Bishop’s novel offers insight into her thoughts

Its scientist heroine faces career trouble

Author John Irving, shown at a 2006 reading of one of his works, is a second cousin of Amy Bishop. Author John Irving, shown at a 2006 reading of one of his works, is a second cousin of Amy Bishop. (Associated Press/ File 2006)
By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / February 18, 2010

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She’s a scientist at an Alabama university. Her career is on the rocks, and she struggles with depression, worrying constantly about her future. One night she dreams.

She knew she was a professor, having finally achieved tenure. Her huge family sat at the table; her mother, father, her sister, Steve’s parents and the children - her many children. . . . She felt warm, happy, fulfilled, and yet she knew it was just a dream.

The passage, contained in a draft of a novel that Amy Bishop gave to a Massachusetts friend last year, described the thoughts of the book’s heroine, Olivia. But in light of accusations that Bishop drew a gun last week and shot six of her colleagues at the University of Alabama at Huntsville after they denied her tenure, it seems an echo of longstanding worries and grievances that may have been Bishop’s own.

The novel, a thriller titled “Amazon Fever,’’ is peppered with references to Harvard, where Bishop went to graduate school and worked as a researcher, and follows Olivia to Alabama, where she struggles to save a flagging career amid a global pandemic that leaves women unable to bear children. Through it all are Olivia’s anxieties about achieving success as a scientist.

“She was here to save her career, which was flagging in perpetual postdoctoral fellowship,’’ Bishop wrote of Olivia as the character embarks on a sparsely funded research trip to the Amazon, where a strange disease is killing monkeys.

Bishop, a second cousin of acclaimed Vermont writer John Irving, had worked on the book for several years, according to members of the Hamilton Writing Club, which Bishop attended in the late 1990s and early 2000s while living in Ipswich.

At the time, she was working at Harvard’s School of Public Health and then Harvard Medical School, but to members of the writing group she talked of the book as a ticket out of academia and frequently mentioned her relationship to Irving.

“I think she was proud of that connection,’’ said Rob Dinsmoor, a member of the writing group who was a friend of Bishop and praised the novel as a “brilliant piece of work.’’ “She was hoping that connection would help her get published,’’ he said.

A publicist for Irving at Random House in New York, Anne Tate, said the author of “The World According to Garp’’ and “The Cider House Rules’’ is a cousin of Judith, Amy Bishop’s mother. Tate would not say more about the writer’s relationship with Bishop or her family.

While Dinsmoor liked Bishop’s book and thought of her as a friend, another member of the writing group said he found Bishop abrasive and overly critical of others, with an air of entitlement because of her relationship to Irving and her Harvard pedigree.

“She had this sense that having been a professor and gotten her PhD from Harvard made her a little above other people,’’ said the book club founder, who did not want to be named because he is close to Bishop’s parents. “And yet at the same time she used to park far away, far from where we would meet because she didn’t want anyone to see her beat-up Chrysler.’’

After Bishop moved to the University of Alabama at Huntsville as a tenure-track assistant professor of biology in 2003, she continued to work on the book and sent versions to Dinsmoor, the latest about six months ago.

In it, she makes a reference to Irving’s “Hotel New Hampshire’’ and, in a passage about a radio call-in show, repeats a 617 phone number that yesterday reached Harvard Medical School’s Research Compliance hot-line. She takes a number of swipes at pretension at Harvard and in Cambridge.

In one passage, Olivia crumpled up an invitation she and her husband, Steve, received to a university symposium for the press and luminaries in science. Annoyed, “Olivia wondered why she and Steve were invited since they were nobodies.’’

In another passage, Olivia wonders whether her husband is angry about marrying her - “an invalid . . . as if she’d tricked him into thinking she was a healthy person.’’

“Steve, I had no idea that one day I would get depressed or that one day I would have a severe allergy attack,’’ it continues.

“Steve looked up from eating and asked, ‘What?’ . . .

“Olivia looked into Steve’s eyes and saw that they were flat, unreadable, more inscrutable than ever.’’

And in yet another passage about a heated argument between Olivia and her husband, in which the two dredge up old troubles in their families, Olivia blurts out a reprimand: “At some point, you can’t hide behind your past to recuse yourself from being a human being.’’

Meghan Irons can be reached at