Inside The Mind of Robin Cook
You’ve probably caught the virus at one time or another. It knows no boundaries, recognizes no class structure and can strike people of any age and from all walks of life: young auto mechanics, old school teachers, middle-aged lawyers, even doctors of indeterminate age.
What is this mystery illness? It’s the desire to write a book. Because, for some reason, you think you’ve got something to say.
Of course, it’s not so much that you shouldn’t; it’s that you won’t. Writing a book is hard. Not calluses on the hand hard, but rather sitting in one place coming up with fascinating ideas laid out in a coherent and interesting manner for an excruciatingly long period of time with no guarantee of a paycheck. Ever. That kind of hard. And even if you do miraculously knock one out, the chances of it seeing the light of day are slim. The New York Times bestsellers don’t just happen.
And because they don’t, we place great value on those that do. That’s why we thought it might be interesting to pick the brain of a man who knows a thing or two about viruses and had the same thought as the rest of us: “I should write a book.” The only difference between him and us is that he actually did it and was successful at it.
Dr. Robin Cook, who calls Naples home (as well as three other places we’re aware of), was basically ankle-deep into his young medical career when he caught the aforementioned writing bug. Forty years later, he has more than 30 medical thrillers to his credit—many of them New York Times bestsellers. From his breakthrough novel Coma to Outbreak, Contagion and his latest, Death Benefit, he is an undisputed leader in his genre, and an inspiration to many aspiring novelists.
Gulfshore Life: Lets get right into it: Where do the ideas for your books come from?
Robin Cook: (They come) from my desire to try and rectify the fact that the medical profession has done a pretty bad job in terms of informing the public about medicine… The medicine that I saw, even as a very young medical student, was just so different than what I expected that I thought, “Someday I’m gonna write a book about how it really is.”And of course I immediately put that on the back burner because I had no time.
GL: I think that’s more of a “Why did you get into writing thing?” but that’s OK.
Cook: I do have a tickler file of things I think might be good subject matter for a book, and I have ongoing themes that my books have been consistently about. One of the themes is that I’ve felt that the marriage of medicine and business has been very detrimental to medicine. So if I come across an idea that that is part of it, I might be more responsive to it than another idea. And when you think of Death Benefit, it’s a book that is again within that subject matter. It’s the business interests that are really causing a lot of trouble. And healthcare reform is another issue—and the fact that we have such a fragmented system—I really feel very, very strongly about that...
And one of the things that is the major cause of bankruptcy in this country is healthcare costs, and that’s part of what Death Benefit is about… I found out by reading a New York Times article about two years ago about life insurance settlements, and I couldn’t believe it. And when I looked into it a little bit further, it was the same (people) who didn’t get jailed (after the financial crisis) who are now doing the same sort of securitization of life insurance policies that they did with mortgages. They are sitting in their houses in Greenwich, Conn., dreaming up this stuff and taking advantage of people who are in great need because we have such a bad system.
GL: What about your characters? How do you develop them?
Cook: Character-driven stories are so much better than circumstance or coincidence. Again, take Death Benefit. There are certain characters that I want people to know about. First of all, the main character (Pia) had to be somebody who is very smart because she is going to be figuring out something that no one else can. But she also has to be inordinately motivated to figure out something.
So how do I make that, and how do I form the relationship between the main character and the main researcher? I have met some of these researchers and their personalities are not the best socially. So the more I thought about it, the more I realized there was another issue I wanted to talk about: foster care. Foster care is one of those forgotten things. It was just something I wanted to talk about.
So this is how it forms: I’m looking for a character who is going to be very smart but is going to have to form a kind of a bond with a researcher. And let’s say that I’m working in a back-and-forth sort of way, and think, “OK, if she has gone through this foster care problem, then she is going to have some of the problems that those kids seem to have, so let’s have her have those problems. So what kind of character would she glom onto or would glom on to her?” It was an opportunity to go back and forth and gave me the opportunity to talk about Asperger syndrome with the researcher, which is another whole autism spectrum that I find extraordinarily interesting. The whole idea is about the foster care system and how it treats them, and how these kids are just traumatized and essentially kicked out at the end at the age of 18.
So here is this give-and-take in terms of an interesting character who makes the story happen. If she wasn’t the kind of person she is, the mentor dies, and she’s like, “Well, who else can I work with?” But this person, she had finally broken down and started to have somewhat of a relationship with this individual and then, once again, gets betrayed. Betrayed by him dying. It forces her to think about it more: “How could … He was so careful! Did he do this on purpose?” She has some of these thoughts in her mind. And that’s what makes great stories—it is the characters who make the great stories.
GL: Speaking of which, do readers care about homely characters? Because Pia sounds hot.
Cook: My wife always mentions this (laughs). She says, “All your characters are so good-looking!” And I don’t know, myself. Maybe it is my own thing. Maybe I’m more interested in better-looking characters. If I watch a news broadcast and I see someone on there who is really strange-looking, I find it a distraction. I don’t understand exactly why and I’m not proud of it. It’s a part of our culture that is not particularly positive.
GL: It’s OK, we only like good-looking characters, too. So have you outlined the plot beforehand?
Cook: For that book I wrote a 120-page outline. I did a 40-page character study of Pia alone—40 pages, her entire biography—all the things that happened to her at the various institutions that she was in.
GL: You’re starting to make it sound hard.
Cook: It’s the coming up with the storyline that is the real stumbling block. I cannot tell you how many doctors I’ve encouraged—either by telling them so or on their own—(to write). And so few of them actually end up doing it. First of all, it is a lot more work than any of them expected. And second of all, it requires a lot more thought than I think they expect.
I remember being stopped in the hall of Mass General one time by this one guy who said he wanted to write a book. He loved Coma and Fever and stuff like that, and he wanted to do it, so he asked me, “Can you tell me something? How can I start?” And I said, “Well, what you really have to do is do it, don’t just talk about it. You have to do it!” So about two months later we’re passing in the hall again and he grabs my arm and says, “Robin, you were right. I sat down and I started.” He says, “I’m already on page 65!” I said, “Wow, you’re really zooming along, it’s only been a couple of months! So what’s the story about?” And he said, “I don’t know yet” (laughs).
GL: Speaking of which, some writers say that they don’t know the ending until they finish it …
Cook: I couldn’t do that. I don’t think I could hold it up. Plus, my books do have strong story lines because, being a mystery thriller, things have to happen in a way that is under control.
GL: So is there a formula?
Cook: I always bristle a little bit about that. I’m not sure people really know what that means. That implies, OK, a new book? Just plug A into slot A and B into slot B. Not at all. Every time I start a new book it’s something new. This year I am doing something very different. I’m actually working on two books at the same time, and the reason is because I couldn’t decide which book I wanted to work on first. I think, “All right, I’ll work on this for a little while and see if it takes off.” And then I think, “You know, that other idea was fantastic,” so I’ll go back to that one. And then I’m thinking, “Is this really the way I should be going about this?” Then I’ll have a crisis of confidence. Who am I fooling? It happens every year.
GL: How long does it take to write a Robin Cook book?
Cook: If I want to do a book, I have to assume it will take me six months to do the research. That incorporates all different stuff. For Death Benefit, research on foster care, research on the psychological effect of foster care in terms of adult detachment disorder, the current treatment for people like this, the hopes … That’s six months. Then the story generation is probably two months. And then the writing of the book is about two months.
GL: Do you write on a laptop?
Cook: It varies. If I really, really want to make hay, I write longhand. But if I want to be more leisurely and be happier with the result, I’ll do it on the word processor. They each have their benefits. With longhand, the story comes out quicker, and often that’s better for the story. Rather than getting bogged down in a paragraph saying, “Ugh, this really just doesn’t sound right.” Then you hang around that paragraph for a while and then you sort of forget where the story was going. So sometimes it is better that the story really just gets out there and then go back and fool around with the paragraph later.
GL: Do you just power through a first draft and then revise?
Cook: That’s why it is much faster to write it longhand. It is a little harder to read—even for yourself—but you are happier sooner. Then I’ll type it in. That is essentially a rewrite. I use mechanical pencils. I go through a lot of lead.
GL: So how much do you write in a day?
Cook: My goal each day is to write 20 typed pages. I very rarely actually do that. But there are a few days in which I do more. And the way I hand-write, 20 typed pages is 10 pages of my longhand on regular-size pads (like a reporter’s notebook), single space.
GL: What is your day like in order to get 20 pages out?
Cook: It has varied over the years. Before I was married, I tended to work late into the night, especially before having a child. And now it has reversed itself. Now I tend to get up pretty early—usually around 5:45 … I start writing around 8 a.m.
GL: Talk to us about writer’s block.
Cook: I’ve never gotten it. I figure it this way: I never got doctor’s block. Finding the discipline to write—it takes more effort to sit down and start. And if you give yourself the luxury of not doing that or saying to yourself, “You know, I don’t think the moon is in the right stage …” That is why it takes certain people three to five years to do a book.
GL: When the rest of us write our books, what is the number sold we should shoot for for it to be considered successful?
Cook: It’s all very relative. And now you have to throw into the mix the e-book—how are you going to compare that? Is it the same number as a book? So, I guess a couple hundred thousand. That’s a good book. A bestseller is, I’m guessing, about 50,000. That’s with books… I think what they are doing now is counting e-books as half a book. I think. It’s something less than a real book.
GL: Can you tell us anything about the book you’re currently working on?
Cook: Well, Pia is going to be in this book, too, because there are unanswered things and people found her a very interesting character. What is she going to do now? Suddenly her father has reappeared. She has this sort of dorky medical student hanging around her neck and she was just sort of at the verge of understanding what she wanted to do with her life and this guy dies. Does she really want to be a doctor?
She has all these questions going on. Then it segues that character into this new story where she is again put into a very difficult set of circumstances. It’s really interesting and I think anyone who read Death Benefit would want to know, “What happened to her? Is she going to be able to pull herself together? What about her father? What’s going to happen with that?”
GL: What is the best part about writing a novel?
Cook: That’s the day I send the final one out. I ride out to the airport and give it to FedEx. It is kind of a wonderful feeling after all of this effort and whatnot. I’ve usually taken up until the last such and such date. I know I can get it to (FedEx) by 11 p.m. on the last day for sure.
—Interview by Michael Korb
Films and television movies from Cook’S books
Cook books are no stranger to both the big and small screens, having been made into several films.
Coma (1978, directed by Michael Crichton and starring Genevieve Bujold and Michael Douglas)
Robin Cook’s Harmful Intent, 1993, CBS
Robin Cook’s Mortal Fear, 1994, NBC
Robin Cook’s Virus (based on Outbreak), 1995, NBC
Robin Cook’s Terminal, 1996, NBC
Robin Cook’s Invasion, 1997, NBC
Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk, 2001, TNT