How far would you go to save someone you barely knew, if it put your own life in danger?
When Andrew, an American medical student, decides to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro with a group of international travelers, he’s looking forward to the adventure. But when the climb takes an unexpected turn, it forces the climbers to confront their deepest fears-and each other.
In the middle of the night, just a few hours from the summit, Barry, one of Andrew’s fellow climbers, becomes deathly ill. As the only one with medical expertise, Andrew feels responsible for Barry’s fate. Saving Barry means risking his own life, but failing to act will compromise his values as a healer and human being. It doesn’t help that he’s falling for Barry’s climbing companion and girlfriend, a beautiful Peace Corps volunteer whose free spirit makes methodical, meticulous Andrew feel alive.
All of the climbers are haunted by their choices during that terrifying night and its aftermath…but Andrew, most of all. Torn between descending Africa’s highest peak in the dark to save a near-stranger, or fulfilling his dream of reaching the summit, Andrew must choose. And in the wake of his choice, his life will change forever.
Where are you from? Tell us a little about yourself!
I was born in Massachusetts but moved to California for college and medical school and have stayed in the west ever since. I came to University of New Mexico as an intern and I was mesmerized by the colors of the land and how they changed, particularly when rain streamed out of clouds from miles away covering the mountains in a mist. I loved the cultural richness of the area and the stories that my patients told. I’ve stayed in the west now for more than 40 years, living in New Mexico, California and Arizona. I worked in the emergency department of the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque and now I work in an emergency department in Phoenix. Many doctors are drawn to the emergency department because of the opportunity to make a difference in dramatic life and death crises. For me, the draw was more about thinking through a difficult diagnosis particularly based upon the clues in stories patients would tell me. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate how rich some of the stories are and how much I learn about the people telling them.
Bits and pieces of those stories found their way into editorials and articles that I would write for a medical journals. My first book, “La Clinica,” was a memoir mostly focused on my work in a rural Mexican village clinic where I volunteered before starting medical school. In addition to telling the stories of villagers and volunteers, I also raised questions about some of the unintended consequences of the presence of American volunteers in a rural Mexican village and the potential for exploitation. My second book, “Atlas of Men,” was a novel based upon experiences I had as a high school student in which my classmates and I were photographed without our clothes on as part of a research project that intended to measure our bodies and identify our future potential for leadership and achievement. The photographs were taken of students over a twenty year period without any consent of the children or their parents. In the book I explored issues related to sexual exploitation of children and historical theories about eugenics, race and selection of students to elite educational institutions.
I am currently working on how to develop authentic patient stories that could be used in medical education to illustrate the various influences on health as part of the curriculum for medical students.
Tell us about your book? How did it get started?
After I wrote my book “Atlas of Men,” I continued to think about the tensions between how we are encouraged to make our own way in the world as successful individuals and what we do for others around us who are suffering. As an emergency physician I expected there would be dangers at work because of the frequency of violence and contagious diseases in our patient populations. But I felt that those risks to me were simply part of my job. On the other hand, there are times when civilians are put into situations where they have to choose whether or not to put their own lives at risk. Why do they do it, when it isn’t their job? Is there something heroic about them?
My novel, “Moonstone Hero,” is based upon an experience I had as a medical student in Africa with a group of other young tourists climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in which one member of our group became severely ill with pulmonary edema and was dying up at the top of the mountain. We all had to decide what we would do. Would we stop the climb, turn around and carry the sick man down the mountain in the middle of the night, putting our own lives in danger? Or would we follow our agenda, rest for a while, climb to the top at sun rise and then turn and carry the sick man down in the light?
As I began to write the book, the Covid-19 pandemic and the complex response to it all over the world made me consider how we are influenced by those around us and their values. I realized that “Moonstone Hero” needed to dig below the surface of the events that occurred on the mountain, to the fears, jealousies, and passions that began to build to a climax on the mountain and then persist in the aftermath. What happens to people who are involved in saving another person? What are the emotions and thoughts they share with that person and with others? How do we tell such stories to each other and to our children and what are the messages we convey? If the heroes have flaws do we include them in the story? What does the person who has been rescued owe to the person who saved them? What if the hero betrays the trust of the person they have saved? “Moonstone Hero” illuminates these questions without blinding us.
How do you create your characters?
Most of my characters are pulled out of experiences I’ve had either in emergency medicine, my personal life or through travel. As a physician working in the emergency department, I get the opportunity to see people at their worst and best, dealing with pain, frustration, anger and even how love gets expressed during the darkest moments. While my characters may start with features that feel familiar to me, they tend to become more complex and nuanced as the story evolves. Most of what we remember even about actual people we’ve known is really only a vague outline for what the character becomes over time based upon the dynamics of the story. In “Moonstone Hero,” Andrew may have been initially based upon experiences I had, but he is not me, and he ended up doing things that I have never done and would not do. The same is true of the other characters. They may have started as part of a memory but grew from there, and did things that often surprised me.
What inspires and what got your started in writing?
My dad used to tell me bed time stories which transported me to a different world as I drifted off to sleep. Gone were the incomplete homework assignments on my desk, replaced by secret missions in Germany and France behind the enemy lines on horseback. I would dream about the treasures hidden under logs and in caves and some of those dreams magically completed my homework assignments in the morning.
As my own children grew up I found that I loved telling them bedtime stories as much as they enjoyed hearing them because it was a time for me to free myself from the demons pursuing me after a difficult emergency department shift and let my imagination run free. I found that storytelling with my children gradually lifted us all up, as if onto a raft floating on the ocean, sometimes leaving me with ideas that would inspire me to write a story later that night or the next day.
Where do you write? Is there something you need in order to write (music, drinks?)
I need uninterrupted time and quiet. Much of my life is often reactive with tasks or crises to solve and for me to write effectively, I need to free my mind so that it can roam. That takes unstructured time, peaceful explorations and curiosity. Music can sometimes get me the right mood depending on what I’m writing and what stage of writing I’m at. If I’m carefully reading and revising, silence is best for that. If I’m trying to develop something a new and wild, then music might help. I like to write in a familiar setting like my office though I’ve gotten some great ideas on airplanes when I’ve had to sit for 4 or 5 hours drifting between sleep and wakefulness.
How do you get your ideas for writing?
Usually an idea comes from something I’ve heard or seen, a conversation with a friend, or family member, maybe even a rhyme jiggling in my head. The idea may come out of some banter or absurdity that has arisen in a group; we may improvise and exaggerate the idea, and I will think about it as it develops its own momentum and goes off in unexpected directions; that’s often when I begin to write.
Sometimes ideas are like leaves falling from trees, too many to comprehend. The leaves seem to be all around me covering the ground and even when I bend down to pick one up I can’t decide which one it should be. Eventually the wind blows a bunch of the leaves up into the air and into my face and I finally may say, “Oh, so that’s who you are.”
What do you like to read?
I like fiction though I’ve recently been reading “A Swim in the Pond in the Rain” by George Saunders about how great Russian writers wrote their stories and what we can learn from them to become better writers. George Saunders invites us into a class he gives to college students who want to be writers and his book is full of wonderful observations and suggestions.
I recently read Damon Galgut’s “The Good Doctor.” I’m always curious about what people think might be the attributes of good doctor. In this case the doctors are not good and are scarcely doctors as they wander through a mostly abandoned facility with few patients trying to find some meaning for their presence in the outpost. It’s an interesting question to consider how to be a good doctor if you are in a decaying dysfunctional facility. Do you just show up as assigned, complete your shift and go back to your room, go to sleep and not make any trouble or ask any questions? Or at some point would a good doctor rebel even if the consequences might be fatal?
What would your advice to be for authors or aspiring in regards to writing?
Write as much as you can every day and don’t worry about the quality. As you read over what you’ve written, there will probably be some good paragraphs that can help you see what works for you and why. And you can start the next day with what seemed to work well, or what was fun to write and see where it takes you.
Read a variety of good writers.
Make sure you have trusted readers to look at anything you might want to submit to a magazine or to an agent.
Learn how to revise. I’ve sometimes revised stories and articles 30 or 40 times. You just can’t stop until you get it right.
Have fun and be a little playful and occasionally crazy with your writing. Try to develop your voice and be able to identify it. Try to be curious about people and listen to them and how they talk and how they tell stories.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Enjoy the writing you do regardless of where it leads. Writing will make you more reflective and thoughtful even if no one else reads it. And you will get better at it.
Try to find others who can support your writing and provide feedback and advice. Rejection is part of the game so try to develop a thick skin. Perseverance is probably more important than talent. You may not be able to predict what books, stories or articles will be most meaningful to others, so keep trying.