(Three Guys One Book, Sept. 14, 2008, Jason Rice)
It’s great to have a chance to interview a rising star a few months before he actually lands in bookstores. Thanks again Josh, and to the wonderful Miriam Parker who always comes through for the Three Guys blog. We’ll run this interview and the conversation again around time of publication in January 2009.
Jason Rice: There is a lot to admire in your debut novel, Beat the Reaper, but I was especially drawn to the flashbacks and particularly impressed with the depths you were able to plumb, and the speed in which you achieved the past of your hero. I was really surprised at the twists and turns you took with getting Peter Brown from one end of the story to the other, especially with his grandparents, I won’t spoil it, but what kind of background were you initially planning on writing and what did it end up evolving to…obviously it evolved to what we see in the book, but many times writers develop a whole set of things for their characters that just help them write it all, and leave so much on the cutting room floor?
Josh Bazell: Hi Jason. Thanks for reading and being interested.
This is an insightful question. Pietro Brnwa felt perfect to me pretty much as soon as I came up with him. I was looking for a character able to survive, but also understand, dangerous situations involving science and medicine. And personally I had no trouble believing that a hitman turned doctor could exist. It seemed real to me that someone who had been a killer but then gained some moral insight and become repulsed by his former self would want to become a doctor. And I thought it was possible, though obviously very difficult, for such a person to succeed. I’d even met several people who, though not originally killers and not ultimately doctors, had managed (generally after a religious conversion in prison) to go from being violent criminals to good and effective healthcare professionals.
The problem was making readers believe it. To say the least, it’s an unusual situation, particularly since I didn’t want to use religiosity or fraud as a Pietro’s motivation for becoming a doctor. (These seemed too easy and familiar, for me if not for the character.) Also, I needed the back story to be not only plausible but also capable of generating sympathy for a character who has been a cold-blooded killer. So I clearly had to do some explaining.
But although Pietro’s back story came easily to me — it felt obvious, somehow — I was wary of foisting it off on readers. I tend to hate “origin stories,” and almost always enjoy books that come later in a series more than the one that inaugurates a series. (For example, I like many of the Travis McGee books, including the second one, more than the first. The McGee setup isn’t all that complicated, and since MacDonald feels compelled to lay it out as an aside in every one of the subsequent books anyway, watching him take time to do it head-on in the first book feels faintly embarrassing.) I also hate when a book starts out with exciting current goings-on and then, once it feels it has you hooked, relaxes into inert exposition. So not only was the back-and-forth chronology of “Beat the Reaper” a pain in the ass to organize, it made me constantly worry that the reader would get bored. And yet, like I say, to just mention in passing that the main character is a physician but used to be a hitman didn’t seem like it would fly. Plus, as much as I tend to dislike books that inaugurate series, I usually feel compelled to read them first anyway. (And it’s not like there’s never been a good one. “Sign of the Four” and “Black Dahlia” come to mind, and there’s no bad first Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler book.)
Even after I’d finished writing “Beat the Reaper,” I considered filing it away and instead introducing Pietro in the book I’m writing now. But early readers — particularly Markus Hoffmann, my agent, whose insight I respect utterly — felt it was sufficiently engaging to hit home. If it is, it’s partly because I was so acutely aware of the risks of a novel that’s heavy in back story, and sought to mitigate them.
JR: Beat the Reaper is being positioned as a thriller, straight up no frills, but it seems like it’s so much more than that, from the foot-notes to the distinctively tight narrative arc that is common for this genre which you take it a step further by shading your characters with a lot of remorse even unredeemable acts of violence. Is it possible that this could be considered a literary thriller? Perhaps straddle both genres? Appeal to the people who read Richard Ford and those who read James Patterson (I can’t believe I just said that out loud)?
JB: I’m a pretty serious student of the dedicated crime novel — these days I read pretty much only crime fiction, nonfiction, and classics — but I don’t think it’s news that much if not most of the world’s great literature could be called crime fiction of some sort or another. There are some pretty strong similarities between “Macbeth” and “A Simple Plan,” for example, and the scene in the “Mahabarata” where Arjun, on being exiled, scatters a handful of sand and says, “When I come back, arrows will rain on this city like these grains of sand,” sounds like something from Lee Child. When Richard Ford introduced the murder in his second novel about Frank Bascombe (yet another series with a first volume that kicks ass and stands perfectly well on its own) I was surprised, but I bought it.
And while I think dedicated crime fiction, like all genre fiction, has some ability to skate on story alone, there’s clearly no shortage of well-written crime. For example, I love Matthew F. Jones, whose technique in “A Single Shot” and “Deepwater” is to take familiar crime novel setups (in “Deepwater” it’s the handsome drifter recruited by the scheming wife of an innkeeper to kill her husband) and play them out as real human events.
In my own work, succeed or fail though it might, I can promise you that I’m trying at all times to produce the book that I personally want to read right now. Slumming is for assholes. One result of this philosophy so far, I think, has been that a number of people who might not consider themselves crime fans have read the galleys, and expressed surprise, both pleasant and unpleasant, at the unusual (for them) level of intensity and violence. In a way, I particularly love to hear that someone has been horrified by the book, because it means that the reading experience has drawn in a reader who would not be attracted by the subject matter alone.
JR: You seem to take a lot of inspiration from movies, tough guy talk, brutally sick movie/TV violence, and whip smart dialogue. I wonder what kind of revisions you did when you wrote this book, from cradle to grave what was the process like? Peter Brown seems to be someone you know very well, how did his world come to life…clearly you wanted to incorporate what you know about the medical world, but why a hitman doctor?
JB: As I said earlier, Pietro Brnwa seemed almost immediately appealing to me because of his ability to survive situations that required both medical knowledge and combat skills. The fact that he was an actual hitman (vs, say, a retired special forces medic or something) was appealing for other reasons as well. I liked that being a murderer is essentially the opposite of being a doctor, and therefore makes the case that it’s possible to change some aspects of who you are. (Which I think I was probably wondering about at the time. Writing, in some ways, is also the opposite of being a doctor.) And I loved working within the unorthodox and cynical viewpoint of a former career criminal, which is yet another opposite to the usually somewhat square and restrained outlook of a physician. What I was shooting for, so to speak, was a character with such a strong personality that he could retain the cynicism and fearlessness of a hitman despite dedicating himself to a moral and sympathetic life.
JR: In the author notes it’s mentioned that you went to Brown University , when were you there, how did you find it? And getting a degree from that coveted institution and then going onto write a novel that’s being published must be a pretty good feeling…no? Did you ever take this novel and workshop it? You know…writers colony, or someplace where you could get feedback on what was working and what wasn’t. I’m hoping you say no.
JB: Then I’ll say no. I was at Brown in the 90s. I majored in English Lit and did the honors program in writing so I could take classes in the MFA and PhD programs. I loved Brown. Afterward I entered the PhD program in English Lit at Duke. My feeling at the time was that although I had always liked science and medicine (I had done some neuroscience work at Cornell in Manhattan when I was in high school), I could not both go to medical school and continue writing, which was my first ambition. However, once at Duke I realized that the curriculum they were then offering — five years pretending to give a shit about French materialist political theory while teaching undergraduate courses on essay composition, then a 50% chance of getting a job in the field — was not much easier than going into medicine, just sillier and much less fulfilling. I went to Columbia for med school, then did my internship at UCSF, where I am still a resident.
I didn’t workshop “Beat the Reaper.” I didn’t even workshop the novel I wrote as my undergraduate thesis at Brown, since the workshops I attended there were focused exclusively on stylistic concerns, at the sentence level of prose, and therefore seemed inappropriate for novel-length work. You wanted to be able to try as many stylistic variations as possible, and anyway writing at length just demonstrated your ignorance of structure. Later, after I’d spent endless time learning on my own how to construct a story, I felt — kind of bitterly — that my writing education at Brown had been inadequate. As Nadine Gordimer says, the problem with most workshops is that they don’t teach you how to construct a story that anyone outside of your workshop would want to read. However, now that the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, and many schools are offering writing classes based on the screenwriting model — crap like “the inciting incident” and “the page 70 reversal” — I’m more forgiving toward what I learned in college. Yes, it would have been helpful to have had at least one class on structure. But for most people, style probably takes a lot longer to learn than structure. And in any case, a deep study of literature (which I most definitely was able to undertake at Brown), followed by massive practice, kicks the crap out of any kind of writing class.
JR: There is a lot of baggage for any book that is set in a hospital, and usually it means two people fall in love, tragically and with a happy ending, or there is a villain on the loose, a lot of time spent in the morgue, or some heavy descriptive narrative about the details of operating on a body. You don’t bog us down with useless information, you skin this cat down to the bare essentials, and it’s all very precise and matter of fact like you’re sneering at the process of medicine. Where is your heart on the trade of being a doctor? It seems almost like you are looking down on the business of medicine, like you may have seen the dark side of it, especially the part where you mention the amount of money being spent on a patient who will never see the world outside the hospital.
JB: Wow. Sneering’s not precisely what I was going for. As far as I know, the vast majority of doctors (and patients) are admirable, well-intentioned people. And practicing medicine is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding things I’ve ever done.
What I was trying to get at in “Beat the Reaper” is that the business side of healthcare is in desperate trouble, in a way that leaves doctors and patients dissatisfied and mistrustful of each other. Both parties should be blaming the insurance industry (which is designed to find opportunities to take money and then keep it by refusing care) and pharmaceutical companies (which spend far more on advertising than on research and care only about profits), but doctors and patients are often too exhausted and fearful to feel like they can do anything about anything that’s not right in front of them. When I point out in “Beat the Reaper” that the majority of money that insurance companies do dole out goes to incurable end-of-life cases who often never regain consciousness, I’m not arguing (I hope) that people should be allowed to die for financial reasons. I’m arguing that with so many Americans going without healthcare at all, for political reasons that seem like financial reasons (meaning that we already spend enough to cover everyone in the U.S., but do it in a way that leaves huge numbers of people vulnerable), some thought needs to be given to the morality of distribution — with the most obvious target being the skim taken off by profit-driven companies.
This is not to say there aren’t doctors who are burn-outs, in life as in the book. (The factors are pretty familiar: the decade plus of grueling and penurious training; the hours and pay on the tail end that are worse than most people, including med students, could imagine; the constant law suit threats; and the feeling that working within a corrupt system can be so inefficient as to seem useless.) Like the system that creates them, burned-out doctors are dangerous, to themselves and their patients, and deserve discussion. They’re also irresistible characters, particularly in a noir comedy. However, I think most people would be surprised to learn how seriously the large majority of doctors take their vows and responsibilities, and to what degree they feel sustained, even when pushed to the wall, by a sense that they’re engaged in an honorable profession. As much as working in a hospital can make you feel like you’re the only honest cop in a corrupt city, the reality is that the city is crawling with them.
JR: I got a kick out of Skinflick, his family, even as it tilted towards the stereotypical. First he’s a pal of Peter’s, they can’t live apart, and then he becomes the reason Peter does what he does. I forgave you for the stereotype because I could see you were using this “type” as a foil for your hero. Out there in the world you can find people like Skinfick, (sometimes in pool halls, OTB’s, or whore houses) sick bastards who don’t give a shit about anyone, who react surgically to life, and spike wildly with emotion, or sometimes show none what so ever. In developing this side of the story did you ever think, “man… this is too much”, or, “shit, I have to turn this up a little, really make it burn.”
JB: This is another very insightful question. Skinflick I never had a problem with, since I truly felt both affectionate and hateful toward him, which is all I can ask of a villain. But the amount of incident is another story.
I felt so thrilled to be writing this book — so lucky to be able to find the hours, so just purely happy to be writing — that I think it has a slightly manic quality. I had no particular reason to think it would be published, and no idea when I would get time to write another one. (Thanks to Little, Brown and UCSF, that time has come sooner than I could have hoped.) So I wanted to put everything into this one. Sharks and mafia have always been particular favorites, possibly because I read “Jaws” and “The Godfather” the summer I decided to become a writer. But I also wanted surgery, sex, 20th century history, and some jokes. So yes I worried it was over the top. Though at this point I’d have to say Non, je ne regrette rien. At least regarding the amount of incident in “Beat the Reaper.”
JR: Finally…there is talk of you writing another book, can you give a whiff? Thanks again Josh, we really liked your novel, and wish you all the best.
JB: Thanks again for caring. The next book is more straight-forward, and catches Pietro somewhat more mid-stride before taking him through another list of things I like to think and write about. Hopefully there will be an audience for it, but even if there isn’t — and yes, I do meant this as a threat — apparently writing’s not something I’m willing to give up.