Good Cook

by Philip K. Jason

JUST BEFORE 2009 BEGAN, best-selling author Robin Cook was kind enough to invite me into his stunning penthouse condo on the north end of Naples’ Park Shore overlooking the gulf beachfront. In the early 1980s, having written a few best-sellers, Cook decided to put some of his income into real estate. After looking around at Marco Island and Naples, he decided that Naples had more investment potential and purchased an apartment, some years later moving to his present residence.

Trim and fit at 68, Dr. Cook reviewed his career as an author, a career he never anticipated but that is now approaching the 30-book mark. His first book, Year of the Intern (1972) grew out of his disillusionment with how popular fiction, movies, and especially television had portrayed the training of physicians. His own experience revealed a very different picture. In fact, he found himself worrying over ‘joining a club that he wasn’t sure he wanted to belong to.’

Cook felt driven to share his insights with the public. While a success, Year of the Intern left Cook eager to learn more about the tricks of his new trade. He studied the key features in best-sellers, and five years later published Coma, an instant hit that was soon transformed into a high-profile movie starring Michael Douglas. Since then, it has been about a book a year for this graduate of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons who did postgraduate training at Harvard.

Cook believes that the training of doctors has undergone improvement in the decades since he went through the system, and he believes that his own work, dispelling romantic illusions about the profession, has had a positive impact. He remembers how shocked people were when Coma came out, a novel in which the doctors are the bad guys. Cook adds, “No doctors whom I knew were shocked.”

He recalls trying to start a television program about medicine, but he was told that his plan for an ensemble-type format would never work!

As a writer of thriller novels, Cook is a confirmed outliner who does an enormous amount of research and planning before he starts a new book. For the work in progress, he has been doing research 6-8 hours a day (weekends included) for about 8 months. Now, as he turns to the writing, he has a March deadline to meet. For Cook, the writing is more laborious than the researching — which he loves. “I’m still a student at heart,” says Cook, “a closet academician.” He often has to force himself out of the research process, which could become endless, and get on with the writing.

Once he turns to the drafting, Cook has been holding his story in mind for a long time. He can produce a first draft that is pretty close to a final draft, and he is not a constant tinkerer or reviser. Distractions are a menace for this prolific author, who simply must discipline himself to get the work done. “The ecstasy of the concept gives way to the agony of the execution.” Cook feels fortunate to have a dedicated, private space for his writing into which the rest of life’s business does not intrude.

Once he is in writing mode, Cook doesn’t like to take any time off. He compares writing a thriller novel to juggling several balls in the air. To spread out the writing process is to risk losing control of one or more of those balls — and having to start over again.

For Cook, there are pros and cons to writing longhand and keyboarding on the computer. The latter may provide a cleaner manuscript, but, for him, the former keeps the story in better focus. In part, this is because he is drawn to tinker with the words or passages on the computer screen, sometimes losing the narrative thread, while when drafting longhand he just pushes the story along with less temptation to interrupt himself.
Cook abhors the present state of medicine, feeling that the various stakeholders’ interests — physicians, hospitals, insurance companies — overwhelm the interests of patients. He attributes the growing interest in alternative medicines and therapies, many of which are in his view suspect, to the failures of the medical establishment – including failures in relationships with patients. Dr. Cook is concerned that patients often allow themselves to be bullied by their physicians. He feels that patients need to educate themselves and ask intelligent, probing questions. It’s their health that’s at stake.

The medical and public policy issues that concern Dr. Robin Cook, if presented as lectures, articles, or research papers, would put most people to sleep. His goal is to wake his readers up, providing awareness through being a compelling entertainer who holds the reader’s attention. To this end, his unanticipated second career continues to be a grand success, with such popular titles as Outbreak, Mindbend, Mutation, Harmful Intent, Vital Signs, Shock, Blindsight, Terminal, Fatal Cure, Acceptable Risk, Contagion, Chromosome 6, Marker, Toxin, Vector, Critical, and most recently, Foreign Body.

Dr. Robin Cook will be on hand at the Naples Press Club’s Authors and Books Festival, to be held on April 4 & 5 at The von Liebig Art Center in downtown Naples. Connected with the Festival is the Celebrity Author Luncheon nearby at Vergina on 5th Avenue South. Dr. Cook will be the luncheon speaker, and his books will be available for sale and signing. More information about the Festival, the concurrent Naples Writers’ Conference, and the Luncheon with Robin Cook call 593-1488. •

from the March-April 2009 issue

For Cook, the writing is more
laborious than researching.
"I'm still a student at heart."