By Bruce J. Hillman, MD
Author of A Plague on All Our Houses
A friend once theorized that what success I’d enjoyed during my academic medical career had occurred by dint of my being in the right place at the right time. I bridled at his comment. Hadn’t hard work and creativity played some role? As I thought about it, however, to some extent, I had to agree. It wasn’t all dumb luck. Rather, I had benefited from a combination of serendipity and the insight to recognize an opportunity when one presented itself.
It was this interaction of chance and recognition that led to my becoming a published author. Most of the innumerable work-related emails I receive each day are of little interest. I delete them based on just the few words in the subject line. One day, roughly a decade ago, my index finger had been poised over the delete key and begun its descent, when I hesitated.
The institution was offering a two-hour enrichment program on creative writing during an upcoming workday morning. I signed up. At the end of the session, the associate Dean leading the group read a provocative sentence and asked that we write a paragraph about that sentence as the beginning of a novel. A week later, Sharon called to say that she’d read what I’d written and liked it. For several years, she had participated in a monthly critique group of six women. They had decided that their writing might be advantaged by the insights of a representative of the opposite gender. Did I want to audition? I wrote a story I titled “The Lemon,” about an experience during my medical internship. The group took me in. They saw something in my writing that was worthwhile. Over several years, they taught me a great deal about what was “good writing.”
Perhaps more important than their expertise was their encouragement. I was hooked. I needed to write. My first book was The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: How Medical Imaging is Changing Health Care (Oxford University Press, 2010), intended to inform the lay public about medical imaging. During a lecture tour that circumnavigated the globe, I wrote the better part of a medical murder mystery and finished it when I got home. It was at this point that my ambition ran afoul of the practical realities of publishing. I submitted my work to a long list of agents. Only a couple of them showed any preliminary interest, and their interest was short-lived. No agent, no book. One night, a college classmate interviewed me for a profile on the class website. He was a published author. He referred me to an agent who had recently rejected his work but whom he felt might be interested in mine.
Claire Gerus took a look at my novel. She no longer represented writers of fiction, but she liked my writing. If I ever had an idea for a nonfiction book, I should give her a call. As it happened I did. Claire guided me through the development of a creative nonfiction book proposal for The Man Who Stalked Einstein: How Nazi Scientist Philipp Lenard Changed the Course of History, which she sold to Lyons Press. I was on my way. Einstein was published in April, 2015.
As I worked with the publisher to edit Einstein, I began to consider what story I might like to address next. I considered several options related to my profession of radiology — “martyrs” whose investigations led to their death of overexposure before the lethality of radiation was understood. Some aspect of the life of Marie Curie. The upshot of atomic bomb testing in the Pacific. Then, I recalled a day I’d spent with a medical school classmate, Michael Gottlieb, in his Los Angeles AIDS practice. I contacted him. Over the course of several phone calls, I realize that Gottlieb had lived an extraordinary story. We discussed conditions under which I would undertake to write a very personal history of his 1981 discovery of AIDS and what followed over the ensuing seven years during which he was employed as an academic physician at UCLA. The goal would be to write an honest account of his story — including the views of both his supporters and antagonists.
What I learned offered all the makings of a terrific creative nonfiction story: an important but little written about moment in history; conflict between Gottlieb and his bosses and colleagues; a hint of Hollywood glitter; a fast-moving dramatic arc; and a climax that would entertain readers and provide important life lessons. The result is A Plague on All Our Houses: Medical Intrigue, Hollywood, and the Discovery of AIDS, published by the ForeEdge Press imprint of the University Press of New England.
The murder mystery still sits in my computer.
Bruce J. Hillman, MD, is Professor and former Chair of the Department of Radiology at the University of Virginia and Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the American College of Radiology. He is the author of A Plague on All Our Houses: Medical Intrigue, Hollywood, and the Discovery of AIDs (ForeEdge Press, 2016)