How divine intervention and serendipity led Tellwell author Jana Rieger to write her first book, and adapt it to the big screen
It was on a long-haul flight to Europe, and right before a sabbatical, that academic scientist Jana Rieger suddenly had a character appear in her mind.
“Between the fatigue and boredom of being on a long flight, this character came into my mind. The one thing the sabbatical did was allow for some freedom in my mind. It allowed for a space to open up,” said the University of Alberta professor and research director.
In the book, Fennel is a young student and research assistant who is engaging in unethical medical behaviour and attempting to destroy her boss’ reputation and career. Set in Edmonton, at the same university in which Rieger works, A Course in Deception explores the ethical complexities that arise when profit and greed influence health research.
While the story is completely fictionalized, Rieger says there have been high profile cases around the world of researchers fabricating data in order to secure funding.
“It doesn’t matter which university or where you are in the world, you realize this is an issue. I don’t think there is any one place or academic institution that is immune to this.”
Younger colleagues applauded Rieger because the book made them think about issues related to pressure versus ethical duty in a way they never had before. Rieger noted that many also related to the work pressures researchers face in securing grants and publishing a certain amount of papers every year.
The similarities between the main character, Dr. MacKenzie Smith, and Rieger herself had colleagues wondering if the other characters were based around their own workplace.
“Some facts did make their way into fiction, but there is not one character based entirely on someone else, except for the dog,” she adds jokingly.
There were a number of serendipitous events that came together as she was writing the book. Rieger had decided to make one character, Anbu, from southern India, despite never having visited the country.
She researched the region and spent a lot of time on Google maps. But soon afterwards, out of the blue, one of her colleagues invited her to be the keynote speaker in Kerala, India in the town where the last part of the book takes place.
“I had the chance to go there and it is beautiful. I had someone take me around to see the places I had written about. I did end up rewriting those passages and they became much more colourful,” Rieger said.
After the book was published, a movie producer from southern India reached out wanting to adapt the book for the big screen. Rieger is currently working with a screenplay writer to realize that dream.
A Course in Deception was an eight-year-long project that has not only been personally rewarding for Rieger, but has been well-received in the literary community. The Book was long-listed for the Simon Fraser University First Book Competition and was a semi-finalist in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. After it was published by Tellwell, it won a CIPA EVVY Merit Award and was a finalist in the Book Excellence Awards.
“It was a dream come true, the icing on top of getting the book published. It feels very rewarding,” Rieger said.
On top of working on the film adaptation, Rieger is writing her second novel which is about wine and will require repeated travel to France for inspiration.