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Interview: George Paxinos talks about A River Divided

Professor George Paxinos, a world-renowned neuroscientist, has now added the title of “author” to his bio with the eco-fiction novel A River Divided. Professor at Neuroscience Research Australia and Uni of New South Wales, George has mapped more parts of the brain than any other person in history.

His “brain atlas” assists scientists in understanding human behaviour, feelings and emotions which places George perfectly to pose the searing questions of our time. Including all the pace and twists of a Dan Brown novel, George has just released the audiobook version of A River Divided.

Tell us a little about your novel?

A River Divided asks us to find out who we are and confront the lies we tell ourselves including the myth that human beings have freedom of choice. I wrote a story aiming to captivate the reader, so that I would have the luxury to explore the limits of science and the brain and ask if there can be consilience between humans and nature.

A River Divided is a story of identical twins raised apart. As different artists would sculpt different statues from the same block of marble, different environments will produce different characters even in identical twins. The story starts with Evelyn, a geneticist and amateur archaeologist, discovering in Israel what she thought was the remains of Christ, bones and a well-preserved brain. The consequence of this is the birth of identical twins with one of those raised in Australia and the other in Argentina in totally different conditions, in affluent eastern suburbs of Sydney and in the slums of Buenos Aires. The identical twins will meet for a moment only, they don't know the existence of each other or their heritage, and they will be lost forever afterwards. Next to them is a heroic girl who works under the claws of the Argentinian junta to organise the student environmental resistance. The story is a what if question, that is, what would someone with a genetic endowment of Christ do if he were present today? Would he join Wall Street or street protests?

What inspired you to write this book?

I was motivated by defeat. I have spent most of my adult life involved in environmental causes and in direct action. However, in anything I tried, I failed. I attempted to reintroduce trams to my adopted city of Sydney in the 1980s, but the government disposed of all the tramway legacy: the corridors, sidings, the workshops, the stabling facilities. I also tried to enter the New South Wales Parliament as a member of the Australian Cyclist party and there I failed too. So, I thought instead of trying direct action, trying to block people from cutting a tree, if I wrote a novel could work upstream of behaviour, at attitude –– I might have a better outcome by changing attitudes.

What research was involved?

This work of eco-fiction is my first novel. I have, however, authored 60 neuroscience books and I have been doing research for these academic books. You see, my “day job” is to be a brain researcher and Professor of Medical Sciences at NeuRA and The University of New South Wales, Sydney. A River Divided is my attempt to educate and orientate human beings to contemplate their impact on the environment and the inevitability of species extinction if we continue burning fossil fuels. From genesis to publication, A River Divided has spanned a journey of 21 years. The idea first came to me when a friend suggested a visit to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the remains of St James are said to be buried. It prompted me to think about harvesting DNA to produce a clone. But rather than the DNA of St James, I thought, “why not from someone far greater?” Herein lies the birth of the protagonists of my novel. Researching this book took me to Jerusalem and Masada, The Vatican, Buenos Aires and finally ...the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest where my protagonists collide amidst a mighty battle to save the rainforest.

Because this will be my first and only book, and the culmination of all that I have learned about the brain, science, human behaviour, the planet, religion, ethics etc, you can only imagine my delight to now have it released as an audiobook. To hear Australian actor Emma Grant Williams play 36 roles and inject such warmth and understanding in her interpretation brought a whole new level of meaning to my story.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I went to a café in Sydney’s Bondi Junction on most days of the week and there, amongst the noise, I could actually concentrate. I never got tired of working on the manuscript because there was a reward––I was improving it.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

The three songs already mentioned in the novel would be a good musical accompaniment: Histordia de un Amor, House of the Rising Sun and The Song of the Dead Brother (Mikis Theodorakis composer).

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

The weight of the movie will be on the one person who plays two roles: Christopher Camilliery (raised in Sydney) and his identical twin, Jose de Olmos (raised in Buenos Aires). We’d need somone of dark, swarthy complexion who is able to emulate both the Australian and Argentinean accents – not an easy feat. I do however think your wonderful Kiwi director Jane Campion would make magic with this story. If any NZ booklovers know her, I’d be grateful if they gave her a nudge.. !

What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

Meeting other writers and making a new group of friends. Many of them spent weeks on my manuscript (see acknowledgements), assisting me to penetrate the character of my heroes.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

The editor of the book organised a dinner of 20 friends and we opened the packet that contained the book.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

I finally read the ILIAD. It’s just as well I did not read it before completing my novel as confronted with its majesty, I might have given up my endeavour.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I am now making presentations to universities and any bookclub that wants me. The title of my next book will be, “How to Write a Novel in Less than 25 Years.”😊


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