Mastodon The Writing Desk: Book Launch Interview with Jessica Mills, Author of Rosalind: one woman did the work, three men took the glory

1 February 2024

Book Launch Interview with Jessica Mills, Author of Rosalind: one woman did the work, three men took the glory

New from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Rosalind Franklin knows that to be a woman in a man’s world is to be invisible. In the 1950s science is a gentleman’s profession, and it appears after WWII that there are plenty of colleagues who want to keep it that way.

I'm pleased to welcome author Jessica Mills to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book...

Rosalind is about the woman who science forgot. It tells the story of Rosalind Franklin, who discovered the double helix structure of DNA, only for three men to win a Nobel prize for the theory a decade later. The book explores the Matilda Effect, which has contributed to women’s contributions being written out of history books for millennia.

As a journalist I saw how women were systematically excluded from bylines on some of the most important front-page headlines, limiting women's opportunities to progress in what is still a male-dominated world. A study by Women in Journalism in 2017 showed that just 25% of published front page bylines were by women. There was another study around that time that showed a man named John or Dave was more likely to have a position on a company board than a woman.

When I began writing the novel in 2018, gender pay gap reporting showed how women's pay was lagging behind men's across all industries. This was blamed largely on men occupying more senior positions in the workplace, which seemed like a circular argument, and I didn’t think that blaming it on women's childbearing told the whole story. I wanted to explore how it was that women could do good work and not be credited for it, and why women get fewer bylines, feel less heard, and ultimately earn less than male counterparts.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, studies have shown that women were more likely to be made redundant than in previous downturns. Many more women are regularly pushed out of work after returning from maternity leave, and even fertility services have age restrictions for women that don’t apply to men.

What is your preferred writing routine?

For me, writing a novel began with an exercise in research. I started by visiting the archives and plotting out Rosalind Franklin’s part in the DNA story, which had been largely untold to date. My aim was to uncover her true role in the discovery of DNA’s structure, and how it was that three men–two of whom worked at a different lab entirely–were awarded a Nobel prize for a theory that so closely mirrored the two-strand, or two-chain, helix that she described in her notebook weeks and months earlier.

I wrote most of the novel shortly after leaving my job as an editor at a big financial news corporation, which afforded me time to work on my draft manuscript alongside freelance assignments. I like to journal in shorthand, but when writing the novel, I often sat and typed at a desk in the kitchen overlooking the garden, with relaxing music playing in the background.

What advice do you have for new writers?

To stick to your vision and stay true to it even in the face of what can seem like overwhelming rejection. There is a lot of rejection in the publishing industry, which can be difficult to deal with, particularly when it sometimes seems that celebrity authors are handed book deals on a plate. To some extent, I had experience of this from being a journalist for most of my career. Some editors can spend months deliberating as to whether to publish or accept an article, and an edit is an act of, hopefully constructive, criticism. But I still wasn’t prepared for the slow pace of the publishing industry.

In fact, I was offered a traditional publishing deal an entire year after a blind submission, while I was on maternity leave, after publishing through a print-on-demand platform and almost giving up hope of ever being traditionally published altogether. Few publishers accept unagented submissions nowadays and I understand why they can take time to respond to authors; because they are often heavily focused on their new writers.

What have you found to be the best way to raise awareness of your books?

This is the million-dollar question. I have personally hoped that readers will simply connect with my main character and her journey. All I have been able to do as a writer is to write the very best book I could, and I edited it and re-edited it mercilessly. Despite efforts to secure an agent, ultimately my novel received an offer on a blind pitch to a publisher. Building a social media presence seems to be an inevitable requirement for authors nowadays, and the only way I was motivated to do this was to think less of promoting my book and more about trying to build connections. I have connected with some incredible authors during my publishing journey and try to absorb their enthusiasm for the craft.

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research

The most unexpected finding was that photograph 51, taken in May 1952, was not Rosalind's first or arguably best X-ray image of DNA's helical structure. It was one of many photographs she was taking of DNA at different humidities. In fact, a photograph from an earlier experiment, number 49, is arguably a better photograph than photo 51 as you can see the DNA fibres were aligned even more precisely. From these photographs, she deduced as early as February 1953 that DNA was likely to be a double helix ('2-chain helix').

What was the hardest scene you remember writing?

The hardest scenes for me to write were around Rosalind Franklin’s battle with ovarian cancer. I drew to some extent on my own experiences of surgery, which was carried out for different reasons. It was a tough reminder of how cruel life can be, but it was also hugely inspiring to learn of Rosalind’s character and her absolute commitment to scientific research throughout her illness. She was driven to pursue an experiment to determine the structure of the poliovirus, despite battling cancer. This was pioneering research and her colleague at Birkbeck went on to win a Nobel prize for the team’s work on biologically important structures in the years after her death in 1958.

What are you planning to write next?

I have some material left over from an alternative narrative that was in my original draft, around the male suffragettes, who comprised a significant portion of the people who fought for women’s suffrage: the right to vote.

Serendipitously, I discovered last year that two of my old friends had an ancestor who led the male suffragettes, who was in my draft narrative. His sister married Rosalind Franklin's uncle. Her family denied she was a feminist, but there is more to Rosalind's suffragette ancestry than meets the eye.

While I have no specific or set plans to write another book, I could explore this idea in future, if there was any appetite for me to write more historical fiction, or write something completely new and different.

Jessica Mills

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About the Author

Jessica Mills is a journalist and author. She has written for publications such as The Independent, The Wall Street Journal and Business Insider, where she investigated the use of flammable cladding in hospital intensive care units in 2020. She spent several years as an editor at Dow Jones, where she led the team that uncovered the misuse of funds at Abraaj and was a mmber of the steering committee for Women at Dow Jones. Her debut novel tells the true story of Rosalind Franklin, the invisible woman behind the discovery of DNA’s double helix. It was longlisted for the Exeter Novel Prize 2020. Find out more from her website and find her on Twitter @Byjessiemills

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