Tuesday, October 27, 2009

CJ Lyons - From MD to Author

Today I'm hanging out with another of the authors from the 7 Criminal Minds blog. CJ Lyons is a former Pediatric ER doctor who decided to follow her dream of writing. The dream led to her Angels of Mercy series, which is a medical thriller series set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Don't worry, CJ, as long as you don't mention the Steelers, we Cleveland folk won't hold it against you! ;)

LIFELINES and WARNING SIGNS, the first two novels in CJ's series have received acclaim from Publishers Weekly, The Baltimore Sun, Newsday, The Romantic Times Book Review Magazine and more. This week, the third book in that series finds it way to bookstores. This third Angels of Mercy installment is titled URGENT CARE.

CJ took some time out of her schedule to sit down and talk a little with me about herself and her writing. So, without further ado, CJ Lyons!

Q: Wow CJ, you have some very exciting life experiences on your resume. How did you end up on an archeological expedition in Australia? Can you tell us a bit about that experience?

CJ: Thanks, Jen! I've always suffered from a bit of wanderlust—constantly wondering what was on the other side of the mountain and how the people who live there live. Because of that, I joined Earthwatch so that when I go on vacation not only am I helping out with research expeditions but I'm also off the beaten tourist track and seeing the "real" country.

The trip to Australia was very cool—way "back of beyond" on aboriginal lands, documenting ancient sacred sites. We found cave art that later carbon-dated to 41,000 years ago!!!

Q: I’m also fascinated with the fact that you spent time on the Navajo reservation. Can you tell us a little about that experience? Do you think either the Australian expedition or the Navajo reservation may show up in future books? Were there elements of those experiences that you would like to bring to light for other people through your writing?

CJ: I worked on the Navajo reservation covering for a pediatrician who was out on maternity leave. Not only was it a great chance for a girl from rural Pennsylvania to see the west (something I've always dreamed of) but the people were fantastic. We worked hard to blend traditional beliefs with modern medicine. The experience really showed me how, no matter what culture they come from, people really are the same at heart.

I've been writing all my life and so have several finished but never-seen novels, lol! One of them, written almost ten years ago, uses my Australian experiences in a paranormal romantic thriller with a globe-trotting climate scientist having her beliefs challenged when an ancient Aboriginal myth comes to life and threatens to destroy the world. I was definitely way ahead of the curve—paranormal wasn't popular back then and there weren't many "kick ass" heroines. I've never tried to get that book published and it doesn't really fit my current readership, so maybe I'll publish it on Kindle or the like someday.
Q: You once said, “the main reason I write is that it’s my way of trying to change the world. To speak for the victims, to empower those that feel helpless, to let people know that heroes are indeed born everyday.” Have you had any encounters with readers since publishing your first two books that have made you feel like you’ve accomplished this – or are really on the right path to continuously accomplishing it, because really this is a goal that doesn’t necessary have to have a conclusion or ending point.

CJ: Actually, yes I have heard from several readers! After LIFELINES was published I had hundreds of fan letters (the best part of being published is hearing from readers!) and several of them were from people going through very, very bad times who said they'd been both inspired and empowered by my writing. And even more people have expressed the same sentiment to me in person after WARNING SIGNS came out.

The one who sticks with me the most was a lady who found me at the Virginia Festival of the Book and thanked me, saying that she'd had cancer and couldn't sleep because of the pain but that reading my books helped her to escape and make it through the long nights.

You're right, it's not a goal that has an end point—in fact, I hope it never ends!

Q: You decided on medicine fairly late in your college career. What drove you in that direction? And why pediatrics?

CJ: I originally began as a technical theatre major but after a biology class where the professor invited us to an autopsy on a homeless man, I became fascinated by medicine. I realized that I was tired of the melodrama that went on behind the scenes in the theatre and that helping people who were sick or injured would be much more rewarding.

As for pediatrics, a lot of doctors don't want to deal with kids because kids can't always tell you what's going on with them, so you need to be more intuitive. I like working with kids — to me, they're more understandable than many adults.
Q: You have since left medicine to pursue this life-long dream of writing. Any regrets? Any thoughts that you would maybe go back to medicine in one form or another someday?

CJ: I miss my patients, but given the current state of our health care system (which honestly, has been heading for disaster for two decades) I'm happy not to be caught in the middle. I have thought of volunteering but haven't found a position that accommodates my writing schedule and since writing is now paying the bills, I have to make it my priority.
Q: So what was the tipping point for you? Why decide to give up the relative security of a job in medicine for the publishing world?

CJ: I wasn't burnt out—yet. But my frustration with the business part of medicine was growing—I hated spending every lunch hour and any free time between patients arguing with insurance companies just to get the care my patients needed. I've always turned to writing as my comfort and after several published friends told me that my work was publishable I decided to try to create a second career. So far, it's been a definite dream come true—just like practicing medicine was!
Q: So your series is called the Angels of Mercy series. LIFELINES was your debut novel, followed by WARNING SIGNS. And then today the third book of the series URGENT CARE is being released. Tell us a little about the series overall. Obviously your experience in the medical field played a part in how this series came to be, but what else helped bring Angels of Mercy to fruition?

CJ: While my medical knowledge helped, I think the most important thing that brought the world of Angels of Mercy to life was focusing not on the medicine but on the people. One of the most important things I learned during my seventeen years practicing pediatrics was that it's not medicine that saves lives, it's people.
Q: You’ve had experiences in medical facilities outside of Pittsburgh – including several in Ohio – what made you choose Pittsburgh for your setting in the Angels of Mercy series?

CJ: I'm from central Pennsylvania and had relatives who lived in Pittsburgh, so we visited there a lot when I was growing up. And my first encounter with any major medical issue—in fact, the first time I ever went to a hospital—was when I was twelve and visited a friend who was critically ill in the ICU at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

I've lived and worked in Akron and Toledo as well and I'm sure they'll show up in books someday, but Pittsburgh is such a classic everyman, all-American city where anything can and does happen, that I'll probably continue to set stories there.
Q: Your first two books, LIFELINES and WARNING SIGNS, both dealt with doctors. URGENT CARE is going to focus on a nurse at Angels of Mercy ER. What kind of adjustments did you have to make to write from this new perspective?

CJ: The same four main characters have played roles in each of the books—they just take turns taking center stage. So, I already knew Nora and what her character was all about. It also helps that each character is part of me.
Q: You have called the Angels of Mercy series “thrillers with heart.” And by that you mean that the focus is less plot-driven, more character-driven, correct? Tell us a little about how each of your characters comes to life and what kinds of interactions you have as the writing process is going on.

CJ: I coined the term "thrillers with heart" in an attempt to describe my own writing—stories with thriller pacing and raising stakes but that were about the people more than the crimes that jumpstarted the plot. Then I realized that the term describes a lot of thrillers out there—books that center on the relationships, whether a romance or family or friends, rather than the "special effects."

For instance, DIE HARD is really about a guy trying to win back the love of his estranged wife—what makes it thrilling is that the only way he can do that is to defeat the terrorists holding his wife and her co-workers hostage. The same with PATRIOT GAMES—it's not about the IRA fanatics but really about one man protecting his family going up against one man avenging his family, placing family at the heart of PATRIOT GAMES.
Q: Your Angels of Mercy series is written in third person. Did you always see this series in third person? Is that where you’re most comfortable writing or were there benefits for this particular series that made you decide you’d write in third person?

CJ: I always saw this series in third person. For multiple points of view, it's easier to use third person. I prefer a very deep third person (which is extremely close to first person, as if the camera lives behind the eyes of the person whose head you're in at the time) as I think that allows readers to connect with the character more easily.
Q: Since you’ve been in the world of ER and medicine yourself and you know a lot of your content first hand, what kinds of research do you find yourself having to do for the Angels of Mercy series?

CJ: Actually, I still do a lot of research—I even have a nurse who is a Advanced Life Support instructor who advises me on the latest changes in EMS and ALS protocols. I try hard to get the facts right, but sometimes the facts have to give way to the needs of the story and I have to settle for keeping things plausible.
Q: If you were going to put together a music soundtrack for the Angels of Mercy series, give me three songs that would HAVE to be included.

CJ: When I'm writing Lydia, I tend to listen to my own music—head-banging hard rock, like Tool, Mettalica, Led Zeppelin, Drowning Pool, Disturb'd….so for her, I'd go with either "Godsmack's Touché" or "Running Blind." Amanda is more easy going, I tend to associate her with James Taylor's "Going to Carolina" and Joe Crocker's "Get by with a Little Help from my Friends." Nora's themes are more tragic, deeper layers, Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" or Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade." And Gina, good old fashioned rock 'n roll, Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want."

Yeah, that's more than three—but I'm not real big on following rules! Guess that's why I'm writing books that are so cross-genre that they break all the rules, lol!

We definitely don't mind rule-breakers around here!
Q: So now that book 3 has safely made its way to the book shelves and online stores, where are you going from here? Will the series continue? Do you have ideas for anything outside the series?

CJ: I've given my editor the proposal for book 4 in the series, Gina's story, tentatively titled ISOLATION—it's up to her and Berkley to decide how many more in the series there will be, but as long as readers keep enjoying them, I'm very happy to keep writing them!

I'm also trying my hand at a non-medical thriller, although medicine still plays a large role in it. I don't always like coloring in the lines—it's fun to challenge myself, try new and different types of stories.

Q: We know you’re an avid traveler. What else do you like to do when you’re not writing?

CJ: Since I sold LIFELINES, there hasn't been very much time to do much else! But thankfully, the travel and teaching writing workshops (I love to teach—goes with being a pediatrician for all those years) give me a chance to get away from my computer for a while. I am also going to try my hand at painting—I can't draw a straight line to save my life, but I love playing with color and texture, so it should be fun!
Q: There is quite a bit of hoopla (for lack of a better term – that we can use on the blog, anyway) about the medical world and insurance and prescription and basically anything that has to do with medicine. If you could tell our legislators one thing in their efforts to make sense of all this, what is the most important thing you feel they need to consider?

CJ: That even though kids don't vote, they make up the largest growing segment of not just the uninsured but also the homeless and the underfed. Yes, right here in the greatest country on Earth, we let our kids go without food, shelter, and medical care—often despite their parents working very hard to try to give their children these essentials. How can you expect a child to grow up to lead or fight for their country if you can't insure that they have these basics?
Excellent point to end on. And I thank CJ for taking time to hang out and talk with us today. Don't forget CJ is the Monday blogger over at 7 Criminal Minds, so you can always pop over there to say "hey" to her on Mondays. You can also check her out on her website and stay up to date with her new release URGENT CARE and all of her writing projects.

CJ may stop back in here so if you have any questions you'd like to throw her way, feel free to drop them in the comments section. Thanks for stoppin' by and hanging out with CJ and me. Happy Reading!


Sophie Littlefield October 27, 2009 at 11:03 AM  

Great interview, ladies. CJ, I'll never forget the first time I saw you speak, now quite a few years ago, and how intimidated I was by the breadth of your experience. "There's a woman who's done it all," I said to myself, and yet you keep finding new adventures...

CJ Lyons October 27, 2009 at 11:31 AM  

Thanks, Sophie! You're so sweet to say that! Especially as I'm in constant awe of the accomplishments of so many others (including you!) and think, "I should be doing more, trying new things..."

Thanks for stopping by!

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