Interview with Barry Eisenberg, author of Primal Calling

Barry - Website 5Give us a brief summary of your life till now and how it led you to write.

While in graduate school, I did an internship at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia and discovered a strong interest in hospital administration. I’ve been in health care ever since, for many years as a hospital administrator and currently as an associate professor of health care management in the School for Graduate Studies at the State University of New York, Empire State College.

After completing my doctorate, I started working at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. First impressions mean a lot, and what struck me most was the profound commitment of staff to their patients. As though it was yesterday, I remember the uneasiness I felt on my way to my initial visit to the children’s section of the hospital, anticipating that seeing children with life-threatening illnesses would be terribly sad. And, while it certainly was, what was even more striking was the feeling of hope and optimism that radiated from them. Meeting the children and seeing the devotion of staff, so dedicated and generous, helped me to see the meaning of courage in a new and deeper way. 

Today, my students bolster my appreciation of courage even further, as they are on the front lines of providing care. I find I am most awed by the ordinary person – any one of us – who rises up with perseverance and dedication when facing extraordinary circumstances and discovers an inner strength they never knew they had.

Writing has always been important to me. A few years ago, I found a desire building to deviate from my usual writing on health care and step into the world of fiction, with Primal Calling.  While the characters are not based on specific people, I hoped that through my characters, I could portray the bravery and humble kind of resolve displayed by the many inspiring people with whom I have worked over the years.

Primal Calling strongly emphasizes the importance of family. What prompted you to write an adventurous story of three people in an unusual family arrangement? 

I have always been fascinated by family, how our sense of self is shaped by family and how the family is so fundamental to where we see our place in the world. What actually prompted my novel was a story I heard on the radio driving home from work. I had caught only the tail-end of an interview with a young man who had embarked on a journey to find his birth father. The story drew me in fully, and I could not let it go. I decided to try my hand at a novel, built around a main character, 20-year-old Jack, who faces incredibly confusing obstacles to find his dad and, in so doing, find himself.

Did you base the main characters on specific people?

The characters are composites of people I have known, some very close to me and others I knew more peripherally. However, they took on their own distinct personalities as they developed on the page.

Primal Calling is a sprawling story but written tightly, without loose ends. How did you contain it to one book, when it could have easily morphed into two books or even a trilogy?

Thank you for suggesting that there could be more, and indeed, there had been before the editing process. My goal was to create characters readers could feel they knew and care about. Primal Calling is about a small, though critical, slice in the lives of this family as well as in the lives touched by each of them.

As for loose ends, unless they are purposeful, I tend to think of them as easy ways out, a convenience for moving a plot along without helping us understand motive in a way that dignifies human complexity and drive. It can be challenging to avoid the temptation to rely on a loose end to steer around an impasse, which is why I really admire writers who ensure that plot movement and character portrayal are aligned and never sacrificed.

Tell us about your next project.

Currently, I am working on a novel about a family faced with grueling decisions about how to care for an aging, declining parent. This story was inspired by our family’s actual experience, as I reported in The New York Times: Lessons on Living from My 106-Year-Old Aunt Doris. The response was overwhelming, and I quickly realized that so many others were living with predicaments similar to the one our family experienced. This next novel will address those dilemmas, and maybe offer some hope for rewarding pathways forward. 

 What’s your research process like?

I try to approach research as though it is an adventure, a chance to learn more about a subject I already know or to learn about something brand new. Writing Primal Calling involved four knowledge areas. The first, health care, is an area in which I have considerable experience. But the other three — oil exploration, searching for lost loved ones, and international espionage — were relatively new. For all three, I started by acquainting myself with the broad landscape: for example, the history, main issues, news accounts. But what I tend to find most intriguing are personal stories. And this helps me to get closer to the characters in my book, to get inside their heads and see the world as they might.

Jack, the main character in Primal Calling, embarks on an arduous search for the father he never met. He must do this in secret since he wants to protect against the possibility of his mother stopping him. He encounters mystery upon mystery, and when a basic Internet search proves insufficient, he goes to law libraries and government agencies to search through documents for clues. I did the same so that I could experience the search as he might. And what I discovered was fascinating. I read dozens of accounts of people engaged in decades-long searches for a lost parent or child. Reading their stories helped me to understand the lengths to which people will go to satisfy this primal drive.

With oil exploration, I knew very little at the outset. The more research I did, the more I understood how engineers approached the tasks of drilling more deeply while trying to exercise awareness of and sensitivity to the environment. Needless to say, these seemingly competing objectives can prove stressful.

All in all, research involves hard work. There’s no substitute or shortcut. It is important to learn enough to bring credibility to what you are presenting to an audience. I am fortunate to have an extensive research background, mostly in health care management and social sciences, but the experience has equipped me with research know-how that I can apply to all areas. When it comes right down to it, I’m a research nerd — research allows us to learn about the world!

Studio shot of certificate of birthWhat’s your writing routine? Do you have a dedicated office, or do you write at the kitchen table? Do you write longhand or type everything?

In junior high school, I was required to take Miss Willoughby’s typing class. My classmates and I were all terrified of her. She would parade around the classroom with a ruler (ostensibly to help us maintain rhythm), ready to assault (verbally, that is) any student whose fingers were not properly placed on the home keys. I am certain that every student who had taken that class can type at lightning speed, though more than a few of us might still shudder spotting a home key not covered when preparing to compose. I know I do!

As for my work environment, living in a house full of animals, our dog Dolan, our cat Ginny, and our very talkative parrot, Nelson, would be too distracting to write in a central location. I am fortunate to have a home office, and this is where I do most of my writing.

As a footnote, I would like to add a note of thanks to Miss Willoughby, wherever she may be.

Do you outline your stories or let the characters take you where they want to go? Do your characters speak to you?

That is a great question, and the answer is yes. I do have a rough outline in my mind about how the stories will play out, but as the characters develop, they take on their own voices. I might write something and then realize that my character would never say that or think that way. So, yes, they speak to me, and I try to keep them as authentic as possible.

What writers do you admire, past or present?

My wife and children all write, and I learn much from them about how to frame emotions and motives. I am fortunate to have wonderful friends and colleagues whose prolific and varied writing styles help me to appreciate the beauty and power of the written word.

It would be overwhelming to list the influences of the countless journalists, authors, and playwrights whose works have influenced me. I greatly admire the opinion writers of The New York Times, past and present, like David Brooks, Maureen Dowd, Frank Bruni, Paul Krugman, and Michelle Goldberg, to name a few whose opinions generally align with mine, and others such as Bret Stephens and Ross Douthat, who help me appreciate different points of view.

I read a lot of history. Jon Meacham and Doris Kearns Goodwin are historians whose works I read regularly. If I were to list the novelists who have inspired me, the list would be endless. But most recently, I read a novel by Kate Quinn and was taken by her ability to create a visual context that felt so visceral. I hope that I can incorporate the things I have learned from all of these authors into the lives of my characters.

What do you like best about being a writer? What do you like least?

I write mostly because I am intrigued by why people do what they do, what drives them. This has always been a fascination. I am not sure why, but it is. And, it’s not the grand or heroic acts. It’s the everyday stuff that, when piled up one on top of the other, gives insight into character and motive. Having worked in health care for the entirety of my professional career, I have always been taken by the quiet, yet unrelenting, courage of those who must dig deep as they cope with serious illness. My thinking about life and, thus, my writing is shaped by those kinds of stories. What I like least about writing is not having enough time to do it.

What little personal quirk would you like to reveal to your readers?

My family would say that I have a million personal quirks! But with respect to writing, it might be perceived as quirky that I can only compose if I start very early in the morning. I like to begin early, generally by 6:00 AM. I’ve always been that way. I have a lot of trouble composing in the evening. I can edit comfortably in the evening, but to write creatively then — forget it!

Barry’s website

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