The Doctor and Mr. Dylan is a murder mystery, a medical puzzler and a tale about love and parenting. And, it stars Bob Dylan, who may, or may not be, the real Bob Dylan. It's also the debut novel by Rick Novak, MD, an adjunct clinical associate professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine at Stanford.
Novak took the time recently to answer a few questions about the book, writing and his work as a doctor.
How did you become interested in writing?
I’ve enjoyed creative writing since my high-school English classes. My college essay for a successful Harvard application was a short story in which God revealed himself to the patrons of a Minnesota tavern. For the past three years I’ve authored a website called theanesthesiaconsultant.com, which receives 250,000 hits per year from both anesthesia professionals and laypeople interested in the nuances of my specialty.
Why did you choose to write about an anesthesiologist - and do you have much in common with Nico, the primary character, who is also an anesthesiologist?
Wise advice to authors is, “Write what you know.” I’ve been an anesthesiologist for three decades, so I know a great deal about the practice and malpractice of anesthesia. The science and art of anesthesia are fascinating. We enter patients’ lives abruptly, at short notice, and have immense power to save lives and to do harm. The unequal nature of this relationship is fertile ground for storytelling.
The Doctor and Mr. Dylan is fiction, but yes, I do have a lot in common with Nico. I grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota, graduated from Hibbing High School, migrated to Stanford, and became a clinical faculty member here. I grew up 5 blocks from Bob Dylan’s home, am a huge fan of his music, and knew several members of his family. I’m the single father to three boys, and I’ve dealt with the highs and lows of the father-son relationship such as Nico has with Johnny, and the stressors of a failed marriage just as Nico does.
What motivated the plot of your story?
Anesthesiologists have control of dozens of powerful medications, and if misused, they can be lethal. One day I heard someone describe his significant other by saying, “I don’t want to pray that a bus runs her over, but my life would be a lot simpler if one did.” Combining these two ideas led to a plot where a physician seemingly makes use of an anesthetic as a tool to eliminate his troublesome wife. I have an active medical-legal practice of expert witness work, and this experience led me to set the second half of the novel in the courtroom, where tension runs high and mysteries can be posed and solved.
Parenting is a central theme of the book. Did writing about parenting affect your views on parenting?
I see the entire book as a case study on parenting. It’s true that Nico leaves California to return to Bob Dylan’s hometown because he wants his son to succeed there as a big fish in a small Midwestern town, but a primary motivation is the opportunity to be alone with his son and to connect with the teenager he’s lost touch with. During the course of the plot their connection grows, is severed anew, and then emerges stronger than ever. Parenting teenage boys is a challenge. They want a mentor, but most boys are damned and determined not to become their dad — rather they want to find themselves. My parenting, like Nico’s, is a day-to-day blend of setting limits, letting go, and aiming for an occasional parent-child historic moment of joy whenever possible.
How do you balance your writing with your work as a physician? And, are you working on anything now?
I don’t sleep much. I’m always writing, but most of my writing is during free time late at night. My primary career is taking care of patients. I work five days a week, and I spend a great deal of my free time cooking meals, coaching my sons’ teams, and trying to teach them how to flourish in the world around them. It took me three years to write and revise the manuscript of The Doctor and Mr. Dylan, and to obtain an agent and a publisher. During that time I anesthetized a couple of thousand patients, cooked countless spaghetti dinners, and flipped dozens of hamburgers for my kids.
I’ve composed the chapter outline and character profiles for a second novel, and I’ve written a rough draft of the first chapter. I can’t wait to connect the dots and create another world of mystery and suspense.
Previously: Stanford's Medicine & the Muse event mixes music, dance and pediatrics, Prescribing a story? Medicine meets literature in "narrative medicine" and Stanford's Abraham Verghese honored as both author and healer
Image courtesy of Pegasus Books