Interview with Rick Novak, published in the California Society of Anesthesiologists Online First

Book Review of THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN

Mar 02, 2015
by Michael Champeau, M.D.

An Anesthesia Suspense Novel by Rick Novak, MD – An Interview with the Author

I’m writing to recommend a page-turning suspense novel that stars a physician anesthesiologist as its protagonist. Authored by CSA Member and former District 4 Delegate Rick Novak, MD, The Doctor and Mr. Dylan is a mystery novel recently published by Pegasus Books that centers on the professional and personal rivalries between physician anesthesiologist Nico Antone and nurse anesthetist Bobby Dylan.

Most of us are too busy with our careers to even imagine spending our personal time reading a medical novel, but the first lines of The Doctor and Mr. Dylan will convince you this book is unlike those you’ve read before:

       My name is Dr. Nico Antone. I’m an anesthesiologist, and my job is to keep people alive. Nothing could inspire me to harm a patient. Alexandra Antone was my wife. Alexandra and I hadn’t lived together for nearly a year. I dreaded every encounter with the woman. I wished she would board a boat, sail off into the sunset, and never return. She needed an urgent appendectomy on a snowy winter morning in a small Minnesota town. Anesthetist options were limited.
       Life is a series of choices. I chose to be my wife’s doctor. It was an opportunity to silence her, and I took it.

The Doctor and Mr. Dylan is a medical thriller, a legal thriller, and an ode to musical icon Bob Dylan, all interwoven into a single plot line. In brief, Dr. Nico Antone is unhappily married and imagines a life without his tormenting wife, a Silicon Valley real estate tycoon whose income far outstrips his own. He’s also convinced that his son, a teenager enrolled at Palo Alto Hills High, would gain an advantage in college admissions if their family moved to the rural Midwest. As a result, Dr. Antone moves with his son Johnny to Hibbing, Minnesota in hopes that he will graduate at the top of his class and be accepted into a prestigious Ivy League university. Johnny becomes a small town hero and academic star, while Dr. Antone befriends Bobby Dylan, a deranged nurse anesthetist who renamed and reinvented himself as a younger version of the iconic rock legend who grew up in Hibbing. The operating room death of Mrs. Antone rocks their world, and the anesthesiologist stands trial for murder—a murder he believes Mr. Dylan committed.

The Doctor and Mr. Dylan examines the dark side of relationships between a doctor and his wife, a father and his son, and a man and his best friend. Set in a rural Northern Minnesota world reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ Fargo, The Doctor and Mr. Dylan details scenes of family crises, operating room mishaps and courtroom confrontation, and concludes in a final twist that few will see coming. The prose is witty and funny, and I found myself chuckling repeatedly at unexpected times.

The book brings the issue of independent nurse anesthetist practice to a national audience, and the conflict that this at some times engenders drives the plot. Most of all, The Doctor and Mr. Dylan is a head-scratching mystery, guaranteed to keep you riveted until the last page. I read the last third of the book in a single post-midnight sitting, not able to wait for the resolution.

By way of full disclosure, Dr. Novak is one of my partners in the Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group in Palo Alto. He has spent the past thirty-plus years at Stanford, where he served as an intern, a resident in internal medicine, an emergency room faculty member, an anesthesia resident, and finally as an Adjunct Clinical Associate Professor of Anesthesia. Rick’s writing career blossomed in the role of Deputy Chief of Anesthesia at Stanford, where he authored a monthly column on private practice anesthesia in the department newsletter. As a friend, colleague and reader, I recently interviewed Rick to gain insight into his new writing career:

Q: How long did it take you to write the novel?
A: Three years. One year to write the manuscript, one year to edit it and improve the storytelling, and one year to obtain an agent who then sold it to Pegasus Books.

Q: When did you find time to write?
A: I wrote late at night, early in the mornings, on rainy weekends and on sunny weekends—whenever I had a free hour with my laptop. I had a compulsion to write the story that first year. I didn’t sleep much.

Q; Why did you choose to write fiction?
A: I’ve been penning creative short stories, skits, and speeches since high school. I had written more than seventy non-fiction columns in the Stanford anesthesia department newsletter over the past twelve years, but I wanted to write something more substantial and more entertaining. I believe a lot of people are curious about anesthesia, and I know there are stories to be told.

Q: Describe the style of this book.
A: My aim was to write a fast-paced page-turner that would appeal to both non-medical as well medical audiences. After the first draft, I edited the manuscript and cut out every scene and every sentence that wasn’t essential to the story. My style is conversational. The book is written in the first person and it reads as if the narrator is telling you an oral story. The dialogue is genuine—characters talk the way people really converse in an operating room, in a tavern, or in a courtroom.

Q: What can an anesthesiologist learn from the book?
A: First off, it’s a mystery that anesthesiologists and physicians will have an advantage in solving, because of our experience and training. Beyond that, you’ll learn about life and medicine in small town Minnesota, you’ll learn about the history and legend of Bob Dylan, who grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota, and you’ll learn to love the memorable characters who populate the pages.

Q: Any advice to other aspiring anesthesiologist authors?
A: Write what you enjoy writing, whether your dream is to create fiction or medical non-fiction. I’ve spent thousands of hours writing columns for the Stanford anesthesia department, for my website, and penning this novel, yet not one minute of the time felt like work to me.
I chose to read 15 – 20 books on the art of writing fiction and also on the business of querying an agent. I didn’t have the inclination or the time to enroll in a Creative Writing Master’s of Fine Arts program, so these resource books were my database for learning.
I also picked the brain of every published author I ever met, in an effort to learn the craft and the business.
You’ll need perseverance, because the publishing industry is based in New York City, not California, and every one of us is an unknown in their industry. I received 207 rejections from agents before I was offered a contract, and I think that’s not an atypical experience for most first-time authors.
Once you’ve completed and polished your manuscript, invite every friend who has any interest to read it and critique it. You don’t want your first critical audience to be an agent or a publishing house. Get as much as advice and input as you can before you submit your work to the professionals.
Read a lot of the genre you’re interesting in writing, to develop an feel for what successful plotting, pacing, and dialogue look like.
And lastly, read The Doctor and Mr. Dylan … to see what kind of tale a fellow anesthesiologist weaves about operating rooms, courtrooms, murder, music, success, failure, life, and love in our 21st century world.

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