Today we’re thrilled to host author Dr. Stephen Geller on our blogsite. As the chairman of Pathology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for 22 years, he has woven his clinical experience into his first novel, A Little Piece of Me.
The main character, pianist Marcia Kleinman, is forced to make heart-wrenching decisions when her little boy is diagnosed with a rare liver disease. Marcia increasingly finds solace at her piano, searching for the ever-elusive heart of Beethoven’s Appassionata. As Max’s health declines, music is her salvation. She rediscovers her spirit, passion and strength dealing with life-changing, and life-saving, decisions while her marriage crumbles.
HerMentorCenter: “A Little Piece of Me” is your first novel. How long did it take to write it and when did you start? Why did you write it?
Stephen A. Geller: The novel took eight or more years to write, in part because I was working full time as a pathologist in a very busy hospital. I actually started writing this novel, although I did not fully realize it, even two years before that when I was taking a course about novel writing at UCLA and had to write a sample first chapter of a novel. That chapter eventually was included in the final product, but not as the first chapter. During those years A Little Piece of Me was rewritten many times and the published version bears only moderate resemblance to what I once thought was a ‘finished’ first draft. The most effective writing came when I was no longer working full-time, the year before it was published. Then I was able to write at least four hours a day, sometime seven days a week.
Why I wrote it is a fairly complicated question, the answer to which I am only beginning to understand. Paul Auster, the wonderful contemporary writer, said he writes because he has no choice but to do so. I think he is correct. I first started writing for myself, rather than for a school assignment, when I was in junior high school and continued until I finished medical school. I then didn’t seem to have time for writing and did not resume until more than four decades later.
HMC: Is the book based on your own life?
SAG: Only very loosely. The pathologist in the book is partly self-descriptive and the pathologist’s office is somewhat like my former office. Other than that, the book is almost entirely fiction. The focus of the story is a young woman whose child has a serious, potentially fatal, chronic liver disease. I was once examining a liver biopsy from a child about the same age as Max, the character in my book. That child had the diagnosis that I used for Max, but the real child did much better than my Max. After I gave the diagnosis to the child’s pediatrician I wondered how that kind of diagnosis affects a family. This was about the same time I was renewing my somewhat dormant desire to be writer and it seemed quite natural to tell a story, if not the true story, about this family. I entered college wanting to be a writer but gave it up to pursue a medical career. There are, and have been, many physicians who can combine their professional life with their literary life but I did not. for more information, read this blog post: Doctors who write: it all began with Ctesius of Cnidus
HMC: Your novel includes, in addition to medicine, emphasis on music and even a little law. Indeed the cover of the book shows us the medicine and the music. Why did you make music such an important component?
SAG: My characters need to have full lives, just as we all do. My protagonist, Marcia, is married to a lawyer and is the daughter of a successful pianist. Marcia is herself a very talented musician who teaches rather than performs. Marcia, the character in the novel, also needs conflicts in her life to portray her in realistic terms and I was able to find those conflicts in her interactions with her husband and her mother, as well as within her self.
I love music very much, particularly Beethoven, and it was natural to make it a part of Marcia’s life just as it is a part of my own. Music also served as a way of developing the relationship between Marcia and Barbara, her mother, as well as on opportunity to explore choices for Marcia.
HMC: Most of our book choices in the past have been non-fiction. A Little Piece of Me is one of the few novels we’ve highlighted. Did you find the writing to be hard work?
SAG: I am decidedly honored. In some ways these are not the best times for fiction. Bookstores are going the way of dinosaurs. Even the large chains, after the inevitable demise of the local bookstore, have significant problems maintaining themselves. The electronic book, as we all know, is contributing to the loss of the printed word. The only consolation to the writer is that people are still reading, but now on their Kindles or Nooks or iPads.
The briefest response would be to say that writing is hard work, but that the real work is in the rewriting (and the rewriting and the rewriting and the rewriting and … etc).
The best response would be to say that the writing is relatively easy, but the rewriting is terribly hard. What do I mean when I say the writing is easy? I have often read interviews with accomplished authors of fiction who said that the characters write the story. I can now fervently attest to that. Once I found my Marcia – I developed her character and personality and life experiences – and then surrounded her with the others in my story I managed to let them all interact in ways that were so natural and real to me that I had to type them onto the page. Marcia had to react to Max and Michael and the others the way she did and they, in turn, had to react to her in the ways they did.
HMC: What writers have most inspired you.
SAG: I often turn to the stories of Irwin Shaw, whose writings strongly influenced me and my writings as I developed my view of life and society. Much of what he has written is unforgettable because of its clarity, relevance and moral viewpoint.
Some time ago I was asked to comment at a retirement party for a hospital chemist who was both a colleague and a friend. Fiercely committed to quality for almost three decades he was adamant in accepting only the highest quality equipment – more often than not the more expensive – for the laboratory he supervised, no matter how serious the budgetary constraints happened to be at the time. His unwavering defense of quality often engendered harsh criticism from administrators who had little understanding of the scientific issues but whose principal goal was to find ways to save dollars. I began my tribute by briefly recounting Shaw’s short story, The Monument.
The Monument describes the interaction between three men: McMahon, a long-time, highly respected bartender unwilling to stock an inferior whisky even for use in mixed drinks, despite the possibility of losing his job, Mr. Grimmet, his insistent boss, trying to reduce expenses, and Thesing, the traveling salesman, wanting the sale but reluctant to engage in the debate. McMahon, as with so many other Shaw characters, strongly, indelibly, exemplifies high ethical standards. The setting, a popular restaurant bar, is perhaps trivial but the human dilemmas and personal conflicts are bitingly real.
When discussing writers and writing with people of various ages it seems that Shaw is no longer well known and only rarely read. As example, there is no charge on Kindle for some of his best novels. A Shaw novel is rarely, if ever, a high school reading requirement. Yet, he was among the most important fiction writers. A prolific playwright, screenwriter, short story author and novelist, Shaw’s masterful and often gripping written works sold more than 14 million copies. His writings decidedly influenced my love of the novel and short story forms as well as my writing style.
In an interview Shaw said, “A writer is a human being. He has to live with a sense of honor.” Shaw was of a time when words such as “honor” meant a great deal and his writings are filled with values of tolerance, decency and integrity.
Many other writers have challenged and excited me, both from years past (e.g. Tolstoy, Hugo, Dostoevsky, Pasternak, Dumas, Faulkner, Hemingway) and present day (e.g. Munro, Lahiri, McEwen, Byatt, Le Carre, Mantel). Two outstandings books I have recently read are Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Can Not See and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin.
HMC: What are you working on now?
SAG: I am working on two novels, a number of short stories and my blog page as well as three chapters in a new textbook on the history of medicine.
HMC: Thanks, Stephen, for sharing a little piece of you. As you can see, Dear Readers, he has a lot of interesting information, thinks deeply and is immersed in his writing. Learn more about Stephen by reading his blog posts at, StephenAGeller.com. And now, Readers, it’s your turn to weigh in, ask questions or share your ideas. Leave a reply by following the prompts at the end of this post.