Michael Palmer has led a remarkable life as a well-respected board-certified physician of Internal Medicine, Emergency Medicine, and Addiction Medicine. He has also become a writing phenomenon as each of his 14 published medical thrillers have made their way onto the New York Times Best Sellers list.
His latest book, “THE SECOND OPINION”, hit the stands in February, 2009, and revolves around the Sperelakis family, a well-to-do Greek-American clan with firm roots within the medical community.
tribe4mian: Michael, I’d like to thank you for taking the time out of your hectic schedule to sit with us for a little bit.
You have quite an impressive resume as a physician and novelist. With such a stunning and established career as a physician, what made you try your hand at writing?
MICHAEL PALMER: Thanks… glad to be here. First, let me say that I will be writing here the way I speak with friends – loose and without much punctuation.
I have always had an interest in creative things outside of medicine, and have tried my hand at acting and music, but with little sustained success. Then, in 1977, I read “Coma” by Robin Cook, who was a classmate of mine at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and also trained at Mass. General Hospital with me. I was fascinated with the book and with the idea of trying my hand at it…
“If Robin can do it and we have the same education,” I asked my younger sister one day, “why can’t I?”
“Because you’re dull!” was her reply.
The glove was hurled and I took up the challenge… that was 15 books ago…
tribe4mian: I understand your first novel, “THE COREY PRESCRIPTION”, never made it onto American shelves, but was published in several foreign languages. Why is that?
MICHAEL PALMER: The truth is, the book wasn’t very good. My medical thrillers all deal with a medical ethical issue such as autism and euthanasia… “The Corey Prescription” was a straight adventure story. Several of my foreign publishers got impatient because my early books were coming out so slowly, so they asked to see anything I had written. A few of them went ahead and published it (the price was right)… I could never talk my American publisher into making such a move.
tribe4mian: Your first English-language published novel, “THE SISTERHOOD”, was about a secret society of nurses dedicated to euthanasia and was a runaway sensation.
Originally published in 1982, you are now on the 36th printing, with translations made into 35 or so foreign languages. How did you come up with such a brilliant and timeless masterpiece, and to what do you attribute its long-running success?
MICHAEL PALMER: Thanks for your kind words regarding “The Sisterhood”. For obvious reasons, it holds a dear place in my heart.
I think the universal theme of euthanasia, and the engaging characters of David and Christine have helped keep the book in print even after 27 years. In the end, it’s always character… the real challenge since it’s publication in 1982 has been to write a better book about what may be a less strong idea. This I hope I have done many times over…
tribe4mian: While attending Wesleyan University in Connecticut, you took a seminar on Edgar Allen Poe.
How did this great author influence you in the writing of “EXTREME MEASURES”?
MICHAEL PALMER: Poe went to the bank on the theme of people looking like they were dead when they weren’t.
I have read his entire body of work and consider Beatrice one of my favorites. Many think the phrase “saved by the bell” has something to do with boxing — and it may… however…
tribe4mian: What was your first reaction upon hearing that “EXTREME MEASURES” would be made into a movie, ultimately starring Hugh Grant, Gene Hackman, Sarah Jessica Parker, David Morse, and produced by Elizabeth Hurley. Did the movie vary considerably from the novel, as is often the case when literary works are converted into screenplays?
MICHAEL PALMER: Needless to say, I was ecstatic when I got the word about the film. I had had a number of my books optioned and two (“The Sisterhood” and “Silent Treatment”) even written for films, but this was the first one that was going to be made… and with Michael Apted directing, as well as Hurley, Grant, Parker, and Hackman….very heady stuff.
People need to remember that the credits say “based on the book by”, not “a movie of the book by”… that’s what it was – based on my book. There are many plot similarities… few character similarities… still, I loved it.
“… Good doctors do the correct thing. Great doctors have the guts to do the right thing. If you could cure cancer by killing one patient, wouldn’t you have to do that?…”
tribe4mian: You recently completed your three book / three year deal and have renewed with a four book / four year obligatory deadline with St. Martin’s Press.
A book a year has pretty much become standard practice within the literary world. With all these time-invoked demands being placed upon you, how do you discipline yourself to meet these obligations, as well as being a father to three sons? Have you ever hit a brick wall while in the creative process and just how do you come up with storylines which continue in your suspense-driven medical thrillers?
MICHAEL PALMER: The key is don’t panic!! … I must remember that I’ve done this before… and before that… and most important, just as I did with my first book, I must write a page at a time—a word at a time if necessary.
My youngest kid is off to college in the fall, so all he requires is nagging about getting away from his computer (while I’m spending all day at mine)… I won’t allow myself to hit any brick walls… bad-but-fixable writing is better than no writing. When in doubt about plot lines, I let my imagination be my guide…..
tribe4mian: Your most recent release, “THE SECOND OPINION”, deals with the Sperelakis family, a first-generation Greek-American medical clan with tightly-knit ties to their heritage.
You did an amazing job in touching upon many customs and traditions the Greeks of the diaspora refuse to let go. Was it difficult for you to find the right frame of mind to intertwine, with such accuracy, a way of life you yourself have not experienced first-hand?
MICHAEL PALMER: The secret to much of my writing is painstaking, meticulous research—even for subjects within medicine that I already know well. I blend conversations with friends who are Greek with my own imagination, and try to come up with how my Greek characters will react to situations such as hospitalization and humiliation. Then I go back to my sources and ask them to check what I have done…
tribe4mian: In “THE SECOND OPINION”, there are two members of the Sperelakis family, Thea and Dimitris, with varying traits associated with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. Can you tell us why this same disease can have such a variance of adjusted social levels within the same family?
MICHAEL PALMER: There are many answers to this question… most importantly, Thea had treatment for her condition while Dimitri never did… but also, all mental illness and neurologic conditions are manifest by the personalities of the ill person… therefore, while a diagnosis may have traits common to all who have it, there are many differences as well.
Finally we must remember that AS is a spectrum varying from one end to another…
tribe4mian: I’d also like to extend our congratulations to you and your youngest son, Luke, who just completed his high school education and is on his way to his first choice for college. You must be very proud of all his accomplishments.
There is a parallel universe which runs alongside your latest release, “THE SECOND OPINION”, and your own personal life. Can you please tell us more about Asperger’s Syndrome, and how your family broke down those imposed barriers to help Luke’s social dynamic abilities?
MICHAEL PALMER: Rather than try and write about the complex communication disorder that is Asperger Syndrome, I recommend reading about it in my book, many non-fiction books, or on Wikipedia. When we recognized Luke’s AS, my wife and I became determined that above all we would raise him with the strongest self-esteem possible, starting with having him hear “I love you” from his parents as many times a day as possible… in the end, strong self esteem and self-worth conquers all.
tribe4mian: What resources are out there which could enable parents to become involved in therapeutic assistance for a child with Asperger’s Syndrome?
MICHAEL PALMER: We have the wonderful Asperger Association of New England… they are all anyone needs to know. Contact them for referrals more geographically practical. Also, get to know the Development Delay Registry and founder Patricia Lemer, subscribe to their newspaper and support them.
tribe4mian: In “THE SECOND OPINION”, Dr. Petros Sperelakis, has been hit by a car and is presumed to be in a coma, however, he is actually in a state called “Locked-In Syndrome”, whereby he cannot move any part of his body but is fully aware of all that is going on around him. Have you ever had a patient experience this terrifying condition, and how would one know if this is the true ailment of a seemingly comatose patient or not.
MICHAEL PALMER: I have never seen a case that I knew was LIS… however, I recommend the book and the movie: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”. I also did a huge amount of research on the subject.
tribe4mian: Have you ever written a sequel to a book, and, will you be writing one so that we may continue to follow the trials and tribulations of Dr. Thea Sperelakis? I’d love to know how her relationship develops, as well as her adjustments to the surprising twist of events which I can’t speak about so as not to spoil the story for others.
MICHAEL PALMER: To date, I have never written a sequel or a continuing character, but if I did, it might be Thea. Most of the protagonists I write about are just “normal” everyday people whose desire in life is simply to be happy. But because of something they do or know or learn about, they are in for great difficulty if they are to survive. It is hard to imagine bringing such hardship on a character more than once, ergo my books are all stand-alones…
(The Official Book trailer for the novel, “The Last Surgeon”, pub. February 16, 2010, from St. Martin’s Press. Features “THE LAST SURGEON Official Theme” song, written by Daniel James Palmer and Thaddeus Hogarth, performed by The Thaddeus Hogarth Band and featuring Donna McElroy.)
tribe4mian: My understanding is that your newest novel, “THE LAST SURGEON” is scheduled for a February 2010 release date. Is this the same date your son, Daniel, will be releasing his first novel, “DELIRIUM”, through Kensington? How does it feel having your son follow your footsteps into the literary world, and, are you fearful he will knock you off the New York Times Best Sellers List?
(Ok, that was intended as an interjection of a little humor to break up the serious nature of some of these topics, and we do wish Daniel the greatest of success in his new path. Now please answer the question, Michael.) 🙂
MICHAEL PALMER: Daniel’s book is a great one, and no one would be happier when it succeeds than I will. If there is only one slot available on the Times list, let it be him. His pub date, however, won’t be until 2/2011…
tribe4mian: For the past decade you, along with the talented Tess Gerritsen, whose books have kept me enthralled as I turn each page, have conducted a fiction writing seminar for doctors.
You have also been known to help new writers break into the literary field by offering inspiration and an occasional blurb for their first release. With all you have been involved in, why have you made this silent oath to assist newcomers into the tantalizing world of the written word?
MICHAEL PALMER: As a physician and a caring person, helping others makes me feel great—especially when top writers went to the trouble to help me when I was just getting started. Alas, I get 3-10 advance reader’s copies each month for quotes. I just can’t do them all… I would never “blurb” a book without reading it.
tribe4mian: Is there anything you’d like to add, Michael?
MICHAEL PALMER: The paperback of “THE SECOND OPINION” just came out on 1/1/2010 with a great new cover. Thanks for a terrific interview…
tribe4mian: Again, I’d like to thank you for your time and have thoroughly enjoyed meeting up with you over the past couple of years, Michael. You are truly an inspiration, as well as a guiding light for many who feel they wander blindly. I wish you the greatest of continued success in all your endeavors, and please send along our best wishes and congratulations on their achievements to your children.
… And remember, no matter where my feet may be, you will always be welcomed with open arms and the warmest of smiles. I sincerely hope a trip to Greece will be in your future so we can go drink some of that 7-star stuff you’ve heard so much about. 🙂
Be well, Michael, and thank you again, from the bottom of my heart.
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