Ashland Authors: Nancy Parker

A rollercoaster ride akin to the spiraling structure of DNA, "Double Helix" is a techno thriller that may leave you drop-jawed as to why you'd never heard of it or Ashland author Nancy Parker.

Parker is that rare breed of cat in whose hands technical detail becomes a story-telling device, part of the labyrinth heroine Kate Lipton must work through to thwart Vikon, a corporation that would use a genetic breakthrough to further its evil ends.

MJ: What inspired the plot of 'Double Helix'?

NP: I happened upon an article in Scientific American magazine to do with a group of geneticists who had tweaked the DNA of fruit flies and extended the flies' life expectancy by a factor of 6 — from one month to six months. For me, it begged the question, "What if that were translated to human life expectancies?" We'd be talking about an average human life expectancy of 500 or more years. And that begged the next question: "How could planet Earth survive such a voracious, long-lived human species?" And, "Who would benefit from such a revolution in our species?"

MJ: Your protagonist, Kate Lipton, and her partner, Jack Sullivan, get around by sailboat through the Grenadines, where most of the action in "Double Helix" takes place. The concrete details of specific inlets, reefs, currents and landings suggest that you may have spent some time in the Caribbean beating to weather. Are you an old salt?

NP: I've sailed the Windward Islands of the Caribbean three times and have sailed at least once into every port I write about in "Double Helix" — except one. My Triangle Bay in "Double Helix," which is a made-up name for a real place, was designated off-limits by the Grenadine military when I sailed the southern coast of Grenada. So I never visited that specific location. I was able to write about that bay after communicating with locals by mail and e-mail. I did eat roasted armadillo at Mama's Restaurant in Grenada, which was not bad, really. So, am I "an old salt?" Well, a salt, but not a terribly old one.

MJ: Do you have a background in biochemistry or did you pick up your knowledge of DNA on your own?

NP: I have no formal training. I read and studied a great deal. I also relied on a few very brilliant people in the field: Dr. Malcolm Raff, for one, who I met as a result of my first novel, "The Omega Transmissions." In addition to a career in biochemistry, Dr. Raff is expert in and is a supporter of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). He tracked me down at a book signing in Palo Alto. He liked the novel, "Double Helix," but always objected to its title because it was too close to Dr. Francis Crick's title, "The Double Helix," which describes Crick and Watson's discovery of the structure of DNA. He advised me on many details of bio-engineering, as well as such esoterica as which constellations would be visible on a specific date in the early morning sky from a sailboat in Grenada.

MJ: Your heroine has to hack into corporate computer files as part of her investigation. How did you come by the specifics of this procedure?

NP: Heh, heh. In the '70s and '80s, I worked as a computer programmer for large banks in the Bay Area. Let me hasten to add that I never hacked into anything, of course, but I did learn quite a bit about the Swift Banking Network and electronic funds transfers. I knew many pointy head techie types, like my character Tim Thurmond, who advises Kate on a "swift-hopping" technique by which she hacks into Vikon Corporation's computer system.

Nancy Parker grew up in Southern California and attended UC Berkeley and UCLA, earning a bachelor's with majors in political science and art. In the '80s, she worked in Silicon Valley as a programmer and eventually formed her own company, Linkages Systems Group, writing custom software for a variety of banks, airlines, and non-profit organizations around the US. The Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989 was a life turning point. Living in the San Francisco Marina at the time of the quake, Parker opted to leave the tectonic excitement behind in favor of Ashland, where she now lives and writes. She has authored two novels, both high-tech thrillers starring Kate Lipton, investigative reporter. The first, "The Omega Transmissions," published in 1994, was followed by "Double Helix," published in 2000. A third in the series is in the works.

MJ: I read somewhere that movie rights to "Double Helix" were optioned. Is there a movie in development?

NP: I wish. It was optioned by Alex Rose, of "Norma Rae" fame (also "Overboard" and "The Other Sister"), but after a few years, she allowed the option to lapse. I still hope because the subject remains timely and it is a very visual novel.

MJ: Vikon is brought down when the bodies of several human research subjects are discovered. Kate and Jack escape with the evidence of Vikon's nefarious genetic engineering only to be accosted by a mysterious "agent" who relieves Kate of all of her evidence except for one set of discs. It seems Kate will not expose Vikon's plot to alter the human race. What did you intend by writing the ending this way and who does the agent work for?

NP: Ah, Air Belew is the agent's name. I have a third novel in me, in which she figures prominently. So I'm going to hold back on revealing who she works for. "Double Helix" is the second of my Kate Lipton techno-thrillers. The first was "The Omega Transmissions," and the next one, untitled, is in the works.

MJ: What have you been working on since "Double Helix" was published?

NP: Well, the third novel, of course, and some poetry, as well. I don't know whether you noticed, but there are 64 chapters in "Double Helix." Based on their action, I assigned each chapter one of the 64 unique symbols from the I Ching. I used this convention because there are also 64 triplets in our DNA corresponding to our amino acids. So the number 64 is significant in terms of what I consider our miraculous genetic alphabet. Recently, I started a collection of 64 poems, one for each of the I Ching symbols. Apart from writing, I also play keyboard in a small band and helped with the Ashland Peace Fence over the past few years. I do quite a bit of personal computer consulting around the valley. I love backpacking and hiking. All that keeps me busy, but I do regret that I've not been sailing in the Caribbean at all since I finished "Double Helix."