Interview With Gregg Andrew Hurwitz

Gregg Andrew Hurwitz's father, sister, and grandfather were all physicians, so growing up, he was regaled at dinnertime with tales of bleeding colons and severed fingers. He was also subjected to vigorous discussion regarding the boundaries of medical ethics, which provided him a foundation for writing Do No Harm. In the course of researching the novel, he shadowed doctors in the UCLA emergency room, harassed government operatives to teach him surveillance techniques, and delved into psychological research on childhood trauma.

Minutes to Burn originated during Hurwitz's research travel in the Galápagos, where he confronted marine iguanas on lava plains, hiked through the islands' curious Scalesia forests, and contended with enormous crab spiders in shower stalls and toilet bowls. Upon his return, he spent months tracking down scientific experts around the world -- ecologists, geologists, entomologists, virologists -- continuing to indulge his fascination in the archipelago and to flesh out what would become Minutes to Burn. While undertaking the military research for the novel, Hurwitz dealt with an extensive network of Navy SEALs and related operators. He was obligated to familiarize himself with sidearms, meals-ready-to-eat, M-16s, SWAT ranges, and hand-to-hand techniques -- much to the derisive amusement of attendant Navy SEALs.

Hurwitz grew up in the Bay Area. While completing a BA from Harvard and a master's from Oxford, he wrote his first novel, The Tower, a psychological thriller set in and around San Francisco. Hurwitz has published several academic articles. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is working on his fourth thriller and the screenplay of Rogue Warrior (based on Richard Marcinko's autobiography) for Jerry Bruckheimer Films.

Do No Harm by Gregg Andrew Hurwitz
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Do No Harm is of a piece with Minutes to Burn and your first novel, The Tower -- but they are also all quite different books. What went into the making of Do No Harm that differed from the other two?

"Write what you know is the advice that gets handed out to young writers, so I quite willfully do the opposite. Because writing for me is an excuse for continuing education, I often pick fields to research that have always fascinated me, but about which I don't know much when I start out -- psychological profiling in The Tower, Navy SEALs and evolutionary biology in Minutes to Burn.

Do No Harm is a much more personal book for me, though. And I am, in fact, writing to a certain extent about what I know. I grew up in this intensely medical household. Everyone's a doctor -- my grandfather, great uncle, my father, my sister. For Minutes I spent the better part of two years trying to really understand the mindset of, say, a demolitions expert. But for Do No Harm the character stuff -- how doctors think and speak -- came quite easily, in part thanks to the family connection. But I still had to do a great deal of research to get all the details right. Maybe more so, because I couldn't have my character grabbing the wrong instrument during surgery, or I'd never hear the end of it from my famil...The plot itself was also much more personal to me. I try to make each book about something aside from the actual dramatic action -- this book addresses certain topics that I've been turning over in my mind for a long time.

The Hippocratic Oath, for starters.

It was discussed at the dinner table from as early on as I can remember. And it always fascinated me -- having a code of ethics where you have to heal people, and sometimes save their lives, whether you like them or not. It's sort of like a cop hauling in an established murderer, maybe someone who's beaten the rap a few times, instead of administering street justice. Because the Law must prevail. Ethics over emotion.

Back to the research for a minute; let's not leave that. What was required here?

Well, I shadowed in the UCLA Emergency Room on and off for two months, hanging around wherever I could, following doctors into exam rooms and watching procedures. But also going to lunch with them, grabbing a beer after shifts, hearing them bullshit and complain about their cases.

To follow up the continuing care of our alkali-burn victims, I had to get to plastic surgeons, ICU nurses, ophthalmologists, gastroenterologists and more. To get Horace McCannister right I spent some time with a true Lab Tech II. Visiting over segmented bodies and the whine of a saw was a unique experience.

And the police work? The investigative aspects of the book?

Minutes to Burn by Gregg Andrew Hurwitz
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I had to go about them from two angles. The first was the LAPD - I made several contacts, and just spent time with them. Talking, drinking, driving around. Asking questions about procedure by the book, and how it really goes down in the field.

Another angle, which was really fun, was following around a guy I met who does a lot of "unofficial" surveillance and investigative work. For the stunts Ed Pinkerton pulls in the book, I had to learn how guys get things done off the record, out of the system. Guys like that don't like to talk, and you have to spend time earning their trust and respect. So by the time they talk -- if they talk -- they usually like you pretty well. And this contact really developed into a good friendship.

So I could call him up and say, "Let's take a ride over to the UCLA Medical Center, stroll through the ambulance bay" -- where Clyde hurls the alkali -- "and tell me what you see." And just walking around town, this friend of mine would notice a gardener wasn't sweaty enough. He'd say, "It's ninety degrees out. That guy's not working. What is he doing? Casing the place? Waiting for someone?" He just had an eye for noticing things and people out of place. I started developing it too, hanging around him. Now I'm tending more paranoid than oblivious.

Let's talk about the opening of the book, and two that really affected me as I read them, are Clyde's Chapter 12 and Chapter 13. Ghastly stuff, but well and honestly told. What was required of the writer to produce pressurized, violent scenes like those and others that follow?

I strove to make this book as gritty as possible. It's a medical novel, and so I felt a responsibility to make the injuries and the violence progress with scientific precision. And that holds true for Clyde's chapters as well. He's not a drooling, scheming madman petting a white cat -- he's a real, unhinged, pathetic man, as are most people who perpetrate violent crimes. One thing I learned in the writing of this book was: the more real the violence, the less over-the-top it is, the greater the impact. And so I kept pulling back the violence, making it less emotional, and it kept ratcheting up the tension of the read.

One thing I found with Clyde is that I had a real intuitive handle on him and how his mind worked. When I was talking to psychiatrists at the NPI [UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute] I was describing Clyde and trying to find some neat DSM-IV classification to fit him into [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition]. Is he schizophrenic? Is he this? Is he that? And an NPI doctor kept gamely trying to help me with this, but then I'd argue with him. "Well, that sounds good, but Clyde's really more like this." And finally, the doc looked at me and said, "Listen, most of our patients don't fit neat classifications, anyway -- the classifications are just there for guidelines. It sounds like you have a real handle on this guy in a way that makes him seem much more like a real patient." And I realized he was right -- my view of Clyde was already intact, and it made it better than picking a classification and working backward to invent character traits.

Chapter 55 amply demonstrates the kinds of heroic tests a doctor can be put through. The "cold, vengeful rage" that David feels for Clyde late in the book, I've got to tell you, I would have felt a lot sooner in his circumstances. But maybe that's why David's a doctor and I'm not.

David, as a doc, is much more inclined to view Clyde as a man with a sickness than to meditate on whether he's evil. Who cares if he's evil? He's clearly disturbed, clearly ill. Why spend time cultivating a hatred of him? However, at the point in the text when David feels a "cold, vengeful rage" is when Clyde's violations become extremely personal. At that point, David's reaction is more universal, because Clyde's actions have jarred him out of a physician's mindset.

Is Clyde's end inevitable?

Tough question. No character's fate is inevitable when you begin writing a book, because then all you'll do is railroad that character to said fate. But if you draw realistic characters, and if you allow them free reign within your prescribed plot, the choices at their disposal narrow until one ending can be said to be more or less organic than another.

Ever toy with the idea of becoming a doctor yourself?

Not recently, much to the chagrin of my Jewish parents. When I was younger it was something I contemplated, in part because severe injuries and blood don't faze me tremendously. I suppose that quirk of mine aids in my career as a novelist as well -- flipping through crime scene photos or standing in on a gory procedure aren't pleasant tasks, but I can handle them. But I think the primary obstacle to a career in medicine is that I like writing novels too damn much.

Posted with permission of the publisher.