Dr. John Benedict graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and entered medical school at Penn State University College of Medicine. While there, he also completed an internship, anesthesia residency and a cardiac anesthesia fellowship. He currently works as a physician/anesthesiologist in a busy private practice in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania.
Dr. Benedict has been writing stories since high school, but his creative side was put on hold to pursue a medical education and start a family—he now has a wife and three sons. Finally, after a 15-year pause, his love of writing was rekindled and his first novel, Adrenaline—a gritty medical thriller with a realism borne of actual experience—was born.
Besides creating scary stories, the hallmark of Dr. Benedict’s writing is genuine medical authenticity—something in short supply these days in thriller fiction. He draws on his 25+ years of experience as a board-certified anesthesiologist to infuse his writing with a realism that renders it both vivid and frightening. As one of only a handful of anesthesiologists throughout the country writing fiction, he gives readers a taste of what really goes on in the operating room, the human drama inherent in this high-stress, high stakes environment where lives are continually on the line. Readers will find out what it’s like to hold a patient’s life in their hands, as the author provides an illuminating glimpse into the fascinating, but poorly understood realm of anesthesia.
Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Adrenaline. To begin with, can you gives us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?
A: Adrenaline tells the story of veteran anesthesiologist, Doug Landry. When patients start dying unexpectedly in the Mercy Hospital OR, Doug winds up being blamed. Doug is confused at first and wonders if he screwed up somehow. However, as he investigates further, he unearths evidence of greed and corruption in his department. As he struggles to unravel the secrets of the mysterious deaths and clear his name, it quickly becomes apparent that someone will stop at nothing to keep him from revealing the devastating truth. Doug becomes trapped in a race against time to prevent more deaths, including his own.
I am an anesthesiologist in real life and Adrenaline is a classic medical thriller told from the anesthesiologist’s viewpoint. To illustrate the real inspiration behind this book, I will need to relate a true story from 20 years ago:
One day it struck me—at 2:00 in the morning in the midst of another grueling 24-hour shift. I had just finished interviewing a nice lady with an appendix about to burst—we’ll call her Linda. I had done my best not to yawn as I went through the routine questions that an anesthesiologist is obliged to ask. She appeared nervous, which soon gave way to tears. I did my best to comfort her, took her hand, told her I would take good care of her. That I would watch over her carefully in the operating room and see her through surgery. And be there when she woke up in the recovery room. She appeared to calm down a bit. I wrapped up my pre-op assessment and asked her to sign the anesthesia consent form, while assuring her the risks would be minimal. She raised her eyebrows at this and the fearful look returned. I wondered: What the hell does minimal mean when you’re talking about life and death? More tears. She told me of her two young daughters at home that desperately needed a mommy. I felt my own throat tighten. I quickly buried my emotions, tried not to think about my wife and three sons, and focused on the task at hand as we wheeled her litter back down the hall to the OR.
After Linda was safely tucked in the recovery room, operation a success, anesthetic uncomplicated, I lay down in the call room to try to catch a couple of z’s. My mind wandered as I lay there. Rarely, I thought, does a person willingly surrender control of their mind and body to a virtual stranger. Yet, this is exactly what happens when the person is a patient being wheeled in for surgery and the stranger is their anesthesiologist, whom they have just met minutes beforehand. Talk about an extraordinary amount of trust. This degree of trust made a distinct impression on me that night, some twenty years ago.
Other thoughts followed soon thereafter. What if the trust Linda had exhibited earlier was ill-conceived and her doctor was actually bad? Not just incompetent or sleepy, but downright evil. Being an avid reader of thrillers, I thought this chilling concept would make for a good story. Too bad I wasn’t a writer. (Disclaimer time: I don’t want to scare people here. All the docs I have known in my 30 years of medical practice are highly competent professional people, who would never purposely hurt anyone.) But I still couldn’t shake the evil concept; it kept gnawing at me until eventually I had to put it down on paper—lack of writing experience be damned. So Adrenaline was birthed, my first medical thriller novel that explores this issue of absolute trust implicit in the anesthesiologist-patient relationship—specifically, what happens when that trust is abused and replaced by fear. Adrenaline was finally published twelve years after my encounter with Linda.
Q: What do you think makes a good medical thriller? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?
A: A good medical thriller must, first and foremost, be a gripping story usually in a medical setting. It must also have memorable characters that people can identify with and care about what happens to them. Finally, the medicine portrayed in the story should be authentic, adding to the realism.
Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?
A: I discovered a lot of it as I worked on the book. I actually wrote the climax scenes first of Adrenaline and then tried to make the rest of the story fit into the climax. I don’t really recommend this technique in retrospect, but I was basically flying by the seat of my pants. In writing subsequent novels, I tried to have a better idea of the beginning, middle and end of the book. This is much more time efficient.
Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?
A: My main character in my first two books is Doug Landry. Coincidentally, he’s an anesthesiologist, like I am. Just kidding—it wasn’t a coincidence. A lot of me goes into Doug, so I didn’t have to interview anyone or make a character sketch. I’m not sure this is the best approach. It’s certainly simplifies the character development but you’ll likely take some flak from your family and friends.
Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?
A: My villains tend to be petty evil because basically they’re doctors who are OK with murdering their patients. So the trick is to humanize them to make them more believable, instead of just pure evil. I would try to take parts of real people that I’ve run across—not enough to be recognizable—and blend them into a bad guy with some redeeming characteristics, like sometimes exhibiting a conscience or feeling remorseful for what they have done.
Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?
A: First, I love to do dialogue, always trying to add realism but also using it to highlight confrontations. Second, I like to end chapters with a pique if possible to keep the reader guessing and needing to read more. General foreshadowing is also a technique I employ to build tension. One final note and this may be counter-intuitive but I’ve come to believe it is true. Rather than have a lot of action scenes, I think it builds tension more by putting off the actual action. Instead, you continually set the stage for the final confrontation, so that everyone knows it’s coming, but they’re not sure when or how it will resolve.
Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?
A: My books are generally set in a hospital or operating room or delivery room. Because I am intimately familiar with these locations, I can describe them accurately and vividly. This definitely lends a sense of realism to the stories, as readers can clearly envision the surroundings. It certainly helps to be very familiar with your setting—real is better.
Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?
A: The main theme in Adrenaline is the concept of some doctors being evil. Patients implicitly trust their physicians with their lives routinely. What if that trust is misplaced? What happens when the desires and goals of a bad doctor supersede the well-being of his patients? Yes, this theme of doctors being evil is at the heart of all my medical thrillers.
Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?
A: I feel like I create the story—this is the art part. Good editing then helps the nuts and bolts of the writing—sentence structure, word choice, grammar and punctuation, and also addresses any inconsistencies in the story. Good editing makes the story stronger and clearer. Bad editing can destroy a story, if the editor tries to rewrite too much of the basic storyline.
Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?
A: 1) Creativity 2) ability to realistically depict characters, dialogue, setting and see the big picture of a story 3) perseverance/obsessiveness
Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?
A: In my mind, there’s no way to sugar-coat this: writing is hard work that demands obsessive attention to detail and an enormous expenditure of time. It generally includes extreme delayed gratification and exposure to painful criticism and rejection along the way. It’s not for everyone.
Basically you must write to fulfill a need to tell stories—not because you expect anything in return.
Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?
A: I would recommend attending as many writers’ conferences as you can. Here you can meet and interact with other authors to hear their stories and learn from their experience. Also, it’s a chance to network with the all-important agents and editors. Finally, after you finish your book, it’s a good idea to hire a professional editor to tune up your work—you can also learn a lot from observing what changes the editor might make.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?
A: My advice for would-be novelists is fairly straightforward. Nothing worthwhile in life is quick or easy. Writing is no different. Expect to spend a long time learning the craft and improving upon it. Don’t expect to become famous overnight or make a lot of money easily. The best advice I can give is this: You shouldn’t write because you want to make millions or become a household name—you’ll likely be disappointed. Rather, you should write because you enjoy the process and feel the need to tell a story. Let the results take care of themselves.
Other things I’ve learned along the way: I’ve learned to believe in myself even when no one else seemed to. I’ve also learned the power of perseverance and patience. The path to successful book publication is notoriously long and arduous for most. Developing a thick skin is also helpful to protect oneself against the many rejection letters and obligatory nasty reviews that will come your way. Finally, I’ve learned that writing a good book is probably only half the battle. Getting it published and successfully marketing it may be the most difficult part. Good luck and keep writing!