With the incredible popularity of such shows as CSI and Law & Order, Americans clearly have an appetite for morbid crime drama. Now that craving can be filled through print, with Terra Ziporyn’s psychological thriller, “Do Not Go Gentle.” Ziporyn takes the reader beyond your average “whodunit” with a story that reveals “who” right off the bat; the mystery of “Do Not Go Gentle” focuses on “why” instead. The central character is Dr. Alvin Forman, a former child prodigy, who has struggled all of his life to reconcile his desire to save humanity with his desire to destroy it. Now a single father and allergist living in the suburbs, he finds himself meticulously and ruthlessly dismembering patients, loved ones, and neighbors.
Interview with Terra Ziporyn
Do Not Go Gentle
Reviewed by for Reader Views (12/06)
Reader Views welcomes Terra Ziporyn, author of the psychological thriller, “Do Not Go Gentle.” Terra is being interviewed by Juanita Watson, Assistant Editor of Reader Views.
Juanita: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today Terra. We are interested in hearing more about your new psychological thriller novel, “Do Not Go Gentle.” Would you start by telling us the storyline?
Terra: Do Not Go Gentle is the story of Dr. Alvin Forman, a soft-spoken allergist, single father, and suburban homeowner—who, in his spare time, also happens to be a serial killer. A former child prodigy, Alvin has struggled all his life to reconcile his desire to save humanity with his desire to destroy it. Now a respected community member, he finds himself meticulously and ruthlessly dismembering patients, loved ones, and neighbors between administering allergy shots and raising his troubled teenaged daughter. But Alvin is beyond suspicion. Even Gloria, an evangelical Christian neighbor who hopes to convert Alvin as well as see him happily remarried, is clueless about just how much his soul actually needs saving. The story—a “why-done-it,” as opposed to the more traditional “who-done-it”— raises a number of questions. What would push a doctor who has sworn to protect life to kill? What demons haunt such a troubled mind? And what happens when he loses the only thing that matters to him?
Juanita: Terra, you are an award-winning science writer with publications that include “The New Harvard Guide to Women’s Health,” and “Alternative Medicine for Dummies”, as well as the novels “Time’s Fool” and “The Bliss of Solitude.” Would you tell us a little more about your professional background, and your interest in writing novels with a scientific twist?
Terra: My background in the history of science & medicine plays a major role in all of my books, both fiction and nonfiction, as does the research work I did as a grad student in biopsychology. I have a BA in both history and biology from Yale University and a PhD in the history of science and medicine from the University of Chicago. Having worked as an editor at the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), and continuing to work as a freelance medical writer and editor, definitely played a part in this book—as several of the characters are involved with medicine and/or medical journals.
Juanita: What inspired you to write “Do Not Go Gentle”?
Terra: Undoubtedly growing up with a forensic psychiatrist as a father sparked my interest in the subject of mass and, by extension, serial murderers. My dad, to whom I dedicated this novel, was chief psychiatrist at Cook County Jail and even wrote a book in the 1960s, Born to Raise Hell, on his “patient,” Richard Speck, the murderer of 8 student nurses in Chicago. Another inspiration, I think, was all the years I’ve spent writing about doctors and medical conditions. With this background, the story of a doctor—sworn to “do no harm”—who takes human life on the side intrigued me and allowed me to weave considerable medical detail into the story.
Juanita: Why do you think we are so fascinated with serial killers?
Terra: Really, they could be us, or at least people we see every day! As this book shows—and as we’ve seen in some recent real-life newspaper stories—even the sweetest next-door neighbor may have a heinous hidden hobby.
Juanita: Would you give us some background/insights into your main character, Dr. Alvin Forman?
Terra: Alvin is a former child prodigy, and I think that says a lot. He grew up being told and believing he was great—and destined for even more greatness. Then, as happens with all of us, reality started to sink in. He started to discover that he was flawed, he was limited, and—worst of all—he was mortal. But unlike most of us, Alvin isn’t equipped, psychologically, to deal with those limitations. He isn’t equipped to being anything except great and immortal. That’s why he has struggled all his life to reconcile his desire to save humanity with his desire to destroy it. Both are grandiose impulses, and kind of flip sides of the same kind of gargantuan egotism.
Juanita: It’s interesting that even Alvin doesn’t understand his need to kill and dismember his patients. Would you elaborate on this strange anomaly, and do you think this unexplainable urge is common to serial killers?
Terra: Serial killers aren’t really all that different than the rest of us. We all hover on the edge of a cliff, but the murderers (serial or otherwise) among us have undergone a certain unfortunate series of circumstances that push them over that edge. Similarly, we all sometimes have irrational and shameful urges, like the urge to throw our screaming baby out a window or to drive the car into the opposing traffic. Most of the time—fortunately—these are just urges, and we keep ourselves from acting on them. But the urges themselves are not the mystery. The mystery is the circumstances that cause some people among us to lose control over them.
Alvin, like just about everyone else, likes to think of himself in a positive light. But he has urges that don’t fit with his noble self-concept. That’s all very normal, as is the inability to think of himself as a person who has ignoble urges. In other words, Alvin’s confusion about feeling a way he doesn’t want to feel, or having urges he doesn’t want to have, is something I think we all experience. What’s not normal, though, is that Alvin acts on those urges. What makes Alvin go over the edge? That’s what the book explores. My feeling is that growing up the way he did, with the self-concept he had, and the grandiosity, is one of the reasons he takes things to extremes. But readers may have other ideas. Human behavior is hardly straightforward or unilinear.
Juanita: Who are the other pertinent characters in this novel? Would you set them up in the context of the plot?
Terra: There are several key figures. One is Gloria, Alvin’s meddling, evangelical Christian neighbor who wants to save Alvin’s soul—and has no clue whatsoever about just how big a job she’s undertaken. She also wants to find Alvin a new wife and Miranda a new mother, and she finds just such a savior in the form of Madeleine, a secretary at a medical journal who is kind of the opposite of Alvin in terms of grandiosity—she has essentially put her life on hold after losing her husband years ago. The other main character is Miranda, Alvin’s precocious but ultimately insecure teenage daughter, whom he idolizes, despite her sometimes risky behavior. Alvin’s tendency to idolize—and idealize—is something that gets him into trouble.
Juanita: Did you do any research to prepare for writing “Do Not Go Gentle”?
Terra: My whole childhood was spent listening to stories about mass murderers and other violent criminals, and the psychology underlying their crimes. But I also read some other books about serial murderers before settling down to write this novel. That helped me think more deeply about why people do things like this.
Juanita: What an interesting childhood. What feelings/thoughts came up for you when you heard these stories at such a young age? Did it scare you, or were you intrigued?
Terra: I was never scared—even when Richard Speck once offered to babysit us! My father always felt very strongly that good people could do bad things because of alterations in their brains but that they were still, ultimately, human beings with value. I was a bit worried about my dad, though, I have to admit, since he spent a lot of time sitting in jail cells with these convicted killers.
Juanita: Would you comment on Alvin’s opposing desires – one to save humanity, and the other to destroy it? Is it a God complex, a need for power…?
Terra: Absolutely. And that “God complex” goes hand in hand with a terror of being completely helpless.
Juanita: What are your thoughts on whether one is born a serial killer, or if they transform into one at some point in their life?
Terra: I think we all have the potential to do horrific crimes under the right circumstances. Alvin had the right circumstances.
Juanita: Is there any hope for Alvin? What about serial killers in general? Do you think that they can be rehabilitated?
Terra: That’s for readers to decide at the end of the novel, at least in terms of Alvin. In terms of serial killers in general, I think that if you accept the role of circumstances in pushing someone towards murder, you can also accept that other circumstances might push a person in another direction.
Juanita: What themes are you exploring in “Do Not Go Gentle”?
Terra: I don’t think so much in terms of themes as in terms of questions. What is the relationship between creativity and destructiveness? How much are humanity’s greatest achievements attributable to benevolence and how much to selfishness? Are altruism and egotism two sides of the same coin? What about ambition and fear? Or grandiosity and vulnerability? Those are just some of the questions and connections that I think the novel explores.
Juanita: Terra, what is the underlying message of your novel? What do you hope readers take away after reading “Do Not Go Gentle”?
Terra: I really don’t like to boil fiction down to a single message. Because it seems to me that if you just have a message, it’s a lot easier to write one sentence than write a full novel. A novel is richer than that, and has to be taken as a whole.
If you really insist, though, I just hope readers come out with a deeper understanding of human beings, and of themselves. Just what that understanding will be, though, will depend on how they personally process the details of the story.
Juanita: Would you comment on your writing process. How did this Jeckle and Hyde character transform in your thoughts…..was it an odd experience?
Terra: I know this sounds strange, but I understand Alvin. I don’t quite understand how he can take his revulsions and turn them into brutal actions—that is, I can’t understand how he can’t stop himself—but I do understand his revulsions as well as the inability to control certain compulsions. It’s kind of like someone with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). A person with OCD knows that it’s ridiculous to keep touching the door handle, but he just can’t help himself. When Alvin goes into one of his destructive states, he’s doing the same thing. The part of his mind that is in control has gone out to lunch.
By the way, if I thought I didn’t understand Alvin, I don’t think I would have bothered writing about him. I think any novelist who is being honest can say this about any character. Alvin, like anyone else worth chronicling, is a human being. He’s flawed, but he’s also trying the best he can to make it through this world. I get upset when people think all characters need to be admirable. None of us are admirable, at least not all the time, and at least not if we’re honest with ourselves. Fiction is most gripping to me when it’s honest and shows you how a person not so different than you—if you’re really willing to admit who you are—can end up doing something you might never do, and hope and pray never to do, but certainly could do.
Juanita: You write nonfiction, plays, as well as scientific articles. What does writing in the genre of fiction offer in contrast to the others? Do you prefer any one style?
Terra: I never feel more alive than when I’m writing fiction. I feel like I have enormous power, almost immortality, kind of the way Alvin would like to feel, I suppose! True, I get enormous gratification out of my nonfiction writing—particularly when I help people understand scientific and medical concepts that might otherwise be obscure to them. I’m very proud, for example, of what women can get from The New Harvard Guide to Women’s Health. But I feel my life is worth living when I’m writing fiction.
As for style of fiction, the novel is my absolute favorite. Dialogue comes pretty naturally to me, so I enjoy writing plays. But plays aren’t really the sole creation of the writer. They only come to life when a director and actors, as well as a production team, helps nurture them. They also have many structural limitations because they have to “work” on a stage in front of a live audience over a finite period of time. Novels give the writer more, almost infinite, freedom. Plus, they encompass all of life. One of my favorite quotes—one I’ve carried around with me for years—is from the novelist D.H. Lawrence, and it succinctly explains what I feel about this genre: “I am a man and alive,” he wrote. “For this reason I am a novelist. And, being a novelist, I consider myself superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet, who are all great masters of different bits of man alive, but never get the whole hog….Only in the novel are all things given full play.”
All my life, I have tried to avoid specialization, or putting myself in a single category. I’ve always wanted to see the big picture, and be part of it. That either makes me a hopeless dilettante—or a novelist. I hope it’s the latter.
Juanita: Can readers expect any more psychological thrillers from you in the future?
Terra: I’ve written 7 novels so far—4 of which are still in my desk drawers awaiting revision! Every single one is different. One other novel I published, Time’s Fool, is more a historical novel than anything, and another, The Bliss of Solitude, is a contemporary, realistic piece. I don’t think anything else I’ve written could be considered a thriller, although all probe into the human psyche. So, I really can’t say what the future will bring because I don’t consider myself a genre writer, just a writer. Whatever strikes me as important, true , and intriguing—that will be what gets me to write again.
Juanita: How can readers find out more about you and your endeavors?
Terra: My website, www.terraziporyn.com gives you some idea about my other novels, as well as my nonfiction and playwriting. There are also links to various reviews and articles that may be of interest.
Juanita: Terra, thanks for the opportunity to talk with you today. We have enjoyed hearing more about your book “Do Not Go Gentle,” and encourage readers to look for a copy at local and online bookstores. Do you have any last thoughts for your readers today?
Terra: If you enjoy the book (or any of my other novels), please let me know, or, even better, write a review on amazon.com and pass the word on to your friends. Writing is a lonely occupation, and there’s nothing more gratifying to a writer than knowing that she’s reaching someone with her words.