This year Jacqueline Houtman turned 50, published her first novel and embraced her inner geek.
“Geek is the new cool,” she said.
The launch party for the novel — “The Reinvention of Edison Thomas,” targeted at readers age 8 and older — was Friday at the Washington Hotel Coffee Room on Lakeside Street. Because science plays a large role in the story, Houtman ordered 118 cupcakes with an element of the periodic table abbreviated in frosting on each. Guests were required to learn a little about the element before eating a particular cupcake.
“Very geeky,” Houtman said.
But also completely natural for a professional science writer who really didn’t like to read fiction until five years ago, when her son brought home the first Harry Potter novel by J.K. Rowling.
“I had to read it before he did,” Houtman said. She was dazzled. “Rowling has such fun with the language.”
That sense of fun led Houtman to try herself, and what she found, of course, is that creating a fun read is hard work. She went through numerous drafts. But she persevered, and the early reviews of “The Reinvention of Edison Thomas” have been enthusiastic.
From Publishers Weekly: “A perceptive look at a complicated mind, the novel is steeped in the world of science .... The quirky humor and authentic characters should have wide appeal.”
From Kirkus Reviews: “A middle grader with a high-function spectrum disorder finds some real friends in this wry debut.” Kirkus also noted that “the way the central characters talk about science” creates a theme that’s “strong and satisfying.”
On Monday, over coffee at the Washington Hotel Coffee Room — “my office,” Houtman said — the author said there’s a lot of science talk in the Houtman house as well. Her husband, Carl Houtman, is a chemical engineer with Forest Products Laboratory, and for them science is not just a job, it’s a way of looking at the world. Dinner table talk, she said, might center on the chemistry of toothpaste.
“Hard for an English major to understand,” Houtman said.
They came to Madison in 1991, after a year in France, when Jacqueline was accepted into a doctorate program in medical microbiology and immunology at UW-Madison.
Houtman earned her doctorate in 1996 and began freelancing science articles. At one point she was asked to do a piece on yogurt for a middle school reading comprehension program. She called it “The Good, the Bad and the Tasty,” and she used dialogue and humor to make her points. It was enjoyable work, and it was about the same time that her son brought home Harry Potter.
Houtman began writing a tale of a middle school student, Edison Thomas — Eddy — who has Asperger’s syndrome and a general anxiety that he offsets by immersing himself in science. When the school crossing guard is laid off, Eddy sees an opportunity and invents a device to make a dangerous intersection safe.
While she was working on the manuscript, Houtman heard an editor, Joy Neaves, speak at a writing conference in Madison. Neaves’ talk led Houtman to revise some aspects of the novel, and when she was finished, she submitted the completed manuscript to Neaves at Front Street, an imprint of Boyd Mills Press.
On a day in July 2008, Houtman was at the Washington Hotel Coffee Room — where else? — when her cell phone rang. It was Neaves.
“She told me she loved the book and wanted to acquire it,” Houtman said. “She made me an offer.”
It was the moment that budding authors dream about. Houtman called her husband, got his answering machine, and said the champagne would be chilling when he got home.
Then she went up to the counter and bought a Mudslide Cookie — a celebration even English majors can appreciate.