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 But I had the vague feeling that there were a lot of unpublished writers teaching those courses and I worried that all I’d learn was how to fail.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 PIECE 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 hemorrhagic 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.
What was the hardest part of writing LOUISIANA FEVER? Did you learn anything from writing that book and what was it?
My intention in each book is to reveal more about my two main characters, Andy Broussard and Kit Franklyn by putting them in situations that cause them to change and grow. And the more books I write about them, the harder it is to develop these little character arcs. LOUISIANA FEVER was number four in the series, so my two protagonists were already fairly well fledged out when I began work on the book. At that time, I had no idea what would face them in the new story, or how they would react. But as pieces of the project took shape, opportunities appeared, as they always seem to do. In fact, those arcs for Andy and Kit turned out to be more significant than I ever expected. Strange as it sounds, in each book my characters teach me something new about themselves.
Why New Orleans?
When I first started writing, I had no idea if I could produce a book good enough to find a publisher. That’s of course the big question in anyone’s mind when they think about writing a novel. But I figured I could improve my chances by setting the book in a place that provided a lot to write about and could be used to give my story a palpable atmosphere. I had lived in New Orleans for five years during graduate school, and even though that was a long time before I got the urge to write, those years remained burned into my memory. Is there any other city in the country that better served my objectives for a setting than New Orleans? I thought it was the perfect choice then, and I still do. Also, coming from a biology background, swamps and bayous hold a natural attraction for me. Whenever I see an interesting body of water, I want to get out of the car and walk the bank, looking for wildlife. Maybe one day I’ll tell you how that kind of curiosity once resulted in me heading over to pick my wife up after work with no knowledge that there was a live cottonmouth moccasin loose in the car.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
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.” Write because you love it. If you don’t love doing it then you can be crushed by the difficulties inherent in the pursuit.
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.