So I see in your bio that you’re a practicing burn and trauma surgeon. What’s that like?
Lots of stress. Not just the fact of dealing with patients who might die, but also of caring for their families as well. You need to be empathetic, but being that giving of a part of yourself takes an emotional and psychological toll on you, too. That’s one of the reasons that burnout is so prevalent in the field. You know, I’m constantly making that phone call that we all dread getting in which I wake someone up out of a dead sleep at two in the morning to say, “Hi, is this Mrs. X? I’m a surgeon working at University Medical Center. I’m afraid your son has been in an accident and he’s been badly injured.” Doing that over and over for a couple of decades takes a piece out of you.
How long did it take for you to become a surgeon versus a writer?
After college I did four years of medical school, followed by five years of general surgery residency, and two more years of burn and trauma surgery fellowship plus laboratory time. The writing thing on the other hand just sort of happened, though. I was an English major in college, and I’ve done a ton of scientific writing for my whole medical career. I didn’t start writing fiction until 2019 when I joke that I accidentally wrote my first novel. The Cuts that Cure started off as a Word document that served as a distraction from a really boring scientific protocol upon which I was laboring. It grew over several months until I realized I had almost 60,000 words. I literally googled “How long is the average novel?” and when I saw the answer was 80-90,000 words, I realized what I’d done. I invested in a developmental editor who made some key suggestions such as giving the main character a love interest and playing up the cat-and-mouse between Henry and the Detective as well as giving me several scenes to cut and several scenes to expand. After my revisions, I shopped the manuscript around and lo and behold got an offer on the contract. That’s when things got real in a hurry.
As busy as it sounds like you are as a surgeon, when do you find the time to write?
I get this question a lot, and my answer is always that I don’t find the time to write, I make the time to write. On the days I write fiction, I get up at 3:45 am and I write until I have to start getting cleaned up to go to work. I set weekly word count goals for new or edited prose, and I’m pretty compulsive about hitting those mile posts. The morning time is my most creative, so I really kind of have to do my writing then. When I come home in the evening, first of all I’m gassed and doing well to keep up my end of a conversation. Secondly, that’s my time with my wife, Amy.
What’s the funniest thing you’ve seen in your time as a doctor?
This is pretty gross, but it’s funny too. When I was a surgery intern, I got called to the ER at four in the morning for a guy who’d stuck a cucumber up his rectum and couldn’t get it out. While I got the guy curled up in the fetal position on the ER stretcher, gloved up, and went about trying to retrieve it, a colleague of mine who shall remain nameless stood nearby watching. It was like pulling Excalibur from the stone, but I finally managed to get it out and drop it on the steel tray next to the bed with a moist thump. My buddy looked at the feces-stained cucumber and said, “Sir, you have got to start chewing your food better.” It’s been almost twenty-five years and that still makes me laugh.
It seems like a job like that would be rich fodder for stories.
Absolutely. Some of them are sad, some are funny, some are weird, some are dark. But none of them are boring.
At first I’d assumed you’d write medical thrillers, but I don’t know that that’s necessarily true, is it?
I get that expectation from other readers a lot, too, for reasons that are understandable. But while almost all of my stories have some element of medicine in them, none of them, zero, are medical thrillers in the style of Patricia Cornwell, with brave doctors fighting evil drug companies or playing medical detectives. My stories are first and foremost suspense stories that happen to deal with medical scenarios. Take for instance, my new one, The Bones of Amoret. Yes, the protagonist Noah is a doctor, but I use his profession as a vehicle rather than a defining characteristic. Had my publisher come back to me and said, “You have to make Noah a plumber,” I think I could have made that work. I’m a lot more Quentin Tarantino than I am Robin Cook.