Scientist-Turned-Novelist Releases Latest Book

Among Kenneth Butcher’s long list of patents is a “method and apparatus for removing liquid salts from liquid metal.” His inspired alchemy exists outside the research lab, too, as he transforms the matter of his daily life into fiction, including his recently released mystery novel The Dream of Saint Ursula.

The Hendersonville resident, a materials researcher, won a bronze medal for Best Regional Fiction in the Southeast for his 2010 book The Middle of the Air, set in his city and nearby mountain locations. The Dream of Saint Ursula takes place in the U.S. Virgin Islands — Butcher’s beloved vacation spot. In it, his fictional family the Colebrooks, a quirky bunch of artists, engineers, and entrepreneurs introduced in Air, are on their own tropical holiday when they become ensnared in another mystery.

The drama starts when hikers find ominous sets of discarded clothing, and is carried along via rollicking family dynamics and memorable characters, both human and animal — including a sexy park ranger, a vamping donkey, and a “drug-addled marmoset.”

Referring to the novel’s overarching wit, Butcher reminds us that scientists, and researchers in particular, tend to have huge senses of humor.

“I don’t think I’ve been in a lab of any kind, anywhere in the world, that did not have cartoons hanging on the wall right next to the advanced instruments and equipment,” he remarks. “[Far Side cartoonist] Gary Larson was very big in research labs.”

His characters’ behavior, he adds, “is authentic to the engineers, scientists, and artists I have spent my time with.”

The novel’s title is based on a famous painting from the Italian Renaissance; however, Butcher notes that the act of creating a mystery plot owes more to science.

“In research, you are often trying to solve a problem or understand how different factors affect an outcome. You come up with all kinds of theories about how the pieces of the puzzle might fit together; then you get to test those theories. Very often, you find your theory was wrong, so then you get to make up another one.

“Now, a theory is nothing more than a kind of story, so a researcher actually is someone who gets to make up a lot of stories — until one is found that really holds up well. That’s pretty good training for constructing a novel.”

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