The Bookshelf: Daniel Palmer Finds Suspense In The White House With 'The First Family'

Jun 22, 2018

Daniel Palmer at his writing studio in Hollis, N.H.
Credit Peter Biello/NHPR

This week on The Bookshelf from NHPR, a conversation with Daniel Palmer about his new book, The First Family.

In the new novel by Hollis resident Daniel Palmer, Lee Blackwood is a family doctor struggling to keep his practice alive when he receives a call from the office of the president of the United States. The president needs his help. The president’s son has come down with an ailment that the White House doctor can’t, or won’t, diagnose correctly and soon it becomes clear that someone may be trying to kill the president’s son. NHPR’s Peter Biello spoke with Palmer at his writing studio. Scroll down to read a transcript of the interview and a top five list of Palmer’s reading recommendations.

Daniel Palmer’s Top Five Reading Recommendations

1. Watchers by Dean Koontz. Ask me to pen an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride that must include a golden retriever named Einstein (who can play Scrabble), and I don’t think you’d be thrilled with the results. Thank goodness we have Dean Koontz! Good (capital G) and Evil (capital E) are on full display in this cautionary tale of genetic engineering gone wrong. 

2. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. The serial killer aspect of Harris's masterpiece is truly frightening, but it's the psychological warfare between Starling and Lecter that makes this novel a classic.

3. Eye of The Needle by Ken Follett. The stakes here are inarguably high: the true-life deception of the Allies’ “Operation Fortitude” might decide the fate of the war. The hunt for the master German spy, Henry Faber (aka The Needle), who carries proof of the American plan, escapes pedestrian spy thriller territory thanks to its unlikely heroine.

4. The Stand by Stephen King. Read the news today, and it’s easy to take a gloomy outlook. King felt a similar sense of doom when, in the mid-1970s, he penned his Lord of the Rings-like epic on an American landscape. King’s masterwork makes it easy to imagine that we too could be as bold, as brave, as amazing as the archetypical heroes who face the ultimate evil in humanity’s final stand.

5. The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy. When you start a book with a Russian sub being chased by the Russian fleet, you know you’re in for a thrill ride. Clancy is deft at conveying the claustrophobic feeling of life below sea level. What makes the book something truly special is how he blends an explanation of gadgetry with a plot as propulsive as any torpedo.

I want to start by talking about the doctor at the center of this book, Lee Blackwood. He's the kind of doctor who practices family medicine and so he's not as well paid as the other doctors. He's sort of down on his heels when the book begins. But then he gets the call of a lifetime to go treat the president's son for an illness they can't quite put their finger on right away. Tell me about the inspiration for this doctor.

Well what I try to do with all of these characters is to kind of find the nugget of relatability and if I wrote Lee as an all-knowing surgeon, he's harder to connect with. The fact that Lee has these problems that a lot of people can relate to, job security, the changes in health care and health care reform, these are things that people can automatically identify with and it makes it easier for them to kind of understand who this guy is and what his world is all about.

So when I was looking for Lee's center, who this character is going to represent for me, it’s really that idea of a family practice which is kind of going away. It's being gobbled up by hospitalists, being transformed by the way that healthcare is given. It seemed like kind of a great opportunity to sort of put a character out there that's at the crossroads of this transformation of how our healthcare system is working and affecting the lives of not only the doctors but the patients as well.

Tell me about the research you had to do for this novel because it's full of not only details about the medical industry but also the details of how the first family operates, the physical layout of the White House, procedures in the Secret Service. What was the research like for both of these things?

Well this is a novel chock-full of different kinds of information. One of our rules of writing is that whatever you research, let's say, out of 100 percent of what you research if one percent of it makes it into the book that's pretty good. And so in order for me to get the details in The First Family right I had to do an awful lot of excavating and hunting and finding experts who really know their stuff.

So far as to e-mail, actually I think I called the Secret Service and I said, “Hey, I'm writing a book about the first family. I need some information.” They put me in touch with the public relations department where there's a guy who specializes in answering questions from movies, TV and book people. And he was very forthcoming with information and very forthcoming when he wanted to say I can't tell you that. So there was a lot of things I asked him where he said, “I can't tell you. I can't tell you.”

And in fact in one scene where I needed to get the dialogue right of how they would respond in a crisis situation I actually googled the crisis, a crisis that I remembered. I don't want to give it away, what the crisis was, I'll just say a crisis involving the Secret Service at a high level. And I found on the web a transcript of what was said. And I essentially took the transcript and just rewrote it a little bit to fit my narrative. But it is as authentic as can be.

And then in terms of the medicine I'm super fortunate in that in my immediate family I happen to have a lot of experts who know their stuff and one of them, my dear uncle Dr. David grass, has been a supporter of these medical books from the get go. And he really helped me understand Lee's plight, what it's like to be a family doc and the challenges that he's going through, as well as helped me understand a lot of the medical issues that I was diving into.

Let's talk a little bit about your family, because your dad's name is on the cover of this book. Tell us about the relationship with you and your father in writing.

So this book is what I would call a Michael Palmer medical thriller. And when people are like “Well, how do you write your dad's books?” I'm like, well, it's not exactly how my father would write. It's not his voice per se, but it is evocative of the kinds of stories that made my father a bestseller back in 1982, I think, when he got his career started.

And it kind of follows in line with what's happening out there in the publishing world right now. Tom Clancy's got books published, Vince Flynn has books published, Robert Parker has books published. All people who have passed away. All people who have new writers who are carrying forward these stories. And so, in essence, what my father's publisher asked is if, because I was writing novels as well.

So my dad and I, when he was alive, we would talk back and forth on FaceTime, some 60 miles away from me, and we would talk about plot problems and challenges we're having with our books and I really learned the craft from his teachings and his mentorship.

And so when he passed away his publisher was extremely gracious and interested in keeping his great brand alive and basically just asked, could I write a book like my father would write. And I jumped at the opportunity because it felt like a terrific way to honor his legacy, to keep these stories alive. And to be honest, and he'd be the first to say it, he's happy to help feed his grandchildren as well. So it's been a terrific experience writing these books and the support I've gotten from my father's fans all over the world has been tremendous.

It's also been the hardest thing I've ever done as a writer because I am not a doctor and to bring that authenticity and verisimilitude of the story is not easy to do for somebody who's not a doctor. It's almost like I don't know what I don't know. So I have to ask a lot of questions.

But what I’ve found in writing the books is what matters absolutely the most is your level of craft. Can you create characters that people can root for? Can you create plots that have high enough stakes? Can you keep the tension? Can you keep the pacing? Can you keep people turning the pages? And that all has nothing to do with how I did in high school biology, which was a solid B, maybe B+.

So how would you describe the differences between your style, your subject matter, and that of your father?

This book has a very big plot. It's a massive topic you're dealing with. Like you said, the Secret Service, the White House. I didn't even know where the rooms are, to understand where the medical service center in the White House is.

I actually had to turn to a book my father wrote that Bill Clinton blurbed. Bill Clinton, who's now joined our club of suspense writers with James Patterson. My father wrote a book called The First Patient which dealt with what happens, we always look for those “what if” questions. So the “what if” question in The First Family is: What if the president's son comes down with a disease that appears to be entirely new to medicine and science? The “what if” for The First Patient was: What if the president suddenly goes insane? Current stuff aside, it was blurbed by Bill Clinton and there's a lot of details in there that I was able to refer back to. And it really helped me with understanding kind of the layout.

So these books are very challenging to write because they're really plot heavy. And what I tend to do in my writing, as Daniel Palmer, I focus more on domestic issues, families, and I look for the jeopardy and the tension and the stakes that come from the conflict within the family unit. So they tend to be smaller stories but the stakes feel as high because all you have to do is care about the characters, care about the family and you want them to get out of whatever jeopardy you've put them in.

This genre seems to be getting more popular. As you mentioned, former President Bill Clinton and James Patterson have teamed up on a book, The President is Missing, it's just out now. What do you think it is about stories about the president that really have nothing to do with politics that makes them so interesting to certain groups of readers?

One thing I did very intentionally in this book, the president in my novel is a centrist. He truly plays the middle road role. So he doesn't lean left. He doesn't lean right. And the reason I did that is because as soon as you make any political ideology known in your book half of your readers are going to hate you and the other half will love you. And it's just the way it works.

So what you see in politics today, with the divisiveness, you actually get reflected back in your fiction. So by making the president human, to take the politics out of the story, I'm able to give the readers a window into the world of the presidency because it's as fascinating as the monarchy. It's a completely foreign experience.

And so by reading a ton of presidential biographies and reading about life in the White House, I was able to grab these nuggets of really how isolating it is, how lonely it is. What's the role of the first lady? What's that job really like? And kind of the scrutiny that goes into it. And I found, actually, that it might be the worst job in the world.

And so to show that and to bring that perspective, the weight, the pressure, the isolation, I think it's just fascinating to read about it. It certainly was to write about.

So we are here in your writing studio in Hollis. It's in a very old house, right across the parking lot there's a general store. How much time do you spend here writing and working on your books?

This is a job for me. So it's like any job. I show up in the morning after I have my breakfast and do my exercise. Then I come here. I have a sit-stand desk so I'm not sitting all day, I keep myself moving. And then it's the strangest job because I should be lonely. I'm in a real estate office. There's things happening here but nobody comes to see me. You're the first. But the day flies by. I don't know how it happens. I'm lost in the books, the stories, the characters.

And so usually I get a lot of my writing done in the morning that's when I'm kind of getting into that alpha state where I'm really in the zone. And then it starts to fade and as soon as the energy level dips I switch gears and I do some administrative stuff and then the day's over and I head home, hang out with my family, my kids, do all the normal dad stuff.

Are you still thinking about the story and the plot and your characters after you leave this office and go home?

The one thing about the writing life is the job is never done. When you're doing anything, you go out to walk the dog, you're thinking about the book. When you're playing golf you're thinking, I should be writing. There’s just not really that time when you can shut it off.

So I'm not answering e-mails all the time but my characters, my stories, my plot, the plot problems are always pinging at me. They're always saying, hey, figure this out, get through this. Because there's no feeling worse than not being able to move the story forward in the right way. And there's no feeling better than when you get it and you know, oh, I can fix this, here's how I do it. And so it's just kind of an endless job but at the same time it doesn’t feel like a job.