World renowned neurosurgeon Jon Ritter is on the verge of a medical breakthrough that will change the world. His groundbreaking surgical treatment, using transplanted non-human stem cells, is set to eradicate the scourge of Alzheimer’s disease and give hope to millions. But when the procedure is slated for testing, it all comes to an abrupt and terrifying halt.
Thanks for asking me to talk about Dead End Deal, a thriller that takes place in both Seattle and Seoul, South Korea.
What is your writing ritual? Why is that important and how has being surgeon shaped it?
For me writing is a difficult process that takes discipline. First thing I do every morning is pour a cup of coffee and sit down in front of my computer, the door to the room shut, the blinds drawn. No distractions. Then I get to work. One to four hours every day, no exceptions. Each day I set a goal and don’t quit until I reach that goal. If it takes the whole four hours, fine. If it takes only two hours, even better. But the point is I work at it daily. So what does this have to do with being a surgeon? Well, surviving neurosurgical training took a great deal of motivation and self-discipline. It taught me that I could succeed at a task if I gave it 100% effort. As far as how my career might flavor my writing, I think being a neurosurgeon given me a wealth of experience on which to base some pretty interesting stories.
What was the research behind Dead End Deal?
This is a blitz-pace thriller about a Seattle neurosurgeon who, while in Korea, is framed for a murder. Now hunted by police he must evade a professional hit man while trying to find a way back to the United States. I figure it’s Three Days of The Condor meets Michael Crichton.
I got the idea for the story when I was a guest lecturer at a medical school in Seoul, South Korea. I was staying at the Walker Hill Sheraton hotel across the Han River from the hospital. So all the scenes (hotel, downtown Seoul, and the Korean hospital) were from notes and snapshots I took while there. (I always travel with a small point and shoot camera in my pocket). The brief description of the surgical procedure comes from my own experience.
My neurosurgeon protagonist, Jon Ritter, escapes via a route I personally took when figuring out how he might return to the United States without a passport. Again, the scenes were written with the help of snapshots. So, the short answer to the question is that all the research for the story came from personal experience. By the way, I find digital photography a great help when writing. I view a relevant snapshot on the screen as I write. This help me accurately describe what I’m seeing.
What are the challenges of writing a medical thriller?
People who read medical thrillers are usually interested in medical details, just as readers of legal thrillers find law interesting. What is difficult is adding sufficient medical detail to satisfy a reader without making descriptions or facts boring. This is one reason I try to move my stories along at a fast clip. Thrillers are intended to thrill, not lecture. Fast pace, good plot, interesting characters are the elements that should be in a medical thriller.
What made you take the path from neurosurgeon to author and what were your biggest challenges?
Writing always interested me. Even in grade school I read like a fiend. So it seemed like a good idea to major in English instead of the traditional chemistry or zoology when I was taking my pre-med courses. This caused me considerable grief because it was difficult to get in all my required credits. But I figured once I got into medical school I’d never have another shot at the literature courses. And that’s exactly what happened —medical school and post graduate training consumed all my time. Then one Saturday, after starting practice, I came home from making rounds at the hospital and decided to start writing. Just like that. I began a novel that ended up to be really awful. Then I wrote another one, which was better but still not ready for prime time. At that point I started trolling for an agent and finally secured one, but could not sell my work. Years later, I got the call I’d been waiting for. It was quite a thrill. I guess, in the end, my biggest challenge was finding enough time to devote to writing. For me the writing process is difficult and requires a ton of work. I now enjoy the luxury of having sufficient time to work on my craft. It’s a dream come true.
How does Alzheimers rank as one of the most pressing diseases in the 21st century? Why and if it goes unchecked how will it impact our society? (is there any progress on finding a cure?)
Chances are you know someone among who either has Alzheimer’s Disease or is directly connected—by relation or care—to someone who has it. As of this year an estimated 5.4 million Americans are living with AD. That translates to roughly one in eight older Americans. That’s a staggering number, but yet in the public consciousness, AD isn’t as widely considered (“top of mind”) as the dangerous killer that it is; not like say, cancer or heart failure. (AD is the sixth leading cause of death in the US).
The fact is, neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease are becoming more prevalent as the average life span of individuals increase and the more common health care problems ARE better treated. It’s predicted that by 2020, thanks to drugs like Lipitor, mortality from heart disease and stroke will be way down, making Alzheimer’s the leading cause of death in our time. The personal consequences to individuals or families is devastating, but the general consequence to society as a whole is great as well. That’s because AD patients often live a long time, their care is very expensive and will become a major health issue (both in cost and quality of life) that our society will have to bear.
There is hope in some novel drugs to treat AD. Because the disease results from the build up of Amyloid in nerve cells, a promising approach is to block the production of this protein. In addition, there is intriguing research into the concept of surgically implanting stem cells into especially damaged brain areas. This possible cure is a central element that I used in the plot for my new novel, Dead End Deal.
Cures and treatments for diseases like AD are very expensive to develop, (millions upon tens of millions of dollars of R&D) with the resulting payoff even greater (billions of dollars of revenue for the “drug” or the “procedure”) often creating entire new branches of medicine, with thousands upon thousands of new jobs. This high risk / high reward fact of life for medical researchers and practitioners like me is a natural stage for heroes, villains and high-stakes drama. I try to capture that in my Thrillers, but the true high-stakes drama on the medical treatment / development stage is much more exciting than any fiction; the heroes are by far much more worthy of praise (though they often go unnoticed). I like to see my books as homage to them, at least in some small way.
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About the Author
Allen Wyler is a renowned neurosurgeon who earned an international reputation for pioneering surgical techniques to record brain activity. He has served on the faculties of both the University of Washington and the University of Tennessee, and in 1992 was recruited by the prestigious Swedish Medical Center to develop a neuroscience institute. Leveraging a love for thrillers since the early 70’s, Wyler devoted himself to fiction writing in earnest, eventually serving as Vice President of theInternational Thriller Writers organization for several years. After publishing his first two medical thrillers Deadly Errors (2005) and Dead Head(2007), he officially retired from medicine to devote himself to writing full time. He and his wife, Lily, divide their time between Seattle and the San Juan Islands. Find out more at his website www.allenwyler.com