“I still consider myself more of a physician than a writer. I think that’s why so many people enjoy my books — they realize it’s a kind of an inside story rather than someone who’s just researching medicine.”
So says the dean of the medical thriller, Robin Cook, speaking with BookTrib shortly after the launch of his latest novel, Pandemic (Putnam Books). Cook, who vaulted to prominence more than 40 years ago with the release of the now-epic Coma, has written more than 30 books and is widely credited with putting the medical thriller genre on the map.
Pandemic follows Cook’s common formula of trying to make sense of a medical oddity, calculating its potential effects on the population and battling science and adversaries along the way.
The book opens as a healthy woman collapses suddenly on the New York City subway and dies upon reaching the hospital. The case brings to mind for veteran medical examiner Jack Stapleton the 1918 flu pandemic, and he fears a repeat of a similar pandemic exactly 100 years later. An autopsy reveals that the woman has received a heart transplant, and that her DNA, incredibly, matches that of the transplanted heart.
Stapleton races against time to determine what kind of virus could wreak such havoc. His investigation leads him into the fascinating realm of gene-editing biotechnology that has drawn attention from the medical community’s most unethical members. Stapleton confronts a megalomaniacal businessman willing to risk human lives in order to conquer a lucrative new frontier in medicine—which could spell trouble for Stapleton and the world at large.
Cook opened up to BookTrib about Pandemic, his career, and the life of a medical thriller writer.
Janice Lombardo: So how did a successful doctor turn into a successful writer?
Robin Cook: I really never meant to be a writer. I took all the wrong courses in college and stayed away from those hard courses like English and literature. For medical school I had to get A’s, so I stuck with the easier ones—you know, like quantum physics.
I had a couple of brushes with the idea of writing, first in the third grade when I decided I wasn’t happy with the ending of Stuart Little. It just ends! We don’t know what happened to Margo, the bird, and all that. So I decided I was going to write an ending. That was my first attempt at writing. I didn’t come back to writing until I actually got back to medical school. I realized all those books I had read or TV shows I watched about being a doctor – they weren’t realistic. Not all doctors actuallydo get along.
JL: How close to real events are the storylines in your books?
RC: Very close. The pandemic of 1918, 100 years ago, had cases of people getting on the subway in Brooklyn and dying by the time they got to Manhattan. I remember learning about that when I was a student, and it terrified me. Also, the fact that CRISPR/CAS 9 [a gene-editing biotechnology] exists and works as well as it does is very worrisome but real. It is cheap and everybody can do it. Farms, just like those I described with pigs in Pandemic, also exist.
JL: What about Jack Stapleton? Modeled after anyone you happen to know?
RC: Jack for me is kind of an alter ego. I trained at first in general surgery and then switched to ophthalmology. He trained in ophthalmology and switched to forensic pathology. I still ride my bike around NYC on a regular basis like Jack.
JL: What about your characters in general — are they based on people you know?
RC: Well, you know, in your first, maybe, 10 books you base characters on a lot of people. After that, you create your characters, specifically to propel the story or provide some other interesting aspect. Like Jack, who is totally against conspiracists who claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism.
JL: Have you ever come across anyone like the Chinese billionaire businessman character Wei Zhao, a key antagonist in the book?
RC: I know that people like that exist, especially Chinese businesspeople. I know they’re really, really worried because of the leadership of China jailing a number of very prominent businessmen, claiming that they were corrupt. There were no trials, they were just jailed. The fact that the “villain” in Pandemic was Chinese was not an accident. I knew that if there was going to be a problem with CRISPR/CAS 9, it was going to be in China.
JL: What’s your writing process? Do you have the plot all mapped out before you start writing?
RC: I do very extensive outlines. From my early college days, before computers, I did these flow diagrams, and so my outlines look a lot like those. And because I have a very complete outline, I’m not like a quintessential writer who writes a page, crushes it, throws it away and starts again. I just keep at it, and that’s how writing gets done. You can’t wait for the supposed “inspiration.”
JL: What are you working on now?
RC: I realized, especially while writing Pandemic, that people don’t know enough about DNA science. So I have to write a book about that specifically. It’s advancing very rapidly, too, but the concepts have been around for a while and I’d like to get people to understand it a little bit more. The basis of medicine is going in that direction. You want to know the title?
JL: Of course.
JL: So you come up with titles and then write the book?
RC: Yes, before I start, I usually do.
JL: And the publisher doesn’t change them?
RC: Well, in the beginning they did, but not anymore. With this one, it was originally going to be called Embryo, and I put it out on my Facebook fan page to ask what everyone thought about the title. I got a lot of good feedback, so I thought, fine, that’s the title.
Then my editor and publisher suggested I choose a title that won’t turn some people away. I asked if they really thought that might happen, and they said they did. And you know, they actually have some experience. So I changed it to Genesis, because you know, it’s a beginning. Just like an embryo.
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ABOUT ROBIN COOK:
Doctor and author Robin Cook is widely credited with introducing the word ‘medical’ to the thriller genre, and over twenty years after the publication of his breakthrough novel, Coma, he continues to dominate the category he created. Cook has successfully combined medical fact with fantasy to produce over twenty-seven international bestsellers, including Outbreak (1987), Terminal (1993), Contagion (1996), Chromosome 6 (1997) and Foreign Body (2008).