Blogs by L.T. Suzuki
Dr. Peter Clement Interview
9/14/2010 5:47:48 AM
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Best selling author discusses his latest novel and the writing life!
LTS: I am honoured to feature the best selling author of the Earl Garnet series, Dr. Peter Clement. With twenty years of experience on the frontline as a former Chief of Emergency in a major teaching hospital, Dr. Clement has gleaned a wealth of knowledge in the field of medical science that inspired this highly acclaimed series. Today, he’ll be discussing his latest novel, ‘The Darkness Drops’ as well as the writer’s life.
I’d like to begin by having you share a little information about yourself with our readers. I understand you are now in private practice. What else would you like to divulge?
PC: I’m very protective of keeping writing and the practice of medicine separated, and meticulously maintain patient confidentiality, so I won’t talk about that. And once in an interview I told an anecdote involving one of my sons. He was furious that I’d even mentioned him without his permission. In fact everyone whom I hold dear has warned me off of divulging personal information involving them! So that leaves me with details about what I do with myself outside family, medicine, and writing. Frankly, I’m boring. I get my excitement vicariously through guys like Earl Garnet.
LTS: I highly doubt your claim of being boring is true! Now, having been involved in the medical practice for so many years, when and how did the inspiration to write your first novel come about?
PC: I had been reading a novel by Dick Francis, writer of great steeple-chase thrillers, in which the opening chapter immediately cast the reader into the jockey’s point of view. The sounds of the horses, the rhythm of the hooves, the flying bits of mud, the feel of mist on the rider’s face, and the lightning- quick thoughts of strategic decisions that flashed through the rider’s mind—it put me in that race. It also made me wonder if I could create a similar sense of immediacy by putting a reader inside the mind of an ER physician who is scrambling to resuscitate a cardiac arrest patient. I sat down and wrote a scene portraying the urgency and nitty-gritty details, missteps included, of a desperate attempt to save a dying man. It later became the opening of my first book, ‘Lethal Practice’.
LTS: Your earlier novels featured a character named Earl Garnet, while your latest novel introduces your fans to a new protagonist named Dr. Terry Ryder. What makes ‘The Darkness Drops’ stand out from your previous novels and can you tell us a little bit about your protagonist, Terry Ryder?
PC: ‘The Darkness Drops’ is an adventure thriller that takes the reader outside the hospital and into the murky world of bioterror prevention and secret laboratories where doctors are already venturing well beyond the cutting edge of known science. Many of the people involved in the development of emergency treatments and responses as countermeasures to a biological attack are emergency physicians. Terry Ryder is one such man. What makes him exceptional is his ability to think visually and actually see disease patterns the way a master chess player can read a board twelve steps ahead of his opponent. This allows him to foretell possible risks way ahead of anyone else. In ER this ability is a gift that makes him a miracle worker. In the world of bioterror, it is a curse that summons up nightmares. The cost to his personal life and the women he’s loved is particularly heavy. Nevertheless, it also affords him an advantage over those who would weaponize microbes, an edge that is indispensable in a world where arms merchants peddle such means of mass murder to any group with a VISA card, and he remains a reluctantly ruthless warrior against such unthinkable horrors. And as a character, his special imagination lets readers peer into the visually stunning works of our cells on a molecular level never before accessible.
LTS: Described as a ‘taut, richly-plotted thriller’, without giving away too much, can you reveal what’s in store for the reader when they crack open ‘The Darkness Drops’?
PC: The story begins in the morgue at an isolated Siberian hospital during the last days of the Soviet Union two decades ago. A clandestine autopsy is underway, and a young physician, Anna Katasova, keeps watch for intruders while her husband, Yuri Raskin, does the cutting. We jump twenty years ahead to present times, and through the eyes of Terry Ryder, the President’s Chief Advisor On Bioterror Preparedness, experience the emergence of a mystery illness that sweeps the globe in a matter of days. His instincts—what he calls his Eureka circuits-- make an intuitive leap. “It’s an attack, stupid!” Health organizations from around the planet scramble to mount a coordinated effort that they hope will penetrate the secrets of this disease entity and determine its source, but traditional scientific method, even if it moves with the speed of light, won’t provide answers fast enough to stop this outbreak. Already attempts to treat ever-increasing numbers of victims have overwhelmed existing medical resources. The only timely solution rests in finding who is responsible, then making them reveal the causative agent and how to destroy it. But where to start? Terry’s desperate race to find answers reaches into the realm of rogue scientists, arms merchants, and events of his own past, including a former love affair with Anna Katasova, until he must question even his own innocence.
LTS: The road to publication is difficult at the best of times. Was it difficult for you to land an agent? Do you have any advice you’d like to share with the author struggling to find representation?
PC: Back when I first started it was as difficult to find an agent as to get published. These days, what with the fall-off in sales of traditional publishing, the task is even harder. And with these new realities, as writers, published and unpublished, I think we are all struggling to make our stories available to readers. I think growth for the industry lies in e-books, and, with the emergence of reputable and discriminating e-book publishers who deal directly with authors, thereby bypassing the need for an agent, new writers and established writers alike have another route to follow. If a book does well, the agents, and traditional publishers will find you, though for an unknown writer that is still a thousand to one long shot. Still, even with limited exposure, this venue offers a chance to be read, and that, for some, may be preferable to not being read at all. Please note this is not the same thing as self-publishing, as it still necessitates winning a publisher’s approval, and involves a contract in which the publisher agrees to do the work of formatting the book, placing it with the various on-line distribution outlets at no up-front cost to the author and paying the author a royalty based on sales. However there are some drawbacks compared to conventional houses. For example we all need editors, and as far as I know, most e-book publishers don’t provide this service. That was the case at Belgrave House with ‘The Darkness Drops’, but I still work with my former editor at Ballantine, and we’d gotten the book into its best possible shape before I submitted it, so for me that was not a problem. Nor need it be with other writers. With all the cutbacks at the big houses, there are excellent experienced editors who now work freelance, and some authors may find that an option. E-book publishers also do not provide publicity in the way traditional publishers might. There again, I had a bit of an advantage having already published seven novels, so hopefully ‘The Darkness Drops’ will attract existing fans as well as new readers. However, all writers, novices and pros alike, are turning to social networking as an efficient way to increase exposure. Social-networking mavens tell me that current research indicates more people trust online reviews and recommendations than they would commercial advertising. Of course I wouldn’t knock the power of TV adds on Larry King and CNN or radio adds on NPR, all of which I’ve been fortunate enough to benefit from in my early years with Ballantine, but that doesn’t happen today unless you are already a mega seller. Instead, even the big houses are directing their authors toward the potential to attract readers through blogging and Twitter as tools with an as-of-yet untested upside.
LTS: What made you take this route to publishing your latest title?
PC: Obvious advantages to e-book publishing include such factors as a far better royalty and a lower priced, more competitive product to generate higher sales. But what most lured me to this route for ‘The Darkness Drops’ was that the process granted me the absolute freedom to write the book I wanted and liberated me from all deadlines but my own. I knew going in that ‘The Darkness Drops’ would be my most ambitious work to date and was on a scale in terms of multiple characters and points of view that I had not yet attempted. It was definitely going to take longer to get it right than any of my other novels, and I was hungry for the challenge. I set to it with no one but myself keeping me at the keyboard. As a physician, I’m used to disciplining my time, and this story had its own urgency to be told. The resulting process was a wonderfully creative three years. Then came the far more efficient turnaround time from my handing in a completed manuscript to the release date, namely two weeks compared to the two years that I was told I’d be in the cue waiting for a paper copy to hit the stands through a traditional publisher. As one editor at a major house warned me, “It’s a buyer’s market. We can pick and choose the authors we wish to publish, and our list is set for the next twenty-four months.” But in the end, what’s most important to me as an author is to be read. If the initial e-book route succeeds, hopefully The Darkness Drops will also be released in paper, the form many readers still prefer. I would also predict that this will be a trend for most traditional houses, putting a book out first as an electronic edition, then following it up with the paper version if initial sales and responses indicate there is sufficient interest. This approach ought to help more struggling writers get in the door.
LTS: Do you have any last words of wisdom to share with the aspiring authors?
PC: My final advice to other authors would be, keep your options open. An advantage with a publisher like Belgrade House is that they don’t lock an author in, and after six months all rights revert to the writer. In other words, after six months of sales, I’m free to invite any publishers interested in acquiring all digital and print rights for ‘The Darkness Drop’s to make contact with me through my webpage. Though such generous terms may not be the norm elsewhere, and most of us would sign away our own mothers to get our first book in print, I strongly caution novice writers to check out any contract with a lawyer. Overall, one publisher likened the e-book phenomenon to that of pioneers setting out for the west back in wagon train times, loaded with their hopes and dreams, their futures uncertain. For myself the process is still an experiment and it remains to be seen how this all works out. I can say sales of ‘The Darkness Drops’ are keeping abreast of the e-book versions of my previous books published through Ballantine and, in some cases, exceed them. That means the story is bopping around in the top 10% of rankings at Amazon, and for at least a few minutes from time to time, test its top 1% tier. And though it’s early days, month over month the numbers are improving. At Amazon UK, it is doing about the same. I also note that sales for every one of my electronic books formerly published by Ballantine are beginning to grow year over year. This increase is probably a reflection of how the many new types of electronic readers are becoming ever more popular and creating a demand for fiction of all sorts. My conclusions? In the digital world, at this moment in time, the future looks modestly positive for new and former works. One thing is certain for all writers. Whether our stories thrive or fall into obscurity, be they in paper or e-book formats, it’s the readers who will decide.
LTS: Can you share that moment when you found out your agent sold your debut novel to a publisher?
PC: The book was put out for auction, and I’d cancelled my office so I could be by the phone. When the call came, and my agent told me she’d swung a deal with Ballantine for ‘Lethal Practice’, the kids were at school and no one was at home. So I celebrated with the dog.
LTS: Still, it must have been exciting, even if the family pet was the first to hear the news! So, I’m curious about your writing style. Are you one of those disciplined writers who must dedicate a certain time each day to producing so many words, or are you more relaxed and tend to write when it strikes your fancy?
PC: With family and medicine also in my life, I schedule and protect my writing time. That doesn’t guarantee the muse will descend and great prose will flow, but even on a day that’s a struggle, as long as I get something down, it’s easier to revise rough material than start the next morning with a blank page.
LTS: Still on the subject of writing styles, are you a plotter or pantser? The readers would like to know if you tend to plot out your story line in great detail or if your writing is more organic with the characters and events unfolding as you write.
PC: I’m both. The plot gets me started, but the most fun and best part of the story is when the characters and events go where I never could have imagined. I figure if they surprised me, who is supposed to know how things turn out, they sure as hell will surprise the reader.
LTS: Some authors meditate, others need to fuel up on coffee or listen to music. Do you have any rituals, ones that can be shared with the readers, that you must do before you hunker down for a writing session?
PC: I create a visual image of the scene I’m about to write. Once I can see that central picture, then I’m ready to tackle the rest. If I skip this routine, the process never goes smoothly.
LTS: At one time or another, most writers hit the wall and their work stalls because of the dreaded writer’s block. What do you do to get around or over this mental wall to resume writing?
PC: I usually don’t have the luxury of time to have writer’s block. And I enjoy the mix of dividing my time between writing and medicine precisely because my work as a doctor takes me completely out of my struggles with writing. The result is that when I get back to the keyboard and face whatever dilemma had stumped me, it’s as if I’ve been away on vacation and am starting with completely fresh insights that had escaped me before.
LTS: Who is your favourite author and how has he/she inspired you to write or influenced your writing style or choice of genre?
PC: My favorite author is forever changing, but right now it is James Lee Burke. I love the gravity of his wisdom. Being of a certain age myself, I appreciate that his insights are those of a man who’s been tested with time and hard experience. He’s good company.
LTS: What is the most profound discovery you’ve made in terms of your writing and how it has touched the lives of others?
PC: Climbing inside a character’s skin and attempting to understand and live life as they have known it never fails to reveal some aspect of the human condition I’d not been aware of from my own experience. As such, it is profoundly satisfying when a reader validates this creation, confirming how a passage in one of my books reflected an insight or passage in his or her own life. It feels as if we have actually shared that moment in common. One young reviewer once expressed her appreciation of my portrayal of the immigrant experience for former Iranians who now live in America. It was if what started as an imaginary creation had become part of my own experience, and that created a sense of empathy that felt like a gift as it enriched my own sensibilities beyond their previous limits.
LTS: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned on the road to publication?
PC: When you have a story that is so poignant you can’t get it out of your head, yet no one else thinks there is a book in it, that’s when you find out whether you are a writer.
LTS: What are you reading now, and how did this particular book make it onto your to-read list?
PC: I just finished ‘Reading Lolita In Tehran’ by Azar Nafisi. I saw it in a friend’s to-read pile and borrowed it, having heard of it and being intrigued by the title. I found it enjoyable on so many levels—a peon to the redemptive power of reading, an education about the complexities of life for bright, creative, independent women in Iran, a revelation that I’d only superficially grasped the genius of Nabokov’s use of language, and at the same time a heart wrenching memoir of human courage. Their insights into other authors I found equally astonishing. Who would have thought that Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ held such seeds of revolt as to be relevant to an intellectual resistance movement against one of the most brutal regimes on the planet today. Now, whenever I hear the atrocious news coming out of that country and the faceless hatred toward women that it all too often portrays, I feel anguish and admiration for the members of Nafisi’s little book club and cheer their defiance.
LTS: What do you foresee in your future over the next five years and do you hope to branch out from these medical thrillers into other genres? Can your fans expect a sequel to ‘The Darkness Drops’ in the near future?
PC: I have an idea for a new book that is still in the incubation stage, and as part of the creative process, I never talk about a work that is in such an embryonic state. I do know it will require a significant investment of time as did ‘The Darkness Drops’. I’m grateful that, at this stage of my career, I can afford to give myself that luxury, as I feel it is an essential part of creative freedom. It’s also timely that you should ask if I might branch out to other genres. This new project might very well give me the opportunity to do just that. As for ‘The Darkness Drops’, I intend it to be a stand-alone story. Part of the challenge I set myself in writing this novel had to do with taking the characters through the complexity and subtlety of arcs of transformation that occur over the better part of a lifetime. In that sort of novel, I think a satisfactory ending isn’t amenable to a sequel.
LTS: Thank you so much for taking the time from your hectic schedule to talk about your latest novel and to share in your writing experiences.
For more information about Dr. Peter Clement and his many novels, please check out:
Follow Peter on Twitter: .PeterClement1
Where to buy the book: Amazon Kindle; Fictionwise (all electronic formats); Belgravehouse.com (all electronic formats)
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