An Interview with Kristen Elise

I'm taking a break from my usual kinds of posts today to interview Dr. Kristen Elise, the author of The Vesuvius Isotope

Kristen is a scientist turned novelist who has brought her experience and training into her fiction. I hope you enjoy!

1. What is your novel about?

Thanks so much for the interview, John, and for letting your readers know about my debut novel! The Vesuvius Isotope tells the story of Katrina Stone, a scientist whose Nobel laureate husband was just murdered. Katrina's search for her husband's killer leads to a medical mystery initiated two thousand years ago by Cleopatra, and Katrina quickly learns that her husband's murder was only the beginning. To halt certain impending disaster, Katrina races through Italy and Egypt on a quest for the solution to Cleopatra's last riddle, the ancient remedy that comes to be called the Vesuvius Isotope.

The book is at its core a murder mystery, but it is laced with several non-fictional historical and scientific themes. I consider it more historical thriller than science or medical thriller, but certainly there are elements of both. 

2. You’re a scientist. What is your specialty?

I'm a drug discovery biologist, which means that I hunt for the molecules that will be made into medicines. I have spent the last several years in a major pharmaceutical company; this company has a lot of lawyers, so I omit its name from these discussions. I have worked on anthrax and immunology and more recently, my work has centered around finding drugs to combat various cancers.

3. As a professor, when people ask advice about getting a degree, I usually tell them that they should get a writing degree if they feel they have to, but that it won’t necessarily help them with their writing career. Often it’s better to get a degree other than writing so they have something interesting to write about. As a specialist in a field, how do you think that specialty has helped you to create a writing career?

The ideas for my novels come from experiences in my "real life," and much of this is experience in the sciences. In fact, I started writing in the first place because I discovered something in the lab that freaked me out enough to make me want to write a thriller about it. Once infected with the writing bug, I was hooked, and my stories always in one way or another involve experiences from my career. You'd be amazed (and probably distressed) at how many thriller-worthy things happen from day to day in the sciences.

4. Has it limited you in any way?

Kristen Elise is actually a pen name. I don't use my real name for my writing because I have always felt it was prudent to keep my writing separate from my scientific career. I don't exactly bash the pharmaceutical industry in my books, and I absolutely don't discuss any specifics, because everything you do for a pharmaceutical company is done under agreements of confidentiality. But I do create dubious characters who might not always portray the industry in the best light. And as mentioned above, they have a lot of lawyers. The limitation of using a pen name is that the day you decide to use one, you steal your own identity. I couldn't call upon friends and family to be my first readers, except for the really trusted ones. I don't really talk about my writing at work, and I don't advertise my books to colleagues.

5. Who are your favorite authors and are these people of science as well?

The Vesuvius Isotope definitely takes a lot of influence from Dan Brown. When I first started developing the idea that would eventually turn into this novel, I had just read Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code and loved both of them. Vesuvius shares the theme of a non-fictional historical mystery in the context of a modern-day thriller. The incorporation of true science is also Brown-esque, but I certainly have to also give a lot of credit to classic science and medical thriller writers like Robin Cook and Michael Crichton. I am also a fan of more classic historical fiction and read a ton of it. My book is set in present day, so it doesn't have the same tone as, say, a Philippa Gregory novel, but sometimes I think I take voices from those kinds of books because I read so many of them. I'm also a huge fan of Khaled Hosseini, and have at one time in my life read almost everything ever written by Stephen King.

6. Who has inspired your writing professionally and personally?

I credit influence and inspiration to the sources listed above, but I have also gotten a lot of inspiration from my best friend and my mom. My friend Sara McBride was actually the person who first dared me to write a story, and that story was what ultimately spawned the release of my debut novel. My mom was always the number one advocate of everything I do. She definitely gave me the confidence to pursue my career in science in the first place and also to just go for it creatively.

7. You are also a traveler. In what way has this affected your writing?

Almost every "vacation" I take is actually an excuse for book research. I love novels that incorporate interesting locales, and conversely, I think it makes for a really cool vacation if I'm on a quest in the process. But my books tend to tell me where we are going, rather than the other way around. The Vesuvius Isotope starts in San Diego and then migrates to Italy and Egypt. But we never set foot in Rome, Naples, or Florence and my poor protagonist never gets to see the pyramids either. Instead, her quest leads to some of the lesser-known, but equally fascinating, locales. So I hope that readers enjoy the story while benefitting from the side effect of ideas for some cool trips off the beaten path.

8. What else can you tell us about your books and your life?

I have written a prequel to The Vesuvius Isotope entitled The Death Row Complex. This was the book first inspired by the whacky discovery in the lab I mentioned above. I had written this book first, but when the idea for Vesuvius struck, I realized that Vesuvius should be the first book released so I ran with it. Now that it is available, I'm returning to Death Row and will be releasing it next year. In addition to writing and hunting for drugs, I have a wonderful husband who is not only my number one fan, but also the owner of an Italian restaurant here in San Diego. So we have an awesome little scam going in which book clubs interested in discussing my book are invited to have their discussion at the fountain outside of the restaurant, and I'll join the discussion, and pizza and sodas etc. are on the house. San Diego book clubs, please feel free to hit me up for details! Last, but certainly not least, I have three step kids, a step granddaughter and three canine kids.

9. Okay, this question is just for me. I’ve been writing about television and movie mystery cliches. I was wondering if you had a favorite.

Ha! What a fun question. I actually have a series of posts on my blog entitled, "Most Over-Used Protagonists." I'll defer to this post to answer your question. As a scientist, my favorite cliche is the 22-year-old Supermodel Head of [name your department] at [name your world-famous hospital or research organization.] Because in reality, this woman doesn't exist. But on TV and in movies, she's everywhere! Readers, who is your favorite?

Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. Please visit her websites at and The Vesuvius Isotope is available in both print ( and and e-book formats ( for Kindle, for Nook, for Kobo reader.)

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that increasingly pervaded his behavior in recent weeks. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the esoteric life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague, introducing it into the twenty-first century.