Interview, Josh Bazell, Beat the Reaper

Catch Josh at Book Soup this Thursday, 3/26/2009 at 7:00 pm!

Hitman Pietro Brwna enters the Witness Protection Program and becomes Peter Brown, an emergency room doctor. A Mafia associate from his past ends up in the hospital on his shift and turns his entire protected life upside down. Packed with medical information and footnotes, the story of Peter’s past and the story of his present intersect beautifully during his last 8 hours at the hospital. Beat the Reaper is Josh Bazell’s first novel.


First, I should tell you that I was completely surprised at how much I liked Beat the Reaper. I’m not much for thriller/action-type novels, but, seriously, from about page two I was completely hooked. And although the ending was one of the most disgusting and painful endings I’ve ever read, I enjoyed it and I will never forget it. That’s what you’re looking for in a good book, eh?

Josh Bazell has a unique writing voice that reminds you of an old, gritty 40s detective movie. Some scenes get to the point so quick with limited dialog that you are taken off guard (and maybe disappointed they didn’t linger longer…) and some have a twist and you can’t believe you just read what you read. But, in all cases, Josh made the right decision on how he worked the story and I’m eagerly looking forward to the second installment of Pietro Brwna’s story.

Josh Bazell came to San Francisco for the hospitals about three years ago. (Did I forget to mention he’s also a doctor?) He’s single (ahem) except for his Boston terrier, Lottie. On the average day you’ll find him sitting around in a Tshirt and doing all the usual human stuff like drink beer, speed race and herb window box gardening (I may have made those last two up) and listening to “America,” by Spinal Tap; a demo version of “Birthday,” by the Sugarcubes; “Wrecking Ball” by Emmylou Harris; and “Gypsy Eyes,” by Hendrix.

How much of you is in Pietro? What’s your favorite characteristic of his?

What I like most about Pietro is that he’s always looking for ways to be moral that don’t require innocence. I’d like to think I do that too, but I definitely don’t put as much energy into it as he does.

Sex can be a difficult thing for people to write well and not indulge into porno-land. Was it hard for you to write the sex scenes?

I didn’t really think about it. I grew up on books like Jaws, that had tons of sex in them. So to me it would feel unnatural to write an entire novel in which the characters don’t think about or have sex, or they do but I can’t be bothered to mention it. Granted, asexuality (or rather the confinement of sex in fiction to pornography) is the trend. Remember when young adult fiction meant Judy Blume and Lois Duncan, and was read by kids? Someone should write a young adult novel called I Am Disappointed In and Afraid Of Sex, so that adults who read young adult fiction in public won’t have to worry about people not getting the message.

Part of the book is set in Russia. Have you been to Russia? Is it in your family roots?

Some of my ancestors were from there. I’ve never been. Russian history reminds me of the alleged Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” I’m hoping to get a chance to visit when Beat the Reaper comes out there.

Who is your target audience with Beat the Reaper? What kind of response have you received?

I try to spend as little time as possible thinking along these lines, but I tend to feel that people’s responses to books are so personal and idiosyncratic that pretty much anyone who reads Beat the Reaper deserves my appreciation. If they’re entertained by it and/or can relate to it, obviously that’s a good thing, but if they loathe it that’s strangely entertaining as well. I don’t know why. It’s infantile.

How did you do research for the Hitman part of the story?

I read every memoir I could find by people who have been through the Federal Witness Relocation Program. There are a lot of them, and they’re difficult to read because they’re poorly written and often morally repellent. But if you’re looking for sordid, they’ll give you sordid.


Did you learn anything at Brown that has become invaluable in your writing?

My attitude toward my writing education at Brown varies. I read a lot of books there and got time to write, and I met people who took literature seriously. On the other hand, the writing workshops I took there never discussed structure, or any other concern beyond the “quality of prose” on the page. And there were no classes at all on long-form writing, which is what I’ve always been interested in. Since structural rules are easier to learn than style, and since the idea of structure has been so tarnished by bad screenwriting instruction, I understand not spending a lot of class time on it. But some would have been nice.

The business side of health care you describe is almost too hard to read and sickening. How much of that is the truth from your experience and how much has been fictionalized? If you were God, (I’m not saying you aren’t) what would you do to change things?

Clearly the U.S. healthcare system is in trouble, since it’s crazily expensive and primarily serves the interests of the insurance, pharmaceutical, and (to a smaller but real degree) personal industry industries.

Just as clearly, to fix it (and a lot of other things) we probably need for legislators to not take money from the industries they’re supposed to regulate. Tom Daschle was taking more money from for-profit “health care” corporations than he would have made working 60 hours a week as a general practitioner. And if he hadn’t cheated on his taxes he would now be Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Is the part in the book about the Auschwitz connection to Aventis, Agfa, BASF, and Bayer actually true? If it is true, I feel so dirty.

It is true: check it out here.

What impresses me about these companies is their foresight in predicting how quickly world anti-Semitism would rebound after WWII, and how easily they could therefore sell an image of the Holocaust as exaggerated and excessively talked about. Worldwide, this is now the popular consensus, though it’s losing ground to feelings (and statements) that the Holocaust never happened at all, or else did but was justified.

I loved and hated the character Skinflint about equally. You’ve written him in a way that defies someone to not feel compassion for him. How do you feel about him?

It’s pretty much a hate the sin and love the sinner situation. How can you hate someone too weak to fight his instincts?

The theme of the book is about a person being able to change and getting redemption. Have you experienced that in your own life?

Most people I know spend a lot of time either wanting or trying to change themselves. So yeah — I think most of us like the idea of redemption, and don’t seem to mind the judgment it passes on the lives we’re living now. It’s the tension between satisfaction and ambition.

I was annoyed that the footnotes were there and then I was annoyed that I kept wanting to read what they were and I enjoyed every annoying minute of it. As a writer myself, it seemed like a tricky thing to get right, a kind of hook that you gambled on that paid back in a big way. Were you worried about using them?

Yeah, the footnotes. The idea for them came from formatting the novel almost as an “as told to” memoir. And they turned out to be surprisingly useful, since they represent a subtly different voice (and timeframe) from the central narrator. But they were never necessary. It would have been easy to put the information in them, such as it is, in the text, and I was prepared to do that if either my agent or my editor felt strongly that I should. But they both liked the footnotes, and now I’m stuck using them in my next book because so many people have complained about them. By the way, one of them is intentionally irritating so that you’ll remember the information in it later, and all of them are skippable. (Ed. Note: But, you won’t want to.)

Whose writing style to you love to read?josh

James Ellroy, Joyce Carol Oates, Denis Johnson, Thom Jones. Anybody whose work is really alive.

Any book(s) to recommend?

I almost never do that, because, like I say, books seem so personal. It’s like universally recommending a particular girlfriend or something. I did just read Winter World, by Bernd Heinrich, which is about how woodland animals survive winter, and I really liked it. It’s observational biology in the style of Konrad Lorenz. It’s beautiful, and it makes you feel like you just spent a weekend in the country.

If you are 80 and living your dream life, what is it?

I really need to nail that down. It’s probably really helpful.

What interview question(s) are you so tired of answering and how many did I ask you?

The really bad ones only come from people who haven’t read the book. They’re all variations on “I haven’t read the book I’m interviewing you about. Please relieve my anxiety and embarrassment about that, and also entertain me.”

Thanks, Josh!

Eavesdropper #2

“Let’s do the whole cocktail thing, shall we? Hello! I’m Drake. I’m 36. I’m a scientist and I build things that don’t exist and won’t exist for years. I actually work in the future.” Drake thrust his hand forward in an attempt to look confident. It was at the precise moment his hand accidentally jabbed her breast and he looked more perverse than confident, or worse, clumsy, that he wished he could rewind about seven seconds and have a do-over.

She was taken aback for a tick or two, but recovered nicely. “I’m Cynthia. Cindy. Whichever.”

Her detachment to what someone might call her spoke volumes to Drake. After all, Drake was a name he had given himself after pouring through books and online forums and author’s names. He had carefully considered Chance and Chase and Shane before deciding on Drake. And for someone named William but forever called Willy, the name Drake made him feel instantly strong and in control. Like a man should feel.

Cindy continued, “I’m 28. I have two kids under six. I love being a mother and during…” But, Drake had stopped listening. A mother? Of two kids? Under six? Um, sorry to be so judgmental, but no. Just, no. She probably took two years off to drive around the country like a hippie and then went to only half a year of community college before getting knocked up and stuck at home with babies. Her dreams and aspirations probably include someday knitting an entire outfit from blue yarn and decorating the older kid’s room in a jungle theme. Plus the guy, (or guys!), had obviously left her. What’s up with that? What else was wrong with her?

No, not a good match at all, he was positive. And as Cindy continued to talk, his eyes wandered to the two chairs on the right to see the lady coming to his station next. She looked cute. Pretty, even. And she seemed nice. Just look at the way she gazed at the guy across from her. Like she was really interested and really getting whatever he was saying. And she wore glasses. He couldn’t wait to meet her and hoped, prayed, crossed his fingers, that she would be interested in science or at least be really smart. He needed someone almost as smart as him to be with for the rest of his life.

Drake checked the timer on the table between them. Thirty seconds left. He looked Cindy in the face and realized she had asked him a question. “Oh. Sorry. What was that?” It was a shame she wasn’t smarter. She was one of the prettiest women here. “I just wondered what you were doing at work at the moment. In the future, I mean.” Cindy smiled. “I’m currently working on significantly raising the temperature by forcing deuterium gas under pressure into an evacuated cell containing a sample of palladium dispersed in zirconium oxide, which causes the deuterium to be absorbed by the palladium sample, resulting in a denser deuterium, with deuterium nuclei that are close enough together to fuse! My last test resulted in a temperature increase for almost 50 hours.”

Ding! The timers went off, resounding and echoing around the room, chattering in his ears. He stared at Cindy, unable to speak. He had been so wrong!

Cindy, taking his silence for disinterest, grabbed her purse from her lap and stood up. “Well, nice meeting you, Drake. Good luck with….whatever you’re doing.” And as Drake watched her, mute, she walked to the next station on his left and started talking to a man in an Armani suit. A man named Peirce. A man with manicured hands and shined shoes and undoubtedly a large stock portfolio. A man that was everything Drake wished he himself was. (Peirce? PEIRCE? Why hadn’t he thought of Peirce?)

His attention was suddenly pulled to the woman in front of him. She giggled and brushed her long bangs out of her eyes with her cherry-colored acrylic nails. From this close distance he could see that her glasses were for show. A part of her outfit. “I’m Bitsy.” she giggled. “I’m starting an internet business. I make these really, really adorable doggy sweaters. Everyone loves them and my Aunt Cherise says I’m gunna make a ton of money.”

It was at the precise moment when she asked if he liked karaoke night at the bowling alley and told him she had a glow-in-the-dark bowling ball with the phrase ‘Here’s a bit-O-Bitsy‘ on it that he wished he could rewind about two minutes and have a do-over.

Editor’s note – This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to anyone you know is purely coincidental and kind of cool.

Eavesdropper #1

I gave up on climbing the corporate ladder with hard work. I just want to get laid now. I’m ready to sleep my way to the top.” he said, leaning back in the red velvet covered, 18th century replica Wing Back and crossing his legs, slowly, foot dangling and wagging ever so slightly.

She looked across the table at him, amazed at his obvious swagger, and thinking she would never say such a thing. Especially so loud and in public. It seemed like a statement best whispered. In the dark. Maybe in a closet and to no one.

“I’ve stumped you, have I?” He chuckled and made a movement to grab his Pal Malls from his jacket pocket, realizing a little too late that they weren’t there. He had quit, again, two days ago after promising his girlfriend to ‘participate in saving his own life.’ He then clicked open his briefcase and found the emergency pack he had tucked in the bottom. Only three left. Lighting up, he coolly looked her up and down. Exhaling a smooth white ribbon he said, “Listen. I’m not going to climb across the table and jump you right here. I just want you to know the option is there. You have something I want and I’m willing to pay you for it.”

The air made its way slowly through a small O her lips had made. A tiny, quiet whistle escaped and mingled with his smoke. Embarrassed, her cheeks and neck warmed and she looked down at her hands folded neatly in her lap. She smoothed the wrinkles in her skirt across her knees and wiped off some of the sweat accumulating in her palms under his scrutiny.

She remembered the time she had driven in the silver convertible with the love of her life to the top of the lookout. Trees covering them overhead, leaves making their dancing way to the damp earth and a breeze blowing, at one point so hard she lost her scarf. The one with the tiny blue flowers and made from fancy silk. The one her love had given her. She had cried out and grabbed for it, just a little too late, but he had laughed and kissed her and told her not to worry, he would get her a new one. It had been almost 8 years now since he’d left her. She hated cancer.

Clearing his throat, he said, “I just notice you’re always alone. I’ve never seen you with anyone the entire time I’ve been with the firm.” Leaning forward and looking at her, just inches from her, he reached out one hand, slowly, carefully, and set it next to hers on the table, just grazing a finger.

She left her hand where it was and contemplated the tingle she felt shoot up her arm. Then she thought about her scarf with the tiny blue flowers. She smiled at him, meeting his eyes and putting on her piercing look. The look she’d practiced for years in the mirror. The look she used with problem clients in her office and with colleagues intent on taking more than they gave. The look she would never, ever use on her daughter. “I thank you for your kind proposition.” she offered, “And I’d love to pick up the tab for our drinks.” She said nothing else and made no move forward or back.

He felt confused after a few minutes had passed, uncomfortable, and leaned back a bit, removing his hand and straightening up in his chair. “Thanks.” He raised his eyebrows almost imperceptibly, but she saw it. She noted the unsure look in his eyes and smiled a bit bigger, showing a few more teeth.

Editor’s note – This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to anyone you know is purely coincidental and kind of cool.