Robin Cook On Finding His Niche as a Writer

This story appeared in the April 2016 issue of Naples Illustrated.

Photography by Vanessa Rogers

It should not be a complete surprise that Robin Cook gets nervous when he has to go to the hospital. For one thing, he is a doctor and all too conversant with the things that can go wrong even in routine procedures. For another, he once wrote a book called Coma, which invented the medical thriller and more or less did for hospitals what Jaws did for sharks.

“It’s not dread exactly, but it worries me,” says Cook of his emotions when confronting surgery. “When I went in to have my knee repaired, let’s just say I chose the surgeon and the anesthesiologist very carefully.”

Robin Cook, master of the medical thriller, shares his future plans.

Similarly, when Cook’s wife went in to have a baby, he was right there. “At one point, I took over,” he says. “A woman had come to draw blood, and my wife doesn’t like needles. She was sitting up in bed, and this woman was trying to draw blood and was having problems, and my wife was getting a little pale.

“I was running through the roster of things that might be happening. I yanked the woman away from my wife. Then I pushed my wife back down onto the bed, ran down to the end of the bed and cranked it up. She could have thrown an embolism.”

In hindsight, he says, “After I did all that, I felt a little embarrassed.”

Embarrassment is not an emotion Cook frequently experiences. Besides Coma, he has written 34 other novels, most of them certified best sellers involving cutting-edge medical issues. His most recent book, Host (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015), centers on hospital chains teaming up with pharmaceutical companies to devise biologics. He is, in fact, a brand name in fiction whose work has been converted into nearly a dozen movies and miniseries. He also is  a snowbird who has been spending his winters in Naples since 1977. 

Born in Brooklyn in 1940, Cook spent his early years in Queens and developed a passion for historical fiction, particularly the works of Thomas B. Costain and Mika Walteri. Growing up, he wanted to become an archaeologist or Egyptologist.

“My parents thought I was weird,” he says. “One summer as a teenager, I convinced the library to let me take out the four-volume history of ancient Egypt by Henry Breasted. I memorized all the pharaonic lines.”

After graduating cum laude from Wesleyan University, Cook settled on medical school, partially because of his preference for the empirical over the theoretical.  “I had to get all As, and if you take English, you have no idea what you’ll get, no matter what effort you put in,” he says. “It’s subjective, whereas plasma physics is not.”

After his medical residency, he was drafted and earned the rank of lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, then got a residency in ophthalmology at Harvard University.

Coma was not his first book. That was The Year of the Intern, and there was only one problem: “Nobody wanted it and nobody read it,” says Cook. “It was an interesting issue: what transpires in a young person’s mind as they’re being hazed through their first year of residency. But the lack of response made me realize that there must be something about best sellers that are different. Up until then I had never read one.”

So he doubled back and read a bunch of popular fiction, specifically authors who had come out of nowhere with best sellers—reverse-engineering his commercial failure by figuring out what other writers did right.

What he discovered was basic: “Best sellers are fun to read, whereas my first book was probably a little disturbing. And a lot of best-seller fiction falls into the category of mystery thrillers. Those are the ones that come out of nowhere.”

IMG_5856Today, he is as methodical about his writing as he was at analyzing best sellers. The outline for his last book ran 260 pages, about half the length of the finished manuscript. Cook has approached books as mass-market products that function as cross-promotion for their film adaptations—The GodfatherLove StoryGone Girl, and so forth. “People get involved in and enjoy the book, and the book helps the movie and the movie helps the book,” he says.

“I realized that this is what I should do—write books about medical issues that are important for people to understand,” he continues. “Use the fiction form to convey information, but do it in an entertaining way so that readers don’t realize that they’re learning.”

Coma was written at night while Cook was working in his private practice and teaching on Saturday mornings. The movie version of the international best seller was directed by the late Michael Crichton, who also wrote the adapted screenplay. He was a doctor as well, which made for some interesting conversations.

“Michael and I were friends,” Cook says. “Four or five years before Coma, I met him when I was in California. I had enjoyed his book The Andromeda Strain. Because we’d both gone to med school, and I’d written a book that hadn’t come out yet, I thought we had things in common. I called him out of the blue. At that time I was doing diving research in San Diego. So he jumped on it and drove down. He had had some success already and had a new Porsche, while I was driving an old Volkswagen. It was an interesting contrast, and I remember feeling a bit of jealousy.”

Cook then suggested they partner on a project, and he recalls Crichton’s lackadaisical reply: “Yeah, sure.” 

“But when I wrote Coma, I sent it to him,” he says. “He let his girlfriend read it and she loved it, and that was enough for him.”

Cook and Crichton had differing points of view about medicine, though. Crichton had gone through medical school but had never practiced. 

“I felt he did himself a disservice,” Cook says. “He was always very eager to get out to Hollywood. We had some arguments about that.”

Fred Pauzar, Cook’s partner in Hollywood deal-making, says, “Robin will tell you he doesn’t get Hollywood, but he does. He’s a scientist, but he’s also a storyteller—a masterful one. He can blend scientific information with current events and shed new light on matters that are right in front of us but unseen. All of that lends itself to movie and TV exploitation.”

Cook had a private practice for about 10 years, along with his teaching duties at Harvard. Once his literary career took off, he closed his practice and found that he didn’t miss it. “There were a multitude of reasons I quit medicine,” he says. “Being a resident, learning within an academic environment, that was exciting. You were always learning something. Then you go into practice, and you’re encouraged to specialize, and the more you specialize, the more narrow your experience becomes.”

The decision to make Naples his winter home involved a large ration of serendipity. Cook had come to Naples for financial diversification and instead found a home. “I had two or three best sellers, and I had gone from being in debt to money coming in,” he says, “and I didn’t know what I was going to do with it.”

He first considered Marco Island, but when he flew to Tampa, then Naples, he realized he would have to drive at least another half hour to get there. So he settled on Naples and has been here quite happily since.

For the future, there are more books, and he’s in discussions about opening a restaurant in Naples, something he previously did in Boston. The new venture will possibly include a hotel, and could happen this year.

“You don’t open a restaurant to make money, you do it for other reasons,” he says. “I’m a foodie. My wife is, too, and she’s a very good cook. We used to eat out a lot and we don’t much anymore because she does a better job than most restaurants. My other restaurant was sufficiently successful that it didn’t lose any money, but in terms of investment, it would have been better to put the money into real estate.”

Between maintaining his career in fiction and restaurant start-ups, Cook obviously has no plans to take it easy: “Look, a lot of my doctor friends are retiring. But what then? Do you know what most of them do after they retire? They gain weight!”

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