Since I don’t garner enough interest to be interviewed by anyone important, I figured I’d interview myself. I will ask the questions you might ask, and I’ll try to give honest answers. Think of this as a running FAQ’s. If you’d like to submit your own question, feel free to use the contact form. If you ask a zinger, maybe I’ll include it here for all to see.
Me: Let’s start with the most basic question. What is your name? Is it Richard Anderson, with Van as your middle name? Or is it Richard Van Anderson, like Eddie Van Halen?
Myself: Van is my middle name. I wish my last name were Van Anderson. Richard Anderson is about as vanilla as you can get. I think the unidentified bodies in morgues should be called Richard Anderson’s instead of John Doe’s. As a side note, I did name my son Eddie Van Anderson as an homage to the famous axe man.
Me: You do realize that the apostrophe-s after Anderson’s and Doe’s is possessive, not plural.
Myself: Yes, but if I don’t use the apostrophe, the eye will see it as John Does, as in John does what? I hope the grammarphiles reading this will forgive me (or offer a better solution).
Me: Where did you get the idea to interview yourself?
Myself: I read The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, and in the back, she asks herself a series of questions related to the story. It was funny and insightful, so I thought I’d try it here. I think it will be a good way to give the readers some insight into who we are, what makes us tick, where we get our story ideas, how our writing process works, why we write, etc. etc.
Me: The who, what, where, how and why of Richard Van Anderson, author of surgical suspense.
Myself: Exactly. Fiction writing is all about asking who, what, where, how and why, so why not apply this to ourselves as well.
Me: Okay, so let me ask a what question. What do you like most about being a writer?
Myself: That’s easy. You get to wear pajamas to work, and you can drink on the job.
Me: You have young children. You don’t really drink at your desk.
Myself: No. I’m just playing into the writer stereotype.
Me: Then what is it that attracts you to the art and craft of writing fiction?
Myself: Control. As a heart surgeon, I had total control over my patient’s cardiovascular physiology. During the operation, while on cardiopulmonary bypass, I could stop the heart, restart it, and by changing the flow rate on the pump or administering vasoactive drugs, I could control the blood pressure and the amount of blood perfusing the brain and other vital organs. Postoperatively in the ICU, I had an array of drugs that could be used to raise or lower the heart rate, increase or decrease the forcefulness of each cardiac contraction, change the systemic vascular resistance (which influences the blood pressure), and so on. So, if you are a control freak, and you want to be a surgeon, cardiac surgery is your specialty. With regards to writing, I like the control I have over the story world and the characters who inhabit it. I can control the environment, the physics of the environment, the landscape, the weather, what the characters look like, say, do, etc. etc. Now, having said that, I realize that once the agents and editors get a hold of the story, some of that control is lost, but in the beginning, I enjoy being the supreme ruler of my creation.
Me: You used a lot of medical terminology in that last answer. Is this the level of complexity your readers can expect?
Myself: Yes. First and foremost, those characters with a medical background must use the appropriate terminology and jargon or they will not seem authentic. Secondly, I have to walk a fine line between giving dedicated medical-thriller readers the level of detail they expect without alienating the casual reader. And finally, readers like to be educated as well as entertained.
Me: If you are going to use esoteric medical and surgical terms in your stories, why not place a glossary in the back of the book?
Myself: I don’t want the readers to have to stop and look things up. That’s called bumping the reader out of the story and constitutes one of the most egregious sins a fiction writer can commit. In his classic tome, The Art of Fiction, John Gardner explains that well-written fiction immerses the reader in a vivid and continuous dream. If the reader has to stop and refer to a glossary, they’ve been bumped from the story, and the dream has been interrupted.
Me: How are you going to pull this off, the realistic level of detail and the education of the reader, without bumping the readers from the story?
Myself: I’ve tried to surround the medical/surgical terms with enough context to where the meaning of the term will be clear, or with a little thought, the meaning can be deciphered. At the very least, I think the reader will get the gist of what’s been said. Most readers do not mind doing a little work, but at the same time, I don’t want them stumbling over terminology when they should be engaged in a vivid and continuous dream.
Me: Your stories are populated with medical students, interns, surgery residents and attending surgeons. Can you explain the various designations?
Myself: Medical education is built upon increasing responsibility and experience. Medical students are, of course, students. You earn a bachelor’s degree, apply to med school, get accepted, pay a small fortune, and when you’re finished they call you Doctor, but you’re not really a doctor. M.D.’s become doctors during their residency. A residency is an apprenticeship in a chosen specialty, which for general surgery spans five years. Interns (first-year residents) and junior residents (years 2 and 3) are supervised by senior residents (years 4 and 5). Fifth-year residents, who are supervised by attending surgeons, are called chief residents because they run the services to which they are assigned. A surgery service is based upon the types of procedures performed and may include general surgery, transplant surgery, cardiothoracic, pediatric, and trauma surgery (among others). Surgical attendings (fully-trained, board-certified surgeons) staff the surgical services and are responsible for the teaching and supervision of the residents who rotate on their services.
Me: Sounds like a long haul. Four years of college. Four years of medical school. Five years of residency. That’s thirteen years of higher education.
Myself: Even longer if you want to sub-specialize. In total I did four years of college, four years of med school, five years of general surgery, two years of research at the NIH (to increase my chances of landing a prestigious cardiothoracic residency), two years of cardiothoracic surgery (at NYU, very prestigious) and an additional year of cardiothoracic research, for a total of eighteen years. I finally entered practice at the age of 36, which meant I had spent exactly half my life pursuing higher education.
Me: That explains the young kids and the bad back.
Myself: Yes. Career before family.
Me: Can you give me an example of how the residency-training hierarchy works?
Myself: An uncomplicated appendectomy might be performed by an intern under the supervision of a third-year resident. A cholecystectomy (removal of the gallbladder) is generally a third-year case with a fourth- or fifth-year resident as teaching surgeon. A hemi-gastrectomy (removal of half the stomach) is a chief-resident case with an attending surgeon supervising. If a case becomes complicated—the appendix is ruptured and the abdomen is full of pus, or gallstones have migrated from the gallbladder into the common bile duct—the chief resident (in the case of the appendectomy) or the attending surgeon (in the case of the cholecystectomy) may “scrub in” and offer their experience and expertise.
Me: In your short story The Final Push, you have a third-year medical student working up a trauma patient under the supervision of a chief resident.
Myself: The medical student is doing a two-month trauma rotation and is on call for the trauma team when a critically-injured man is brought into the emergency room. The intern and third-year resident are in the operating room patching a perforated gastric ulcer, so the chief resident allows the student to do things that a resident would normally do. Obviously, this is a great learning experience for the medical student.
Me: You did your medical-school and residency training back in the eighties and nineties. With today’s medico-legal climate, do you think students and residents still have this kind of autonomy?
Myself: I don’t know, and it would be a shame if they don’t, but in my story world they do.
Me: I’ve noticed a trend. Your short story The Final Push opens with a medical student reliving an ER thoracotomy he had just witnessed. The opening chapter of your novel The Organ Takers also includes an ER thoracotomy scene. Under “Bragging Rights” on your Google Plus profile, you claim that you cracked three chests in one night when you were a surgery resident. Maybe you can explain the ER thoracotomy, what it means to crack a chest, and why you are fixated with this.
Myself: (smiling) In The Final Push, I refer to the ER thoracotomy as “the most coveted surgical procedure for a medical student to witness.” In The Organ Takers, I call it “the greatest spectacle in all of medicine.” This is not an exaggeration. ER thoracotomy literally means opening the chest in the emergency room to expose the heart. “Cracking a chest” is medical jargon for the procedure.
Me: Under what circumstances would one need to expose the heart in the emergency room?
Myself: Witnessed cardiac arrest in a patient with a gunshot wound or stab wound, to the chest or abdomen, is the most common indication.
Me: In your stories, you describe the procedure in vivid detail. Can you give us the thumbnail version here?
Myself: If a patient presents with a penetrating wound to the chest or abdomen and subsequently has a cardiac arrest, the surgeon presumes the arrest is secondary to massive blood loss. The idea is to quickly gain access to the heart and aorta through the left side of the chest in order to control the bleeding. If the wound is downstream from the heart, the aorta is clamped, which slows the blood loss, and the heart can then be resuscitated. With the heart beating and the brain once again receiving blood, the patient is then rushed to the operating room for repair of the primary injury.
Me: Your first ER thoracotomy was quite dramatic.
Myself: Yes it was. I was a third-year general surgery resident rotating at a small hospital in North Louisiana, about 100 miles east of Shreveport.
Me: Out in the sticks.
Myself: For sure, but the sticks can be a great place to train. At this particular hospital the chief resident took call from home, about 20 minutes away (as did the attending), leaving the intern and myself as the only surgical staff in house. It was a Friday night, and I was reducing a forearm fracture on a young girl when the paramedics brought in a 22 yo man who’d been stabbed just to the left of the sternum. As they were transferring him to the ER bed, he lost his blood pressure and pulse—full cardiac arrest. Since we couldn’t wait 20 minutes for the chief resident to arrive, I proceeded with the thoracotomy. While the intern was inserting a breathing tube, I made a curved incision extending from sternum to spine on the left side of the chest, then opened the ribs with a rib spreader. When I pushed aside the lung, the injury was obvious. The pericardial sac was full of blood, which meant the patient had been stabbed in the heart. When the heart is lacerated, blood pulses out of the wound and into the pericardial sac with each heartbeat. The pericardial sac is not pliable, and as it fills with blood, the heart is progressively compressed until it can no longer beat. This is known as pericardial tamponade. The treatment: grab a pair of scissors and make a large slit in the pericardium, which I did, and this released a huge gush of blood and immediately relieved the pressure.
Me: And this is where it gets really interesting.
Myself: And really crazy. At this point I would caution the readers that what follows is quite graphic and disturbing, so proceed with care.
Me: Duly noted.
Myself: Almost simultaneously, the intern slipped the breathing tube into the patient’s trachea, the heart started beating, blood flow to the brain was restored, and the patient regained consciousness. He sat bolt upright on the table, the breathing tube protruding from his mouth like a giant straw, the left side of his chest cranked open with a rib spreader, his lung billowing out of the chest each time he took a breath, and a three-foot stream of blood shooting from the stab wound with each heartbeat. He thrashed wildly and let out a guttural scream, which—funneled through the endotracheal tube—sounded like he was howling through a cardboard wrapping-paper tube. We had to wrestle him to the table and hold him down until one of the nurses could inject an IV paralytic agent. Once he was paralyzed, sedated and connected to a ventilator, I had the intern stick his finger over the hole in the heart while I sutured it closed. When the chief resident and surgical attending arrived, we took the patient to the operating room to reinforce my repair, and to wash out and close his chest.
Me: And this was the first chest you cracked?
Myself: The first of many.
Me: Including three in one night, as mentioned in your Google Plus profile.
Myself: Yes. Even though LSU is a level I trauma center, Shreveport is not a big city. In large urban-warfare centers such as New Orleans and Houston, the big trauma hospitals might do a couple of ER thoracotomies a night. During my years at LSU, we averaged three or four a month, so three in one night was remarkable.
Me: Thus the reason the ER thoracotomy features prominently in your stories.
Myself: It is the most dramatic of all surgical procedures, and it’s quite suspenseful to witness and perform. And what is fiction without drama and suspense?
Me: Why don’t you tell us about something less dramatic but still memorable, one of your more interesting or satisfying cases.
Myself: When I was a third-year medical student, I assisted on a case that remains one of the more memorable of my career. It was interesting in that the condition is rare, the anatomy was fascinating, and the physiology was perplexing. And it was satisfying in that the patient, a young pregnant woman, came through the operation without difficulty and was cured by the procedure.
Me: I’m intrigued. Do go on.
Myself: A female in the third trimester of pregnancy was referred to the internal medicine service for evaluation of excruciating headaches, palpitations, and profuse sweating that occurred each time her baby kicked. If the baby was active for prolonged periods, the headaches became debilitating, and when the baby settled down, the headaches and other symptoms would resolve.
Me: Something tells me she was not having migraines.
Myself: Migraines were part of the differential diagnosis, but physical examination revealed that in the midst of the fetal-activity induced headaches, her systolic blood pressure was spiking as high as two hundred and fifty.
Me: More than twice normal.
Myself: Yes, putting her at risk for heart attack, stroke, intracerebral hemorrhage, and a host of pregnancy related complications. Her clinical findings suggested pheochromocytoma, which is a tumor usually found in the adrenal gland. These tumors produces excess amounts of epinephrine—commonly known as adrenaline—along with other vasoactive hormones. The most common symptoms are sudden onset of headaches, palpitations, and diaphoresis (sweating) associated with extremely high blood pressure.
Me: Sounds like an urgent workup was in order.
Myself: Quite urgent. Serum and urine samples were positive for high levels of catecholamines (epinephrine and other vasoactive hormones) and their byproducts, thus confirming the diagnosis, but this did not explain the link to fetal activity. A CT scan of the abdomen was obtained, and the relationship between fetal movement, high blood pressure, and the other symptoms was clearly delineated. As I mentioned above, pheochromocytomas are most commonly found in the adrenal glands, but in this particular case, the scan revealed a baseball-sized mass in the organ of Zukerkandl.
Me: One of our more obscure organs.
Myself: Yes. The organ of Zukerkandl is not a discreet organ, but instead is a web-like plexus of specialized nerves and ganglia that cling to the abdominal aorta. It is part of the sympathetic nervous system, which like the adrenal glands, can produce catecholamines. If a tumor arises from this tissue, it can produce abnormally high levels of these vasoactive compounds.
Me: And during the third trimester of pregnancy, the uterus occupies much of the abdomen, displacing the intra-abdominal organs upward, leaving nothing between the uterus and the tumor.
Myself: Exactly. When the baby moved, the wall of the uterus pushed against the tumor, thus squeezing epinephrine and other catecholamines into the blood stream. The surge in catecholamines resulted in high blood pressure, rapid heart rate, headaches, palpitations, and sweating.
Me: So she was referred to the surgery service, and off to the OR she went.
Myself: With the pregnancy well into the third trimester, the OB guys were able to come in first and perform a C-section. We could then retract the uterus out of the way, expose the tumor, and excise it. The patient and her baby both did well, and she no longer had blood pressure problems or related symptoms. And the tumor turned out to be benign.
Me: A very satisfying result.
Me: Okay. We’ve covered crazy with the ER thoracotomy case, and satisfying with the Organ of Zukerkandl case, so what would you say is the most horrendous thing you’ve seen?
Myself: I spent time in level I trauma centers in the Midwest and South, and I spent two years in Bellevue, New York City’s flagship public hospital, so I’ve seen a lot of horrendous stuff, but the worst thing I have ever seen is so bad I think it should stay locked in the vault. I don’t really see any reason to bring it up here, in this setting, which is an author’s website. I’m not sure it’s relevant.
Me: I believe it is relevant. Your characters are medical students, surgical residents, attendings and nurses, and your experiences are infused into each of them. Your experiences inform how these characters act, what they say, and how they see the world around them.
Myself: Alright. You have a point, but let me warn the readers: what follows is extremely graphic. Unless you have a morbid fascination with the mayhem that can be wreaked upon the human body, I suggest you skip to the next part of the interview.
Me: Your warning is duly noted.
Myself: I was a medical student in St. Louis and on call for the surgery service when the third-year resident drug me out of bed at four in the morning. He told me we had a trauma admission in the surgical ICU, and he warned me that what I was about to see was exceptionally horrific, and if I couldn’t handle it, he would not fault me for leaving the room.
Me: Considering that by this point in your young career you had seen a number of gunshot wounds, stab wounds, and blunt trauma cases, this warning must have seemed ominous.
Myself: It was ominous. I knew this resident well (he later married my girlfriend’s sister), and like all surgery residents he was a stoic guy, but as we walked to the ICU, I could tell he was anxious.
Me: You get to the intensive care unit, and what do you see?
Myself: First, a swarm of activity much like the emergency room scenes in my stories—the cutting off of clothes, the placement of large bore IVs in each arm, the insertion of various monitoring catheters. But at this point the patient is covered from the chest down by sheets, so I’m still not sure what kind of an injury we’re dealing with.
Me: Then the surgical attending arrives, and the sheets are removed so he can assess the injuries.
Myself: Yes, and what I see is beyond comprehension. An intoxicated young male driving a convertible had run his car into the base of a power pole. A transformer had fallen from the pole and landed in his lap, sending tens of thousands of volts of electricity down his legs and through his feet where the floorboard of the car served as a ground. Judging by the amount of soft tissue loss, we surmised that the patient lost consciousness and had sat there for an indeterminate amount of time with electricity flowing through the lower half of his body.
Me: And when you say soft tissue loss, you mean total loss in some areas.
Myself: Tissue loss unlike anything I had ever seen, or have seen since. There was nothing but bone and connective tissue from the knees to the feet. Ligaments kept the bones of the feet intact, and held the feet to the ankles, but other than bits of tendon and muscle, the lower legs had been stripped clean. From the hips to the knees the skin had been burned away, leaving charred muscle, and from the umbilicus to the pelvis the skin was present but had the gray pallor of a cadaver, meaning it was dead.
Me: I’m sure the readers are wondering why the patient wasn’t electrocuted as soon as the transformer landed in his lap.
Myself: People die from electrocution when the current passes through their heart and disrupts the electrical system, thus causing a fatal arrhythmia. In this case, the current was entering the pelvic region and exiting through the feet.
Me: It doesn’t seem possible that an injury of this magnitude is compatible with life.
Myself: Generally it’s not. Tissue damage releases inflammatory mediators that ramp up the immune system and start the healing process. On a small scale this is useful, like if you smash your thumb with a hammer or break a leg. Massive tissue damage, however, sets off a cascade of events that results in total body inflammation, or SIRS (systemic inflammatory response syndrome). This overreaction by the immune system overwhelms the organ systems of the body, resulting in derangement of physiologic processes, followed by multiple organ failure, shock, cardiovascular collapse and death.
Me: In light of such a dire prognosis, he was emergently taken to the operating room.
Myself: His only chance for survival was to remove as much dead and injured tissue as possible, as quickly as possible, so we rushed him to the OR.
Me: For the readers out there, if any of you are still with us, this is where it gets quite graphic.
Myself: (nodding) Yes, very graphic. We started with bilateral hip disarticulations, which is the surgical term for amputating the legs at the level of the hip joints. We then debrided all the dead skin and underlying abdominal wall musculature from the umbilicus to the pelvis. We also removed the genitalia and a significant portion of the gluteus maximus musculature and overlying skin.
Me: And he survived the operation.
Myself: He did, but our efforts were futile. About an hour or so after returning to the SICU, he suffered complete cardiovascular collapse and could not be resuscitated.
Me: So, in summary, you are awakened in the early morning hours and taken to the intensive care unit to participate in the care of a patient who has suffered a horrific injury. You accompany him to the OR where you essentially remove the lower half of his body, and an hour later he dies. How were you feeling at this point? This is clearly the worst thing you’ve ever seen in your young career.
Myself: I think I can safely say this is the worst thing everyone working with this man had ever seen. As for myself, I handled it well. In fact, while some of the staff were struggling to keep it together, I was focused on the measures being taken to save the man’s life. Granted, I knew the real tragedy would set in when the family arrived—maybe mom and dad, or a wife with young kids, we didn’t know—but for the time being, I had to suppress some highly charged emotions and focus on the task at hand.
Me: This ability to suppress emotion is important to surgeons.
Myself: Particularly when faced with such a critical situation. There’s a time to act, and there’s a time to feel. In a case like this, action must come first, and it must not be impeded by emotion.
Me: And you were a medical student at the time, so this served as a litmus test of sorts.
Myself: Yes. This experience taught me I could suppress strong emotion with the flip of a switch, which made me comfortable with my decision to go into surgery. I figured if I could handle something like this, I’d be able to handle anything a surgical career could throw at me.
Me: Now that your career is over, has this borne itself out? Were you able to handle everything that was thrown at you?
Myself: I had my moments, particularly when delivering bad news to families—mothers, fathers, wives, husbands—but for the most part I was able to contain my feelings until I was alone.
Me: We see this stoicism in your characters as well.
Myself: Yes. Stoicism is a hallmark of the surgical personality whether it be a surgeon, scrub nurse, or ICU nurse, so for the sake of authenticity, I’ve given my characters a healthy dose of it. As I’ve said before: surgery, surgical diseases, and the operating room are all inherently dramatic, and it takes a unique personality to handle that drama.
Me: All right. That was interesting, but lets shift gears from surgery to writing. I think now is a good time to talk about the origins of your writing career. I’m sure every author has an interesting story to tell about their influences and the paths they’ve traveled on their way to literary success. Yours seems like no exception.
Myself: I can’t claim success just yet, but I do consider myself a writer, and I think my journey up to this point may be of interest to some of the readers.
Me: Okay, so let’s start with the most obvious question, one that you will probably hear repeatedly for the duration of your career. When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
Myself: In high school I wrote the occasional theme, and I liked seeing my own words on the page in a coherent order. Same thing in college. I took the required courses in English, wrote the obligatory papers, and demonstrated competency, but the desire to write creatively came much later.
Me: Let me guess. You finally got around to reading some of the classics you should have read in high school and college—like Hemmingway, Salinger, and Fitzgerald—and they inspired you to become a wordsmith.
Myself: Well, not exactly. My primary influence was Charles Bronson’s character, Paul Kersey, in the movie Death Wish.
Me: Not your run of the mill literary influence.
Myself: No, not at all, but Paul Kersey certainly started the ball rolling. I had completed medical school, the first two years of my general surgery residency, and was living in Bethesda, Maryland where I was participating in a two-year research fellowship at the NIH.
Me: Which allowed you the time to actually watch movies and do a little skiing.
Myself: Yes, so I planned a trip to Killington, Vermont, and the night before I left, I watched Death Wish.
Me: For the younger readers out there who might not be familiar with this classic, Charles Bronson’s character, Paul Kersey, is a New York City engineer whose family is brutalized during a home (apartment) invasion robbery. His wife is murdered, his daughter is left in a catatonic state, and Kersey takes to the streets to bait, and then gun down muggers and other assorted criminals. His vigilantism makes him a hero, but when the cops identify him, they run him out of town (which opens the door for four sequels).
Myself: So I watched the movie, and as I made the thirteen-hour drive from Washington D.C. to Killington in my radio-less Dodge Colt, I found myself wondering what I would do if some thug maimed, raped or murdered someone important to me. And then my imagination took over. I pictured a dank basement, a makeshift operating room, and a cold scalpel poised over a pearly-white spinal cord. I imagined how my character would move, what he would be thinking, how he would feel, before and after he made the cut. I did not realize it then, but I was visualizing a scene, and I enjoyed the process. During long, solitary chairlift rides in subzero temperatures, I visualized other scenes, conjured up a basic plot and by the end of the trip, thought I might have the basis for a story—a very dark one I will admit, but a story nonetheless.
Me: Dark, indeed.
Myself: And not destined to see the light of day, but the age-old story prompt “what would I do in that situation,” and the process of visualizing scenes definitely set things in motion. Once I returned home from the ski trip, the protagonist I had created refused to leave me alone. He made unsolicited appearances, demanded to know what he should do next, nagged me to put something on paper, and repeatedly begged for a sex scene. Unfortunately, I had to blow him off. As a surgery resident I had no time to write, nor would I for another decade, but the desire to craft a novel never waned, and I started filling marbled composition books with notes, character sketches, and story ideas.
Me: Now, jump ahead about ten years and several book ideas later, and you’re applying to an MFA program where your literary hero, Dennis Lehane, is teaching.
Myself: Yes. Either it was fate, or a huge stroke of luck, but I soon found myself heading to Boston where I’d get the chance to be mentored by someone whose work I admired very much.
Me: How did this come about, your chance to not only work with an A-list author, but an A-list author whose work you wanted to emulate?
Myself: I had completed some online certificate programs through the University of Washington and decided to take some live classes where I would be able to workshop my writing. UW offered a series of night classes that included workshops as well as lectures, so I signed up.
Me: And the instructor had a ten minute break between the lecture and the workshop for, what she called, forced socialization, in that many writers are shy and would prefer to stand off in a corner by themselves.
Myself: Yes. I would burn most of the ten minutes going to the bathroom, then wandering to the far end of the hall where the vending machine resided, stuff like that, but over time I became socialized despite my best efforts.
Me: Good thing you did, right?
Myself: It changed everything. One of the students was a big Dennis Lehane fan. At the time, I was unfamiliar with Lehane’s work, so I read Mystic River, Shutter Island and a couple of the Gennaro/McKenzie novels, and we’d talk about them during our forced socialization sessions.
Me: Which led to an unanticipated turn in your career path.
Myself: One night this guy tells me that Dennis Lehane is founding faculty of a new MFA program in Boston. Prior to that, I had never considered pursuing an MFA degree. I was writing genre fiction, a medical thriller, and figured I’d be treated like a leper if I tried workshopping my story with students of “serious” fiction. But Dennis had done what I was aspiring to do. He’d taken genre fiction—detective stories and crime novels—and given depth to the characters, the story, and the language. I figured if he was founding faculty, someone like myself would be welcome.
Me: You do your due diligence, research the program, and find out it is low residency.
Myself: The low residency option made it possible for me to attend. I had a wife, young children, and a career. I couldn’t exactly move to Boston, but I could do ten days each semester. So I apply, get accepted, and two years later I have a Master’s degree in creative writing, a finished manuscript, a number of solid ideas for follow-up novels, and the confidence to leave the day job and build a career as a fiction writer.
Me: Anyone who has read your blog or looked around your website is probably familiar with something you call the Four D’s, which you learned from Dennis Lehane while at Pine Manor.
Myself: In one of our workshops, Dennis said any good story needs depth: of character, story, insight, and language. After that workshop, I devoted myself to adding depth to my stories, the characters, their insights, and my writing style, and I believe that has transformed my work from merely competent to something that is publishable and should find an audience. And I think this concept is useful for any aspiring writer, so I’ve devoted a series of blog posts to the topic. Just go to the blog index and click on The Four D’s. Or go here to read the introductory post.
Me: You do realize that you don’t need an apostrophe between your D and your s?
Myself: Yes, but when I tried just the D and s like this–The Four Ds–I found it to be confusing, like it’s an abbreviation for a double-strength medication or an element in the periodic table.
To be continued …