their first published book.

"Without being conceited, I always thought I could write a book. There was no tortured process, though the book started off being about something completely different. Once I started writing I sat down and wrote for nine months, then sent it off and got it published. I'd read a couple of really ropey books and thought I could do better."

The title of the book refers to the stickleback's formalised courtship rituals, a metaphor for the strategy of the novel's hero in surviving life in a mind-numbingly boring job.

"Basically the main character is locked into a series of routines that bind his life together," McCabe explains. "Through the book, progressively these routines fall apart and he falls apart. But the routines aren't necessarily the overwhelming theme of the book."

The character's dissolution takes place against a recognisable Birmingham landscape, although the Jug of Ale featured in the book is based not on the popular music venue in Moseley but a less salubrious pub in another suburb. The number 11 bus also plays a significant part in the book, providing the metaphor of an aimless circular journey and also certain chance encounters which prove a decisive catalyst to the story.

"When I started writing it two years ago I didn't have a car and I used to use the bus," he recalls. "You come to see things that are well worth putting into books. Then I got a two-book deal and bought a car, so now I don't use the bus. It's a case of a rt changing life.

"I think there's a lot of observation of Birmingham in the book.

"It's like David Lodge; what he does is to take Birmingham and poke fun at it, but in an affectionate way, like a friend who has faults but at the end of the day is still a friend.

"I have a great affection for the place; it doesn't get a good press but it's a great place to live."

One of the the first things that struck him about Birmingham was how down-to-earth it was. It is a quality he has come to appreciate all the more since the success of Stickleback has thrust him into close contact with the London literary world.

"I was in London recently and they put me up at the Groucho. When I walked into the bar Salman Rushdie came up and stood next to me and then it was just one famous person after another. I suppose they all have to have somewhere to go."

At the moment he is working on a screen treatment of Stickleback for the BBC, with a view to its being produced as either as a television film or for the cinema.

"I was talking to someone at the BBC the other day and he asked when I was going to give up the day job. But my work in genetics is going really well - I'm certainly not treading water there."

Now he is looking forward to the prospect of moving to Los Angeles for six months - not to Hollywood, though that will be tantalisingly close - but as part of his scientific work. It should provide useful material for his third book, to be set in America and Birmingham. The second, Paper, which is already finished, is not set in the city but sounds uncomfortably close to home in another sense - it is about a geneticist whose world falls apart when he loses his job.

"There are thoughts I might have had or avenues I might have taken... in a way it's quite therapeutic to get those out by creating a character to whom those things do happen."

John McCabe talks about Stickleback at the Readers & Writers Festival on Monday with Mike Gayle. (MAC, Cannon Hill Park, 7.30pm). Stickleback is published by Granta at pounds 9.99.

CORRECTION: The Poetry Party tribute to Ryland Campbell at the Farce & Firkin, Selly Oak, takes place on Saturday at 8pm, not Sunday as we mistakenly said in Tuesday's preview.
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Author:Grimley, Terry
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Oct 29, 1998
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