Islander’s first novel about patent lawyer, DNA controversy
De Angeli grew up outside of Philadelphia, and graduated in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Pennsylvania. Facing a life spent teaching high-school physics, de Angeli shifted focus. He enrolled in the Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Penn., and graduated in 1976.
“In order to be a professional physicist, you had to have really good math skills, and mine were not that great,” he said. “On the other hand, I could tell a story, remember jokes, and speak clear English unlike the rest of the other physics majors.”
When de Angeli was in law school, one of the older students told him that he could practice patent law because he had a technical degree in physics. He decided the career path would be a good way to separate himself from the rest of his classmates when it was time to look for a job.
Aside from the job opportunities, de Angeli had always been interested in technical subjects. He thought it would be more interesting to practice law that dealt with an invention rather than the “sordid realities of life,” which is what most of his colleagues from law school ended up doing.
“After more than 40 years of it, they’re awfully sick of divorcing people, handling traffic accidents and medical malpractice cases,” he said. “I deal with new technology on a regular basis. That keeps it interesting.”
De Angeli took the government exam to become a patent agent, which comes before admission to the bar. He passed the exam in 1975, finished law school the following year, and then found immediate employment as a patent lawyer with a firm in New Jersey.
Two years later, de Angeli was hired by a Philadelphia law firm, where he remained for about six years. He then moved in 1985 to Washington, D.C., where he spent the next 16 years.
In the late 1990s, de Angeli was working with a client in North Kingstown and began spending a lot of time near Narragansett Bay working on a lawsuit.
“I got to like the area and finally wondered why I was living in D.C. when Rhode Island was much nicer.”
When his daughter completed high school in 2001, de Angeli moved to Jamestown. The story of “Building Better Babies” is intertwined with this period in de Angeli’s life. As a part of his work, he was on the road a lot taking depositions for a specific case. When he returned home, de Angeli would share some of his war stories with a friend. The friend suggested that he incorporate the stories into a book.
De Angeli was working on a case that involved electronics, specifically computer memory, but he didn’t find the subject particularly interesting. He decided to write about something in the biotech field, which was not only more interesting to him, but included ethical issues that he wanted to address. That’s how the book got started.
According to de Angeli, writing a book was on his bucket list. It was always something he thought he could do. He made a couple of early attempts, but he knew that the idea wouldn’t come to fruition until he came up with a good plot that involved issues he knew something about. It took de Angeli 15 years, on and off, to complete it.
“Building Better Babies” explores the leading edge of a highly controversial technology and the law. The story tells of a process in which the DNA of athletes, scientists, musicians and beautiful people is transplanted into the genes of parents in an effort to eradicate hereditary diseases. All goes well until the babies begin to get sick. Eventually the U.S. government learns of the technology and seeks to control it. That’s when a patent lawyer steps in.
“There’s a lot of venting about how the government has done all of these terrible things to civil liberties, in addition to lots of venting about what’s wrong with the practice of law these days,” he said.
According to de Angeli, there is definitely some reality in his tale of genetically engineered children that may seem a bit far-fetched at first. He said this kind of work is being done now, albeit on a more limited basis than what he describes in his book.
“Mostly they’re interested in getting rid of disease, but the cosmetic thing is going to come too.”
De Angeli said that one of the dangers that writers face is to not be derivative of other books that they like, which is especially true for a writer like de Angeli, who reads a lot of mystery and suspense novels. A number of current novels deal with the issues like the theft of nuclear technology. Finding that area somewhat overdone, de Angeli decided that he had to look elsewhere for his story.
“I really respect a lot of these writers, and it would have been really difficult to write a conventional murder mystery without being derivative of Robert B. Parker, or somebody like that. This is a new subject. I don’t think anybody has written anything like this before.”
De Angeli was able to wrap aspects of patent law into his story, and making his main character a patent lawyer allowed him to use his knowledge as an integral part of the novel. People have already suggested that he continue to explore Hank Hannah, the patent lawyer at the heart of his story, with another novel. While he likes the idea, he knows it will require him to come up with another intriguing story.
De Angeli will have a book signing at Simpatico Jamestown on Wednesday, April 30, from 6 to 8 p.m. There will be a limited number of books available for purchase, but de Angeli will also sign books that are purchased from Amazon.