How Genetic Testing Helped Me Write My First Novel

Debut author Laura Maylene Walter reflects on the story she was destined to write

Laura Maylene Walter
Moms Don’t Have Time to Write
5 min readMay 20, 2022


Image courtesy of Dutton

Last summer, I sat in a genetic counselor’s office and watched as she sketched a map of my family’s cancer history. Leukemia for my grandfather, colon cancer for my grandmother, and so on, all revolving around the most wrenching case: my mother’s ovarian cancer.

More than two decades had passed since my mother died. Ever since, I’ve quietly assumed that a similar fate awaited me. My mother and I were so close that I couldn’t imagine we weren’t linked in this way genetically, especially considering the other cancer cases in the family. But as I studied the counselor’s map, I saw for the first time that the evidence for a genetic link was flimsy.

I’d spent years selling myself a story — that my family history was riddled with cancer, and that I was doomed — but when a professional calmly outlined everything on paper, it became clear that nothing was as dire as I’d anticipated.

I gave a vial of blood for the test and went home. Whatever the outcome might be, I was confident I could handle it. After all, I’d already spent half my life expecting the worst.

What I didn’t expect was to be surprised by good news. When I got the phone call a few weeks later that everything came back clear, my tests free of any known cancer-causing gene mutation, I was shaken. Having spent so long assuming I was genetically tied to my mother’s early death, the truth was disorienting.

I also had to reckon with the fact that this test couldn’t predict my future. As the counselor explained to me, most cancer is not caused by inherited gene mutations; only a small percentage of cancers have such a genetic link. Then there are the limitations of testing, which means other genetic markers might be out there that we can’t yet test for. Or there could be a familial link to cancer that won’t show up in genetic tests. Not to mention other factors, such as nutrition, environment, alcohol use, and so on.

My lack of an inherited link to the disease that killed my mother didn’t guarantee I’d never get sick. Instead, it merely confirmed that I don’t have a mutation that predisposed me to certain cancers. Everything else was still unknowable.

When I wrote Body of Stars, I wasn’t consciously exploring genetic predisposition for diseases or how genetic testing might be capable of predicting our fates, but perhaps these concepts were stirring inside me all along.

But the unknown felt familiar to me. Only a few months before entering that genetic counselor’s office, I published my debut novel, Body of Stars, a speculative feminist story exploring fate and free will. In Body of Stars, the future is written onto the bodies of women and girls. The arrangement of moles on a woman’s body spell out future events, including illness and death. In the world of my novel, characters map out these patterns of markings, much like how the counselor mapped out my family’s cancer history.

When I wrote Body of Stars, I wasn’t consciously exploring genetic predisposition for diseases or how genetic testing might be capable of predicting our fates, but perhaps these concepts were stirring inside me all along. The characters in my novel are often frustrated that they can know part of the future and not all of it. Many of these characters are greedy for more information while others, like my protagonist, wish the future could unfold without the benefit of foreknowledge.

In my years of research for this novel, I read about fortunetelling practices across cultures and considered what it would feel like to have the future marked on my own body. Bearing that knowledge would be powerful, but it also seemed horrifying. The predictions make the women in Body of Stars both revered and vulnerable within their society, and it was this tension that kept me invested in the novel over the years. I never lost sight of the fact that the ability of my characters to foretell the future was sacred and mysterious — but it could also be a curse.

When the novel was published and I began giving interviews and talking to book clubs, I was often asked if I’d like to share this ability to have the future outlined on my body. My answer was always an emphatic no. I’d spent so much time living in the imagined world of my novel and contemplating the effect of these predictions that I sided with my narrator, Celeste: it was better to go through life blank, letting the future unfold as it may.

Now that the results from my genetic testing have sunk in, I’m left feeling relieved but also a bit wistful. What a waste it was to spend so much time assuming the worst. If only I’d taken a genetic test years earlier, I might have saved myself unnecessary anxiety. But while the testing didn’t show any genetic predisposition for cancer, perhaps it revealed something else: the genesis and the heart of Body of Stars, a story I dreamed up to explore the extent to which women have agency over their own bodies and futures.

Body of Stars is a story of my imagination, but in many ways, it’s also a story of my body. This book was my way of contemplating the wonder, the risks, and the limitations of knowing the future before it comes to pass. Unlike my fictional characters, however, my own fate remains unknowable. And yet this story waited and waited inside me until it was able to emerge at long last — as if it had been written in my genes.

Laura Maylene Walter is a writer and editor in Cleveland. Her writing has appeared in Poets & Writers, Kenyon Review, The Sun, Slate, Literary Hub, Ninth Letter, The Masters Review, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships, residencies, or grants from Tin House, Yaddo, the Ohioana Library Association, the Chautauqua Institution, and Art Omi: Writers. She is the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow at Cleveland Public Library. Body of Stars is her debut novel.