Harry Kraus, MD is on my short list of "must read" authors. Gifted and adept at writing both fiction and non-fiction, his books are captivating, thought-provoking, and even convicting. His most recent novel, The Six-Liter Club (Howard Books, ISBN: 978-1416577973), is no exception.
In this book set in 1984, trauma surgeon Dr. Camille Weber has a rather memorable beginning on her inaugural day as the first African-American to become an attending doctor at the Medical College of Virginia. Not only does she become a member of the elite Six Liter Club by bringing back a patient from the brink of death in spite of his loss of six liters of blood, she immediately clashes with the establishment of white male physicians who rule the hospital. Completely dedicated to her patients' best interests and not afraid to push the envelope, she soon finds herself once again in conflict when a colleague's wife, newly diagnosed with breast cancer, chooses Camille as her surgeon, requesting an unapproved, less invasive surgery and treatment. Battling the status quo is hard enough, but then Camille begins experiencing panic attacks brought on by dark memories from her childhood in Africa, hazy memories which she can't quite piece together but which lead her to question her father's character and reject the Christian beliefs he professed before his death on the mission field. Her professional life, her emotional stability, and even her dating relationship teeter on the edge of disaster. Will she be overcome or will God's grace touch her life?
I was captivated by this edgy and fast-paced novel. If you only like to read traditional Christian fiction portraying strong believers, this book is not for you. But if you want a realistic novel that portrays Truth without being preachy, which you can give to an unbelieving friend, and that juxtaposes sin's futility & emptiness with love &, grab a copy of this book. Better yet, grab two and pass one along!
I was thrilled when Dr. Kraus graciously agreed to an interview via email. Glimpsing the heart of an author enhances any reading experience, and having read most of his other books, as well as his blog, I can tell his beats to share with others the love and grace he receives from God--whether in an African hospital, as a surgeon here in the USA, or via the books he pens. Grab a cup of mocha and enjoy this "chat" with Dr. Harry Kraus.
Where did you get the idea for this book?
I was sitting in church one Sunday when my pastor, Phil Smuland, gave a true-life story about missionaries who were slaughtered during the Simba Rebellion, Congo, 1964. Immediately, I had one of those “ah-hah” moments. I had the seed for a new story!
The main character, Camille Weller, is pretty different from you – an African-American woman. Was that difficult for you to write? How did you research her character?
Camille is different than me, but she had learned to survive in a white-man’s world by “being one of the guys,” so her actions weren’t that different than mine. In addition, because she is a surgeon, I’ve got that life pegged. Her background from the Congo I had to research. I read books about the Simba Rebellion, especially true-life accounts of Christian martyrs. In terms of getting into the head of a female, it is simply the work of imagination. I write, but of course my wife will critique, then a female editor will see it as well. Sometimes I get it right!
I understand that you actually wrote this book years ago and had a difficult time getting it published in both the secular and Christian markets. Why is that? What genre do you consider this book to be?
I originally wrote this book under a pseudonym, not wanting to offend those readers who were used to a softer Harry Kraus novel. I wrote the book for the secular market. I wanted to show a protagonist who wasn’t a Christian in a real light with struggles and real dirt, but of course not glorify sin or show sin without consequence. I wanted the protagonist to encounter faith, but approach it with the hangups that most of our non-believing friends do. Unfortunately, my agent was never able to find the manuscript a buyer. We shopped it around for two years. (This was the first manuscript that I showed my agent, Natasha Kern, and the one she fell in love with and prompted her to accept me as a client!) No secular publishing house wanted the novel because it was too faith-oriented! Alas, we turned to the Christian market and softened the grit of the novel a bit so that it took on its present form. It is still my hope that Christians will hand this book to their non-Christian friends and won’t have to worry that the Christian message (which is definitely there) will club them over the head.
While there are not graphic scenes, this book is definitely edgier than the quintessential Christian “prairie novel” as Camille is not a Christian and her life reflects this. What do you say to the Christian reader about this type of book?
Again, I wrote this for the secular market. My hope is to reveal a struggle with sin and its consequences, but not glorify sin in the process. You are correct and perhaps it should come with a warning: “Caution, not a prairie novel!” What would I tell them? “Give the book to your non-Christian friends.”
Who is your intended audience for this book? What message do you want them to take away from this novel?
The audience is adults. Christians who aren’t looking for fluff, but enjoy a story with grit and gospel. Take-away: God has given each of us unique gifts to be celebrated. Time is wasted when we spend our energy being someone that we aren’t. Also, there is a neat parallel takeaway message in the end that is a real picture of the Passover. I won’t say more about that because it is a spoiler!
Some authors speak of their characters doing things or experiencing situations which the author hasn’t planned as the book progresses. Does this happen in your writing? If so, in what way, and do you follow the character or make him/her cooperate with your plan?
I do both, I think. I’m not so planned about every detail that I’m closed to my characters taking me on an unexpected twist. For the most part, if you do your character work well and know your characters, then when you put them in a scene with a particular set of circumstances, their character will determine how they respond.
In the book, Camille finds herself battling the “establishment” of white male physicians and endeavoring to be accepted and respected for her expertise, and this is magnified when she makes some treatment decisions that go against the flow. Is there still this same tension today in the medical profession or is the playing field pretty level for women and those from other ethnic backgrounds?
I think the playing field has been greatly leveled thanks to pioneers similar to my protagonist, Camille Weller, MD.
As a physician in general and specifically a surgeon, you are obviously not bothered by “blood and body fluids.” Do you find yourself having to temper details when you write? Is it a challenge to make medical situations/terminology understandable to the non-medical reader without bogging down the story? Do you “test drive” scenes with a non-medical person?
I don’t test drive my scenes with anyone. My signature has always been medical realism. I use the language and depict the actions of an “insider.” Of course, I know my readers have limits and I have been asked to tone down a scene or two by an editor. I think the “insider” details give my stories that something extra that makes them special. Details are what make stories authentic and believable. Say something with enough detail (remember Michael Crichton telling the molecular weight of some amphibian protein in Jurassic Park? He made us actually suspend belief and think that dinosaurs could actually live) and people will believe you.
Is there a “six liter club” or something similar among physicians in real life, and are you one of the “elite” members of such a club? Do you swap “war stories” amongst yourselves? Surgeons can be particularly notorious for having a “God complex” and a good-sized ego. Has this ever been a struggle for you?
OK, there is an informal six-liter club, something surgeons talk about, but aren’t really inducted into. I’ve been in on some harrowing cases, but I’m not sure I’ve ever had a patient lose six liters and still live.
A God complex? Ego is a struggle for everyone, not just surgeons. I try to remember that everything I do is another example of God’s grace in action. Without grace, I can’t do anything.
You’ve spent several years working as a physician with Africa Inland Mission in Kenya and also have practiced as a surgeon in the USA. What are the most challenging aspects of being a surgeon in each country? What do you enjoy about working in each culture?
In Kenya, most of the stretching cases involve someone who has waited too long to get care, then comes in late for a rescue. Also, because of the lack of sub-specialists in Africa, I end up doing a lot of cases that are outside my area of expertise in America (in Kenya, I’m a urologist, neurosurgeon, chest surgeon etc. etc.). In Africa, most patients are very grateful, regardless of outcome. They just appreciate that you came and tried.
In America, the scope of my practice is more limited. I still love working with people in crisis, but I’m not particularly fond of the entitlement mentality that many of my patients have.
The role of prayer and faith in healing and how “spiritual” a medical professional should be is studied and debated. How do you incorporate your faith into your practice? Do you pray with or for your patients? Where is it more difficult to juxtapose faith with medicine, here in the US or in Kenya?
I think “incorporating” faith into my practice is a funny concept. I don’t need to incorporate something that is so a part of me. My life cannot be separated from my faith. Compartmentalizing our work, church, faith, play, and family is a western cultural construct. My faith is an integrated part of the whole package, so of course I pray for my patients, here and in Africa, even for my Muslim patients, but always with permission. I think linking with patients on a spiritual level is very special and quickly bonds you in a real way.
Considering the long hours and lack of sleep that physicians experience, how in the world do you find time to write? And what do you enjoy doing in your spare time (assuming you have any!)?
My wife is very helpful in this regard. She helps manage all the business end of my life. Also, currently, I am working a surgery job in a hospital about an hour from my home (while on furlough from our work in Africa), so I have a fair bit of alone time for writing when I stay overnight to take call.
[Note to readers from Linda: One of the most beautiful tributes I've ever read is the one he wrote about his wife on his blog last November. Read it here. If I ever meet them, I'll have her sign his books as well!]
You’re in the States right now, right? Do you have any plans to return to the mission field? What is God doing or teaching you at this season in your life?
We have plans to return to Africa next summer. That said, I continue to make short trips (I’ve been back to East Africa three times since we moved back to the US) to help with special needs there.
It seems God is always teaching me the same stuff, constantly expanding my understanding of his love and grace.
Finally, as a nurse, I have to know. . . .what is your favorite surgery to perform and why? Do you like the adrenaline rush of trauma surgery, or do you prefer more predictable procedures?
You told me in a separate email accompanying these questions that you wanted to know if I am nice to nurses. Of course. I’m not one of those angry-raise-your-voice kind of surgeons!
Truthfully, I love big and complicated cases such as pancreatic resections and esophageal replacement. Trauma is nice on occasion, but I like the predictability of elective cases.
Thank you so much!
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Harry Kraus has written several incredible non-fiction books in addition to his novels. You can read my reviews of Breathing Grace and The Cure by clicking on the titles. And his brand-new book, Domesticated Jesus was released this month. My book should arrive today, and as soon as I read it, Harry has agreed to "part 2" of the interview.
You can purchase The Six Liter Club at Amazon or other bookstores.
No FTC disclosure needed here - I purchased this book myself!
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