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Interview With an Author: Arwen Elys Dayton

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Arwen Elys Dayton and her latest book Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful

Arwen Elys Dayton is the best-selling author of the Egyptian sci-fi thriller Resurrection and the near-future Seeker Series, set in Scotland and Hong Kong. She spends months doing research for her stories. Her explorations have taken her around the world to places like the Great Pyramid at Giza, Hong Kong and its islands, the Baltic Sea. Arwen lives with her husband and their three children on West Coast of the United States. Her latest book is Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful and she recently agreed to be interviewed about it by Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was the inspiration for Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful?

A few years ago, I became quite obsessed with news about gene editing. After reading dozens of articles on CRISPR, methods of growing human organs outside the body, and all manner of coming wonders, I thought, “This is it. Soon we’ll be able to eradicate disease, extend our lifespans, turn humans into superhumans!” But a few minutes later, I had a different thought: “We will definitely find some way of messing this up in spectacular fashion.” This novel was born in the space between my first and second thought. Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful shows us our possible future as a species, and it asks, “How will you grow up, fall in and out of love, and figure out who you are when the very essence of you is changing?”

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

Early on I had five of the stories in my head. Later, I realized I need a sixth story, a story that showed the personal narrative of the Reverend Tad Tadd and his daughter Elsie. Since the dear Reverend is in every story and ends up dramatically influencing the course of human civilization, it was important to get a look inside his own life, even if only briefly. That became the third section of the book.

The evolution of the novel as a whole involved placing each section of the story on a master timeline of our world. School Library Journal described Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful as painting “A future history of humankind.” I really liked that description because that was exactly what I had to do to tie the six parts of this book together—plan out our “future history” and then figure out where each piece of the book fit exactly and what would be revealed through that portion of the narrative.

Any of the plots for the six stories told in Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful seem to be compelling enough for a novel. Do you have any plans to expand any of them to novel length?

I’ve thought about this a lot. I think the answer is that, if the reader feels they want more of a story, maybe I’ve made it just the right length? Maybe I’ve told the best part of the tale and then allowed the audience’s imagination take over? And yet, certain stories would be terrific fun to revisit and expand; "Dolphin-boy", "The asteroid mining slaves", and "The Protos", to name three. So I won’t rule it out. If you look at my answer to the final question below, you’ll see that I’m working on a companion novel to Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful. Maybe some of these stories will twine their way into the second book.

Are Evan, Julia, Reverend Tad Tadd, Ludmilla, Gabriel, Alexios, Jake, Kostya, Luck, Starlock, or any of the other characters inspired by or based on specific individuals?

This may be the question authors get the most—are our characters based on real people in our lives? For me, the answer is always “Yes and no.” Elements of the characters in Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful come from real people, for sure. Some examples:

  • I have a touch of Alexios’s obsessive mental puzzling. I watch digital clocks and make patterns with each row of numbers that comes up as the seconds tick by; I sometimes try to fit pieces of the world together like objects in Tetris; and I have a book of IQ tests on my nightstand with which I frequently torture myself when I need to relax.
  • Evan and Julia have some similarities to my two oldest children who, while not twins, are only fifteen months apart. They have their own language and jokes that no one else can quite keep up with, and they and my husband tend to make long series of many-layered puns.
  • And yet I can’t say the characters are based on or even inspired by me and my kids, exactly. I simply steal personality traits from everyone.

Did you do a lot of research before writing Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful?

So much research! I read hundreds of articles and then spent many, many hours interviewing scientists from MIT Media Lab, UCSF, UCLA and other institutions who are, in the real world, figuring out how to use gene editing to fight disease and extend the human lifespan.

What is the most interesting, surprising, or terrifying thing that you learned about biotechnology and bioengineering during your research?

I found myself repeatedly up against the dilemma of what to include in the story. But perhaps the most fascinating/terrifying is the potential for creating artificially edited human children, children with traits that have never existed in our species before.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

AI Superpowers by Kai-Fu Li and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

The King Must Die by Mary Renault and of course all of the Narnia books.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

This is such a great question. Lolita. So weird and disturbing and yet I couldn’t stop reading it. 

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Honestly, it’s hard to think of only five, but here are the authors who immediately come to mind: Mary Renault, Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, JK Rowling, Agatha Christie.

What is a book you've faked reading?

Even though I’m named for a character in The Lord of the Rings, I didn’t actually read The Lord of the Rings until my late teens. So from about age 13-19, I had to pretend that I’d already read the books and knew all about my namesake (Arwen Evenstar)—otherwise, people would think I was a complete amateur at both life and literature.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Dune by Frank Herbert.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

In addition to Dune (see above—it changed my life!) I would add The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I could agonize over this one, but I’m going to give the answer that first popped into my mind: Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla became friends in the 1890s and Twain famously spent time in Tesla’s lab. I would give a lot to spend one day in that lab observing the two of them.

What are you working on now?

I’m intensely interested in evolution and the astonishing variety of living things that have inhabited our world over the past billions of years. I’m finishing a manuscript that deals (quite fancifully) with the many different faces Earth has worn from the time of the first microorganisms that began to transform it, all the way until the present time. And I am also writing a companion novel to Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful.