The story synopsis
Paul Symon is an environmentalist who just wants to make the world a better place, but he’s overwhelmed by too much disjointed information, too much public apathy, too much self-serving talk and not enough action. Not to mention the opposition of greedy despoiler Jerry Landis, a Bay Area billionaire venture capitalist who is afflicted with Werner’s Sydrome, a rare disease that accelerates the aging process. Landis cares about only two things: making even more money, and finding a way to arrest his medical condition. He’ll go to any lengths to do either.
That brings Jerry Landis and his huge fortune to the wild frontier of biotechnology, where his people are illegally experimenting with cross-species organ transplantation in California while breeding genetically altered primates at a secret site in the piney woods of south central Mississippi. Paul takes it upon himself to bring this clandestine research to a halt, while simultaneously dealing with pregnant wife and preparing for their wedding.
Meanwhile, there’s an eco-terrorist on the loose, bent on teaching hard lessons to people who are under the impression that the Earth and its creatures are theirs to destroy. These forces, together with 50,000 extra-large chacma baboons, collide in an explosion of laughter, wonder and, according to some, humor of the blackest kind.
How the story became a novel
It started when my wife and I were camping in Northern California. We had picked up a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle for the drive. In it, I read an article about a guy named Jeff Getty, an AIDS patient who was lobbying to be allowed to have a baboon bone marrow transplant as a treatment for his immune system. Everybody got up in arms; the CDC, the FDA, and the NIH were all saying unknown pathogens might be released and these wild viruses we don’t know about might spring from this xenograft and destroy humanity. Getty eventually won the right to have the transplant done. His health improved slightly, and as far as I know he’s still alive and well, but they couldn’t show any correlation that the baboon bone marrow transplant did any good. And of course, humanity was not destroyed.
To be fair to the worried folks at the CDC, FDA, and NIH, I think their concerns were legitimate, especially in light of things like connections between bovine spongiform encephalopathy and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
At any rate, I latched onto the word “xenograft,” which I’d never seen. (A xenograft is a cross-species organ transplant — think Baby Fay and the baboon heart.) I started doing research and trying to figure out what characters would be necessary for whatever story I came up with. As I looked in to the world of biotech research, I figured there would have to be a financial guy involved as a character, because biotech is so heavily financed, and whereever you have money, you have the potential for murder.
But most of my research was on the scientific aspects of xenograft research which was completely fascinating, not only the hard science of it, but the medical ethics questions arising from it. Once, while I was in the Bay Area doing general research, my friend, Dr. Bobby Robbins, who is a transplant surgeon at Stanford, invited me (at 3 A.M.) to come watch him do a heart/lung transplant. I zoomed over there, scrubbed up, put my little mask on, and stood at the head of the table while they did the operation. The room was about as tense as a garage where some mechanics were putting a new transmission in a car.
At some point, my editor at the time (Jennifer Hershey) said she needed to see what I was working on so Avon could decide if they wanted it. I submitted six chapters and they bought it. (Though Jennifer told me I’d probably have to drop several of the characters and subplots if I was going to make the book work). I finally finished the book (without having to drop any of the characters and subplots) and The Organ Grinders was born.