1) Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get into writing?
Well, I spent most of my adult life as a neurosurgeon, practicing first in the Army and then at big academic medical centers. In my job, I had to write a lot for all sorts of reasons—patient care, research, education, administration, and the like. And several years ago, I became interested in burnout in healthcare workers and co-wrote three books on the subject with a clinical psychologist friend of mine. But, I always found writing non-fiction to be laborious and restrictive. Then, I retired from clinical neurosurgery and immediately felt liberated and driven to write fictional works. And I have to say, I’m enjoying the heck out of it. Perhaps it’s the freedom to go anywhere I like, create any scenario I like, color well outside of the lines.
2) What inspired you to write your book?
Through the several decades I practiced neurosurgery, I always tried to bring as many interested parties as possible into my world and show them the ropes. I would routinely bring learners of all levels into the operating rooms and ICU’s and trauma bays—graduate students, undergrads, high school students, and other “civilians.” There was an endless stream of people who wanted to get a peek behind the curtains. So, when I finally had a bit of time on my hands, I decided to write about it—hoping to continue to shine light on that world. But straight-up descriptions felt too didactic, too sterile. Weaving it into a fictional story, however, seemed more promising. It allowed me to explore related feelings and reactions to it—get into the emotional underbelly of it. And to really plumb the humanity of it all. And, I thought it might prove more immersive, more palpable, more real for the reader—put the scalpel into their hands, allow them to wield the screaming high speed cranial drill, have them try to stop the bleeding deep in the patients brain.
Also, a major fictional thread in the story is a paranormal one. I was raised by a Scottish mother and grandmother and they were ardent believers in ghosts, both routinely relating their own interactions with the undead. So, I have always had a fondness for ghost stories and I figured that one might merge well with an exploration of the neurosurgical world.
Finally, I am very interested in the impact healthcare has on the psyche of its providers. It is a tense and frenetic world, and I wanted to portray how the wheels might come off on an over-dedicated provider who cannot find a way to step away from the fray, even for a moment.
3) What theme or message do you hope readers will take away from your book?
Oh, I’d love to open up many channels of consideration for them. The fragility of life. Science vs spirituality. The cost of doing good. What comes after life. The possibility of entities that science can’t define (ghosts, angels, etc). The dedication of so many caregivers. The medically miraculous time we live in. The power of love. The need for work and communication in a marriage. The need to support one another through periods of crisis. The importance of friends.
Ultimately, a message that came through to me as I wrote the book was that life is so darned fragile, that arbitrary personal disaster can happen to any of us any minute of any day, and that we should thus remember to enjoy, cherish, and celebrate every minute of the miracle of life and those we share it with. Make the most of every second, for it truly could be our last.
4) What drew you into this particular genre?
As I noted earlier, I was bathed in the paranormal throughout my childhood. And when I wasn’t hearing ghost stories from the Scottish side of my family, I was reading them. But I think a career of spending so much around the dead and the dying drew me in deeper. I started thinking about how if there was a world of ghosts and spirits, and they were somehow inclined to reach out to the living, perhaps their first candidates would be the people who spend so much time near the transition zone, the bridge—if you will—between life and death. Doctors, nurses. Those who populate the ICU’s, operating rooms, and emergency rooms of our major medical centers.
5) If you could sit down with any character in your book, what would you ask them and why?
Well, the main protagonist, neurosurgeon Ryan Brenan can’t see the damage his workaholism is doing to his marriage, his family, and his own psyche. He is unable to step away from his work for even a minute, even during his brief periods at home. I would want to discuss with him whether this was making him happy. Whether he believed it made him a better doctor or might actually be compromising his ability to care for his patients. Whether he felt it was sustainable. Whether he believed he could look back at the end of his life and be happy with his choices. Whether it was realistic for him to see himself as the soul driver of quality on his team. What kind of lessons he was giving to all the learners around him (and his children) about how they should conduct their professional lives.
I would also like to explore with him whether, in the end, he believed the ghosts were real. And the implications of his answer.
6) What social media site has been the most helpful in developing your readership?
I was hoping you would clue me in on this one! A lot of Facebook friends tell me they can’t wait to read the book. I spent a fair amount of time and effort on Twitter but it somehow closed down my original account so I had to start up new one and don’t have thousands of followers. But, I felt waves of interest in my literary posts there anyway. I am currently planning out some related videos for Tik Tok, You Tube, and the like. We’ll see.
7) What advice would you give to aspiring or just starting authors out there?
I think writing is likely very personal. So, I suppose, I would advise finding one’s own routines, rhythms, inspirations etc. I resonated with some of Stephen King’s advice. That is to read a lot. And write a lot. And let the story take me where it wants to go. Personally, I tend to spill out onto the page – verbal dysentery, if you will. With only a roughly sketched overall structure. Then, I edit and rewrite like crazy. Over and over again. Cut a lot. Save some for other stories. Keep editing and rewriting. This book started at 260,000 words (it’s now 100,000). I’m lucky, I enjoy editing/rewriting. But I get that others are super careful writers. Each sentence is well crafted. Each word is carefully chosen. Not many rewrites needed. More power to them. Do it! But that isn’t me.
Then, I suppose, I would recommend writing for oneself, not a market. I know this is not very original. And that I am not depending on writing for a livelihood. But if one can write for oneself with no real eye on pleasing people, I have to believe that it will make, and keep, writing genuine, and fun. Super fun. A blast. It allows for maximum creativity. And opens up all sorts of channels in one’s own mind. New discoveries about oneself and about the world around us await around every corner. And we are free to explore them.
8) What does the future hold in store for you? Any new books/projects on the horizon?
A YA soccer novel is written and is in about the twentieth rewrite. No ghosts. But fun. And I have the opening chapters of a dystopian novel—hopefully with a new angle—written.
What I would really like to get into, now that the pandemic is kind of over, is meeting with, and discussing a wealth of topics with interested readers and learners. I’m willing to sit down with any book club, reading group, class, organization, club, professional group, etc. and take on any subject raised by the book or that is in my wheelhouse of expertise or quasi-expertise (or no expertise at all!). We can certainly meet on zoom (yuch) or preferably, in person. Subjects I might be able to shine some light on include:
Burnout, wellness/resilience, work-life balance, psychological distress, peak performance, death and dying, the bravery and grace of the sick and injured, ghosts, the paranormal, the interface of science and religion/spirituality, leading a full life, music, exercise, health, why kindness matters, living simply and sustainably, critical communications, breaking bad news, critical thinking, gratitude and humor in life, why burnout is often self-inflicted, team sports, sports injuries, soccer, reading, writing fiction, ideas for books and stories, research, reading scientific literature, Neuroscience (wide range of topics – e.g. concussions, spine injuries, Parkinsons Disease, brain tumors, strokes, brain surgery, spina bifida, brain infections, head injury, hydrocephalus, seizures, etc.), history of medicine, the healthcare universe, healthcare careers, healthcare socioeconomics, medical ethics, medical education and education in general, applying to professional schools, advocacy, the medical legal world, compassionate care, life in medicine, facing serious illness, and more.
In addition, I swore that I would teach myself the bagpipes. So, here we go!
About the Author
Gary Simonds practiced the full breadth of neurosurgery for decades in the US Army, Geisinger Clinic, and as the Chief of Neurosurgery at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. He has performed thousands of highly complex procedures on adults and children and cared for tens of thousands of patients. In addition to his expertise in neurosurgery and the neurosciences, he is interest in an array of related subjects including: medical ethics, medical socioeconomics, humanism, doctor patient interactions, patient advocacy, and burnout and psychological distress in healthcare workers. He has co-authored with Clinical Psychologist Wayne Sotile three non-fiction books on burnout and resilience in healthcare workers and has recently written a related award-winning novel, Death’s Pale Flag. Gary stepped away from clinical neurosurgery in 2020 but still teaches undergraduates and medical students at Virginia Tech. He lives in Black Mountain NC in a log cabin with wife, Cindy, and border collie, Hamish, and is excited to connect with his readers and interested parties over a range of subjects.