Book Talk: Robin Cook uses thrillers to explain medicine

CANBERRA Wed Aug 11, 2010 6:37am EDT

CANBERRA Aug 11 (Reuters Life!) - Robin Cook, credited as the inventor of the medical thriller, was a doctor who never set out to be a writer but he just wanted to find a way to explain medical issues to people in an entertaining, understandable way.

Cook, an American physician turned novelist, now has 30 books to his name which have sold nearly 100 million copies. Many of his books have been turned into TV movies, mini-series and feature length movies.

His latest novel, "Cure," released on Aug. 10, is set in Japan and New York and deals with the problematic intersection of big business and medicine, the cut-throat world of medical patents, and stem cell technology.

Cook, 70, whose books include "Coma," "Brain," and "Mortal Fear," spoke to Reuters about writing:

Q: Why did you decide to start writing?

A: "I thought it would be a good way for people to learn about medicine and the problems of medical care and ethics and research. I realised medicine was picking up speed in terms of research but people were falling behind in their understanding of the issues. Everyone thought it was so difficult that they couldn't understand it but I thought it was important that people did understand medical issues."

Q: Was it hard to get people's interest?

A: "No, because there has always been a lot of interest in medical TV shows and medical movies but all the medical books prior to my writing were novels that suggested everything was fine. "Coma" really shocked everyone. It was about medicine and the doctors were the bad guys. "Coma" changed the landscape."

Q: Had you had any training in creative writing?

A: "Not at all but I took on a couple of projects, reading "Jaws" and "Love Story" which were both written as movies first. I wrote "Coma" as a movie first and then the book. But I had to learn the long way. Between my first book and my second book I attempted to give myself a course in creative writing. I never knew I would end up a writer."

Q: How did you teach yourself to write?

A: "I read a ton of books, particularly best-sellers. Until then I was so busy all the time that I had never read a best-seller. When I was at medical school I worked at night and as an undergraduate you needed to get good grades to get into a good medical school so I was a very diligent student."

Q: Do you ever run short of ideas for your books?

A: "I seem to have a lot of ideas. I have this sense of medicine being in such disarray worldwide. There is also the pace of change of discovery which means that almost every year we have some major discovery that leads to ethical issues. I could probably speed up and not run out of things to write about."

Q: Are you still involved in medicine as well as writing?

A: "I don't have a private practice but I still maintain my association with my teaching hospital and I read widely in medicine to stay very current otherwise I would be writing about issues from 50 years ago that don't have a lot of significance today. I still think of myself more as a doctor than a writer."

Q: Where did the idea for "Cure" come from?

A: "I have been interested in stem cell issues from the beginning because it is so important. I became more interested when I saw it was going to get caught up in politics and it put us back about 10 years or so. In 2006 when I saw you could create stem cells without having to use anything to do with embryos I saw that as an immense breakthrough and I have been surprised how little the general public knows about that. Stem cells will revolutionise medicine although it is being pushed back by politics and religion now."

Q: Are you disciplined towards your writing?

A: "Absolutely. I get up and sit myself down even if I want to do something different. You have to push yourself. You have to find that kind of discipline. I figured it out a long time ago. I have to have a separate place in my house to write. Writing is not easy. It takes a lot of effort."

Q: Any advice for aspiring writers?

A: "Most of the best writers that I know have experience in some other career first. I say to people who want to be writers get some experience in something, be it as a physician or a teacher or something."

(Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Paul Casciato)

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