ScriptPhD.com recently reviewed and recommended a new medical mystery thriller, Beat the Reaper, written by real-life medical doctor Josh Bazell. A longtime aspiring writer, Josh majored in English Literature with Honors at Brown University, after which he entered the English Lit PhD program at Duke. He ultimately chose to pursue a post-graduate degree in medicine at Columbia University, and completed his residency in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco. He is currently working on his second book and is a practicing psychiatrist.
In between getting ready to release Beat the Reaper as a paperback, with a Leonardo di Caprio-starring film adaptation in the works, and writing his follow-up novel, a busy Dr. Bazell generously lent us some time to chat. To read our interview, please click “continue reading”.
ScriptPhD: Josh, your trajectory into medicine was very unique. You really epitomize our sites embrace of the interface between science and the arts. You were an English major at Brown University, and you actually optioned a screenplay before going on to medical school at Columbia. Did you always have the dual interest? What ultimately tore you away from exclusively writing and towards medicine?
Josh Bazell: I started out writing fairly young, then worked in a cognitive neuroscience lab in high school and got into science. I put off medical school as long as I could because I worried it would take too much time away from writing, but eventually I got so old I had to either go or not, which clarified things.
SPhD: I was curious where the idea for Beat the Reaper first entered the fray. Im assuming (and hoping!) it didnt come from any personal experience with the Mob.
JB: Prior to researching Beat the Reaper my experience with the Mob was more or less what anyones would have been growing up near Sullivan Street in lower Manhattan: I saw a lot of guys who wanted people to think they were dangerous, and some of them probably were. My real interest, though, like most peoples, probably comes from The Godfather.
SPhD: I couldnt put the book down in the two days it took me to read it. For me, above all, Pietro Brnwas character decidedly drove that momentum, and my sympathy and concern for him fed into the overall suspense that builds throughout. For many reasons that weve discussed in the above review, he defies mafia stereotypes. He has a moral code, he follows it, and underneath that gruff, snarky exterior, one could almost say hes really very sweet and cares. Did you set out to write a character like this at the beginning of the process and do you mind sharing your perspective of Pietro and his motivations?
JB: Yeah, the idea was for Pietro to be someone you couldnt help liking even though you might not want to. A lot of his actions are inexcusable, but its hard, for me at least, not to sympathize with someone whos gone too far off the rails to ever get back but nonetheless feels compelled to try. What people make of their fucked up lives is always more interesting to me than how they turn out if everything goes well.
SPhD: At the end of the book, without spoiling the specific ending, Pietro has a choice to make between surefire escape to safety from the hit men tailing him and going back to the hospital, because hes just figured out a way to save a patients needless leg amputation. He chooses the medicine, chooses to solve the puzzle, and to declare it his destiny, which also sets up the denouement quite nicely. Its a little symbolic of the choices you had as your writing career ascended, but you also went to med school and back into the hospital after the book came out and continued your medical practice. Do you feel like medicine is your destiny and can you talk a bit about choosing psychiatry as a specialty?
JB: Theres definitely some of that tension, if not ambivalence, in my life. The book actually sold early in my second year of residency, at which time I had patients and a contract. When the year ended I took a leave of absence to write the next one. I would like to keep both things in my life if I possibly can, and am still figuring out how to make that happen. As to why I chose to go into psychiatry: to paraphrase Willie Sutton, thats where the pain is.
SPhD: The style of your writing reminded me a LOT of Ernest Hemingway, particularly the realistic, declarative dialogue (an ode to your screenwriting background, perhaps) and Pietros wry, colloquial, natural storytelling voice. And I say this as a compliment, since Hemingway is my favorite American author. Who do you enjoy reading and would you say influenced your writing style the most?
JB: Thanks. I like Hemingway a lot, and see him as essential to the morally exhausted tough-guy voice that evolved around the time of The Sun Also Rises. Ill read anything that feels energetic and honest. My background is in classics and crime fiction (Ive got a full reading list coming out at the back of Beat the Reaper), but these days Im mostly reading non-fiction. To me its about trying to make sure that ones writing takes place in the world rather than in some alternate reality that we know (to death) from movies and books. I think sounding like Hemingway does now is infinitely easier than sounding as exciting as he did in 1926. But thats always the goal, and Im always looking for it in other peoples work as well.
SPhD: You wrote Beat the Reaper during your internship in your spare time. The internship is the first year of residency, otherwise known as Hell on Earth. I have a doctor friend who didnt even have time to do laundry; she just bought new clothes. How did you allocate time to write a stupendous medical thriller?
JB: I really like writing, so it felt recreational rather than something I had to make time for. Like your friend, I didnt do much laundry either. I still dont, sometimes.
SPhD: Can you share a little sneak peak of your current project with ScriptPhD.com? Any chance that well see our good friend Bearclaw again?
JB: Im writing another book about him now. Whether it will see the light of day remains to be seen.
SPhD: Thanks so much for your time, Josh! We wish you all the very best in the future!
JB: Thanks very much for your interest.