We finish our January focus on thriller authors by interviewing Dr. Jonathan Javitt. Javitt’s debut thriller CAPITOL REFLECTIONS melds his expertise as a public health consultant for the FDA and other government agencies, with a tautly crafted thriller about the fragility of our food supply. What makes Javitt’s novel compelling is an acute eye for detail and a genuinely scary subject. Let’s just say this. After reading CAPITOL REFLECTIONS, you won’t look at your cup of coffee the same way again.
Like physician Tess Gerritsen and her medical thrillers, Javitt’s impressive resume as a public health official gives his novel a prized level of authenticity about a subject that leaves most of us scratching our heads–the role of the government in food safety. Javitt’s novel takes us through the twists and turns of government inertia, greed, and corruption in order to uncover a killer lurking in an innocent cup of coffee.
We are pleased to present our interview with Dr. Jonathan Javitt.
Q: You are a physician, epidemiologist, and health economist who has served in three Presidential administrations. What made you want to add novelist to your list of accomplishments?
JJ: I have to confess that I have never aspired to write the great American novel. It’s thrillers I have always loved. I have read them voraciously ever since I can remember. At a certain point I went from reading other peoples’ stories to starting to imagine my own. Concurrent with that ambition, I became increasingly familiar with the issue of genetically modified food and the extent to which it has largely been overlooked by Americans, even as it has raised a furor in Europe.
Q: Why did you choose a work of fiction—thriller, no less—to explore the issues of genetically modified foods instead of doing so in a weighty and “serious” work of nonfiction?
JJ: The best thrillers take on subjects that are tough to address in nonfiction – sometimes because the potential consequences are so serious that the nonfiction author is forced to either water down the subject or be labeled a sensationalist and an alarmist. Fiction gives authors much more latitude to explore the “what-ifs” without turning off the audience. The nonfiction audience wants hard facts and carefully formed opinions. In an area like genetically modified foods we don’t yet know many of the hard facts. There is, however, a real threat that we need to take seriously.
Q: CAPTIOL REFLECTIONS is a fast-paced read that takes us through the ins and outs of government agencies like the FDA—hardly thriller material. As a novelist, what were some of the challenges you faced in trying to keep the reader engaged in a potentially dry subjects like scientific processes and government bureaucracy?
JJ: The thrillers I have enjoyed most are those that can take a technical subject, use it as the backdrop for a great story, and leave you feeling as if you have learned something about the technical subject along the way. Clancy left a whole generation thinking they actually understood something about advanced weapons platforms. Crichton and Cook have made highly technical aspects of medicine and science — from the genetics of dinosaurs to the spread of epidemic viruses – understandable to the reader and exciting as a story backdrop.
The subjects addressed in Capitol Reflections are subjects with which I have engaged throughout my career and which remain mysterious to many of my friends and, certainly, to my children. I thought it would be fun to bring them to life. The greatest challenge is to give the reader a glimpse of the science without dumbing it down – which is a disservice to both the science and the reader.
Government bureaucracy is as mysterious to most readers as modern genomics. I have worked with dedicated employees of various government regulatory agencies for much of my career. I hope that Capitol Reflections accurately portrays bureaucracies as collections of people, most of whom are there because the comparatively low salary and restrictions of government service are offset by the feeling that you helping the country and supporting a mission.
Q: Your characters run the gamut from sociopaths, politicians (sometimes in the same person), Vietnamese refugees, and ordinary government employees. What do you consider important in crafting compelling characters, and what do you think writers should be mindful of?
JJ: Please recognize that the only course I have ever taken in writing fiction is a wonderful weekend workshop I spent with Michael Palmer and Tess Gerritsen. Therefore, I hardly consider myself an expert on character development. My approach to most of the characters in the book is to try to create a real person out of whole cloth and once that person has flesh and blood, a personality, and other key attributes – and only then – to turn that fictional character loose on the stage of the story as see what happens. The hardest part is the sociopaths. Many of the characters in the book are borrowed from real life people I have known. While those real people are unlikely ever to find themselves in the situations envisioned in Capitol Reflections, they behave as I imagine they would in those situations. The sociopaths are the hardest, since to the best of my knowledge I don’t know any true sociopaths. Inventing them and keeping them from appearing as total cartoon characters is probably the largest challenge.
Q: Do you plot extensively first, or prefer to let the plot unfold organically?
JJ: Every time I have tried to plot extensively, the result has felt wooden and boring. If the characters are authentic and are presented with a real-life challenge, they will rise to the occasion and the author will simply be the vehicle for putting their actions down on paper.
Q: In CAPITOL REFLECTIONS, the pace is quick and the prose stripped. How has your writing voice evolved? Did you work at your current voice or did the lean prose come naturally to you?
JJ: The last 200 things I wrote were scientific articles. Terse prose, devoid of adjectives and context comes naturally. The challenge for me in writing fiction is to slow down and look around the street the character is walking along, to capture the sounds, the smells, and the other things that can make the character’s experience real for the reader. Nobody wants to read a nonstop action line. People want to understand a character’s motivations and surroundings.
Q: When you initially conceived CAPITOL REFLECTIONS, the plot twists regarding altered foods (in this instance, coffee) were rooted in fiction, but since then they’ve proved uncannily prescient. Have the issues with genetically modified foods and toxic substances making their way into the food supply been floating around for a while and have just now come into the fore, or is food safety really an issue these days?
JJ: The issues surrounding genetically modified foods have been debated in the scientific world for nearly a decade. However, the issues are complex and the solutions are unclear. This is likely the reason for the near absence of coverage in the lay press and limited sales of those nonfiction books that have been published on the topic. Over that same period of time, genetically modified foods have gone from the exception to the norm.
Q: You lead a very busy life in the field of public health and medicine. How do you manage to wedge novel writing into your packed schedule?
JJ: This idea reached out and grabbed me. My writing day generally begins at 11pm and stretches on for several hours.
Q: What’s the best book you’ve run across with respect to the craft of fiction writing, and why was it valuable to you?
JJ: I have learned much more about fiction writing from reading the works of my favorite authors than from any book I have ever read about writing. For me a favorite author is somebody whose book I buy the week it comes out in hardcover, without waiting for a discount. Authors on that list include DeMille, Silva, Grisham, Baldacci. More useful than any book, however, was a weekend science-writers’ workshop run by Michael Palmer and Tess Gerritsen, two physicians who have broken into the top ranks of thriller writers.
Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
JJ: The only way to start writing is to start writing.
Q: Do you have any advice for people who are concerned about genetically modified foods?
JJ: Now that you are aware of the issue, a few clicks on Google will take you to a wealth of information. If that information leads you to form a point of view, you owe it to your congressperson to share that point of view. There is no question that genetically modified foods are here to stay. They increase crop yields, improve flavor, reduce spoilage, and provide many other benefits. The critical issue is to ensure that they are safe for the population as a whole. If there are safety issues for particular people because of their genetic makeup, the medications they take, or medical conditions they may have, it is critical that those interactions be recognized so that adequate labeling and warning measures can be implemented. To give an example, there are people who are deathly allergic to nuts. That’s not a reason to block the sale of nuts in the United States. It is, however, a reason to clearly label nuts when they are used as food ingredients and even to label foods that have been manufactured in close proximity to nuts. Similarly, with genetically-modified foods, the safety of the public starts with labeling foods so that the consumer knows what he or she is buying.
Q: What’s next for you?
JJ: Dr. Gwen Maulder (the protagonist of CAPITOL REFLECTIONS)has become an invisible member of the Javitt family. Marcia and my children openly speculate about her next adventure. It seems that she is on the trail of a massive bioterror plot to cripple the US economy.
Javitt’s debut CAPITOL REFLECTIONS is on sale now at all online sellers and bricks ‘n mortar stores.