By Paul Gabrielsen, senior science writer, University Marketing and Communications
In May 2017 Sylvia Torti, dean of the University of Utah’s Honors College, published her second novel “Cages,” with Schaffner Press. The book explores the lives of biologists studying birdsong in a laboratory, an environment in which Torti, who holds a doctorate in biology and an appointment as an adjunct professor at the U, is comfortable.
Of Torti’s novel, Betsy Burton, of Salt Lake City’s The King’s English Bookshop wrote: “At once lyrical and deeply scientific, philosophical and rich with love of the physical world, ‘Cages’ is utterly engaging, rich in metaphor and brimming with questions that get to the heart of human love and human loneliness.”
I spoke with Torti about her creative writing.
How have your interests in science and writing intertwined throughout your life?
One of the first scientific projects I undertook was in Chiapas, Mexico. I went there to look at the [biological] system and ended up waking up in a civil war, the Zapatista rebellion of 1994. My experiences in Chiapas were quite dramatic and a little bit traumatic. It was a place that was complicated ecologically, socially, culturally and politically. I later did my Ph.D. work in Africa in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. I had a lot of time that I was alone. I started to experiment with processing my experiences in Mexico through short story writing.
From that time on, I kept working on what became my first novel, “The Scorpion’s Tail,” which is about four different characters who are coming of age within the Zapatista rebellion. Three of them are Mexican, one is American. There are two biologists. There’s a lot of science in that work.
All of my work, largely, has something to do with science: Scientists doing their work and scientific questions, embedded in the world of fiction. Artists and scientists’ work have very similar processes. Both groups of people tend to be really good observers. The best scientists are fabulous observers and are very curious about what they’re seeing. They are constantly asking questions.
How does your experience with scientists help you create realistic characters?
In the popular media, too often scientists are still portrayed as these one-sided geeky guys in lab coats. That’s not my experience of scientists. I’ve been in the world of science since I started my undergraduate work. Most of my work has been at field stations and it’s not a day job — it’s an all-day, all-night lifestyle where you wake up and you’re having breakfast together and you go out in the field and you’re having lunch together and discussions after dinner. I’m just portraying experiences and the kinds of people I know as scientists, although none of my work is based on any one person. Scientists are smart, creative, fun people who have rich inner lives, and we don’t talk enough about that.
How does your writing process begin?
A lot of my work starts with an idea for a character or an idea of a theory that resonates somehow with what’s going on in the world. It’s a combination of something that comes out of myself, an emotion I’m feeling, a sense of awe or a question that I don’t understand. If I meet a person or see something in nature that seems quirky and difficult to understand, my mind will catch on it and I continue thinking about that for a while.
I will often start with a shorter piece. Both of my novels began as short stories. I have other short stories that I’ve written that began and ended as short stories and will never have more life. Sometimes you end up with a short story where it has a lot more energy to it and a lot more to be explored. If I’m interested enough, these stories give me the impetus to keep writing and keep exploring.
It’s about putting words on the page, and a lot of those words you won’t use, but it’s a process of discovery. There has to be energy around it, something that makes you think, “I need to know more about this.”
What drives you as a writer?
I gain a lot of pleasure spending time in my head and thinking about the characters and the concepts that I’m interested in. Being in the world of fiction frees me up. Even the nonfiction I write frees me up. That is the goal. As far as what gets produced in the world, I hope that at some point my body of work adds something to the conversation of being a scientist and asking scientific questions and looking at the world through that lens, as well as looking at the world through the lens of the humanities.
In an audio extra below, hear Torti describe how a first novel is like a science experiment, and how a second novel is different than the first.