American novelist David Lender is the best selling author of Trojan Horse, The Gravy Train, and Bull Street. His latest thriller Vaccine Nation, examines the pharmaceutical industry and the US vaccination program. David recently answered a few questions for me regarding his writing career and latest novel.
1. What inspired you to write your first book?
I always wanted to write. In college I was an English major and saw my future profession as “Novelist”. But I didn’t make it happen until later in my life. I worked on Wall Street for over 25 years in the Mergers & Acquisitions business, for mainstream firms such as Merrill Lynch, the Rothschilds and BofA; that profession doesn’t allow for much time to do anything else.
One night about 15 years ago I had a long dream about an aging investment banker who meets an exotic, black-haired woman, falls in love with her, then learns she’s a spy. Then it wound through a long backstory on the woman, including that she grew up in an ashram in India. I made notes. A few months later, I met an exotic, Asian beauty with long black hair who had lived on an ashram for 10 years. I pulled out my notes—and Sasha, the heroine of Trojan Horse, was born.
2. What was the hardest part of writing it?
Learning how to write. That came with the rewrite. A friend sent Trojan Horse to a prominent literary agent in New York, who actually read it and said, “Not bad for somebody who doesn’t know what he’s doing yet,” and offered to introduce me to someone who could teach me. She sent me to Richard Marek, a seasoned publishing executive who discovered Robert Ludlum and edited his first nine thrillers, edited Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs, and edited James Baldwin’s novels, among others. I spend the next 18 months under Richard’s mentoring (read: getting my ass kicked), learning how to write a thriller. The finished version of Trojan Horse was the result.
3. How long does it normally take you to write a book?
Now it takes me about six months, including back-and-forth with my editor. I’m pleased to say that I reunited with Richard Marek for Vaccine Nation.
4. Can you tell us a little about your protagonist Dani North in Vaccine Nation?
When I started formulating ideas for Vaccine Nation, I settled first on writing about a gutsy, strong-willed woman protagonist. That decision was influenced by the enjoyment I got from creating and living with the character of Sasha, the feisty heroine of my first novel, Trojan Horse, and from readers’ strongly positive reaction to her. Dani North of Vaccine Nation is 29-year-old award-winning documentary filmmaker and a single mom who will do anything for her son, Gabe. She’s passionate about many things, but primarily about the pharmaceutical industry. She hates it, blaming it for her three-year ordeal when social services sued her to drug Gabe for ADHD when he entered school. She lost, ultimately moving to New York and finding a homeopathic doctor to certify Gabe didn’t need drugs. Within the first few pages of the novel, she finds herself being chased by the hired killer who murders a drug industry whistleblower who hands Dani something just before he dies.
5. What inspired you to choose that particular subject matter?
My primary inspiration for writing Vaccine Nation was my exposure to the vaccine debate through my wife’s work as a documentary filmmaker in the health-related field. That includes films on ADHD and related drugging of children, and on vaccines and autism. The facts in Vaccine Nation are accurate—the 1986 Congressional grant of immunity to the pharmaceutical industry for liability related to their vaccines for the National Immunization Program, the toxicity of certain ingredients of vaccines, the controversy surrounding the safety and side-effects of vaccines, and vaccines’ suspected relationship to the autism epidemic. The issues in the book are real and the debate on vaccine safety is increasing: recent CDC statistics show that 10% of parents (up from 2% to 3%.) are avoiding or delaying vaccinating their children because of concerns about vaccine safety.
6. Which writers and books have influenced your life most?
Thriller writers who have influenced me include Elmore Leonard, Graham Greene, Frederick Forsyth, John le Carré, John Grisham (although I don’t think he’s ever gotten close to The Firm again), Robert Ludlum, Ken Follett, and Thomas Harris. I think F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is the great American novel. I read it every year or so. Out of Sight is Elmore Leonard’s best, with Get Shorty a close second. Nobody does dialogue or backstory like him. I’ll also never stop returning to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Frederick Forsythe’s The Day of the Jackal (it may be the best thriller ever written), le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People, and Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana.
7. What do you think makes a good story?
Characters you empathize with, and events in their lives that make you alternately cringe and cheer. There’s nothing like rooting for the young girl who’s betrayed by her guardian at the age of 16 and “sold” to a Saudi oil prince for a million bucks as a concubine for the prince’s wastrel, coke-head son. Something like that. A really vile antagonist in the story is essential, too, at least in thrillers. It comes down to emotion. Passion is such a worn out term, but it works. Think about Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Hamlet, or King Lear. These aren’t people who experienced things at the level of ordinary people you meet on the street. They’re the kind of people you want to meet in a good story. I think plot is important, too, but if you can’t feel with the characters, then it never gets off the ground.
8. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I read, not surprisingly, listen to music (I have very eclectic tastes, but love The Beatles even more than Mozart, and have great equipment to listen to them on) and play with our rescue pitbull, Styles, the love of our life. (Families with pit bulls call them pitbulls, just as owners of Porsches pronounce it “Porscha” instead of “Porsh.”)
9. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
If you have the urge and you haven’t started writing yet, start. If you have started, keep writing. And, to borrow from Winston Churchill, never, never, never give up. But learn about craft and structure. Study your favorite authors, learn how they do things like set up scenes, craft dialog, slide in backstory on characters, build drama and tension. And if you can, find a good mentor or editor.
Vaccine Nation is available in both print and e-book editions at Amazon.