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Kristi Charish

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Profile: Kristi Charish’s science training lends believability to her work

llustration: Rachel Idzerda

Illustration: Rachel Idzerda

Kristi Charish was studying archaeology at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University in 1996 when a collection of bones was discovered in Washington state. Carbon dating showed the skeleton – named Kennewick Man, after the area where it was found – to be about 9,000 years old. Even more exciting than the discovery itself was evidence indicating the bones were Caucasian – a startling find, given the ethnicity of the groups in the area during that time period.

Charish’s professor asked the class whether genetic testing should be performed on the remains to further confirm its ethnic origins. Charish felt it should, but her professor and classmates opposed the idea, believing it would cause political strife among the area’s native American groups, such as the Umatilla, by potentially showing the existence of Caucasians living on native land thousands of years ago. “I’m sitting there saying, ‘When did this become a not-science?’” Charish says.

Despite her own early frustrations, Charish did not drop out. She eventually switched to zoology, and subsequently specialized in genetics, cell biology, biochemistry, and molecular biology, taking her studies of fruit flies all the way to the PhD level. It was only later that Charish realized, as much as she revered the scientific method, there was something she’d much rather do instead. “[I’d] put in 10 years of genetic research, but the next step would have been a post-doc and/or becoming a professor at a university, which is mostly grant writing, research papers, and directing other people’s research,” she says. “I wasn’t going to quit my PhD or anything like that, but I started thinking more about what I’d like to do.”

In 2010, Charish began turning out early chapters of Owl and the Japanese Circus – an “urban” fantasy novel following a heroic “Indiana Jane” archaeologist reluctantly drawn into a supernatural world – and sending them off to friends for their opinion.

Three years later, Charish signed with agent Carolyn Forde at Westwood Creative Artists, and by November 2014, had five books under contract with two major publishers. In January 2015, Simon & Schuster Canada published Owl and the Japanese Circus, the first title in the Owl trilogy, followed quickly by a second instalment, Owl and the City of Angels, in May of that year. (The third title, Owl and the Electric Samurai, will appear in May 2017.) Charish’s stories “are full of these fun, plausible explanations,” says Forde. “Also, her voice – it’s fun and witty and sassy, just like her characters. I took her on, honestly, because I loved the sound of Indiana Jane meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer – and when I read Owl and the Japanese Circus, I was not disappointed.”

“When you get scientists turning around and doing some writing, we tend to look at it differently,” Charish says. “Of course, you’re creative, and you have those inspirations, but science is creative. Running experiments is very creative because there’s nothing you can memorize. You’ve got to take all the information in front of you and design an experiment. You have to be very nimble on your feet. You can’t sit there for two months and worry about a stumbling block.”

Charish’s latest novel, The Voodoo Killings – the first in her Kincaid Strange series, published by Vintage Canada, set in a delightfully grungy Seattle underworld – blends zombies with voodoo, magic, and ghosts. The Vancouver-based author’s scientific training came in handy in imagining how zombies would react to light, the rate at which they decay, and neurological reasons that make them need to eat brains. Charish doesn’t just make zombies scientifically plausible, she also puts them in a world where they have to be legislated, and where they can really complicate a murder investigation. “They’ll totally screw up the time of death,” she jokes.

In Charish’s books, science is important, but it’s never the sole focus. It’s used to bolster the world and make it believable, rather than act as a crucial plot point. Charish draws inspiration from authors like Peter Clines and Paolo Bacigalupi – the latter’s Hugo Award–winning novel, The Windup Girl, particularly, was crucial in defining her style. “I always recommend that to people who want to add science to their fiction,” she says. “The details have nothing to do with the story, they were just part of the world. I admired that book so much that whenever I put science into anything, I always strive to do that. I try to make it as seamless as possible.”– Rob Boffard