In an interview with the Guardian about the longlist, which identifies the best science writing across fiction and nonfiction, The Wire in the Blood author said: “Science is clearly something that we need to be focusing our energy on, because that is where the economic future of the country lies and we really should be driving our education towards it – but that does not mean we should turn our back on the arts.”
“I have concerns about what is happening in education,” added the author, who has a son at school. “Everything is so curriculum-led now that there is very little opportunity for teachers to encourage students to go off and discover things for themselves.”
Developments in education, she added, meant that the Wellcome prize – one of the richest in the UK – was more important than ever because it focuses on making science accessible through both fiction and nonfiction. The 12 books chosen for the 2017 longlist are split between seven factual and five fiction titles, ranging from Victorian gothic in Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent to Jo Marchant’s Cure, which investigates how the mind can cure the body. French novelist Maylis de Kerangal’s blow-by-blow account of a heart transplant in Mend the Living is also longlisted, and is the first foreign-language book to be considered for the award.
Alongside Cure, the seven nonfiction books on the list also include the late Paul Kalanithi’s life-affirming reflection on mortality, When Breath Becomes Air, which is the first posthumously published title to be recognised by the prize. Kalanithi is one of two debut authors featured, the other being Ed Yong, whose book I Contain Multitudes examines the trillions of microbes living in the human body.
Adam Rutherford, who is longlisted for A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, and Siddhartha Mukherjee, longlisted for The Gene, are among three writers who have been shortlisted before. The other is Sarah Moss, whose novel The Tidal Zone puts her in the running for the third consecutive year.
McDermid said judging the longlist had been “quite a learning curve”. Though not a scientist, the Scottish writer has researched forensics for her bestselling crime fiction. “I had to work quite hard to understand some of the books submitted,” she said. “These books are supposed to be accessible to the general public, so things that were really obscure to me were not going to get through.”
McDermid said there was no blood on the carpet at the judges’ meeting to decide the list, but admitted “there was some lively discussion”. Her fellow judges are scientist and Cambridge professor Simon Baron-Cohen, broadcaster Gemma Cairney, Cambridge professor Tim Lewens and radio producer Di Speirs.
It is the first time in recent years that a longlist has been announced by Wellcome, which has sponsored a literary science prize since 1998. In 2009 it revamped the existing award to one that “celebrates the topics of health and medicine in literature”. Past winners have been predominantly nonfiction, and include Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Marion Coutts’s memoir The Iceberg.
This year’s shortlist will be revealed on 14 March at the London Book Fair. The winner will be announced at a ceremony on 24 April at the Wellcome Collection.
The 2017 Wellcome prize longlist
- How to Survive a Plague by David France (US)
- Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari (Israel)
- When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (US)
- Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal, translated by Jessica Moore (France)
- The Golden Age by Joan London (Australia)
- Cure by Jo Marchant (UK)
- The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (UK)
- The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee (US)
- The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (UK)
- A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford (UK)
- Miss Jane by Brad Watson (US)
- I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong (UK)