Interview with Christopher Stookey: ‘A mystery thriller must be plot driven’

Christopher Stookey, MD, is a practicing emergency physician, and he is passionate about medicine and health care. However, his other great interests are literature and writing, and he has steadily published a number of short stories and essays over the past ten years. His most recent essay, “First in My Class,” appears in the book BECOMING A DOCTOR (published by W. W. Norton & Co, March 2010); the essay describes Dr. Stookey’s wrenching involvement in a malpractice lawsuit when he was a new resident, fresh out of medical school. TERMINAL CARE, a medical mystery thriller, is his first novel. The book, set in San Francisco, explores the unsavory world of big-business pharmaceuticals as well as the sad and tragic world of the Alzheimer’s ward at a medical research hospital. Stookey’s other interests include jogging in the greenbelts near his home and surfing (he promises his next novel will feature a surfer as a main character). He lives in Laguna Beach, California with his wife and three dogs.

To find out more about Chris, visit his Amazon’s author page at http://www.amazon.com/Christopher-Stookey/e/B003UVLDI4/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0.

About Terminal Care

Phil Pescoe, the 37-year-old emergency physician at Deaconess Hospital in San Francisco, becomes alarmed by a dramatic increase in the number of deaths on the East Annex (the Alzheimer’s Ward). The deaths coincide with the initiation of a new drug study on the annex where a team of neurologists have been administering “NAF”—an experimental and highly promising treatment for Alzheimer’s disease—to half of the patients on the ward.

Mysteriously, the hospital pushes forward with the study even though six patients have died since the start of the trial. Pescoe teams up with Clara Wong—a brilliant internist with a troubled past—to investigate the situation. Their inquiries lead them unwittingly into the cutthroat world of big-business pharmaceuticals, where they are threatened to be swept up and lost before they have the opportunity to discover the truth behind an elaborate cover-up.

With the death count mounting, Pescoe and Wong race against time to save the patients on the ward and to stop the drug manufacturer from unleashing a dangerous new drug on the general populace.

Q: Thank you for this interview, Chris. Can you tell us what your latest book, Terminal Care, is all about?

The book is a medical thriller that centers around a new, experimental drug treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.  Doctors at a hospital in San Francisco are giving the drug, called “NAF,” to patients on the Alzheimer’s ward.  The problem is, not long after they start administering the drug, patients on the ward start to die.  The drug manufacturer says it’s all just a coincidence: the patients on the ward are all old and sick to begin with, and a few deaths now and then are not unexpected.  But two of the doctors at the hospital—Phil Pescoe and Clara Wong—are not so sure.  They decide to investigate.  Ultimately, their inquiries lead them into the cutthroat world of big-business pharmaceuticals where they discover an elaborate scheme to cover-up the truth about NAF and its deadly side effects.

Q:  Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?

Phil Pescoe is a 37-year-old emergency room physician.  He is the book’s narrator.  He’s a bit of what you might call a “damaged goods” character: recently divorced, in some financial trouble, lonely.  But he has a good heart, and he just needs a lucky break.  That “lucky break” comes along in the form of Clara Wong, a brilliant and beautiful internist at the hospital. Clara used to be a professor at the local medical school, but she quit that job when her boss asked her not to publish research results showing a certain well-known drug treatment for arthritis was ineffective.  Consequently, Clara has a certain axe to grind when it comes to pharmaceutical research.  Phil and Clara quickly become good—very good–friends.

Supporting characters include Juanita Obregon, the bleeding-heart, nurses’ nurse; Tucker Neussbaum, the kindly, world-renowned neurologist heading the NAF study; Chester Mott, the medical resident who disdains all contact with patients; Dr. Tamara Cooley, the alluring and sensual point woman for Swan Pharmaceuticals (the drug manufacturer); Larry Bishop, the hot-tempered surgeon in charge of the hospital’s “quality assurance” committee; and Hyder Ramaad, the quirky pathologist who loves junk food and opera.

Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?

All the characters are purely fictional, and, as they say, any resemblance to real persons, living or deceased, is entirely coincidental.  Actually, I take that back.  One, and only one, character is based on a real person.  Dr. Bob Hansen is modeled after my good friend George Hansen.  I put this sympathetic character in the book out of gratitude.  George read the manuscript of the book from beginning to end and offered innumerable valuable comments and suggestions.  Without George, this book might never have been completed.  The character Bob Hansen is my way of saying “thanks” to George.

Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?

A mystery-thriller must, to a large extent, be plot driven.  I planned out the plot, first in my head, then later in a detailed, written outline.  Nevertheless, as I fleshed out the characters, I found the characters were driving the story as well.  This can be dangerous when you’re writing a mystery because any deviation from the original story line can lead to inconsistencies and conundrums down the road.  For example, one of my characters blossomed into a considerably more evil person than I’d originally intended.  Consequently, I ended up involving this character much more in the conspiracies of the book than I’d planned.  This made it necessary to go back and make changes in the early chapters in order to maintain the logic and the flow of the plot.

Q: Your book is set in San Francisco.  Can you tell us why you chose this city in particular?

I lived in San Francisco for four years (as a medical student) and fell in love with the city.  Setting the book in San Francisco made the book more fun for me to write.  I got to revisit a number of my favorite spots in the city, both mentally and literally.  By literally I mean I actually went to San Francisco several times while writing the book.  This way I was sure to get the details right, and it also put me in the proper frame of mind to write about the city.  So, just to take one of many examples, there’s a scene in the book that takes place at Greens Restaurant located on the bay at a place called Fort Mason.  Greens, with great food and fantastic views of the Golden Gate Bridge, happens to be my favorite restaurant in the city.  Naturally, I had to dine there a couple times in order to properly capture the flavor (so to speak) of this wonderful spot.

Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?

Absolutely.  I know it sounds trite, but the setting can almost be considered one of the main characters of a book.  As a result, the topography and the climate of San Francisco contributed greatly to the plot of Terminal Care.  There’s a ride on the BART train, a swim in the Bay, a late-night stroll along the Golden Gate Promenade, and a car chase through the famous San Francisco fog—just to name a few examples.

Q: Open the book to page 69.  What is happening?

Phil Pescoe, the narrator, is at the starting line of the famous San Francisco foot race called the Bay to Breakers.  This is a 12K race through the streets of San Francisco, from the SF Bay (at the Embarcadero downtown), across town, to the open Pacific Ocean at a place called Ocean Beach.  Phil is an avid jogger, and he runs the race every year.  The fateful event that occurs on page 69 is Phil meets Clara Wong at the race.  He’s quite surprised to see her there.  He knows her only slightly from seeing her at the hospital, and he’s always thought she was kind of a cold, book-wormy intellectual.  He’s stunned to see her at the race looking particularly fit and sexy in her running outfit.  They part ways at the starting line, but they will meet again when Phil gets slightly injured during the race.  It’s the beginning of a long and beautiful relationship.

Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?

I think the first page or so of the book is as good an excerpt as any.  Plus, I know my publisher doesn’t object to my excerpting from the first chapter.

CHAPTER 1

The death wasn’t the unusual thing.  The unusual thing was we tried to stop it.  That first dying heart came on a Thursday night, a little after midnight on May 5th.  I remember the date because it was Cinco de Mayo, Mexican Independence Day.  There’d been celebrations all day long in San Francisco, including in The Presidio where I was working that night.

I was one of two physicians on duty in the ER at Deaconess Hospital, doing the overnight, the 6P to 6A shift.  The early part of the shift had been very busy.  When I arrived at six o’clock, the waiting room was bursting with patients: drunken revelers with lacerations and sprained ankles, tourists with sunburns, picnickers vomiting from food poisoning, ten members of a mariachi band with heat stroke and dehydration.  We worked furiously, moving from one stretcher to the next, seeing the most critical patients first and moving on.

Then, around ten o’clock, the flow of new patients stopped—abruptly, like water from a faucet turned from on to off.  That’s the way things are in my business, feast or famine.  By 11:00 PM, there were only four patients in the waiting room.  By 11:45, I finished sewing up my last laceration: a three-inch gash on the forehead of an intoxicated coed from San Francisco State.

And, then, there was no one.  The emergency department had gone from chaos to serenity.

With nothing to do, Hansen, the other physician on duty, went to catch a nap in the staff lounge.  I washed up and went over to join Bill (the night nurse) at the nursing station.  We sat with our feet up, drinking black coffee from Styrofoam cups, looking across the empty row of stretcher beds.  Bill launched nostalgically into a pornographic tale about a buxom nurse he’d known while serving as a medic during the Gulf War.  He’d just reached the climax (so to speak) of his story when, suddenly, the calm of the night was interrupted by an announcement over the intercom:

Code Blue, East Annex, back station!  Code Blue, East Annex, back station!

Christ,” Bill said stopping short in his story.  “East Annex?  That’s the Alzheimer’s unit.”

“Yeah,” I said.  Bill and I exchanged puzzled looks.

“Since when do they call Code Blues on the Alzheimer’s unit?” Bill asked.

The announcement came again, sounding now more urgent.  “Code Blue, East Annex!  Code Blue, East Annex, back station!

Damn, I thought, just when things had finally calmed down.  “Code Blue.”  It was an urgent call for help, hospital jargon for, “Come quick, someone’s trying to die.”  And, at that hour of the night, it was the duty of the ER doctor to come and stop the dying.  Or, at least to try.

I jumped up and grabbed the “Code bag,” the big, black duffle bag filled with the equipment needed to run the Code: defibrillator unit, intubation tubes, cardiac meds, syringes.

“Let’s go,” I said.

“But, I was just getting to the good part of my story,” Bill said.

“Save it for later.”

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Chris.  We wish you much success!

Delighted to do it.  Thanks for the well-wishes.

1 Comment

Filed under Author Interviews

One response to “Interview with Christopher Stookey: ‘A mystery thriller must be plot driven’

  1. Great interview–sounds like a lot of work and research went into the book. Good luck!

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