Frequently Asked Questions
1. How did you make the transition from psychiatry to writing fiction?
I don’t know how much of a transition it was. As psychiatric residents in training, we had to write up case histories and report them at conferences. Each case was something of a minibiography with a dynamic approach to the patient’s conflicts that led to terrible symptoms (for instance, a phobia, depression, an obsessive ritual that interfered with the patient’s ability to leave the house). Colleagues sometimes said my recounting of patients’ woes sounded like short stories or the beginnings of a novel. That was one of the things I love about psychiatry–its human dimension–that each patient has a compelling story, one that’s unique but at the same time taps into a shared commonality. After all, we’re all a bit different and we’re all somewhat the same, aren’t we? And psychiatry appealed most to me because it aligned itself with creativity and the arts as compared to the other specialties.
When I began writing nonfiction medical books, my coauthor and I had to explain and illustrate medical issues by providing case histories. It was fun and even creative to write these stories, whether they described a man too stressed out for his heart’s health, a woman struggling with the horror of breast cancer, or a young boy’s jealous competition with his newborn sister.
So the transition wasn’t all that hard. But once I began writing fiction, I could use my imagination and make up things, which, come to think of it, I did extensively as a kid of seven or eight at summer camp in the Berkshires. I made up stories about a magic ball with super powers and entertained my bunkmates with endless variations on the incredible exploits of this wondrous object that was imbued with some of Superman’s abilities.
So one way or the other, I was always telling stories, whether they were medical, psychiatric, or pure fiction. (Is there any pure fiction?) Storytelling has always fascinated me, and the freedom to make stuff up provides a strange feeling of pleasure. There’s little that matches the sudden exhilaration you get when a patient suddenly “gets it” and sees his or her destructive patterns (the “aha” moment), or that incredible sensation when a novel’s plot twist suddenly falls into place and the story takes off, even assumes a life of its own. It’s really exploration followed by discovery. It may mean finding the hidden clues within oneself. Some psychiatrists would probably say it’s the revelation of unconscious feelings, and that’s probably true. But the transition to writing fiction, and the very process of writing, is really a bit of a mystery to me.
2. What made you go into forensic psychiatry, and does it affect your writing?
I always maintained a private practice and taught at Cornell. Years ago I was approached by an attorney who saw a report I prepared as a consultant for the New York Bureau of Disability Determinations. So, the introduction to the forensic arena came through him. From there, my forensic activities grew.
The work is fascinating. It involves examining people whom psychiatrists would never see in an ordinary psychiatric practice–those who’ve survived catastrophic situations. Over the ten years since the World Trade Center disaster, I examined over 200 survivors of that horrific day. I’ve evaluated survivors of airplane crashes, explosions, fires, car wrecks, bus accidents, elevator accidents (including a man who plunged nine stories down an elevator shaft when the doors opened and he stepped into empty space), rape victims, a construction worker who plummeted 150 feet from a scaffold and lived to tell the tale (he fell onto a thick pile of plywood, which cushioned the impact), and survivors of other extraordinary events far beyond usual human experience. These interfaces with survivors exposed me to a level of incalculable fear and horror that most people never encounter. It all feeds into my imagination and sense of drama, and ultimately serves the writing.
3. Does being a psychiatrist affect your writing? Does it help or hinder you? Does it give you greater insight and ability to understand and write about people?
I’m often asked that question in social situations. “Does being a psychiatrist affect how you deal with people?” I can say this: my meter is turned off in virtually every situation except during office hours. I can’t conceive living life constantly analyzing situations and people, looking for deeply hidden motives and strivings. So clinical a view of the world would be intolerable and, frankly, would drive me crazy. That’s not to say that I don’t sometimes sit back and reflect about people and hopefully, have an understanding of them based on what I know professionally. But generally, my reactions to people and situations are similar to those of others. I take things as they come and react as a human being. Maybe later, upon reflection, there’s more understanding of what went on in a particular situation.
But writing fiction is a process. When working on a manuscript, I don’t take a psychiatric view of what a character might say or do because he or she is a certain “type.” You don’t want to cubbyhole characters or construct a plot based on some psychiatric concept that gallops through the novel.
That being said, it’s likely that my training, education, and psychiatric experience exert some influence on my writing, but not in any purposeful or conscious way. My thoughts and feelings flow, and the novel takes itself wherever it’s going. Hopefully, being a psychiatrist provides some greater insight about myself and others, but it’s difficult to articulate its effect on my writing.
4. What kinds of things or events bring about an idea for a novel?
Almost anything–a news item, something on television, a movie, a vignette a friend tells, or a joke you hear. Even someone’s nickname can trigger a thousand thoughts. The sources are endless. Here’s an example.
At my office I was finished for the day and walked through the downstairs office. A secretary had brought her seven-year-old daughter because there was no school that day. The child was a cute, vivacious kid with whom I’d bantered a few times over the previous year. When she saw me, she blurted out, “You remind me of my dad!” Feeling flattered, I said, “I wish you were my kid.” To which she replied with a wide grin, “Then you’d have to marry my mom!” We both laughed at this preposterous interchange.
That little repartee triggered a host of thoughts about birth, lineage, children and their parents, about a father not knowing he has a child (somewhere in the world). One association led to another, and this little repartee became the kernel for a novel I’m working on called Crazy Love. I don’t want to say more and give away the story, but that’s one way an idea can come–out of the blue, unexpected, based on a joke or comment, however offhanded. It can become the raw material, the ore that needs enrichment and refinement, needs to percolate and form a nidus around which a story is built. And then comes imagination.
Some writers carry a pad or a small recorder to memorialize what they see or hear, especially if someone says something that clicks as potential dialogue in a novel. I’ve never done that. I just let my thoughts flow, and then somehow, something comes. It always seems to happen that way.
Maybe it’s another topic, but one of my biggest concerns (a fear, really) is that I’ll run out of ideas and never come up with another novel. But really, stories are always out there, lying in wait. You just have to be receptive to them. In a sense, you have to exploit the world around you. In a strange way, a novelist is something of a thief: taking things from the world and using them in the service of a story. If I remember correctly, that was one of the themes in the Woody Allen film Deconstructing Harry.
5. Do you plan a novel–draw up an outline with time, place, people, and a plot line, or does it just come from someplace deep inside?
I may jot down some things at first–a few names, some characteristics, a place, time frame, and a general plot outline in accordance with a kernel of an idea, but that’s usually pretty vague. But the longer I ruminate about a potential novel or plot developments, the more frustrating it is because the project doesn’t get off the ground. It sits in a kind of ruminative limbo until the hard work of actually writing begins in earnest.
I may have an idea of how a novel will end, but no clue how to get there. After all, there are infinite possibilities about the pathway a story may take. That’s true in life, too. It’s unpredictable and can change direction on a dime. While writing, the plot line begins taking shape and slowly clarifies itself. Actually, it’s a process that builds on itself. For instance, a story may be going in a particular direction, but a character says or does something (let’s say on page 75 of the manuscript) and it makes you rethink what you wrote earlier, say on page 20. The new development on page 75 seems far richer with much more potential, so it means going back to page 20 and either changing or eliminating what’s there so it’s consistent with what popped up later in the narrative. It can happen at page 300, which may force an alteration on page 1 or page 20, or may even change the novel’s ending.
An outline may be helpful, but it has to be flexible. It can morph radically when a character utters a single sentence or when a new situation you hadn’t dreamed would occur alters the narrative arc. When that happens, the outline has served its initial purpose, but may no longer be applicable. It’s best not to marry some preconceived framework that’s formed in your head. That invites getting bogged down in slowly drying cement¼some people might call it writer’s block.
As for storytelling, it helps to keep in mind something I knew, even as a kid: above all, children (and adults) want to be told a story. Everyone wants to know one thing: What’s going to happen next? That’s the essence of storytelling. And what happens next can veer off in one of many, many directions.
On a slightly different note, I’ve always admired writers who could tell a good story and also use gorgeous language and make you think about the clever or beautiful use of words (the form of the story) as well as the story’s arc (its content or plot line). These are writers like William Styron or Pat Conroy or Dennis Lehane or Don Winslow, among others.
Let’s face it: it’s daunting to stare at a blank page or computer screen. And to know you want to write, or feel you must write. How do you do it? In the end, every writer probably has his or her own technique or process. But it is a process and the story can take unexpected twists of almost any kind. Above all, it’s helpful to respect the wanderings of your imagination. If you do that, the story seems to tell itself, even though you’ve worked your ass off conceiving and telling it.
6. Is writing something that’s inborn, or can you learn to be a writer?
It’s the old nature versus nurture question: are some things simply inborn or can they be learned?
There’s no quick answer for this question. Certainly, to be a writer, one must possess verbal abilities and enjoy using words, whether in written or spoken form. Verbal ability comes naturally to some people and not to others. So yes, there’s no doubt some “nature” is involved, and some people are more linguistically inclined, while others are more technically skilled. And there are lucky ones who have a mixture of both verbal and technical skill, along with other abilities.
That being said, I think of Stephen King’s excellent book, On Writing, where he says, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
Aside from mastering the fundamentals of language and the basics about writing fiction, reading fiction (if you want to write it) is crucial. It’s fascinating to read different authors and see what they do–how they use language, metaphor, sentence structure, dialogue, descriptions, and how they transition from one scene to another or from the present to the past and back again. You can learn a great deal by simply reading and observing these things, by peering beyond the story’s content and observing the writer’s form. That, too, is a process–learning about writing by reading other writers–it happens gradually, incrementally, and without your even realizing it. It occurs with time and exposure, and there’s no substitute for reading the genre in which you’d like to write.
I’m sometimes asked about dialogue: if it comes naturally, or when to use it instead of describing something. Or someone will ask if you need to have an “ear” for what characters say. I’ve always thought that if you can talk, you can write dialogue, but it’s not quite that simple. The novelist Diana Chang once told me, “Dialogue isn’t just what people say to each other; it’s what they do to each other with words.” And that’s very true. Every word uttered by characters should in some way large or small, impact the story or clarify the character saying those words or the relationship between the characters. Every word or sentence must connote action (past or future) relating to the story so it has the buzz of drama. It can be very helpful to read dialogue aloud, as though acting out a play or movie. This can help you sense whether or not the dialogue is authentic sounding, or sounds stiff, or stilted, not true to life. Speaking of acting out the words, going to movies and listening to dialogue can be helpful, although the action, music, and actors’ body language add to the dialogue’s drama. But moviegoing can be part of the process of learning more about writing.
The other part of King’s advice is equally true: no matter how talented you are, you’ve got to write in order to get better at it. Write–and keep writing. I can tell you, there are days when it’s painful to sit down and write, to ponder, where do I go from here? What comes next? Where is this story going? Is this the best I can do? Some people harbor vague notions about writing (some day) but never sit down and actually do it. You have to do the hard work of writing, and by doing it over and over, you get better at it.
And we shouldn’t forget how valuable the input of a professional editor–whether an in-house editor at a publishing company or a freelance editor with tons of experience–can be. An experienced editor reviewing your writing, making critical comments, and pointing out weaknesses, is crucial. Your writing can definitely be improved with the help of an experienced eye going over your manuscript and making an honest, objective assessment of what you’ve written.
So, while nature is important in writing, nurturing your inborn ability is crucial to being a writer.
7. How did the idea of Mad Dog House come to you?
For me, the process of an idea becoming a coherent and multilayered story is a very strange thing. It can even seem strangely dreamlike, as though it’s impossible to maintain a hold on what’s gone on in your mind. Sometimes, when a story is on paper, I absolutely cannot reconstruct the genesis of its creation. I wonder, How the hell did I come up with this story? And there’s no answer to the question. It’s almost like that strange feeling you have in the morning when you realize you’ve been dreaming and you attempt to recall it, but it dissolves and slips away, sinks back in to the depths.
The elements of Mad Dog House involve a strange, mutated synthesis of disparate bits and pieces of my life. For instance, when I was in the seventh grade, there was a kid in my class nicknamed “Cootie” (the name of a character in Mad Dog House). Cootie was a good kid and the class clown, unlike the Cootie in the novel. So, he and his moniker just stuck in my head. Years later, while in the army at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, I worked with another medical corpsmen dealing with sick or injured paratroopers. We called him “Mad Dog.” He earned the name not because he was “mad” or violent, but because he laughed like a hyena or some insane canine.
So these two little elements somehow stuck: Cootie and Mad Dog.
When I was a high school freshman, some wiseass kid sitting behind me in class frequently “finger-snapped” my ear. Needless to say, it was damned annoying. Since I weighed a whopping 105 pounds at age 13, he was far bigger than I. Feeling helpless and humiliated, I sat there passively, but my blood boiled. One day, after the third or fourth fingersnap of the day, I turned around and challenged him to a fight behind the candy store near the school. He laughed, but there was a barely detectable sense of fear in him since he’d never expected so brazen a challenge from a skinny kid. We went outside and long story short: I beat the crap out of him.
Those three elements of my experiences (Mad Dog, Cootie, and being bullied by a kid sitting behind me coalesced in the first three pages of Mad Dog House. Without going into a long-winded exposition, I grew up in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood where fist-fighting was a way of life. I also have a degree in business, was in the army and learned a great deal about guns and acute medical care, got a degree in medicine, became a psychiatrist, and practiced adult and forensic psychiatry. I learned plenty about the close-quarters combat of the courtroom. I’ve always had an interest in restaurants, but wisely, never owned one. Somehow, these vastly disparate elements came together–got worked and reworked and totally reconfigured and eventually coalesced into a plot line for Mad Dog House.
The process of storytelling took over, and one thing morphed into another–the plot took unforeseen turns, the characters deepened (sometimes changing midnovel), until it turned out to be Mad Dog House as it now exists. So, on some elemental (even unconscious) level, bits and pieces of one’s past, one’s strivings, knowledge base, and inner emotional landscape can merge into a novel. All pure fiction, of course.
8. After what you’ve just said, are any of the characters in Mad Dog House you, or some part of you?
A tough question. Yes and no.
Yes, since the characters are all people I created. So maybe some element of each character lies within me, buried more or less deeply. Perhaps each character reflects some part of my inner being to some extent.
No, because none of them is me. Maybe they’re fantasized and idealistic versions of myself, or some embellished parts of me, or what I would sometimes like to do. Some characters may represent a dishonorable segment of my being that I’d prefer to disavow.
But let’s face it, we’re all complicated mixtures of desires, dislikes, impulses, and preferences, some of which may be contradictory. In other words, there’s good and bad in every one of us. No one is a monolithic model of good, or evil, or nobility, or moral squalor, or anything else. People are far too complicated to be pigeonholed into a single way of being. The characters in Mad Dog House embody a wide range of qualities: honor, loyalty, love, greed, lust, dishonesty, betrayal, murderous impulses, and wishes to save another person, among others. We see certain contradictory qualities residing side by side within Roddy and Danny as they steamroll through Mad Dog House. To some extent, each of these qualities probably resides within myself, and they probably simmer in us all.
9. Violence occurs frequently in Mad Dog House. Is that part of your personality or is totally contrived?
Violent–even murderous impulses–reside within all of us. You see it whenever you watch news items about riots or wars or street violence. You certainly see bloodlust when people rubberneck while passing an accident, or go to some sporting event (for example, mixed martial arts, boxing matches, hockey games, football, wrestling contests) or when you read some of the world’s greatest literature or view the foul arc of history. So to pretend that violence isn’t part of human nature is disingenuous. Sex and violence sell, and there’s a reason for that. Despite all my years of training in medicine, psychiatry, and no matter what kind of peaceful life I lead, I’m still intrigued by violence. And so are most people, whether they admit it or not.
10. Mad Dog House involves people reverting to their ways of the past. Can people ever really change?
We’d like to think people can change, and in some superficial ways, we can. But deep, long-lasting personality templates are very difficult to leave behind. Once you’ve become whoever you are, it’s a permanent way of being. As a psychiatrist working with patients trying desperately to change the way they interact with others, I know it’s a difficult task. There is among virtually all people a need to endlessly repeat the old ways, a perverse tendency to revert to the familiar patterns of childhood, no matter how ungratifying or even hurtful they’ve been. We’ve all seen it in friends and relatives: the woman who again and again winds up with unavailable men who reject her, the man who repeatedly falls for overbearing women who rebuff him (re-enactments maybe of a cold, rejecting mother), and many other stale, repetitious patterns that are a leitmotif throughout people’s lives. A guy named Sigmund Freud termed it the “repetition compulsion” and it’s as old as time itself.
Some psychiatrists and psychologists believe the goal of exploratory psychotherapy and psychoanalysis is to provide enough insight to help a person see these maladaptive patterns and nip them in the bud before they get played out. This can make for certain changes. Some have said the goal of therapy is to enable a change of two or three degrees in a ninety-degree angle. If you do that, you can make some behavioral changes. Some people can do it to one degree or another, but deeply engrained ways of perceiving and dealing with the world (sometimes called “character armor”) are not easily renounced. As William Faulkner said in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”
11. Mad Dog House explores, among other things, male friendship. Much has been written and discussed about the importance of women’s friendships. Talk about male friendships.
We all know there can be powerful sisterly bonds between women. A novel such as The Help sheds some light on that, as do many others. There are brotherly bonds, too. They can involve a relationship between men based on the old male-bonding routine: a bromance in which both men respect each other (often depicted in “buddy movies”). Like so much in life, these relationships can be complicated. They can be riddled with love, respect, begrudging admiration, and even resentment. In fact, movies often depict these male relationships as beginning on an adversarial basis, with respect and admiration–even love–developing slowly as the characters negotiate the challenges of the plot line (think about the movie 48 Hours and many others). But these relationships exist in people’s lives and they endure. Powerfully so.
In Mad Dog House, Roddy and Danny have a bond that began pre-memory and lasts over many years. In a very real way, these two men love each other and have even entwined their family lives around each other. Part of their relationship recapitulates some of what happened when they were kids and blood brothers, when Roddy ran to Danny and Dan’s mother for help at critical times in his early life. Of course, as in any other relationship, problems threaten to disrupt the even keel of that bond, but the relationship goes on.
12. Without giving away the story, in desperate circumstances, do the ends justify the means?
That’s a potent ethical question. Some would say yes; others would say no. It’s far easier to ponder this issue on a hypothetical basis, in something of an intellectual vacuum–divorced from reality as opposed to living out desperate circumstances in real life. I don’t know if we can validly answer this question unless we’re put to the test. What do you do if you’re trapped in a situation and perceive that not only your life, but the lives of your loved ones are in extreme jeopardy? What do you do if you believe with good reason that to seek police protection could very well increase the danger, lead to disaster? There are no easy answers, but a good case can be made for the notion that desperate times call for desperate measures, at least in matters of life and death. I don’t know that a novel must answer this question, but it can certainly raise the question.
13. One of the characters in Mad Dog House, Danny, wants to get into the restaurant business because he craves the glamour and a sense of having “arrived.” He’s not satisfied with being an accountant. Do you see patients with similar strivings?
Sure. There are patients who despite considerable success, eventually feel unfulfilled in their work. A sense of ennui has crept into their lives, professionally and sometimes. in their marriages. This can happen to men and women. It usually occurs during the late forties or fifties, sometimes when the person’s a bit older. These people have “made their bones” in their chosen careers, and find little challenge left for them. Certainly nothing compares to the hurdles they overcame years earlier as they clawed their way up the corporate or professional ladder.
So they begin looking for fulfillment elsewhere. Often, these people feel they renounced something far more fulfilling years earlier to pursue the path they did, and while they did very well, they feel they compromised their youthful strivings. This can be expressed in different ways.
There’s the upper-echelon executive who provides start-up money for his daughter opening a restaurant or bakery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The parent may be trying to live out a fantasy through the child. Or not. There’s the orthopedic surgeon who becomes a silent partner in an automobile dealership. There’s the 45-year-old mother who at 22 gave up the prospect of becoming a lawyer and now attends law school, or the 50-year-old woman who was a History of Art major in college and now decides to become a docent at a museum. There are many variations on this theme.
Of course, Danny, in Mad Dog House, has a confluence of reasons for wanting to get into the restaurant business. His accounting work is financially rewarding, but seems routine, dull, lacks glamour. His wife, Angela, sometimes takes him to task for being too conservative with money, for lacking a sense of adventure; and here is his chance to take a little risk and act in a more daring way–and to do it with his lifelong blood brother, Roddy. It’s a chance for them to return to an idealized past insofar as their relationship is concerned. And he craves not only the glamour of being part-owner of a Manhattan chophouse, but the opportunity to bring his accountancy clients to the restaurant, wine and dine them, and have both businesses cross-pollinate. It makes him feel like a star. Yes, he craves something more in his life than the doldrums of spread sheets and numbers. It’s not at all an uncommon fantasy, and sometimes it becomes a reality.
14. There are many references to popular culture in Mad Dog House (The Sopranos, Paulie Walnuts, The Terminator, and many others). Are you a pop culture freak?
Not really, but the phenomenon of popular culture is intriguing. Popular culture references can be a shorthand way of conveying vivid images to the reader. And they can enrich the read if they’re not used too frequently (think of the novel American Psycho here). We all know what comes to mind when we read or hear the iconic names of certain people or beloved television shows or famous movies. They’ve become embedded in the popular consciousness, woven their way into our culture: The Sopranos, Bada Bing!, Paulie Walnuts, The Terminator, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Night of the Living Dead, George Clooney, The Twilight Zone, Donald Trump, The Bellagio, Field of Dreams, Leave It to Beaver, Fred Astaire, and many others.
They convey not only an image, but an atmosphere, a sense of time and place–maybe even a period of recent history, along with a sense of nostalgia–all of which can be conveyed colorfully and can strike a familiar chord. If you say that a particularly evil woman reminds you of the Wicked Witch of the West, doesn’t that conjure an instant image? Let’s face it, a contemporary novel should be contemporary.
15. Do you see a movie in Mad Dog House’s future?
I hope a movie will come out of it. I’ve been told by people who’ve read versions of the manuscript that the novel is loaded with visual imagery. Some readers have said they perceive me as a visual thinker and when reading Mad Dog House, they could actually see what was going on. While writing various scenes in the novel, I could actually see them taking place. Then too, I could virtually hear the characters’ voices, smell what they did, and feel their fear or anger or anguish. In a sense, I could be right there, amidst whatever was going on. Maybe a better way to put it is that Mad Dog House is, among other things, a sensory novel (sights, sounds, smells, and feelings). I can’t be objective about it, but Mad Dog House would make a very suspenseful movie.
16. Who among modern writers in the genre of thrillers and suspense do you most admire and why?
It’s a long list, and here are some of them, not necessarily in order of preference.
James Lee Burke writes beautifully and describes atmosphere with a master’s touch. Then there’s Dennis Lehane, whose writing reached its lyrical pinnacle in Mystic River (Clint Eastwood’s film did a great job, but simply can’t match the book). Don Winslow’s use of language is simply amazing; it just blows me away (particularly in Savages and The Winter of Frankie Machine). These are fantastic stories told with tremendous verbal ingenuity, bravado, and creativity.
I particularly liked–really loved–Barry Eisler’s John Rain novels, which are fantastic not only because they’re well-written and suspenseful, but because it’s difficult to make the reader love a paid assassin. But Eisler does just that: he makes John
Rain very human and despite the ruthlessness of his profession, you actually feel for the guy. Then there’s Thomas Perry, whose first novel, The Butcher’s Boy, was a work of art. His others have also been beautifully conceived and well-written. Michael Connolly is a topnotch crime writer as exemplified by his Harry Bosch novels and The Lincoln Lawyer.
Harlan Coben is no slouch, either; his Myron Bolitar novels are excellent, and some of his standalone novels are great, too. John Hart is a writer whose rich use of language is impressive and who knows how to tell a good story.
There are others, but these particular writers in the genre have impressed me and even influenced my own writing.
17. What or who were your earliest influences when you read fiction as a kid?
As a kid my tastes were pretty eclectic, though I didn’t quite know it back then. I just read and read until my eyeballs nearly fell out. I fell in love with the magic of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s tales about Tarzan. I read every one of those novels. Then there was the incredible storytelling of Jack London with White Fang, The Call of the Wild, and The Sea-Wolf. They were pure magic to a kid who was a voracious reader. I loved reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales and other stories with magical or mystical overtones. Then there was John R. Tunis and his novel The Kid from Tomkinsville, a wonderful baseball novel, followed by The Kid Comes Back and lots of juvenile sports fiction about many sports. One of my favorites back then was Jim Kjelgaard, a fabulous storyteller whose Big Red, and Irish Red: Son of Big Red were wondrous novels, along with his other stories about dogs and animal life.
I gobbled up novels by William MacLeod Raine and Zane Grey, who wrote adventure stories of the American Old West. And there was Edgar Allan Poe (to whom I still occasionally return), whose language and sense of the macabre fascinated me. I probably read every story the master ever wrote, but was most affected by The Pit and the Pendulum, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Gold-Bug, and The Cask of Amontillado. They made me shiver in fear, but I couldn’t stop reading. The writing was so gorgeous I even memorized some of the lines (for example, “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge,” the first sentence in The Cask of Amontillado).
As a ten-year-old kid, I loved the Greek myths, which made a startling comeback in college. I began at the University of Michigan as an English major and took a Great Books course; lo and behold, there again were the lusty gods and goddesses of myth in The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid. These are the writers and works I recall most vividly.
18. How is writing fiction different from writing nonfiction?
There’s very little comparison. In nonfiction, I cowrote medical self-help books for the lay reader. Their purpose was to convey information about a specific topic (for instance, heart disease, breast cancer, psychotherapy, child rearing) in an informative, readable, and reasonably entertaining way. It was pretty straightforward. While there was some inventive license in describing case histories to illustrate points, the creative freedom was limited.
Fiction, on the other hand, involves the synthesis of what you know about life, along with wholesale flights of imagination. It’s far more complex and much harder to write. It’s much more satisfying for me because, after all, making stuff up is pure fun. Paraphrasing what Saul Bellow once said, “When I was a child I was called a liar. Now, I’m called a writer.”
19. I’ve heard you say “Writing is rewriting.” What does that mean?
I can get through a first draft pretty quickly. Even as I’m doing it, it’s obvious that it’ll need more work: it’ll require going back and changing words, reordering sequences, cutting sentences or even entire chapters. (You must be merciless here and not fall in love with what you’ve written.) So I edit things–change words, eliminate repetitions, cut, paste, polish, and rework–the whole nine yards. There are always better ways of saying things, or a more pithy combination of words to convey a thought or feeling or action. Sometimes a character must change because he or she no longer fits the emerging story. And then I’m done.
Here’s where taking a break is crucial. It’s best to get away from the manuscript for a while, to gain some distance, let it solidify and rework itself in some back compartment of the mind. I usually have one or two other manuscripts as a diversion. It’s not always easy, but if you can compartmentalize your thinking, you can slip into something else and forget the first manuscript, even though it smolders in some mental recess.
Getting back to the earlier version of the manuscript can be a revelatory experience. It’s absolutely appalling to see glaring problems in what seemed to be a pretty good draft: going back to it you see plot or character inconsistencies; poor or stilted dialogue; washed-out, vague, or pedestrian descriptions, an action scene that’s anemic, just devoid of life; and other cringe-worthy horrors you didn’t see when writing the earlier draft. So you rewrite the thing, barely believing you’d thought the earlier version was good.
By the third rewrite, you may think it’s there.” It reads well and can pass muster. But if someone else evaluates the manuscript, more ego-crushing deficiencies emerge, some big and others small, but all meaningful. Problems come into focus that are completely invisible before the objective eye evaluates the manuscript. And they can be glaring. They can make you think you were asleep while you wrote. It’s a raw feeling to suddenly recognize even more weaknesses in what you thought of as your best effort.
If you really want to get it right, you end up rewriting what you think is good or even excellent until it finally reads right. And that can take a bunch of rewrites. The final product is a result of many, many critical revisions and rewrites, each following a hard-core assessment of what’s on the page. So in a very real way, writing is rewriting.
20. How do you know a novel is as polished as it can be?
You never do–not really. You only know you’ve spent time and effort getting things on the page. You’ve done your best to convey the action, thoughts, and feelings of the characters, and told your story as best you can. You can certainly know you’ve worked and reworked the manuscript, and that each successive version is better than the one before it. If you’ve had an editor go over it and make suggestions (conceptual and linguistic), it’s gotten even better–more polished and many problems have been ameliorated. There does come a time, however, when you reach diminishing returns and simply have to give the manuscript up–give it over and come to terms with the realization that the manuscript is about as good as you can make it.
21. Do you have family and friends read your manuscripts? If so, can they be honest? And you mentioned an editor. Should aspiring novelists have a freelance editor?
Yes, some family and friends read my manuscripts. Every one of them has provided valuable feedback. It’s always helpful to have other eyes go over what you’ve written because we become blind to the shortcomings of something we’ve labored over for so long. So objective eyeballs are a great help.
You mentioned honesty. It’s sometimes difficult for family and friends to be brutally honest. They don’t want to hurt your feelings, which is understandable. I’ve insisted that their criticism won’t hurt my feelings; instead, it will help me. I don’t want to be stroked or fed pabulum. A few friends have been brutally honest, and I love them all the more for it. Others have found it difficult to really tear into a manuscript and have been gentle, but have conveyed their impressions–the good and the bad. Each family member or friend has been valuable in one way or another. The most brutally honest person has been my wife, and in more venues than writing, I’ve learned to respect her opinions.
As for the last part of your question: a good freelance editor can be a boon to any writer–either an aspiring or an established novelist. If you have an editor who’s experienced in the genre, you have not only an objective pair of eyes, but someone with years of experience with many writers and even hundreds of novels. My freelance editor changed how I think about writing and how I approach a manuscript, and has changed my writing life. I would certainly recommend a freelance editor for every beginning author because you can never know how much you don’t know. But a good editor can and will make all the difference in the world.
22. Can you offer any advice to someone who writes and has a full-time job?
Write whenever you can. Early in the morning before work, when you get home, on weekends, whenever.
While writing nonfiction, I frequently wrote between seeing patients or while waiting for a patient who was late. Without access to my computer. I just did some longhand scribbling in the office, and I still do it, even with fiction. It can be difficult, but you have to make time for the writing if that’s what you want to do. Don’t give in to excuses. If you need to, set up a schedule and stick to it, even if you don’t feel like writing. Just do it.
23. Do you keep a writing schedule?
Not really. But there’s one cardinal rule about scheduling: write every single day. No matter what, just keep writing. You must make time for it, even if it means doing it only 15 or 20 minutes on a given day. Keep the rhythm going because it’s easy to lose momentum, to give in to inertia and let a manuscript languish, especially if it isn’t going too well.
For me, the best time to write is early in the morning. I’m usually at my desk by 5:30 a.m. (after breakfast) and try to avoid the temptation of reading e-mails or looking at the newspaper online. I feel alert and fresh, the house is quiet, and I can go like gangbusters on the manuscript. By 10:00 a.m. I’ve gotten in a good four hours. I then see patients or do chores, or walk with the dogs through the hills, and attend to the minutiae of everyday life. Sometimes, later in the afternoon, there’s some reading or a return to the manuscript for a few revisions, but the main chunk of writing is done in the early-morning hours.
Personally, if a day goes by and I haven’t written anything (because of other obligations), I actually feel guilty. There’s a sense the day’s been incomplete or not as fulfilling as it could’ve been. Maybe it’s a compulsion, but I hate labeling things or being too clinical. It’s just part of the way I live, and that’s the way it is.
24. There’s the old dictum: “write about what you know.” Is that true for you?
It’s certainly easy for me to write about medicine, or psychiatry, or certain aspects of the army, or about courtrooms, or business matters–all of which are, or have been, part of my life. But I can’t limit myself to those areas, easy as they may be to write about.
So the next logical question is, “If you’re going to write about what you know, what do you know?”
We know much more than we may think we do. We’ve all had experiences in life. Haven’t we all felt lust, or envy, or love, or anger, fear, anxiety, sadness; and haven’t we all experienced loss, or a sense of triumph, large or small? Haven’t we all quested for something, or been scared, disappointed, or felt unsettled, worried, exhilarated; or encountered people of every stripe–those who are kind, gentle, caring, or mendacious, manipulative, even evil? Or people who are naïve and childish, while others are braggadocios or intolerably overbearing? We’ve all been to school, parties, movies, concerts, business or professional meetings; and we’ve all had experiences as kids, as teens, as young adults; and we’ve encountered illness, threats, feelings of helplessness or guilt or shame. And at some point in our lives, we must deal with the death of a loved one and eventually with the realization that we ourselves are mortal. In other words, we all live life and that’s what we know.
25. Do you do much research for a novel?
Only what’s necessary. There wasn’t much research involved in writing Mad Dog House but the next novel I’m writing, Assassin’s Lullaby, has involved research about how an assassin might operate and about the Russian mob in New York, among other things. These days, research is pretty easy with the wealth of information available on the Internet. You can find just about everything.
I find it valuable to research little things that can make a difference in descriptive writing. As an example, I was writing a scene where a woman is drinking a martini at a bar. I described her glass as a “martini glass,” thinking of the classic long-stemmed glass with a V-shaped receptacle at the top. The description seemed pretty bland, so I went online and learned that the “classic” martini glass is often referred to as a “Savoy glass,” because it was originally used at London’s first luxury hotel, established in 1889, the Savoy Hotel. So I described the glass as a “Savoy glass,” which seemed a more descriptive and richer way to do it.