D.J. (Don) Donaldson is a retired medical school professor. Born and raised in Ohio, he obtained a Ph.D. in human anatomy at Tulane, then spent his entire academic career at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis. In addition to being the author of several dozen scientific articles on wound healing, he has written seven forensic mysteries and five medical thrillers.
What inspired you to start writing, and when?
Oddly, the thought that I wanted to become a novelist just popped into my head one day shortly after my fiftieth birthday. Part of this sudden desire was a bit of boredom with my real job. I was an anatomy professor at the U. of Tennessee and had accomplished all my major professional goals: course director, funded NIH grant, teaching awards, and many published papers on wound healing. So I guess I needed a new challenge. And boy did I pick a tough one.
I wondered, how does a novice like me learn to write fiction? Taking a few writing courses is an obvious answer. But I had the vague feeling that there were a lot of unpublished writers teaching those courses and I worried that all I’d learn was how to fail. I’m not saying this was the best way, but I decided to just teach myself. I bought ten bestselling novels and tried to figure out what made each of them work. What tricks were the authors using to hold my attention? What made these books so popular? In a sense then, maybe I didn’t teach myself. Maybe Steven King, Robin Cook, Pat Conroy, Michael Palmer, Larry McMurtry, and James Michener did. In any event, eight years later, I sold my first book. So, it took me about as long to become a published novelist as it did to train for medical research and teaching.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
There’s nothing easy about any of it. But titles are a particular challenge. I often can’t figure out what the title of a book should be. Oh, I know when a title is great and so do you… It’s like the dealer at a flea market who once said to me when I picked up an expensive item to look at more closely…”You have good taste.” Then, while I was secretly preening at his compliment, he added, “Of course, it’s not that hard to spot quality.” It’s the same with book titles. Here’s a test: What do you think of this title? They don’t build statues to businessmen.
To me, it’s awful. I’d think so even if I’d been the one to come up with it. Actually, it was the famous writer, Jacqueline Susann, who crafted that one for a book that eventually became a mega best seller as Valley of the dolls. Could there be anybody who likes the first title better? Okay…. there’s always someone who enjoys being a contrarian. But that still doesn’t make the first title any good.
Let’s try another. How about All’s well that ends well? That’s actually not horrible. But it doesn’t sound like the sweeping saga the author wrote. I certainly think the title it was eventually given, War and Peace, is far better.
So, it’s easy to know a great title when you see it, but boy is it hard to come up with one, especially when you’re writing a New Orleans series that needs to have a title that reflects the locale. I usually sit for hours playing with words and rearranging them in what I hope are creative ways. No matter what title I eventually settle on for a book, I have this nagging suspicion that even if I really like the one I pick, there was a much better one I could have used. I just couldn’t find it. My War and Peace was out there, just beyond reach.
Of all my New Orleans books, I’m the most satisfied with the title for Louisiana Fever. Although the title doesn’t specifically mention New Orleans, it lets readers know a lot about the locale. It also strongly suggests that the story involves some kind of contagious disease. The fever part of the title actually refers to Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever, a bleeding disease similar to Ebola. Most writers would be thrilled to have written a book that could be related to unfolding world events. Normally, I’d be among them. But in this case, I’d much prefer that there be no reason for Ebola to be in the news every day. I hope this threat is contained soon.
For anyone that hasn’t read them can you tell us a bit about your books
My first book was a mystery. As a beginning writer, that seemed like the best genre for me because mysteries have a classic structure that guides the behaviour and direction of the main characters. In a very general way that structure provides those characters with goals and motivation: Goal: find the killer. Motivation: It’s their job. The genre also provides a structure for conflict: The killer doesn’t want to be found, so he will try to thwart the investigation. I had no idea that my first book would lead to six more with the same characters.
After six series mysteries I took a break to try my hand at writing stand-alone thrillers. (Stand-alones have a different cast of characters in each book.) Someone once asked me what the difference is between a mystery and a thriller. There can be a lot of overlap in the two, but generally thrillers put the main character in danger throughout the book. In mysteries, the danger often arises only when the protagonist begins to close in on the killer.
I have to say I like series and stand alones equally well. If you look at my list of published novels (seven forensic mysteries and five medical thrillers), it’s obvious that I’ve drawn on my academic background to write both kinds of books. They say to “write what you know”, and I have. Except that for every book, It’s taken about six months of intensive research to learn a lot of necessary material, both scientific and otherwise, that I didn’t know when I started the book. That research has been a lot of fun. For one book, I spent a week in Madison Wisconsin, visiting dairy farms ... even had a milk cow poop on my shoes. (Okay, I didn’t like that part much.)
What are you working on now (apart from this interview of course)?
I’ve always wanted my books to be available on audio. I’m excited to tell you that my entire New Orleans forensic mystery series is now in production with Audible books. I haven’t yet heard any of it, so I’m really looking forward to listening to what they’ve done. The narrator is Brian Troxell, who has narrated about 75 other books for Audible. I’ve listened to some of those and I think he’s going to do a great job. When he asked me for some hints about how to portray Broussard, the greatly overweight New Orleans medical examiner, I told him to think of the character actor, Wilfred Brimley. From the moment I wrote the first words about Broussard I pictured him being played in film by Brimley.
In one sentence what is your best piece of advice for new writers?
Write because you love it.
Don’t write for wealth or fame because most writers in the world, even those who have sold books to major publishers, can’t claim either of those status symbols. There’s an old quote that says, “You can get rich in this country by being a writer, but you can’t make a living.” If you don’t love doing it then you can be crushed by the difficulties inherent in the pursuit.