Scott Britz-CunninghamScott- BritzCunningham



Q: So you live near Boston but aren't a native New Englander, right?

A:    I was born in Chicago, and grew up in Niles, a suburb on the northwest side of the city. Niles was a frustratingly quiet place, in the shadow of the mean, wild behemoth to the south. I was always fascinated by the big city. You can ride the "L" trains there, with your nose pressed to the window glass, and gape at the schoolyards, storefronts, backyards, and even the living room windows of all kinds of neighborhoods, including the legendary South Side. You saw a lot, imagined a lot more. When I was old enough to ride the trains by myself, 11 or 12, I guess, I would get off at stops all over town and explore on foot. My parents would have freaked out if they had known the kind of places I went. Chicago back then was very subdivided ethnically. You had Poles, Italians, eastern European Jews, Armenians, Lithuanians, African-Americans and Haitians. Every place with its own smells, colors and accents. It was like traveling the world and back again for the price of a 25-cent fare. I had the time of my life, and I never got picked on or mugged.


Q: What were your parents like?

A:    More laissez-faire than they ought to have been, at least by modern standards. My dad was a Niles cop. I remember he had a good sense of humor, but I didn't see a lot of him because he was always working at least two jobs. My mom was a commercial artist. She had a real talent for art, but completely lacked the discipline to go to art school and learn to become a serious painter. With both parents working most of the time, my sisters and I had a tremendous amount of freedom. I had an unsupervised science lab in the garage (including a bomb and missile factory). Rode my bike everywhere. Paddled the Chicago River on an improvised boat. Built a village in the woods with my friends. Fought more than a few rock wars against kids from the other side of town. Looking back, I think it was only by the grace of God that I didn't get into serious trouble. But it sure was a happy childhood.


Q: Your parents divorced, right?

A:    Yeah, about when I was 12. Until then, they pretty much kept their problems out of sight. Never argued in front of us kids. So for my formative years I thought I was living the life of "Leave it to Beaver."


Q: When did you first start writing?

A:    When I was 9 or so, I used to write short stories to entertain my friends. We were all into science fiction and horror, and would sit out on the porch in the summer evenings spinning yarns and trying to scare the bejeezus out of each other. That was high excitement in a place like Niles. The write-ups grew out of that. One of these ballooned into a novella, Recollections of Altare Zegor, a seriocomic story about an Earth kid who befriends some oddball aliens who wind up saving the planet from invasion by a much more baddass species.
For several years after that, my writing was mostly nonfiction. Political and philosophical treatises, plus a textbook for a language I had invented. There was a fictional story embedded in an epic poem, Ansaturnia, that combined all of these things. In my last year of high school, I aimed at a full-length novel, Altare: A Study in Revolution, in which my old alien friend resurfaced as an altogether human character, a charismatic but ambiguous hero/antihero who causes a social convulsion in a pre-Columbian civilization — kind of an American Atlantis. It had a weird prose style, heavily influenced by Poe's poetry and by the Russian Symbolists, whom I had just discovered. As a stylistic experiment, it was pretty fun, but there was no question of it ever getting published. Someday, however, I might resurrect the basic plot.


Q: You invented your own language? Are you kidding? Why?

A:    I've always been fascinated by words and the ways they can be put together — grammar, semantics, all that kind of stuff. The project started out when I was 10 as a secret language for me and my friends. Then I read a book, One Language for the World, by Mario Pei, and got interested in the idea of a transnational language for a transnational culture. English has pretty much nailed that role since then. But there's another aspect to it. Language doesn't just express our ideas; to a great extent, it also shapes them. So, as the years went by, my aim has been to create a language, Logodon, that is as inhospitable to bull-shitting as it can possibly be. It forces you to distinguish between what you really know and what you only think you know. It also allows you to freely create an infinite number of words out of a stock of basic concept-atoms. So it's easy to learn, but even a beginner can find himself expressing perceptions, logical relations and psychological insights that might not even occur to him in his native tongue.


Q: Can you give us a sample?

A:    The Lord's Prayer would go something like this (mind you, this is a transliteration of some sounds that have no equivalent in English): "Patre mom in autekosmin, khagueten sou nomon, erkhueten sou roukon, pratoeten sou thymoevek en gein vos en autekosmin. Nemaesten mim diaxo arten mom axoda. Kai afoesten mim fleiimekas, vos mam te afoeve fleioarois momidis. Ou me enagaesten mam enti prasmesekais, alla sozaesten mam tou eponos. Amul, sou menuenen roukon, dynim te, doxon te, auno en aunedekais. Amen." If you're observant, you might notice that some of the word roots are distantly related to classical Greek. But it would sound like gibberish to Aristotle.


Q: Will we all be speaking this someday?

A:    Anything's possible. Right now, I'm the world's only speaker. It's lonely as heck.


Q: So what happened after high school?

A:    I went to college, first Arizona State, then La Sierra, majoring in universal knowledge. Basically I flitted around between mathematics, hard sciences, psychology and philosophy — taking whatever interested me at the moment. Most of the time I was educating myself, by just reading a lot. The only lasting thing I picked up from a college class was Russian language. That opened up a world for me.


Q: No classes in creative writing?

A:    Heck, no. I avoided that like the plague. I had already made up my mind to be a serious writer, and I felt then, as I do now, that if you want to have an authentic voice you have to work it out for yourself. That meant sitting down and writing, and learning to be brutally honest about your own work. I don't think anyone can really teach you that. A charismatic teacher can certainly lead you down a primrose path of imitation. But that leads to falsity. It's better to stay ignorant than to learn to do it someone else's way.


Q: So you wrote in college?

A:    Yeah. A lot. The main thing was a novel, Alexander Verrat, about two brothers wrangling over an estate. The disinherited one tries to kill the golden boy, but only paralyzes him temporarily. Golden boy recovers and seeks revenge. What I missed in the first draft is what I have in it now: what they're fighting over is a slave plantation, and the murderous brother is out to free the slaves. So he's actually the one with a conscience.


Q: You're still working on it?"

A:    Yep. Everything I ever set my hand to is still in some form of gestation, and will hopefully see the light of day when the time is right. I don't believe in dead ends. Even stuff that died on the typewriter can often be salvaged, if you can go back and make an honest assessment of what you did wrong. The dividing line between crap and a masterpiece is narrower than many folks realize. The difference often turns on something simple, like a change in character viewpoint or setting. Of course, you do have to be prepared to go back and write the whole damn thing over from scratch. Sometimes more than once.


Q: After college?

A:    I got married to a very wonderful and longsuffering woman, and took a job as a typographer and editor in a small graphic arts company. It was a job that offered a minimum of distraction in the form of anything resembling an actual career. And I kept on writing. I spent years on a long historical novel, Russian River, about a Russian cavalry officer who has exiled himself to California because he's haunted by guilt for an atrocity he committed in a pogrom. I consider that book to be my true apprenticeship. There's one page, for example, that I rewrote in longhand 30 times, trying to get it right. Eventually I did. I'm quite happy with the way that book turned out, even though it hasn't been published. Yet.


Q: How did you wind up in medical school?

A:    Since I was a kid I had always had a strong attraction to science and to medicine in particular. I guess it was a yearning to get to the fundamental basis of who and what we are and of what's going to happen to us. From the age of at least 10 on, I've seen writing and doctoring as a single career — at least for me. The only question was which would happen first? I was swell-headed enough to think that I could finance medical school with Russian River and a string of other books. Michael Crichton did that, I think. So did Chekhov. When that didn't work out, and the clock had already been running for some time, I decided to suck it up and get through medical school the old-fashioned way. I went back to college (San Jose State), took a chemistry degree and spent a year doing research into AIDS and molecular biology at Stanford. Because of that I got a fellowship that paid my way through medical school and a PhD program to boot.


Q: And you kept writing?

A:    I never quit. That said, medical training is a demanding taskmaster — not just because of the physical demands, but perhaps more significantly because of the intellectual allurements. Ars long, vita brevis, as the saying goes. There is so much to learn, it's like a big black hole of the mind. You can get sucked up into it, and never be heard from again.


Q: But you did keep going?

A:    It would have been self-betrayal not to. For a while the pace was slow. Lots of interruptions. But eventually I discovered a couple of things that surprised me. First of all, I began to be able to write more rapidly. Now, I'm not a quickie writer by any means. These guys that can polish off a novel in three weeks or whatever, like Faulkner claimed he did with As I Lay Dying, they're in another league. I used to write laboriously, in agonies like Flaubert. I still have a perfectionistic tendency. But by the time I got through Russian River, I found that I could write at a very consistent speed, without writer's block or false starts. I can work a couple hours a day, and have a book ready at the end of a year. Also, once I started writing on computer, instead of longhand, I was freed from the stultifying necessity of writing in sequence. I abhor plodding along on a linear track. Now I can zero in on the parts of a story that grab me most. That's tremendously liberating.


Q: You skip around as you write? How do you keep from getting lost?

A:    I don't know. It's a knack, I guess. When I first started writing nonlinearly, I would keep the whole thing together in my head. When I started working with Al Zuckerman, my agent, he insisted that I outline everything so he could see it, too. He had me outline Code White even after the first draft was finished. The rationale for the outine is explained in his own book, Writing the Blockbuster Novel, where one of Ken Follett's books is used as an example. For me, the outline is more important for pinpointing the weak points in the story than it is for keeping the facts straight. If you know your characters, and if you have experienced the story you're trying to tell as if you really lived it, then the facts take care of themselves.



Q: What kind of medicine do you practice?

A:    Nuclear medicine, sometimes jokingly referred to as "unclear medicine" by those who are mystified by what we do. We are a rarely-seen breed that usually inhabits the basements of big hospitals. We sometimes treat patients for bone or thyroid cancer; more often, we perform diagnostic studies that require us to inject tiny amounts of radioactive tracers into the body. From that we can get a picture of how the body functions, as opposed to the anatomic information you get from MRI or CT or X-rays. What we do is very high-tech, very elegant and very expensive. We are a kind of court of last resort, getting called in when a doctor absolutely has to know something, but all other tests have left him in the dark.


Q: How does your medical experience relate to CODE WHITE?

A:    Well, the hospital is the place I work. It's the place I live, practically speaking. I wrote about what I see all around me. I've had experience doing most of the things described in the book, including assisting at brain surgeries and defibrillating patients in cardiac arrest. Fletcher Memorial Medical Center is a lot like my own hospital, Brigham and Women's. Anyone who works at the Brigham will feel a sense of déjà vu reading Code White. But all great medical centers are places of tremendous vitality, where surprises are the norm and you have to be prepared to jump into crisis mode without warning. My own specialty has critical interactions with almost every other branch of medicine. That puts me in the center of things. I meet everybody. I see everything. Perfect vantage point, if you want to make a complex story come to life.


Q: And you also are active in research?

A:    I have a small laboratory in the medical school, devoted to molecular imaging. I'm looking for ways to adapt the newest breakthroughs in our understanding of the molecular changes that accompany disease, in order to come up with ways to take snapshots of a sick patient, either to make a diagnosis or to gauge the effectiveness of treatment. Medicine in the future is going to be customized — tailored to the bodily quirks of every individual — and molecular imaging will be at the heart of the process.


Q: Can you give an example?

A:    Right now I'm trying to show how to test how well the placenta is functioning in high-risk pregnancies, without having to use dangerously invasive techniques like amniocentesis or sampling of umbilical cord blood. There are a lot of diseases that affect the placenta, and sometimes it's a life-or-death issue. The obstetrician needs to know if it's time for an emergency C-section, or if it's safe to watch and wait.




Q: What authors have influenced you?

A:    The first things you remember reading as a kid are probably your deepest roots. Mark Twain was there at the creation, but for some odd reason I thought of him as a children's writer, until I grew up and re-read those "kids' books" and saw how profound they are. Poe was an early favorite. The first full-length adult novel I ever read (age 8 or 9) was Bram Stoker's Dracula. I re-read that just recently, after an interval of decades, and remembered every page like the first time. In grade school I liked Victor Hugo, H.G. Wells, Dickens, and above all Dostoyevsky, with all his politically incorrect stuff about parricides and axe murderers. I think I was in 7th grade or so when I discovered Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. I met Ray Bradbury some years later, and can testify that he was a swell guy and a creative phenomenon, may he rest in peace. I encountered a little bit of Shakespeare through a 7th-grade production of Macbeth, but it wasn't until I saw that Zefirelli film of Romeo and Juliet (at an impressionable age) that I understood what he was doing and fell in love with him (Juliet as well). Since then, Shakespeare has been the Zeus of my Pantheon. In fact, I got married in a Shakespearean ceremony (for photos, check out my Facebook site) and live in a Shakespearean house. Some people might think it pretentious or anachronistic to say that Will Shakespeare is your writing model, but in fact there's a hell of a lot you can learn from him, even if what you're writing is modern novels and not blank verse for the stage. For invention of character and dramatic structuring of scenes, he has no equal.


I've read a lot of Hemingway, to the point that I regard him as my main writing teacher after Shakespeare. Faulkner I read and like, but we have nothing in common. Fitzgerald I love, and Gatsby and some of his stories, like The Ice Palace and Babylon Revisited, fascinate me, but he's a flame likely to scorch the unwary moth. Other writers that I like and have filched stuff from include Conrad, Graham Greene and Flannery O'Connor.


But for me, the Russians stand in a class by themselves. I learned Russian in college, and that gave me the gift of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Dostoyevsky. These guys have taught me a lot. Gogol, Garshin, Bulgakov, Blok and Solzhenitsyn should be mentioned. I could go on all day about Lermontov and Tyutchev and Chekhov. In some ways, I think I know more about 19th-century Russia than I do about my own time and country.


Q: With all this classical background, why are you writing medical thrillers?

A:    First of all, I don't claim to be the equal of any of these guys. But there's no reason a medical thriller can't also be a serious literary work. When people make distinctions between literary fiction and commercial fiction, I don't know what they're talking about. A good book should sell, whatever it is. Crime and Punishment is a thriller, isn't it? Shakespeare wrote for the box office. If they had had printing presses in 800 B.C., the Iliad would have spent six months at the top of the Mycenaean Times best-seller list. These were not high-brow writers. They wrote in direct, clear language that ordinary people of their times understood. And they wanted their work to be liked and to succeed.


Q: What about writers in your genre? Thriller writers?

A:    This is where I need to tread carefully. I have a fast rule not to critique the work of a living writer. Literary cat-fights may be entertaining, but they don't accomplish anything. Also, if I make a list of the good guys and leave somebody out, then someone's feelings get hurt. Still, some names need to be named. Robin Cook and Michael Crichton pioneered the medical/techno thriller genre, although Arthur Hailey's The Final Diagnosis should be remembered as a worthy forerunner. I've met Michael Palmer and Tess Gerritsen and have a lot of respect for their work. Odin, of course, has a lineage going back to Arthur C. Clarke's HAL-9000 and Dennis Jones' Colossus. And a little further afield, I'm very pleased to have stolen things from people like Robert Sawyer, Philip K. Dick, Clifford Simak, Robert Bloch, Stephen King and Ursula LeGuin. These are all fine writers, conscientious about their craftsmanship. A hundred years from now, they'll be classics, too. Posh, high-brow stuff.




Q: So what comes next after CODE WHITE?

A:    The next book has already been written, and a third is in progress. That's all I want to say for now. CODE WHITE needs a little time to itself in the limelight. But keep watching this website. I'll start posting some details when the time is right. Anyone that likes CODE WHITE won't be disappointed. That I guarantee.