Q. Do you think your medical training is relevant to you now as a novelist?
A. It’s incredibly important to me. I think what medical training does is it gives you the language, the tools to look up facts. I think medical training gives you a sense of how to approach a problem, how to look at symptoms and go down the list of what it might be.
Q. Does it help you find story ideas?
A. Medicine is probably one of the best backgrounds for a writer to find stories. I always think cops and docs have the best background because we see so much of human behavior, such a range of human emotions. You’re going to see people [with] loved ones who are dying, and you’re also going to see people who are ecstatic because they just had their first child.
Q. Did you want to be a pathologist?
A. I was accepted into a pathology program while I was in residency. My internal medicine chief convinced me I was better off with the living than the dead, so I stayed with internal medicine. I often wonder though if I had gone into the pathology program and had had better control of my schedule, whether I would still be practicing medicine. It would have been easier to combine with motherhood.
Q. What made you choose medicine and then writing?
A. I was a novelist first, at age 7. I decided later on because of my Chinese background and my father’s urging that I would be better off with a more stable career. I was interested in biology anyway, so medicine was a natural for me. After I published my third book, I realized I could be a stay-at-home mom and still have a career, and so I left.
Q. You write at an amazing pace — at least a book a year. Where do you find inspiration for all those books?
A. Everywhere — conversations, or news articles. What I really am looking for is the idea that gives me a jolt. That very emotional premise that makes me think and gives me either a sense of outrage or shock. Something that will keep me going for the year it takes me to write a book.
Q. Such as?
A. I read an article in The Boston Globe about a woman who was found dead in her apartment and they took her to the morgue, and a couple of hours later, she woke up. Whoa. How often does that happen? So I just thought, there’s an idea for a story.
Q. And what has being a writer done to your view of medicine?
A. Writing is very much an emotional process, it requires you to be very in touch with your feelings. That is the opposite of what you’re taught as a medical doctor. We’re supposed to be detached and logical. Maybe because I started off as a writer and then became a doctor, I’m able to integrate those two.
Q. You are speaking tonight at UMass Medical School. What will you tell the medical students?
A. I think that for physicians who want to become writers, they have the material, the smarts, they have the logic, they know the stories, it’s just a matter of being able to connect with their emotional sides — that’s the key to writing good fiction.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at Karen@KarenWeintraub.com.