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The science of fiction

Gary Goshgarian

Gary Gosh­garian, the Eng­lish pro­fessor and best­selling author of eight crit­i­cally acclaimed thrillers, did not expect to receive a life­time achieve­ment award from his alma mater, a research uni­ver­sity devoted to the tech­nical arts and applied sciences.

Yes, Gosh­garian grad­u­ated from the Worcester Poly­technic Insti­tute with a Bach­elor of Sci­ence in physics in 1964, but he then spent the better part of the next five decades writing award-​​winning novels, editing col­lege writing text­books, and teaching courses in sci­ence fic­tion, horror fic­tion, and modern best­sellers at North­eastern University.

And yet there he was in May, during his 50th col­lege reunion, receiving the Robert H. God­dard Award for Out­standing Pro­fes­sional Achieve­ment. The award, named in honor of the epony­mous father of modern rock­etry, had in the past been reserved not for Eng­lish pro­fes­sors, but for astro­nauts and engi­neers, patent-​​winners and CEOs.

Win­ning the award was a sur­prise and quite an honor,” Gosh­garian says. “I’m prob­ably the only person who has grad­u­ated from WPI and then spent his entire pro­fes­sional life teaching English.”

Though that may be true, Goshgarian’s sci­ence back­ground has played no small part in the development—and success—of his novels, the first of which was pub­lished in 1980. In addi­tion to studying physics in col­lege, he honed his sci­en­tific knowl­edge while working as a project physi­cist at the Raytheon Com­pany, where he spent the sum­mers of his sopho­more, junior, and senior years. Over the course of his 34-​​year writing career, his plots, char­ac­ters, and set­tings have been informed by his in-​​depth inter­views with sci­en­tists, biol­o­gists, and even brain sur­geons. “The expe­ri­ences I had were absolutely essen­tial for me to write the books I do,” says Gosh­garian, whose nom de plume is Gary Braver. “I wouldn’t know how to frame my ques­tions to the experts without my tech­nical background.”

The common theme of Goshgarian’s novels, “Be careful what you wish for,” is one of the chief motifs in Mary Shelley’s Franken­stein, one of his all-​​time favorite books. Pub­lished in 1818, the classic story of the eccen­tric sci­en­tist and the hideous mon­ster served as the impetus for Goshgarian’s nar­ra­tive struc­ture, which fol­lows ordi­nary pro­tag­o­nists who find them­selves in extra­or­di­nary sit­u­a­tions fueled by sci­en­tific breakthroughs.

Gosh­garian started teaching Franken­stein in 1972, when he founded the nation’s first sci­ence fic­tion course at North­eastern. “The chair of the Eng­lish depart­ment sent out an SOS to the fac­ulty, saying ‘We need some jazzy new courses to attract Eng­lish majors,’” Gosh­garian recalls. “I said, ‘How about sci­ence fiction?’”

His sug­ges­tion was approved, and it wasn’t long before some 650 stu­dents were filling Blackman Audi­to­rium to hear his lec­tures and take in the mus­ings of guests like Isaac Asimov, the pro­lific author of I, Robot. “I was young and ener­getic,” Gosh­garian says, “and I had a lot of drive to per­fect this sexy, new course.”

Believe it or not, his pas­sion for sci-​​fi writing and lit­er­a­ture started to flourish at WPI, where he wrote for the stu­dent paper, founded a humor mag­a­zine, and befriended an Eng­lish pro­fessor who later became his mentor. “I wanted to grow up to be like this guy,” Gosh­garian recalls thinking. “I thought, ‘This writing thing comes to me much easier than under-​​standing sub­atomic particles.’”

In short order, Gosh­garian “exhausted all the human­i­ties courses” at WPI and then started taking classes in Shake­speare and Vic­to­rian lit­er­a­ture at Har­vard and Clark Uni­ver­sity. In 1966, he earned his master’s in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­sity of Con­necticut; in 1969, he was hired by North­eastern, where he later won an Excel­lence in Teaching Award; and in 1971 he earned his doc­torate in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­sity of Wisconsin.

Over the past 50 years, Gosh­garian has com­piled more than a few nuggets of wisdom for aspiring writers: One tip: “Read slowly and look at another author’s writing the way a car­penter looks at a house.” Another: “Write every day, even if it’s gib­berish. If you want to write, you have to write.”

Gosh­garian fol­lows his advice to a T, writing every day at the crack of dawn. His next book, Prim­i­tive, in which a tech-​​savvy Bostonian ditches his iPhone in favor of simple living on a remote Aegean island, will be released later this year.

– By Jason Kornwitz

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