I reviewed J.M. Sidorova’s novel, The Age Of Ice, previously. Now, I have an interview I conducted with the author.
Welcome, J.M. to Seize The Moment! It is great to have you here. How are you?
Hi Nassem, thanks for having me here at Seize the Moment.
1. The Age Of Ice is your debut novel, and is very well written. When did you begin to write?
Thank you for your praise. I began to write at the age seven or so. (It is not uncommon for a future writer to manifest some kind of a “writing affliction” at an early age.) As for when I began to write well — that is an open question. Maybe almost forty years later?
2. Your book is from first-person. How did you get in the head of Prince Alexander Velitzyn?
I did not get in his head, he got in mine. But seriously? Hard to say. I’ve put a little bit of my father into him, a little bit of myself. A lot of what preoccupies his mind is hindsight. I love hindsight! Also, I do believe that one can use relatively small and ordinary personal experiences as a seed to build (with some research on the subject, of course) something extraordinary and dramatic. It’s like growing salt crystals – you need something for it to nucleate on. As an example: what writer has been in a spaceship crash? No one. But some had been in a car crash. And others had crashed on a bicycle. In a sense, you can use your bicycle crash experience as a seed to create your spaceship crash narrative.
3. I understand that you are a science research professor at the University of Washington. On the ice part of The Age Of Ice, did your extensive knowledge of this subject influence your book?
I would not call myself an expert on ice. I know the basics of the physics of water, the kind of a background knowledge that is so integral to what we do in the lab, that we don’t even notice that we use it. The same thing may have happened with the book — some of the references to ice are just paraphrased basic scientific facts. One thing I know is that water is such a marvelous substance that if I could I would have put a lot more about it into the book. For instance our (University of Washington’s) own Professor Gerald Pollack just published a book (http://faculty.washington.edu/ghp/new-book/) about a new, fourth state of water (in addition to solid, liquid, and gas) that actually may be very relevant to the way water behaves inside cells of living organisms. How awesome is that?
Nassem Comment: I am interested in reading that book! Water is fascinating, both how it got here to Earth and the forms it takes.
4. While we are on the science topic, could you tell us a bit about what scientific field you study in?
One way to describe it is this: imagine, every cell of a human body has a total of six feet of DNA cut into forty six pieces (yes, it’s not a typo, six feet), and packed into a volume that is about one ten-thousandth of that in diameter. When a cell divides into two, it needs first to accurately copy all six feet of its DNA. Cells accomplish this goal in under eight hours using thousands of “copy machines” that are each about one millionth of a foot long. I study how cells manage to do it and not mess things up, even under challenging conditions.
Nassem Comment: That is an amazing fact, the 6 feet of DNA fact. It makes you look at life itself differently.
5. How much of real science fact is Alexander’s immortality based off of? Does it have something to do with heat particles and the temperature?
Oh, I wish it was based in real science. Short of that, let’s take some real science and run wild with it. I am going to continue on with my crystals analogy. Bear with me. Ice is water crystals, right? Proteins can also form crystals. Normally though, proteins in living organisms are not supposed to form indestructible crystallized aggregates. But certain altered proteins inside cells can fold in a wrong way and form an indestructible crystal. This crystal is now a seed around which more of the protein aggregates. The crystal grows. What you get in an upshot is mad cow disease, and indestructible seeds of crystallization are called prions. For all intents and purposes prion crystals are infectious, transmissible, and they multiply by recruiting more building blocks to themselves from the organisms they infected. Now apply all of this back to ice crystals and imagine that ice has “infected” our character at conception and is now in every cell of his body; it has co-crystallized with proteins inside his cells and takes part in every process. Longevity just may be a side effect of that.
6. Prince Alexander was conceived and developed his…unique…trait in the real-life Palace Of Ice, constructed by Empress Anna Ioannovna. How did you first come upon knowledge about this palace, and was it the main inspiration for The Age Of Ice?
That’s an easy answer: I read about the Ice Palace in a New Yorker article by Elif Batuman, and yes, it was indeed the straight-on, direct, kick-starting inspiration for the novel.
Nassem Comment: I was sent a copy of said article with the review copy of The Age Of Ice. It truly was very interesting to read, and I would encourage any readers to read the article before the book.
7. As Alexander is on his journey to discover who he really is, he travels to many different places, among them Paris, the Middle East, and Siberia. Which of the many places were your favorite to research and write about?
Each one was my absolute favorite when I worked on it. A sort of serial favoritism on my part. Looking back, I now have unique associations with each place, personal experiences that they are attached to. I have seen readers and critics call the Siberian chapter extremely dark, and I am very glad to see that because that is exactly how I wanted it. So I guess that makes it a favorite in terms of having accomplished the goal.
8. What authors have influenced you the most in your writing?
The list is long, and it could be said it contains everybody I happened to read at an impressionable age between — I don’t know — sixteen and twenty two. Those were not so much influences as impacts, style and story all packed together in a punch. To give just a few examples off the list — Sasha Sokolov, Julio Cortazar, Jorge Luis Borges, Stanislav Lem, Thomas Mann, Salman Rushdie; but really, I can go on and on.
9. Where does your greatest support come from? What hobbies do you enjoy?
Professionally, I am lucky to be part of a great writer and reader community here in Seattle, which also includes folks involved with Clarion West workshop for speculative fiction writers (of which I am a graduate). My family definitely should be awarded Best Supporting Family Member titles. As for hobbies… who has the time? Very occasionally, we do the outdoor sports typical for Seattle — things involving mountains or large bodies of water — and the rest of the time we recover from injuries and muscle soreness incurred due to performing those outdoor sports.
Thank you so much, J.M. You have honored me, allowing me to interview you. As I stated in my review of The Age Of Ice, the book is one of my favorites I have ever read, due to the rich text and blending of history and science. Thank you.