Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Novel Road Interview: Ken McClure

Dust to Dust

   Just when you thought Health Insurance was the only thing to worry about when it came to a doctor visit…
   It started for me with author Robin Cook’s Coma. After reading it, whenever I got a blood test, I looked for the “Ah-ha” look in the lab tech’s eyes.
   The world of thriller novels found a great dimension in the Medical Thriller. Why? We rarely are exposed to FBI super agents or adolescent wizards, but we do see a doctor every once in a while. Malevolent beings that they can be with their: “You may experience a bit of discomfort” or “Well if it hurts when you do that, stop doing it”.
  The subject’s ground is plentiful, as well as real in many instances. My guest is a master of the Medical Thriller. Ken McClure, with background in medical research, knows his stuff. Combining his intellect with great story lines and writing skill, he has become one of the most successful authors in his genre.
  Ken, an award winning research scientist with the UK’s Medical Research Council, lives Edinburgh, the capitol city of Scotland.

May I introduce you to, author Ken McClure:

Image of Ken McClureMe:  Your being a research scientist in the medical field gave you a unique skill set for your novels. Talk about the moment you decided to become a novelist.
Ken: This has always been a problem question for me because I came late to writing and there was no one moment, just a set of circumstances. I had been working in Israel on a joint research project at Tel Aviv University and the change from a settled life in Scotland to the everyday experiences of life in a Middle Eastern country under constant threat had a profound effect on me. It gave me a new perspective and one which made me feel very unsettled when I got home. I needed something more than the confines of a research lab in my life. I was saying this some weeks later to a woman at a university party - someone I hadn't met before - and her parting words to me were, 'You're a writer; you just don't know it.' This came back to me in the following weeks and I quietly decided to see if she was right. I went upstairs one night and started writing a story about a medic who went to Israel and, almost from the first moment of pen hitting paper, I realised that this was something I really wanted to do. It took me two more books before I got one published but I haven't stopped since. Number twenty-three will come out in the summer of 2011.

Product DetailsMe: You have created an amazing assortment of characters. You’ve wrapped them well in both time and circumstance. Talk about how you created these  personalities.
 Ken:  It's always been my fear that I'm an observer of life rather than a fully-committed participant but, as a writer, this has proved invaluable. I see and remember a lot about people and, because my life has spanned several different strata of society - starting off in a working class tenement home without hot water and moving up through various stages to comfortable middle class environs - I feel as relaxed writing about the yobs you'll find terrorising run-down housing schemes as I do describing the lifestyles and attitudes of the denizens of academe. I've met them all.
Me: Talk about how you balanced the levels of medical fact vs. fiction. How hard was it to limit the medical details you wanted to include?
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St. Giles Cathedral
 Ken: The normal course of events is that I will come across one small medical or scientific fact that I find interesting or alarming and will investigate thoroughly to make sure I'm not misunderstanding anything. If it stands up to this preliminary screening and is still interesting or alarming, I'll imagine the worst possible scenario arising from the situation, bring in fictitious characters and write the story. The facts remain facts and the fiction is strictly fiction . . . but it could happen.
     I've always been very aware that people in general are not interested in science and sadly that this is quite acceptable in society. The choice for me was between accepting this and acting accordingly or attempting to 'educate the public' - a phrase I loathe and so, I suspect, does the public! Every time a hear some self-important official come out with this on TV, I want to jump up and down on his head. I always go for the former and try to keep medical/scientific detail to a bare minimum. Having said that - Damn! another phrase that I loathe - I secretly and surreptitiously make sure that anyone reading a Ken McClure book ends up knowing a little more about science than he or she did before - hopefully without realizing it.

Me: Talk about editing your work. On your first novel, how did you know when to stop before you submitted?
Past LivesKen:  I remember there being an awful  moment when I realized that I would never be happy with the book and the editing could and probably would go on forever if I didn't put a stop to it. Having learned this lesson, I'll go through a book twice and then submit it and let someone else do it. A good editor can be a joy to work with . . . Mind you, a bad one can be a nightmare. I've been blessed with many more good ones.

Me: Medical Thrillers have a very loyal following. I remember my first Robin Cook novel, Coma. Which authors have had an effect on your choice of genre and why?
 Ken: I didn't choose the genre; it chose me. It was a case of applying the old adage, write about something you know about and, by the time I started writing, I was over fifteen years into a career in medical science.
I remember Robin Cook's COMA too, one of the best medical thrillers I've ever read. I loved it and happily it was made into an equally exciting film by Michael Crichton. My all time favourite medical novel however, is still Harry Sinclair Lewis', ARROWSMITH. I read it as a teenager and the impression it made remains with me after all these years.

Me: Talk about your agent and why the two of you are a perfect match?

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University of

 Ken: I don't have an agent . . . that's why we're a perfect match.

Me: This question, courtesy of Jeff Hall : "I'm a shortstory-ist. Writing a novel is like a crazy long marathon, only harder. How do you maintain a clear sense of that first passion that inspired you throughout a 200K word journey?"
 Ken: I don't see a novel as a marathon. For me, it's  a series of short sprints. At the outset I know the beginning and end of the story but not too much about what comes in between. This leads to the continual excitement of wondering what the hell is going to happen in the next chapter. When I reach the end of a book, I go back to the beginning and edit things, making it appear that it was a seamless flow from beginning to end - an art in itself - instead of the nightmare ride down the rapids in a capsizing raft it actually was. There are parallels with the way things are done in research. Very often hunches or intuition are involved but there is no place for these things in the reporting process so, when all the results are in, the researcher has to make it appear that all experiments were carried out in a logical, progressive manner when submitting work for publication when, in reality, things may all have been done back to front.

Me: Publishing is going through an evolution right now. Talk about how this has or will affect you.
Ken: I'm very apprehensive about it all, mainly because I have no idea how it will affect me. I think my major concern however, is that I don't think publishers really know what's going on either. It's all a bit like watching an alien spacecraft land and wondering what's going to come out the door.

Eye of the RavenMe: You get to have lunch with any author, from throughout history or today. Who would it be and why?
Ken: I think it would have to be Charles Dickens, not that I'd want to discuss the stories but more a case of finding out where his understanding of human nature came from and how much his characterization was down to life experience rather than imagination. Did such an understanding lead to cynicism in later life or did he mange to retain a benevolent view of the human condition? I suspect the heroes in my books, including the Steven Dunbar series owe much to Sydney Carton in, A TALE OF TWO CITIES - flawed but with a heart in the right place and someone who'll end up doing the right thing in the end.

Me: The reviews of your work have been excellent. Lazarus Strain is a fantastic novel and Hypocrites Isle has a plot premise that provoked thought, as well as being a great read. The idea of medical research one day “discovering” their way out of business so that they temper their successes to survive… Talk about your research and how you make your plots so plausible?
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Edinburgh Castle
Ken: If some plots seem plausible it's probably because they are the ones based on fact and many years working as a researcher have made me careful to check that anything I suggest might happen in a book actually could. I don't for a moment suggest that such events are likely but it's important for me to check and know that they are possible. With regard to characters appearing in the stories, I firmly believe that human nature is the driving force behind everything we do and the motivations of people working on the factory floor do not differ greatly from those whose workplace is the operating theatre or research lab. They are just dressed up differently. I don't believe that any one section of society deserves to be regarded with the hushed reverence that is often bestowed upon say, neurosurgeons or cancer researchers. They are people doing a job not saints. I get quite angry when I see researchers playing on the high regard that they know people hold them in and manipulating it to their own ends. More honesty would be welcome in medical research such as a stop to researchers announcing breakthroughs which really aren't in the terms that a a patient or man in the street might understand by the term. They do it to attract more funding but they create the impression that research is rocketing along when it actually isn't. I suspect the next generation of false impressions will come from data currently being sourced from the sequencing of the human genome. I predict a regular string of announcements to the press that this group or that group of scientists have discovered the gene responsible for this or that condition without bothering to add that medical science can do nothing about it. Instead we will get the rider, 'Hopefully within five to ten years this will lead to the development of etc etc.' We've known which gene is responsible for cystic fibrosis for over thirty years.
Product DetailsMe: Give me a two sentence “Hook” for “Dust to Dust”.
Ken: There is now almost overwhelming scientific evidence that Black Death, which wiped out a third of Europe's population in the fourteenth century, was not caused by bubonic plague. When a secret store of preserved plague death bodies is discovered under the floor of an ancient Scottish abbey, Dr John Motram gets his chance to discover the truth, but at a terrible cost.

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New Haven Harbor


  1. Interesting. By 'started writing late in life' I wonder how old he was...there might be some hope for us over 30s yet :)

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