AUTHOR INTERVIEW #21
Mark A. Jacobson
- Mention three fun facts that your fans maybe don’t know about you.
I was an undergrad student at the University of California Berkeley in the late 1960s, enthusiastically swept up in the radical politics and cultural “revolution” of that era.
A guilty pleasure of mine is genre fiction. For example, I’ve read each one of Tony Hillerman’s 18 novels about Navajo Tribal Policemen twice!
I play guitar and sing for pleasure and relaxation.
- When did you know that you wanted to become an author?
I’ve loved reading fiction since childhood and dreamed as a boy and young man of writing a novel that could move people in the way my favorite authors moved me. Yet, I never had the self-confidence that what I had to say was worthwhile nor discipline to put in the time and effort necessary for such an undertaking until three decades into my medical career.
- How long have you been writing? And what started it?
I began writing fiction in 2009 when, feeling ready to wind down the research part of my medical career, I began to think about what else I wanted to accomplish. The idea occurred to me that no one had explored in fiction what it was like to be a front-line physician at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, caring for so many young people with a fatal illness that we barely understood at that time. I discovered I could feel the freedom necessary to write a story about such doctors if I simply imagined a personal history and emotional logic for each character that had absolutely no basis in the lives or behavior of any of my colleagues during that time. The details of my own experiences and challenges were fair game and could be distributed among the protagonists of the novel—for example having a patient plead to give him the means to end his life, or a close colleague dying of AIDS, or accidentally sticking myself with a needle contaminated with blood from an HIV-infected patient, or facing the fury and impossible, yet righteous, demands of AIDS activists.
- Who discovered you? (Did you contact publishing houses? How was the process?)
I was not discovered, nor did I write Sensing Light on a contract. Once I had a complete manuscript, I contacted a number of literary agents, none of whom were interested in representing me, though several provided valuable critical input, which I used to revise the text. Next, I submitted the manuscript to several publishers, and Ulysses Press agreed to produce the book.
- How many books have you published (so far)? Which genres?
Sensing Light is my first work of fiction. I’ve published extensively in medical journals on my own research and reviewing that of others.
- Why this story? What made you choose this specific theme?
As a physician who had been on the front line of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco Bay Area during the 1980s, I was confident I could write a credibly realistic novel set in this historic period.
- What inspires you to write? Which authors have inspired you? (Music, art, things in life?)
I was inspired to write Sensing Light by the courage and selflessness I witnessed among AIDS patients and their family and friends during the era before there was any effective treatment for this inevitably fatal disease. Novels that inspired me to write a dramatic novel with physician/medical scientist protagonists include Albert Camus’s The Plague, Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith, and Allegra Goodman’s Intuition.
- What is the message of your book? How should the reader interpret it?
The epigraph to the Forward of Sensing Light, a quote from the end of Albert Camus’s The Plague, says it succinctly. “What we learn in a time of pestilence is that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”
- What are you currently reading?
What We Have Become (originally published in Spanish as El Tango de la Guardia Vieja) by Arturo Perez-Reverte.
- Mention 3 book titles that you wish to recommend.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. The winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, this novel is set during the US-Vietnam War, and the protagonist is an undercover communist agent within the highest level of the South Vietnamese army. It is a brilliant meditation on identity.
If This Is a Man by Primo Levi. The most moving memoir by a Holocaust concentration camp survivor that I’ve read.
Babbit by Sinclair Lewis. Published in 1922 by the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Babbit is a tour de force novel of social realism. A century later, there still hasn’t been a more insightful portrayal of the “small-town” American psyche.
- Are you working on a new book?
I’ve just completed a detailed outline for a novel in which a minor character from Sensing Light, David Ross (see pages 266-272), will be the main character. David, unlike the protagonists of Sensing Light, is morally compromised. I look forward to the challenge of developing him as a character with whom the reader can empathize.