Inkwater Press sits down with author John Keshishian to discuss his semi-autobiographical spy novel Dr. John on Assignment.
Inkwater: John, thank you for writing Dr. John on Assignment. Inkwater was thrilled to have the opportunity to publish this action-packed spy novel about a surgeon’s unlikely adventures in and around the Cold War. What exactly started your journey toward writing it? What was it that you wanted to share with the world?
Well, my dear sweet wife came into my office one day, looked around, and declared that it was a total mess. “Please get it cleaned up,” she said. So I got started. From meeting various people and listening to constant suggestions from my wife that I write my memoirs, I found notes and memorabilia from past events and thought, Hmmm, and more hmmm, maybe I just might.
Then, a few weeks later, one of my patients and I were chatting in my office. He spotted a chapter on my desk, read it, and said, “Doc, you ought to get this stuff published. It’s great.” And here we are.
Inkwater: The narrator, Dr. John, tells this thrilling tale with humor on nearly every page. What do you believe that humor adds to a story like this?
I’ve always found that humor, self-deprecation, and light banter are more winning of the readers’ attention rather than heavy, officious statements. In other words, light stuff said in a compelling manner keeps the reader glued to a book.
Inkwater: In the author’s note, readers learn that this novel took ten years to complete. What was the most difficult aspect of writing it?
Over those ten years, much took place in my life. I was doing so many things at the same time, writing and taking photos for National Geographic, my surgical practice, and my duties as chief of the medical staff. I owe much to Dr. Grosvenor, who pushed me into that field confident in my abilities. This all took time. One of my students whom I rejected for surgical fellowship became a shrink and later told me I was the first person she’d ever known who functioned well on three tracks simultaneously. And in between I would dash off a chapter often including what had just transpired that week, like helping Yusuf Karsh and that spicy bit of fiction with Gigi.
Inkwater: Your book is packed with specific details about your personal history and the cultural landscape of the times. How did you manage to keep track of it all?
Picture a dusty treasure trove filled with everything from handwritten notes on napkins to postcards to expired passports. One day I stumbled upon a forgotten stash of all that and more. That mass of memories sparked so many moments and conversations that reminded me of the nuances and details that make this story unique. I also used scraps of notes, cards, and menus from Bill Garrett, my old buddy and former editor at the National Geographic.
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Inkwater: How would you describe your main character Dr. John?
Possibly a mish-mash of Indiana Jones, James Bond, and a somewhat naïve, somewhat dazed do-gooder who slowly came to grips with the real world.
Inkwater: In many ways, Dr. John on Assignment is a fictionalized autobiography. What do you believe are the main differences between you and the main character?
There are very few differences between us. I incorporated some of my adventures into the fabric of my novel. I have left out much of my Navy experiences…no need. But sometimes, I felt comfortable inserting some of the various events—but again, not all. I did get snatched in Moscow. I did have wild adventures in SE Asia, Vietnam, and Tom Dooley’s hospital in Laos.
Be prepared for some experiences: some never to be forgotten, or ever admitted to by various unnamed agencies.
Enuff. Send me a book. I’ll sign it.