Michael Palmer, M.D., is the author of the forthcoming The Last Surgeon (2010), The Second Opinion, The First Patient, The Fifth Vial, The Society, Fatal, The Patient, Miracle Cure, Critical Judgment, Silent Treatment, Natural Causes, Extreme Measures, Flashback, Side Effects,and The Sisterhood.
His books have been translated into thirty-five languages. He trained in internal medicine at Boston City and Massachusetts General Hospitals, spent twenty years as a full-time practitioner of internal and emergency medicine, and is now an associate director of the Massachusetts Medical Society’s physician health program.
How I started writing . . .
To begin with, I guess I should say that I never wanted to be a writer, and in truth never showed much flair for it. I did, however, always believe that I had some sort of a creative streak hidden inside me. But then again, I always thought I could win a gold medal in the Olympics if they would just invent the sport that I was the best at.
I went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut where I was a pre-med major with sort of a Russian minor. On my first English paper as a freshman I got a “G” as in A . . . B . . . C . . . etc.
My professor, as I recall, drew a line halfway through the paper and wrote, STOPPED READING HERE in the margin. Not exactly the start one might expect from someone whose first nine novels were going to make The New York Times Best-Seller List, but stopped reading here it was. In one of those books, I decided to name the villain after that freshman English professor.
Although I never won any writing awards at Wesleyan, I did take wonderful courses such as eastern literature, humanities, a seminar on war, and a seminar on Edgar Allen Poe with the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Richard Wilbur. When I finally did start writing my novels, I found myself pulling up many things I learned in those classes.
For med school, I chose Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, largely because they had developed a curriculum that centered on producing caring, involved physicians. No grades. No class rank. No intimidation. Humanistic approach from day one. I loved it there. After Case, I came to Boston to train in internal medicine at Boston City and Massachusetts General Hospitals. My patients and experiences in both places left indelible impressions on my soul.
During a two-year break, I did my military obligation in Cincinnati doing research for the National Air Pollution Control Administration. Eventually, I settled into a private internal medicine practice on Cape Cod. After my first book was sold, I switched to the ER to have more time to write.
In what spare time I had, I loved to read escapist fiction. Robert Ludlum, Alistair McLean, Eric Ambler, John D. MacDonald, Agatha Christie . . . a book or two a week. In 1978, I read Robin Cook’s classic thriller, Coma. Robin was two years ahead of me at Wesleyan and trained at Mass General when I was there.
“If Robin can write a book and has the same education as I do,” I asked my younger sister one autumn day, “why can’t I write a book?”
“Because you’re dull,” was her knee-jerk, sisterly response.
We spent a while talking about what we enjoyed in thrillers, and I decided to have a go at it.
The story I chose to write was based on a true event in my life where a dying patient gave me a mysterious key and begged me never to let it out of my possession. I still don’t know what the key was really for, but a page a night I made up a novel surrounding it. In a year I had completed The Corey Prescription! After it was typed, I sent it to a childhood friend who worked at a New York publishing house. He felt my writing was God-awful, but my story telling held surprising promise. “We can teach people how to write,” he told me. “But we can’t give them a sense of what’s dramatic.”
My friend referred me to literary agent Jane Rotrosen who decided that while The Corey Prescription had its moments, even the greatest editing job in the world wouldn’t make it strong enough to vault onto the best-seller lists. She would work with me and represent me only if I agreed to start over with a new idea. That idea (a secret society of nurses dedicated to mercy killing) became The Sisterhood, which was published in 1982 and is now in its 35th printing or so and has been translated into 34 or 35 languages. A good start!
So now I’m a novelist. The Fifth Vial will be my twelfth book-thirteenth if you count The Corey Prescription, which has, in fact been published in several foreign languages, though never in English. I’m hard at work on my next story, THE FIRST PATIENT–a thriller about the president’s physician.
In addition to the writing, I work part time (20 hours a week or so) for the Massachusetts Medical Society as an Associate Director of their physician health program, helping doctors with physical illness, mental illness, or substance abuse put their lives together. It’s tremendously rewarding work and offers great balance to the isolation of writing. But doing that job, plus the writing, plus daddying puts a high premium on discipline. Fortunately, if I have nothing else, I have that.