The Big Idea: Jayne Cowie

There is profit to be made off of violence. What if there was a way to profit off of preventing violence, as well? Author Jayne Cowie takes us into the world of her new novel, One of the Boys,  to show us how violence is a treatable, fixable thing there. Read on to see the details of predicting and preventing violence within her world.


A couple of years ago, I wrote a book called Curfew, about a near future Britain in which all men are electronically tagged and not allowed out after 7 p.m. When I told people what I was working on, women laughed, and men went a bit pale and tended not to say anything at all. The difference in responses fascinated me. After all, we all agree that male violence is a problem. We pretty much all agree that women should be safe in public spaces, and in their own homes. What we can’t agree on is how to achieve it. 

Trying to answer that question took me from a curfew to the idea behind my latest book, One of the Boys. Ever since Rosalind Franklin took her first X-Ray of DNA, we’ve been fascinated by the idea that what and who we are is all down to our genes. And thanks to the Human Genome project and sites like, we’re linking genes to traits on what seems like an almost daily basis. We love the idea that we were born this way. No-one can criticize you for things that are beyond your control. It’s not your fault; it’s your genes. 

But what about negative traits? What about aggression and violence? If we insist that being untidy and bad at maths is innate, then it follows that we have to accept that maybe these are, too. But maybe that’s a good thing. If serial killers are genetically different to the rest of us, maybe we can identify them before they start. 

Picture this: a geneticist studying men who end up in prison for violent crime finds that they all have a particular gene in common. It doesn’t seem to occur in men with no history of violent behaviour. Two years later, you’re in hospital, looking down at your precious newborn son, so young, so innocent, and a doctor walks in and asks you if you’d like to have him tested for this particular gene. 

What do you say? 

The sharp conflict of born versus made runs through the heart of One of the Boys. If you have a fixed idea of what a boy is from when he’s only a few days old, you’re going to judge everything he does. You’re going to read things into normal behaviour – tantrums, aggression, losing his temper – and perhaps see them as worse than they really are. Other people will treat him differently. He’ll be excluded and pushed out. You could argue that those people are right to do so. They have to protect their own children, after all. That’s part of parenthood. We don’t let our children play with matches or knives. It follows that we shouldn’t let them play with a child who might hurt them, either. 

And yet . . what if that child is your son? How do you deal with a boy that has the potential to be violent, but hasn’t yet done anything wrong? You can’t stand back and do nothing, waiting until he does harm before you intervene. That’s basically the situation we have now. But you also have a duty to protect him from those who see him as other and less, because again, he’s done nothing wrong, and may never do anything wrong. 

The idea that one day soon we may be able to identify the young boys who are on this road and guide them in a different direction seems simple on the face of it. But what society would do with this information isn’t simple, though it’s predictable. When I was worldbuilding for One of the Boys, I looked into the history of other medical technologies, like IVF, amniocentesis and the contraceptive pill. I watched documentaries on Ritalin and looked at posts on parenting forums where mother’s to be discussed prenatal testing. 

Where there’s muck, there’s brass, as my grandmother used to say. (Brass, for those not from the north of England, means money). It was immediately obvious that there would be drug treatments and that they would be expensive. There would be parenting classes, and books, and vitamins and supplements, and YouTube channels and TV programmes. And on the flipside, private schools and nurseries that offered a guaranteed ‘safe’ experience for your daughter or negative son. The test would be big business. That would become a reason to keep it going, even as it split society in two. 

And then, as the boys hit adulthood, aging out of school and into the workplace, things would shift again, and the long-term effects would become clear: a disposable workforce, with minimal protection in law, and few other options. Capitalism thrives on workers like these. 

I like stories that live in the grey, that can see both sides, the good and the bad. Life is complicated. I want to write things that reflect that. I decided to write about 3 mothers – one with a negative son, one with a positive, and one who doesn’t know. Weaving their stories together was tough. I think One of the Boys was the most challenging book I’ve written so far, not just because I had Covid in the middle, but because there were so many threads to weave together. And it was written in a way I’d not done before – I was actually deep into a different book but it wasn’t working. I had to come up with something else and quickly. I started with half a dozen elevator pitches, then a detailed outline, and then several drafts followed by 4 rounds of editorial revisions. There were pieces I couldn’t make fit until the very last attempt. But I think it was worth the effort, and I hope you do too. 

One of the Boys: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Books-A-Million|Bookshop|Powell’s 

Author’s socials: Instagram

7 Comments on “The Big Idea: Jayne Cowie”

  1. The men went pale and quiet?

    Funny, I’d be curious to know more about the book, the plot, and what specifically made that idea come to her mind.
    Then again, I’ve got a BS in Writing, so…

  2. I love the background to this book. I appreciate how a good writer, can springboard from an idea to a changed society. A curfew for men… I know many women who would support that.

    I know in reading about the number of cameras monitoring public places in Singapore which made it very safe, that my women friends loved the idea. My men friends immediately attacked the idea due to lack of privacy. Both coming from very different vantage points. (I live in the US.)

    The idea of her new book reminds me of the story I saw in a documentary of Dr James Fallon who was studying the brains of psychopaths (serial killers). In going through them he had, from other work, his own scan. He found that his brain had the same features as the killers he was studying. They killed, but he never did?

    One can find articles on the story. It is fascinating. In his case he felt that he actually is a bit intense, but not violent and growing up he had lots of attention from family and love. Was that what kept him stable? Who knows…

    But I can see with the ability to study genes that we as a society would try to filter out the bad, for the safety of all.

    I’ll definitely look for “One of the Boys” next time I’m at my local book store. Thanks for the pointer to it and the interview with the author.

  3. @Louis: of course you hit the nail on the head. This is not a new idea–genes can be shown to be “related” to all sorts of behaviours, while specific people with those genes show none of that behaviour.

    I can’t say i “love” the Big Idea but i definitely need to read this novel
    But if you can show that “everybody”, or even “many people”, who have gene X show behaviour Y, then everybody with that gene WILL be tainted

  4. Perhaps the author would like to talk to my younger daughter? She has a Ph.D. in Criminology and Sociology, and teaches at the university level.

  5. Oooh – this – and the other book look interesting, this one reminds me of ‘Quantum Night’ by Robert J. Sawyer. Looks like, I have another couple summer reads!

  6. “Gattaca,” of course, also looked at the DNA testing-at-birth thing, with somewhat different societal results, many of them not so good. But at least there they didn’t just go after just one class of people. This could be an interesting read.

  7. I decided to write about 3 mothers – one with a negative son, one with a positive, and one who doesn’t know.

    This surprises me a bit because the cover shows one woman with two boys so my mind immediately jumped to “what if you have two sons with opposite results”. Do you separate Cain from Abel because you know, or think you know, where this is going?

    But on the other hand, some — but not all — violent men turn that violence against people outside of their families and communities. With results that are still often tragic, but in a different way. Not all of those men are likely to be convicted for their violence; indeed, some are celebrated for it. (This suggests one possible societal response to boys with the Natural Born Killers gene: conscription.)

    I probably shouldn’t judge a book by its cover though; authors don’t have a lot of influence on the cover and the publishers probably weren’t interested in trying to squeeze in 3 whole families.

    Speaking of whole families, what about the fathers? It would be kind of interesting if the positive son’s father tested negative, implying that his mother is an asymptomatic carrier. On the other hand, if someone who is a good husband and father so far finds out as an adult that he is positive, what effect does that have on him, or on the family?

    Definitely an interesting premise, which could go in a lot of directions. (I haven’t even started to get into complicated gender situations!)

    P.S. Everyone on the cover is white, which may or may not reflect the text, but in a lot of ways dark-skinned men are treated as if they had a gene like this even though it doesn’t actually exist. No complicated testing is needed, but everyone knows the results anyway…

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