Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Interview with CJ Lyons

I had the chance to pick up a copy of CJ Lyon's book at the Berkley signing in San Franciso and devoured it on the plane on the way home. I immediately emailed her and asked to interview her for the blog. Thankfully she said yes! I am very happy to welcome new author CJ Lyons to Got it Goin On. Now if only blogger would let me post pictures!

As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge suspense novels. Her debut, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), became a national bestseller and Publishers Weekly proclaimed it a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller." The second in the series, WARNING SIGNS, is due out January, 2009. Contact her at http://www.cjlyons.net

Q: Tell us a little about yourself, what is your background and how long have you been writing before you were published.

I've been telling stories ever since I can remember—this blurring of fact and fiction used to get me into a lot of trouble, I was in time out constantly, but of course that just gave me time to make up more stories! Imagine my delight when I learned to read and write and discovered that there were others out there with voices in their heads and that if you wrote them down they were no longer "fibs" but stories people wanted to read.

I'm trained in pediatric emergency medicine and began to seriously consider writing for publication in 2003. Then, after seventeen years of practicing medicine, I took a leap of faith two years ago and left my practice to pursue my dream-come-true of writing.

So far the gamble has paid off!

Q. Tell us about when you got “the call”?

My publishing career is a bit backwards compared to most. Berkley read an unpublished manuscript of mine and they actually called me and asked me to create a new medical suspense series for them. They wanted something new, something fresh and different—a medical thriller told from the point of view of the women.

Other than that, I could do anything I wanted with the books—imagine the freedom of creating a whole new world, reflecting my experiences as a pediatric ER doc! Of course I jumped at the chance! It was a huge challenge but also fun and exciting.

Q. Your first release LIFELINESfrom Berkley features three women doctors from diverse backgrounds at different stages of their careers in medicine. How did you come up with the idea? Any behind the scenes stories that you’d like to share?

In LIFELINES I wanted to share the experience of being the new kid on the block—that frightening feeling of people putting their lives in your hands. So I began LIFELINES on the most dangerous day of the year: July 1st—Transition Day.

You see, for teaching hospitals, our calendar starts on July 1st. That's when the new interns—yes, the bumbling fools who were mere medical students on June 30th—hit the hospitals and start taking care of patients.

I remembered my own Transition Day. Brand new, still not unpacked or moved in, barely finding the hospital parking lot (it was two blocks away in a gang-riddled, not-so-nice neighborhood) much less figuring out my way around the hospital and I'm suddenly on call, responsible for three floors worth of very sick kids!

No one died that night, not on my watch….for which I've forever been eternally grateful. I don't take credit for it—I think it was more likely because of the always-excellent nurses who were well aware of the dangers July 1st posed their tiny patients.

Of course, in LIFELINES, things don't go quite so well for my main character. She loses a patient—the wrong patient, the Chief of Surgery's son. And she has no idea why he died….

Q. I know that you are a physician but was there anything that you had to research for this book that you didn’t know? Not to reveal too much of the plot, but your story involves a fictitious group that promotes white supremacy. What kind of research did you have to do on that?

Actually, the two things I knew when I started writing LIFELINES were that it would take place on the most dangerous day of the year, Transition Day, and that it would somehow involve hate crimes.

The hate crimes part came to me because years ago I saw this photo in LIFE magazine that I couldn't get out of my head—I actually clipped it out and kept it, knowing that someday it would get into a story.

In the photo there is an elderly man dressed in a soldier's uniform with a VFW cap and tons of medals and decorations. He is standing at a protest, holding a sign that reads: Freedom IS the right to Hate.

The dichotomy of that photo tore at me. Here was a man, a hero, someone who had the courage to fight and bleed and risk his life for people like me, for my country….and yet he espoused values that were the very opposite of everything I thought America stood for—except that in a democracy, ideas are as equal as people, so how could I condemn him for having the courage of his convictions?

You see what a paradox it is. I began researching groups that espoused any kind of extreme philosophy—right wing, left wing, religious, political—simply to learn how people thought, why they felt the way they did, where they found these rock-hard, never wavering convictions. Part of that research included learning about militias and extreme religions and I used that knowledge to create my own fictional group in LIFELINES.

Q. Your book is a medical suspense thriller but there are elements of romance in the book. Is that something that you planned from the beginning?

Yes. To me, any thriller or suspense novel is heightened by characters and their relationships more than plot twists and action. Characters learning to trust themselves, trust those around them, and eventually trusting in love—these are very primal issues that resonate with any reader.

I'm a firm believer that it's not medicine that saves lives but people. I think that's what readers want, to have a vicarious experience with characters who are a lot like them, trying to find the courage to get involved and make a difference.

And there's nothing that requires more courage than falling in love.

Q. Since you are a physician, how authentic would you say hospital shows like Grey’s Anatomy, House and ER are compared to the real thing?

LOL! Don't get me started! If you're looking for true medical accuracy, then of the main medical shows--Grey's, ER, and House--I'd have to say that ER most accurately portrays the essence of chaos that inhabits any urban ER. And I know in the early years (I stopped watching after George Clooney left—for obvious reasons!) they did have an 800 number where we used to fax interesting cases from our own ER.

Grey's isn't about the medicine at all—it's about the people, the characters. The medical setting is simply a crucible to test them in. And House is really a classic Sherlock Holmes detective story—the man's supposed to be a genius (hence, the oft repeated phrase: he's the best doctor we have) but he fails three times before he gets it right! And, thank goodness, no hospital on the planet runs as badly as his does!

Q. What/Who do you like to read?

I'm pretty eclectic—tons of thriller/suspense novels, also literary ones, some YA and women's fiction as well. Just looking across the room at my stack of books (I tend to either totally immerse myself in nothing but reading, taking a day off just to read a good book or I'll read five at once and have them scattered around the house) I see: Carol O'Connell, Stephanie Meyer, John Hart, Harlan Coben, Toni McGee Causey, Susan Wiggs, Michael Chabon, Katherine Neville, Debra Webb, and Ariana Franklin.

Q. What is your writing process? Do you plot extensively first or do you tend to “fly in the mist?” Has your process changed over time? Do you write multiple drafts or clean up as you go?

Don't do what I do! I'm a terribly undisciplined writer—all those years of being forced to adhere to a schedule, get to the hospital by 7am, churn through patients, etc, have made me rebel against any kind of strict routine, lol!

I'm a seat of the pants writer. I start knowing my characters—what they want, what they need, their greatest fears—and usually I'll know if they're going to win or lose in the end (I'm not writing literary fiction so they usually win, but there's always a cost to pay). I have no idea exactly how they'll win out in the end or if maybe they lose what they want but win what they really need (I do that a lot—love to play on subconscious desires), so I start writing to find out.
That first draft is very selfish and usually written very quickly—it's for me and me alone, to tell the story my way, and explore my characters. Then, my second draft is much harder, it's my slice and dice draft where I try my best to remove myself from the equation and focus on the reader—what would make it a more enjoyable story for them? What would they expect at this juncture, how can I make it more surprising?

Q. Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?

I think success in this business boils down to three things:

1. Vision—know what you're writing, know your goal (is it to get published, just to finish the book, maybe just to explore this character and learn more about yourself in the process), know your audience.

2. Passion—know why you write, why you're driven to write this book, what inspires you about this story, and how can you translate that to your audience.

3. Commitment—this job is not easy (although it is fun!). Writing for publication means time stolen from your family, from your hobbies, it's a job. And like any job, you need to pay your dues, take time to learn the trade, and keep on working.

Two quotes that stick with me are the line Tim Allen had in Galaxy Quest, "Never surrender, never give up" and something Jeffrey Deaver once said, "The reader is God."

Q. You offer a short story on your web-site that is a prequel to LIFELINES. More and more authors are offering little extras like this. Do you find that it is an effective marketing tool?

I have no idea! I was actually asked to write that story for a wonderful website called AuthorLink—it's available for free down loads (that's where the link on my site takes you to) to computers and, this is what was cool to me, cell phones.

Short stories are hard—writing a novel is in many ways much easier for me! But they are so much fun to try and I love a challenge, so I've found myself continuing to write them in between bigger projects.

Q. There was a recent article called "Harm in reading romance novels," Do you think romance novels harm or empower women?

I didn't read the article, but the premise sounds just plain silly. After all, why do we write fiction, tell stories, to start with?

It's to explore ideas in a non-threatening, safe environment. The first cavemen quickly found that telling the young ones, "don't go there, you'll get eaten by a sabretooth" wasn't as effective as engaging their audience with a tale, complete with characters just like them who learned the hard way of the dangers of the world. Not only did storytelling do a better job of making their point, it was more memorable so the lessons got passed down through generations.

So now, we're so evolved that someone thinks stories, any kind of stories, are harmful? And stories that reflect the one thing any society needs more of: committing, caring relationships could be dangerous???

That's like saying science fiction stories impede the growth of science or that fantasy stifles imagination or crime fiction encourages crime….

I think people bring to a story what they'll get out of it. For some fiction is pure escapism, for others it provides essential role models—characters that embody the essence of what we would like to see for ourselves and our world.

How could that possibly take away a person's power? Readers are drawn to the types of fiction they need at that moment in time—they chose the book, not the other way around.

Q: Romance has garnered the biggest market share in genre fiction, yet it gets the least respect in popular and literary culture. Do you have any thoughts on why that is? Do you find this prejudice changing?

First of all, I guess it depends on your definition of "respect." I'm sure Nora Roberts laughs all the way to the bank—as do her publishers, booksellers who stock her books, and the millions of readers who have found what they need in her stories.

What greater respect could there be than in serving the needs of millions of people around the world?

I think you give too much power to others when you depend on their definition of what deserves respect and what doesn't. Every reader chooses the books, authors, genres that appeal to them.

If someone disagrees, it should open doors to discussion, not prejudice.

Q. What are you planning to work on next?

The second book in the Angels of Mercy series, WARNING SIGNS, is due out January 27, 2009.

In it, a medical student investigates the mysterious deaths of patients but then begins to experience the same deadly symptoms herself.

In the meantime, I'm working on a standalone medical thriller and a new romantic suspense series as well as the next installment for the Angels of Mercy series.

Thanks CJ for visiting the blog. LIFELINES is out now from Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com

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