Monday, November 30, 2015

A Conversation with Medical Thriller Writer John Benedict

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with John Benedict

We are delighted to welcome author John Benedict to Omnimystery News today.

John began his series of medical thrillers with Adrenaline (November 2013 trade paperback and ebook formats), first published in 2005 and reissued last year. His third novel, Fatal Complications, will be published next month.

We recently had the opportunity to spend some time with John to talk about his work.

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Omnimystery News: Tell us a little more about your books and their lead characters.

John Benedict
Photo provided courtesy of
John Benedict

John Benedict: I have written three medical thriller novels so far. The first two, Adrenaline and The Edge of Death are part of a series involving main character, Doug Landry. Fatal Complications is my third book and is a stand-alone with all new characters. In the series books, anesthesiologist Doug Landry, does definitely develop over time even as the genre of the second book evolves. Adrenaline is more of a classic medical thriller, which then morphs into a spooky dark medical thriller in The Edge of Death (with supernatural overtones). This cross-genre stuff wasn't planned or envisioned — the story just kept heading in that direction as it was being written.

I chose to do a stand-alone for the third book because I wanted to get back to a more conventional medical thriller and this would've been tough given the turn of events in The Edge of Death (plus too many characters were killed off and I needed a fresh start). I may well make Luke Daulton (protagonist from Fatal Complications) into a series character in my 4th book.

OMN: How do you go about finding the right voice for your characters?

JB: In all my books, I have several main characters and tell the stories from multiple points of view. I believe you can more accurately define a character when you not only see inside their head, but also get to view them as other characters around them do. I have always enjoyed reading these types of books, and so this is how I write. Consequently, I have main characters of both genders in all three books. It may be slightly easier for me as a male to write the male leads, but I definitely don't shy away from depicting female characters/heroines in my books. Witness Kristen Duffy in The Edge of Death and Kim Daulton in Fatal Complications. Both these strong resourceful women play pivotal roles in the stories alongside their male protagonist counterparts. I think readers like to see that the author can realistically draw characters from either gender and that this makes the book more interesting.

OMN: Into which genre would you place your books?

JB: I consider my books to be medical thrillers at heart — they always contain stories of medical intrigue in a hospital setting with abundant physician/nurse characters. However, I believe they go beyond this simple label. As I mentioned above, The Edge of Death, is a dark spooky medical thriller with supernatural overtones. It explores the concept of what happens to a person when the soul is triggered to leave the body at the moment (edge) of death, but the body is resuscitated with advanced medical technology. Fatal Complications tells the tale of rookie anesthesiologist Luke Daulton, who gets caught up in a murder-for-hire plot at his new hospital. But the story is much broader than this — there is some steamy romance, political conspiracy and FBI involvement before it's all over. So the label of medical thriller can be a bit confining. I try to pack a lot into my books and make them interesting studies of human behavior — good and not so good — as well as page-turning suspense stories.

OMN: Tell us something about Adrenaline that isn't mentioned in the synopsis.

JB: I am an anesthesiologist in real life and Adrenaline is a classic medical thriller told from the anesthesiologist's viewpoint. To illustrate the real inspiration behind this book, I will need to relate a true story from my life from 20 years ago:

One day it struck me — at 2:00 in the morning in the midst of another grueling 24-hour shift. I had just finished interviewing a nice lady with an appendix about to burst — we'll call her Linda. I had done my best not to yawn as I went through the routine questions that an anesthesiologist is obliged to ask. She appeared nervous, which soon gave way to tears. I did my best to comfort her, took her hand, told her I would take good care of her. That I would watch over her carefully in the operating room and see her through surgery. And be there when she woke up in the recovery room. She appeared to calm down a bit. I wrapped up my pre-op assessment and asked her to sign the anesthesia consent form, while assuring her the risks would be minimal. She raised her eyebrows at this and the fearful look returned. I wondered: What the hell does minimal mean when you're talking about life and death? More tears. She told me of her two young daughters at home that desperately needed a mommy. I felt my own throat tighten. I quickly buried my emotions, tried not to think about my wife and three sons, and focused on the task at hand as we wheeled her litter back down the hall to the OR.

After Linda was safely tucked in the recovery room, operation a success, anesthetic uncomplicated, I lay down in the call room to try to catch a couple of z's. My mind wandered as I lay there. Rarely, I thought, does a person willingly surrender control of their mind and body to a virtual stranger. Yet, this is exactly what happens when the person is a patient being wheeled in for surgery and the stranger is their anesthesiologist, whom they have just met minutes beforehand. Talk about an extraordinary amount of trust. This degree of trust made a distinct impression on me that night, some twenty years ago.

Other thoughts followed soon thereafter. What if the trust Linda had exhibited earlier was ill-conceived and her doctor was actually bad? Not just incompetent or sleepy, but downright evil. Being an avid reader of thrillers, I thought this chilling concept would make for a good story. Too bad I wasn't a writer. (Disclaimer time: I don't want to scare people here. All the docs I have known in my 30 years of medical practice are highly competent professional people, who would never purposely hurt anyone.) But I still couldn't shake the evil concept; it kept gnawing at me until eventually I had to put it down on paper — lack of writing experience be damned. So Adrenaline was birthed, my first medical thriller novel that explores this issue of absolute trust implicit in the anesthesiologist-patient relationship — specifically, what happens when that trust is abused and replaced by fear. Adrenaline was finally published twelve years after my encounter with Linda.

OMN: As a practicing anesthesiologist yourself, what other experiences have made their way into your books?

JB: No question about it, a lot of my experiences over the years with patients and colleagues do find a way to make it into my books. And yes, some of the characters are based loosely on some real people. But usually, if I use characteristics from real people, I'll try to blend some properties of one person with others to make sure the characters aren't recognized as real people.

OMN: Tell us a little more about your writing process.

JB: I do not use outlines or biographies. I simply have a general idea for the premise of the story. As far as the ending or how to get there, I usually don't know. (Exception: For my first novel, I actually wrote the climax scenes first and then developed the necessary story and characters to eventually get there. This was a novice approach — probably not recommended, and definitely not the most efficient way to do things.) I let the story and characters develop as I write it over time. The cast usually expands as I work in secondary characters to fill plot needs.

OMN: Where do you most often find yourself writing?

JB: I like to write in the morning in the medical center library with a large coffee and treat. During my 8 years of medical training, I spent countless hours there studying — so the place always puts me in a focused frame of mind. I like to spread my laptop and chapter file folders out on a large table — this allows me to better visualize the plot sequence and temporal relations of the chapters — better than looking at a single page on a computer screen.

OMN: How do you go about researching the plot points of your stories?

JB: Luckily, since I'm a practicing anesthesiologist, I don't usually need to fact check my material. In fact, my niche in the medical thriller world is the authenticity I can bring to a story, drawing on my background and real life experiences.

OMN: How true are you to the settings in your books?

JB: I usually set my books in real places in Central Pennsylvania where I live. Sometimes though, I'll put a fictional hospital, lets say, in the midst of a real locale. I think readers like to identify landmarks and geography they are familiar with.

OMN: If we could send you anywhere in the world, all expenses paid, to research the setting for a book, where would it be?

JB: How about Hawaii or some islands in the South Pacific — these sound particularly nice. I don't really know why, but if you're gonna send me all expenses paid, I'll find a way to incorporate these locales into my next story!

OMN: What advice might you offer to aspiring authors?

JB: My advice for would-be novelists is fairly straightforward. Nothing worthwhile in life is quick or easy. Writing is no different. Expect to spend a long time learning the craft and improving upon it. Don't expect to become famous overnight or make a lot of money easily. The best advice I can give is this: You shouldn't write because you want to make millions or become a household name — you'll likely be disappointed. Rather, you should write because you enjoy the process and feel the need to tell a story. Let the results take care of themselves.

Other things I've learned along the way: I've learned to believe in myself even when no one else seemed to. I've also learned the power of perseverance and patience. The path to successful book publication is notoriously long and arduous for most. Developing a thick skin is also helpful to protect oneself against the many rejection letters and obligatory nasty reviews that will come your way. Finally, I've learned that writing a good book is probably only half the battle. Getting it published and successfully marketing it may be the most difficult part. Good luck and keep writing!

OMN: Tell us how your books came to be titled.

JB: 1) Adrenaline was an easy and especially fitting title because the book centers around the actual drug/hormone "adrenaline" (have to read the book to find out just how), but also, since it's a medical thriller, the word is highly appropriate. The cover is a cool rendition of a stylized medical radiologic image put together by Jonah Lloyd of Sterling House Publishers.

2) The Edge of Death deals with what happens to patients and their souls as they approach death — sometimes tricky things can happen at the boundary, i.e. the edge of death. I ran across the photo that I used for the cover while browsing the internet. As soon as I saw the photo in a collection of travel photos, I knew it was perfect for my novel. I contacted the photographer in Britain and purchased the rights to his photo.

3) Fatal Complications deals with a murder-for-hire ring operating out of a hospital, so the title encompasses the idea well. Fire is a recurring theme of the book, so that's where the flames on the cover come from. The syringe with green contents signifies the sinister medical thriller nature of the book.

OMN: What kind of feedback have you received from readers?

JB: The best feedback is clearly an unsolicited 5-star rave review from a reader you don't know, in which they profess their love for your work and an overwhelming desire to read your other books. The worst is a 1-star review that's incomprehensible and begs the question whether they indeed read the book or quite possibly are talking about a different book.

OMN: Suppose one or more of your books were to be adapted for television or film. Who do you see playing the key roles?

JB: From Adrenaline: Doug Landry could easily be played by Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey or Matt Damon.

From Fatal Complications: Rob Gentry could be played by Hugh Jackman or Robert Downey, Jr and Gwen Miller could be played by Scarlett Johansson.

OMN: What kinds of books did you read when you were young? And have any specific authors influenced how and what you write today?

JB: I read mostly science fiction (Isaac Asimov, Roger Zelazny, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury) and fantasy books (JRR Tolkien, Stephen Donaldson) while growing up. Later on in college, I read a lot of Stephen King and Dean Koontz. After medical school, I read medical thrillers by Robin Cook, Tess Gerritsen, and Michael Palmer.

I believe Stephen King and Stephen Donaldson and Dan Brown had the biggest impact on my future writing. Also Robin Cook influenced my decision to become a writer in a left-handed compliment kind of way. I always liked his ideas for stories, and was impressed by his intimate medical knowledge and authenticity. However, I never thought his actual writing was outstanding. I thought to myself, I could probably do that — and so I was off and running. Never did I stop to think how hard it is to actually produce good fiction. Ignorance is bliss, as they say, and sometimes naiveté is a good thing.

OMN: What kinds of books do you read today for pleasure? And if you read books in a series, do you have any favorite characters?

JB: I still read any kind of thriller, especially by Stephen King or Dan Brown.

But I mix in a lot of other authors like Nelson DeMille, Khaled Hosseini, Scott Turow, John Grisham, Laura Hildebrandt, Ken Follet, and Robert Dugoni to name a few off the top of my head.

My favorite series character were 1) Thomas Covenant from Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series (6 books) 2) Frodo Baggins from Tolkien's LOTR and 3) Angus Thermopyle from Donaldson's classic sci-fi adventure epic The Gap Series (5 books).

OMN: Create a Top Five list for us on any topic.

JB: Top Five favorite authors: Stephen King, Stephen Donaldson, JRR Tolkien, Ken Follet, and Khaled Hosseini.

OMN: What's next for you?

JB: I'm hoping to retire in the next couple of years after spending over 30 years in the trenches as a front line anesthesiologist (physician). Then I'll finally have ample time to devote to my writing. I have lots of ideas at the moment, some drawing from my personal experiences — some entirely fictional — I just don't seem to have the time to get them all down. Stay tuned!

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Dr. John Benedict, husband and father of three sons, graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and entered post-graduate training at Penn State University College of Medicine. There, he completed medical school, internship, anesthesia residency and a cardiac anesthesia fellowship. He currently works as an anesthesiologist in a busy private practice in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He has been writing stories since high school, but his writing was put on hold to pursue a medical education and start a family. Finally, after a 15-year pause, he returned to the keyboard to scratch the writing itch again and thus Adrenaline — a gritty medical thriller with a realism borne of actual experience — was born.

For more information about the author, please visit his website at JohnBenedictMD.com and his author page on Goodreads, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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Adrenaline by John Benedict

Adrenaline by John Benedict

A Medical Thriller

Publisher: CreateSpace

Amazon.com Print/Kindle Format(s)BN.com Print/Nook Format(s)

When patients start dying unexpectedly in the O.R. at Mercy Hospital, anesthesiologist Doug Landry finds himself the focus of the blame. Is he really incompetent or is there something more sinister going on?

As Doug struggles to clear his name and unravel the secret of the mysterious deaths, it becomes clear that someone will stop at nothing to keep him from exposing the devastating truth. Doug becomes trapped in a grisly race against time to prevent more deaths — including his own.

Adrenaline by John Benedict

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