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10 Questions with Joshua Gilder
Kate Shulman sheds some light on the dark world of Ghost Image scribe Joshua Gilder...
Kate Shulman: You’ve had a long career—first as a political speechwriter, and now as a business consultant. What made you decide to write fiction?
Joshua Gilder: Well, people often accused me of writing fiction when I was a speechwriter, so maybe it’s not such a big change. Seriously, I’ve spent practically my whole adult life involved with politics or policy in one way or another (as one of those dreaded K Street consultants, much of my business has a large political component), and I wanted to explore life from another side, hopefully a fuller and deeper one, though my readers will have to judge whether I’ve been successful in that respect.
KS: What prompted you to created a medical thriller, instead of sticking with what you knew so well?
JG: It’s probably good advice to "write about what you know," but there are also certain drawbacks that they don’t tell you about. One is that you may know what you know so well that you no longer see what’s interesting or exciting about it. That was certainly true with me when I decided to write this book. The other is that a novel is, first and foremost, a work of the imagination, and being too grounded in reality can sometimes be a stumbling block to letting your imagination run free. That’s my contrarian take on things, at least. I thought writing about something new might open me up to thinking about my characters in new and different ways. Of course, one then has to find some way to compensate for one’s deep ignorance of the subject matter – which is where research comes in.
The inspiration to write a medical mystery came from a close friend who is, like the protagonist in the novel, a reconstructive plastic surgeon. He was telling me about an operation he had done to reattach the fingers of a patient who’d severed them with a power saw. My friend described spending hours hunched over a microscope sewing the nerves and veins of his fingers back together. "Like sewing together pieces of thread," he explained. I tell the story in only slightly modified from in the prologue, and I had much the same reaction as my protagonist: How incredible! How wonderful that one can undo life’s mistakes (sometimes) and start all over again as if nothing has happened. That desire – to have a second chance at fate – is a lot of what the book is all about.
KS: What sort of research did you do to create the incredibly realistic medical scenes throughout this wonderful book?
JG: I spent a lot of time in operating rooms observing the procedures and, between fainting spells, taking notes. The funny thing is that I had the plot pretty well worked out before I started and knew I’d need to do a huge a mount of research to make it realistic, but it was only when I was signing in at the front desk to attend my first operation that I realized I’d always had a major phobic streak when it came to hospitals. I don’t know why it is I never put these two things together, but in the end I dealt with it. As they say, one has to suffer for one’s art.
And it was very important to me that the medicine in the book be highly realistic, especially the plastic surgery. One often finds plastic surgery in popular literature and movies treated almost like science fiction – the patient goes in looking like me and comes out looking like James Bond, which just doesn’t happen (unfortunately). So I vetted the manuscript with several surgeons, plastic and otherwise, as well as neurologists, cardiologists, ER specialists, you name it, to make it as true-to-life as possible.
KS: What drove you to not only tackle the intense world of plastic surgery but to venture into the world of psychology?
JG: Well, I might mention that my father was a Freudian psychoanalyst, but that would be too revealing, so forget I mentioned it. As you suggest, though, the novel is really more a psychological mystery than a medical thriller. The protagonists are doctors, but the real drama takes place inside their heads.
I’m thrilled that many people respond to Ghost Image as simply a great read (or as one reviewer said, a "great airplane read"), a page-turner which keeps you reading through the night because you just gotta know how it turns out. To the extent that readers think I succeeded in doing that I’m very gratified, because I put gallons of blood, sweat, and tears (OK, no actual blood) into working out what I hoped would be an air-tight plot. I also wanted it to have a feeling of inevitability. Sometimes – let’s admit it -- the ending of mysteries seems a bit contrived, with some tertiary character pulled in out of no-where to tie up all the lose ends. I wanted my readers,once they reached the denouement, to think "Yes, that makes sense, that’s exactly what those character would do in that situation."
At the same time – and at the risk of sounding a bit pretentious – I was hoping to deal with deeper issues. The main characters in Ghost Image are severely damaged people. Allie, the heroine (or should I say "heroine") has been damaged physically. For Jackson, the protagonist, the damage is psychological. They’re both searching for redemption from their suffering, but the question is whether they’ll find it, or just keep the cycle of hurt going and end in despair. I hasten to add that the end is in fact a happy one, though certainly tempered by all they’ve all been through.
KS: Are you planning to continue to write thrillers?
JG: You probably should ask my publisher that one. But as far as I’m concerned, the answer is an emphatic "yes." Right now, however, I’m finishing up a non-fiction narrative history that I’m writing together with my wife, Anne-Lee. It’s about the collaboration of two astronomers in the 17th century and the murderous passions that led to the birth of modern science. Sound interesting?
KS: Should we expect more medical thrillers or are you planning a different type of novel next time?
JG: This time I’ll probably write about what I know: Washington, politics. Or maybe I’ll combine them, say a story about a speechwriter who becomes so fed up with this empty-headed Senator taking credit for his words that he has plastic surgery done to make himself look like the Senator and takes over his persona and life, only to find that the Senator’s wife is really a double-agent working for the Chinese but free-lancing with the Russian Mafia on the side….Actually, I’ve got a few ideas gestating, but none that I’ve absolutely settled on.
KS: How have you been handling the wonderful reaction and reviews that have been pouring in since your book came out?
JG: It’s been wonderful. As I mentioned, I did get one supercilious reviewer who said Ghost Image was "a good airplane read," which I think he meant as a put-down, but I’m a writer – I’ll take whatever praise I can get any way I can get it.
KS: How long did it take you to write your book?
JG: Five years, though for most of that period I was working full time, and I’m just not the sort of person who can concentrate the way one has to in order to write a novel while being distracted by nuisances such as having to earn a living. So I ended up taking a sabbatical from my job for about a year and writing 50 per cent of it.
KS: How did your family handle it?
JG: I say in the acknowledgments and its absolutely true, I never would have been able to write this novel without the support and constant encouragement of my wife, who got me through the rough spots – psychological and technical – helped restructure when necessary, and was my first and most important editor. My son is only six, now, so he’s used to his father acting oddly.
KS: For most writers, it is incredibly hard to create intense scenes, while still maintaining the story line and characters. Can you give any advice to writers out there trying for their first novel?
JG: I can only say what worked for me. The most important thing was to give myself time in the beginning (and by beginning, I mean the first couple of years) to simply write lots and lots of material without worrying how good or god-awful it was (usually the latter). It was kind of a controlled,extended free-association that let me really explore my characters and their lives before I got down to trying to write anything resembling a book. I wrote reams of material before I started my first draft – and I can’t even remember how many drafts I went through. So in my case, the most important thing was giving it time.