Q&A | Neurosurgeon thriller writer? It's a no-brainer
Special to The Seattle times
OK, there's this terrorist who's crucial to the planning of something big. But he's dying, and his bad-guy colleagues have to keep him alive — just long enough to get the information in his head.
So they kidnap the daughter of a neurosurgeon whose specialty is brain-computer interfaces and force him to help in a daring plan: Sever the guy's head from his body, then rig up enough gear to keep it alive and able to communicate.
Welcome to the world of Allen Wyler's new medical thriller, "Dead Head" (Forge, $7.99 paperback original).
Wyler knows whereof he speaks. The Seattle neurosurgeon is the medical director for Northstar Neuroscience, which is developing implants to help victims of stroke and other disorders. But Wyler has also, so to speak, carved out a promising side career as a writer of fiction notable for its swift, intense plotting.
His first book, "Deadly Errors," concerned wrongdoing in a fictional Seattle hospital. His second is the just-out "Dead Head." Three more, now in the works, will deal with transplanted memories, stem-cell research, and the selling of body parts.
The affable Dr. Wyler recently spoke about such topics as his musical passion (the blues) and his daily life (about half of a typical week is spent in Belltown digs, half in an Anacortes home). Here's an edited transcript:
Q: You grew up in Madison Park and went to Seattle Prep and the UW. How'd you go from English lit major to neurosurgeon?
A: I wanted to go into medicine, but I also loved reading. My only shot at literature was in college. So I majored in English lit, but I ended up getting my degree in what was called basic medical sciences.
Q: You had a career at the U Dub, in Memphis and elsewhere, but you're no longer a practicing surgeon, correct?
A: That's right. In 2001, I started working for (Northstar) part time. I was interested in devoting more time to my writing, so it worked out. All through my professional life I'd worked in a hospital as a practicing doctor, so it was quite a shift.
Q: When you announced to your wife that you wanted to write, she burst into laughter.
A: Yeah, for her it came right out of the blue. I'd published over 200 medical articles, but I came home one day and said, "Look, I'm going to try to write a novel," and she thought that was the funniest thing she'd ever heard. Of course, what I wrote then won't see the light of day.
Q: "Deadly Errors" did.
A: Yeah, at that time I was at Swedish and we were looking for a computerized medical records system. I started thinking, "What if a hacker got in?" And that eventually morphed into the plot I wrote.
Q: But the idea for "Dead Head" came from your editor.
A: I was in New York and she said, "Now here's the story you really need to write — keeping a detached head alive for the information in its brain." I thought, "Whoa." She said, "It'd have to be somebody like the president." I said, "Wait a minute, how's this going to be kept secret if it's the president?" She said, "Oh, you figure that out."
I loved the idea, so I started mulling it over. But I couldn't see how this could work with anybody in the public eye. So I had to make it somebody who is important but not in the public eye.
Q: Tell me a bit about the real-life science — could something like this happen someday?
A: We're already there in terms of the computer-brain interfaces. There's a company that has FDA approval to implant (a device in the brain) to control motor movement in the arms. I've seen videos of people using it to control their arms to do e-mail or pick up a piece of candy or whatever. And another company is using a similar technique to help people speak.
The leap I took in the book was the idea of keeping the head alive on a machine. But the patent (for that machine) is real.
For the record, it's U.S. Patent No. 4,666,425, "Device for Perfusing an Animal Head." Basically it combines a heart-lung machine and a kidney dialysis machine. So the machinery's already there, though to my knowledge it's never been used for the purposes I describe.
Q: Do you think it will be?
A: Well, that's the issue I bring up. Why would you ever want to? You get into quality-of-life and ethical issues.
Q: I love the term "discorped," which was used in the patent filing.
A: Yeah, it's a neologism as far as I know. But it's a wonderful word.
Q: Did you think of the title for "Dead Head"?
A: Yeah. My editor didn't like it at first, but she grew to like it. I think the initial reaction was that she connected it with Jerry Garcia. What can I say?
Q: OK, here's the big question: Brain surgery or fiction writing, which is harder?
A: Oh, man, they're so opposite. I would say that brain surgery has an inherent degree of stress to it. Writing has its frustrations, but the stress of having somebody's life in your hands — the only job I can think of similar to that is air-traffic controller or something. Not to mention the time factor — if you're a month late with a book manuscript, it's no big deal. Not so with surgery!
It's a huge responsibility, and the day that you say "I'm not operating anymore," walk out of that room and strip off your gloves — you never realize until you do that what a weight is lifted from your shoulders.
Adam Woog's column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.
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