August 12, 2013
A chilly epic: Biologist Julia Sidorova’s novel, ‘The Age of Ice’
Julia Sidorova is a research scientist for the UW Department of Pathology and author of the new novel “The Age of Ice.” She answered a few questions about the book and her writing for UW Today.
Q: Early online reviewers of “The Age of Ice” use words such as “sweeping” and “ambitious” to describe it. What is the plot of this book, your debut novel?
A: The book is written as a memoir of a Russian nobleman who is burdened with an unusual relationship with ice, having been born to parents who’d spent their wedding night in an ice palace (the wedding and the palace are true historical facts).
The plot is essentially a life history, except the life in question begins in 1740 and comes to a conclusion in 2007. In between, there is a civil war, an expedition to the Arctic, Napoleonic wars, espionage and war in Afghanistan, pre-First World War Russia, and finally a little bit of modern day Europe and America.
Julia Sidorova will read from her book at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 14, at the Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle.
Q: What got you started writing this book? Was there a great deal of research involved?
A: The idea to write about a child born of the ice wedding came after I read an article by Elif Batuman, “Ice Renaissance,” which described the original ice palace in St. Petersburg in 1740 and its recreation in 2006. I wrote a prologue and only then it struck me how much research I had to do, that my Russian background (some gut feeling, some basic history, and a residue of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky) would not suffice.
As they say, sometimes you have to read a whole book in order to get one sentence right. So I did the research. It ended up being a very rewarding experience in and of itself.
Q: Would you briefly describe your work at the UW? Does your UW work inform your writing in any way? If so, how?
A: I am a molecular biologist working on DNA replication and repair in human cells. Some of my work here contributed to the understanding of molecular functions of the protein called WRN, which is deficient in people with Werner syndrome of premature aging.
I can say that I think a lot about cellular aging and immortalization in the line of my work, but this novel, unlike some of my science fiction short stories, is not directly inspired by my studies. If anything, I had to silence a biomedical scientist in me so that she would not ridicule the fantastic elements of the book. On a more general level though, the book touches upon the enduring contest between the rational and the miraculous worldviews — a subject that I often think about.
Q: Where can readers find some of your earlier fiction, including those science fiction stories?
A: Most of my short stories have been published in online venues and some of them are still up and available for free. To bring just a few examples, for a literary fare there is a story titled “Standard Deviation.” And an alternate history of science story, “Galileo Day,” includes true-to-life vignettes of early 18th century biomedical research. “Messenger” is not your regular fantasy story.
My most recent story, “The Colors of Cold,” was written to dovetail into the novel, and is currently available as a free e-book at the publisher’s website and on Amazon.com.
Q: What lies ahead for you as a writer?
A: As in scientific research, there is no resting on oars in writing either. The “publish or perish” rule applies to a scientist and a writer in equal measure. I am beginning to work on my next novel.