Why Do Physician Authors Write Thrillers? Let’s Ask Them

We’ve all experienced adrenaline-pumping moments where time stands still, thought ceases, and instinct kicks in. Some of us live for those moments; others of us pray we can make it to the bathroom when it’s over.

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Image from Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

For me, one such moment occurred when I covered the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) overnight by myself as a newly minted, second-year peds resident. A 24-week premature girl delivered precipitously on the mother’s bed. No NICU fellow around. No NICU attending. Just me. After getting the nurse’s stat page, I sprinted down the hall, heart pounding and mind playing games.

What if I can’t resuscitate her? What if I can’t slip in the endotracheal tube to help her breathe? What if I can’t insert the umbilical catheter for blood draws?

What if—dear God—she dies?

But she didn’t. Because with the help of experienced nurses, I slid in the breathing tube, hooked the baby up to a ventilator, and threaded in the umbilical catheter, just as I’d been trained to do as an intern. By the time the NICU fellow raced in from home, shirt untucked and hair a mess, my hand-sized preemie was stable and warm.*

Which was more than I could say for myself.

So Why Do Doctors Write Thrillers Instead of a Different Genre?

Someone recently posed this question to me, and other than Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner), I couldn’t think of another contemporary physician author who didn’t write medical thrillers.

Maybe it’s because some physicians love the thrill of moments like the one above and want to convey them in fiction. Maybe it’s because medicine naturally lends itself to thrillers. Maybe it’s because physicians are more comfortable wading into genre fiction than literary fiction.

Or maybe it’s even simpler: we write thrillers because we prefer to read thrillers.

So, I decided the best way to find out was to ask.

Four Physician Authors Tell Me Why They Write Thrillers:

D.P. Lyle

—cardiologist; award-winning author of numerous fiction and nonfiction books, including the Samantha Cody and Dub Walker thriller series, and the nonfiction Forensics for Dummies; consultant for several TV shows including Law & Order and CSI; and radio co-host.

dp lyle

To learn more about D.P. Lyle, visit his website at dplylemd.com, his Writer’s Forensics Blog, or his Amazon page. You can also learn more about his upcoming release, Deep Six, a comedic thriller available for pre-order.

Roger B. Newman

—nationally known leader in Ob-Gyn specializing in Maternal-Fetal Medicine, author of Occam’s Razor and the upcoming Two Drifters as well as co-author of the nonfiction book Multifetal Pregnancy: A Handbook for Care of the Pregnant Patient.

roger b newman

To learn more about Roger Newman, visit his website at rogerbnewman.com or his Amazon page.

Richard Van Anderson

—former heart surgeon and chief of cardiac surgery with an MFA degree in creative writing, author of The Final Push and The Organ Takers.

richard van anderson

To learn more about Richard Van Anderson, visit his website at rvananderson.com or his Amazon page.

C.J. Lyons

—former pediatric ER doctor, award-winning, critically acclaimed New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of twenty-nine novels including the Lucy Guardino thriller series and the Hart & Drake medical suspense series.

cj lyons

To learn more about C.J. Lyons, visit her website at cjlyons.net or her Amazon page. You can also learn about her upcoming release, Last Light, available for pre-order.

So…

It would seem medicine and thrillers are natural companions. Many physicians face adrenaline-pumping moments every day. It only makes sense to blend them with fiction.

Now, excuse me while I get my heart rate back down.

A HUGE thank you to these four authors for responding to my emails and answering my question. Their novels sound exciting, and my TBR list has just grown several inches.

Are you a fan of thrillers? Do you live for heart-pumping moments, or is a cup of tea and a safe sofa more your style?

*Things are different now, but back then residents were often in-house alone at night.

*     *     *

Rubin4Carrie Rubin is the author of Eating Bull and The Seneca Scourge. For full bio, click here.

232 Responses to “Why Do Physician Authors Write Thrillers? Let’s Ask Them”

  1. Letizia

    I never realized so many author-physicians wrote medical thrillers, but it does make sense. Medicine so often represents the frailty of the body and the ingenuity of the mind (and sometimes the opposite). So lovely to read your thoughtful words once again, Carrie.

    Like

  2. Kourtney Heintz

    First off your preemie story had me on the edge of my seat. What an intense night. I love how you posed this questions to other doctors who are also authors. Very cool.

    I tend to read paranormals and mysteries. But I do enjoy an occasional thriller. Like yours. 😉

    Like

  3. hilarycustancegreen

    Thanks for asking this question. As someone who doesn’t like thrillers, I have always wondered. I imagine that there are also a lot of physician authors who write in other genres (with my science hat on I wonder if the physician/thriller link is significant or not). There is an interesting speed value in thrillers, they cut to the chase in terms of writing and action, but they do so by holding the reader in a maximum state of (for some people pleasurable) alarm for as long as possible. A difficult trick to pull off.

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      I love being held in that state as a reader, and it’s fun plotting a thriller out as a writer. Making sure all the bits are where they need to be. 🙂

      Like

  4. Britt Skrabanek

    Very cool, honey! It’s always interesting to hear why anyone writes what they write. I, for one, am thankful when authors write from true experiences no matter what genre that is.

    Needless to say, I won’t be writing medical thrillers any time soon. 😉

    Like

  5. Beth Younker

    Carrie, what a great concept, talking to these physicians. I love thrillers and am not familiar with any of these, and as a former ICU nurse these will be right up my alley! I’ve loved reading John Sanford’s “Prey” series, as he sets them in Minneapolis, and has used one of our local hospitals as a setting several times, working with a friend of mine in PR back in the day to get all the details just right. That attention to the right detail makes the difference!

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    • Carrie Rubin

      I haven’t read the Prey series. I’ll definitely check it out. Thank you. I grew up in Grand Forks, ND so I’ve visited Minneapolis many times. My hubs has family there. Great city!

      Like

  6. Dawn Quyle Landau

    Fascinating! I am sure that IF my husband ever chose to write something (which is extremely unlikely), those would be the very same answers he’d give, to why he wrote a thriller. 😉

    Like

  7. Vanessa-Jane Chapman

    Good question to ask! One thing I had thought about before (from reading your books) is basically what one of those respondents said – when there is violence happening in the story, it helps to have medical knowledge in order to better understand how the body might respond to that, and to describe it accurately. I do like thrillers, but like I think I’ve said before, I don’t like too much gore (I don’t read horror because I don’t like too much gore) and whilst I like a bit of heart pumping tension, I don’t want to be so terrified that I’m scared to leave my bed and go to the bathroom!

    What I always appreciate when reading thrillers, or any book really, is when the author has taken a clever, different approach to the writing. Have you ever read Dead Famous by Ben Elton? It’s about a fictitious Big Brother house where one of the housemates gets murdered live on TV (you don’t have to like Big Brother to like the book, but it helps if you’ve at least watched the show a couple of times). He writes it in this way where first he writes about something leading up to the murder, and then he writes something about the aftermath, and he keeps jumping between the two, gradually closing in on the murder event itself over the course of the book. I found that to be a really clever way of building the tension in because we know the murder happened, but he keeps holding off on it. This doesn’t actually have anything really to do with your post, but it just came to me while we’re talking about thrillers!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      I haven’t read Dead Famous. Sounds good! A good thriller will have escalating tension like that. That’s what I love about the genre. Makes me keep turning the pages. 🙂

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      • Vanessa-Jane Chapman

        Well I recommend adding it to your reading list! Let me know what you think of it if you read it. Aside from being a thriller, it’s also very cynical about the whole reality TV genre. The book had mixed reviews but I thought it was very good.

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  8. L. Marie

    When I was in grad school (MFA program), my mentor was a medical doctor. 🙂 But she writes humorous middle grade books. 🙂 She said she’d always wanted to write stories.

    Like

  9. Sangeeta Pradhan RD, CDE

    Carrie, hats off to you and all the doctors in this world for doing all that you do! The NICU moment that you have depicted so well here, sounds downright scary to someone like me who is not a doctor. You folks must face many such scenarios, but you take the plunge anyway, do what you do, and save lives. Thank you!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      It was a scary moment for sure. Luckily as a general pediatrician, those moments didn’t happen very often for me once I finished residency. 🙂 Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. butimbeautiful

    I think I”m not a fan of thrillers. But then, I’ve read everything that John Grisham has got to offer, so maybe I am after all! I hate those ‘who dunnit’ things though. And I’m not big on gore. What an interesting idea to ask all those authors!

    Like

  11. jeanjames

    Carrie these were interesting interviews, and great perspectives. I dare say we in the healthcare profession are all a bit of adrenaline junkies. It’s funny when I was quite pregnant and working in a big teaching hospital in NYC, I ran into a nurse in the parking garage, she look me over, and asked me where I worked and I said CCU and she gasped and said she could never work in cardiac intensive care “too scary”, and I asked her where she worked, and she said the NICU. Now it was my turn to gasp! I give you NICU folks tons of credit, but I guess we all have our adrenaline thresholds. Great post!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you! I’m actually not much of an adrenaline junkie. I prefer having time to solve diagnostic dilemmas. I’m not fond of those stressful moments. But I guess what’s most important is that we know how to handle them and keep our cool in the process! And yes, I think any critical care unit qualifies as stressful–CCU or NICU!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. reocochran

    What an outstanding post and choice for featuring medical professionals and their choice of writing medical thrillers, Carrie. You showed how a professional asks a good question and gets results. I apologize for being late in joining the fantastic conversation with a high response number. 🙂 Smiles, Robin

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Thanks so much for reading. It was a fun post to write. And I’m actually reading The Organ Takers by Richard Van Anderson now. It’s really good. Such a great premise.

      Like

  13. Jennifer J. Chow

    Interesting stuff. Thanks for the interviews! (By the way, I was one of those babies in the NICU, and I’m so glad the staff there helped me out.) As for books, I’m more of a cup of tea gal, but I’m definitely a fan of your writing!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      You were a preemie? I’m sure your parents remember those days well. Scary to have your baby in the NICU. But NICU staffs are some of the greatest. And thank you for the kind words. 🙂

      Like

  14. cinthiaritchie

    I’ve never really thought about it but it makes perfect sense that doctors, who live on the edge in their professional lives, would carry that edginess over to their own writing. Maybe they are all adrenaline junkies. Probably, in a sense, we all are seeking that edginess, which is most likely why thrillers are so popular (I rarely read thrillers myself, though I run in the mountains and have been charged by a bear, so I guess I get my thrills in other ways lol).
    What amazes me the most, though, is that doctors find the time to write thrillers. How in the heck do they do it?

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      That’s why it took me so long to see my first book come to fruition. Working my clinic and raising kids left little time. But now that I’m more focused on writing, I can finish my work more quickly. But I’m still not nearly as prolific as some writers.

      I’m not an adrenaline-junkie. I prefer time to solve diagnostic dilemmas. But sometimes those moments just happen.

      Thanks for reading!

      Like

  15. Kate Johnston

    I’m not surprised that physicians would write thrillers at all. I’m sure terrible “what if” thoughts are a regular occurrence for many doctors who have to respond to crises, and really, perfect story starters.

    I am not familiar with any of those authors. Thanks for bringing them to our attention. And so nice of them to respond to your emails!

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      That’s a good point about the what-ifs. There are many of those in medicine, and as we all know, good story pitches often start with a what-if. A natural response then to fuse the two. Thanks, Kate.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. aFrankAngle

    That’s a brilliant question. First of all, those adrenaline-pumping situations for doctors involving life & death is something I can imagine … yet, I can see how it leads to a story. However, you have sparked a question in my mind …. have thriller novels by MDs been transformed into movies? Have MDs written screenplays that for thriller films? … (PS: No need to research). 🙂

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      Robin Cook’s and Michael Crichton’s have. And Kathy Reichs books are the basis of the TV show Bones. (She’s a forensic anthropologist, so not an MD but still science.) I suspect there are others too that aren’t coming to mind.

      By the way, thought of you in the car this morning because the song Yellow by Coldplay came on. We were just talking about that one on your blog yesterday. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • aFrankAngle

        Good examples … wasn’t Michael Crichton an MD? ,,, and that’s too timely and chuckle worthy about the Coldplay song.

        Like

        • Carrie Rubin

          Yes, Crichton was an MD. He and Cook are kind of the masters of the medical thriller. Robin Cook probably more so. His “Coma” seemed to start it all.

          Liked by 1 person

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