Surgeon, Physician, Wordsmith, and Novelist

Javed Khader-Eliyas, MD

Edison McDaniels, MD, is an accomplished neurosurgeon and an equally gifted writer. His stories center on historical fiction, surgical thrillers, and the supernatural. His writing has been called magnificently harrowing and unforgettable. His most recent novel, The Matriarch of Ruins (2015), follows a widow and her family caught in the maelstrom of Gettysburg, and is the second of a trilogy that began with Not One Among Them Whole: A Novel of Gettysburg (2012), written from the eyes of the wounded and their surgeons during the Civil War. Dr. McDaniels’ work has received honorable mention in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror: Seventeenth Annual Collection, and has been published in a wide variety of literary magazines. A number of his short stories can be found online, and he maintains an active presence on Neurosurgery 101—the Blog, which chronicles his work and thoughts. Dr. McDaniels is a graduate of Stanford University and received his neurosurgical training at the University of Minnesota. He specializes in pediatric neurosurgery. He currently resides in Arkansas with his wife, Jean, and their children. They collect historical etchings and attend at least one baseball game a week between April and October (more, if the Minnesota Twins are in town).

Congress Quarterly: What inspired you to write? And specifically, how did historical fiction come to the forefront?

Dr. Edison McDaniels: I’ve been writing as far back as I can remember. I’ve always been fascinated by how words go together, especially in telling a story. My parents played a big part in that. They were tremendous readers. Our home was crammed with books in every corner, on shelves made of cinderblock and wood. We could hardly get down the hallway. Many of these books were on military history—my father’s passion. He was a strict disciplinarian, but if we got him talking about military history he lightened up. We talked about it a lot.

CQ: Who impressed you most with their writing, and what are your favorite books?

ED: I read most of the classics (Moby Dick, The Last of the Mohicans, Frankenstein, The Scarlet Letter, etc.) growing up, but by far Stephen King was my biggest influence. I have read every one of his novels and most of the short stories. Salem’s Lot and Pet Sematary are two of my favorites, though Delores Claiborne is his best for pure storytelling. Another huge influence is Cormac McCarthy, whom I consider the best American novelist alive today. I like writers like McCarthy, writers who show us how words should be used. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier is also like that, with an opening paragraph that is pure poetry. Charles Dickens, too. Try reading A Tale of Two Cities without marveling at the writing. You can’t do it. Most people know the first line of that novel: “It was the best of times…” You can’t do better as a writer than to open any page of Dickens and study it. Those are the kind of books I love to read. As a writer, I am always studying the writing. 

CQ: Could you elaborate on the extent and kind of research that goes into writing?

ED: Research is an essential part of telling a good story, and with the Internet it’s easier than ever to do. It’s one of the reasons so many people think they can write today. But the secret is not in doing the research, it’s how it’s used. Too many writers use research as a club; they try to use everything they find. A better strategy is to research the hell out of your subject (time frame, the culture, names, occupations, medicines, weather, etc.), but be judicious in what actually makes it into your story. The stuff you don’t use isn’t wasted because it goes toward the story as a whole, allowing the writer to create the ambiance surrounding the characters and the atmosphere. In addition, good research prevents embarrassing errors or moments that take a reader out of a story. You can’t have a good story without good research. On the other hand, a lack of research will screw you almost every time. It’s like knowing the anatomy before operating. If you want to be a good surgeon, it isn’t sufficient to know the anatomy. But it is absolutely necessary.

CQ: How do you balance your writing commitments with clinical and academic responsibilities?

ED: What you are really talking about here is time management, and that’s just a matter of priorities. My patients come first every time, obviously. But I’ve been a surgeon for a long time, and most of what I do is pretty routine. I carry an iPad with me always, and in the little moments of downtime I have, I read. If I have more than a few moments and the situation allows, I might even edit something I’m already working on. Mostly though, it’s the decisions I make in my after hours that make a difference. I choose not to watch TV and prefer to write late at night. Something about the night speaks to my muse.

CQ: Has writing influenced your neurosurgical practice?

ED: I probably pay closer attention to the social aspects of my patients’ lives than the average neurosurgeon. I am always looking for inspiration and characters. For example, if someone has a peculiar speech pattern I’ll jot a note about it for future use. Or maybe if they move with a limp from a childhood injury I’ll ask about it. The details of such things interest me and might eventually make it into one of my stories—though in a completely unrecognizable form to the original individual.

CQ: What draws you to the American Civil War for the subject of your works? Is there a personal story behind the stories?

ED: I like stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. The Civil War is full of such situations. It’s that simple.

CQ: How hard is it to find a publisher? What eventually worked out in your favor?

ED: It’s very difficult to get published nowadays. The acceptance rate to review the first few chapters of something you have worked on for a year or more might be no more than one or two percent. And it’s very subjective. The editor could be having a bad day or missed their coffee or purchased a similar story the week before. Two things worked for me: perseverance and patience. My first break came when I gave a reading at a writer’s conference. David Poyer, the USA Today bestselling writer of contemporary nautical fiction, was in attendance and caught up with me afterwards.

CQ: What are you reading nowadays? Does Edison McDaniels the reader differ from Edison McDaniels the writer?

ED: I am currently reading Pure, by Andrew Miller, about the relocation of Saints Innocents Cemetery in Paris in 1785. A marvelous piece of fiction from an outstanding writer. I read a wider range of stories than what I write.

CQ: Would you able to shed some light on your next project? Of course, without spoiling the suspense!

ED: A sort of haunted hospital story. A surgeon mercy kills his patient after an operation goes bad. Later, the patient returns. But he’s not seeking revenge. For the rest, you’ll have read the novel.

CQ: What would you like to tell budding “neurosurgeon writers” who would like to emulate your success one day?

ED: Both the surgical task and the writing craft are goal-directed, cerebral undertakings, but surgery is a left-brain, concrete, “get it done right now” thing, and writing is a right-brain, creative, “take your time thing.” Surgery requires rote knowledge of anatomy; writing calls up an esoteric awareness of words and grammar. Surgery is relatively quick and mentally (and often physically) exhausting; writing is time-consuming and brain-building. Surgery involves a team (no surgeon operates alone), though it is an intensely isolating feeling to be deep inside somebody’s brain and know his or her entire future depends on your next move, and your next, and your next... Writing may be one of the most solitary things we humans do, yet when done well it yields a community like few other pursuits.

Edison McDaniels’ books and short stories are available on Amazon, and more information about his work can be found at his website surgeonwriter.com.