Hi David, I’d like to welcome you here to the blog today. I’m very excited to have you here. Your book Vaccine Nation is among the best thrillers I have read and frankly, much better in my opinion, than anything James Patterson or other writers of his ilk are putting out. As you know I’ve ranked your writing with that of the greats like Robert Ludlum, Lee Child, Dennis Lehane, John le Carre and Thomas Harris. As far as I’m concerned you’re now running with the greats and I hope we’ll see many more great works of fiction from you. For those of you who want to know more about Vaccine Nation just pop on over to the review. It will open in another window and when you’re done you can come back over here and have some coffee with us on the couch.
So David, how long have you been writing? When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
I am a former investment banker. I worked as a mergers and acquisitions specialist at major Wall Street firms—Merrill Lynch, Rothschild, and BofA—for over 25 years. From prior to my college years I wanted to be a novelist, and about 15 years ago I decided to get serious about it and started writing, settling on thrillers, because that’s what I read on vacation. I got up at 5 a.m., exercised, wrote for an hour and went to my day job, like most aspiring writers. I outlined or edited scenes on planes, in cabs or in hotel rooms. After finishing two novels, I was introduced by a prominent literary agent to seasoned publishing executive and great editor—Richard Marek, who edited Robert Ludlum’s first nine thrillers, including his Jason Bourne books, and other thrillers such as Silence of the Lambs—and worked with him over 18 months on my first novel, Trojan Horse, to learn my craft.
Your books are very well researched and laid out so convincingly that it’s hard not to be afraid that events like those in your books are in fact happening now. Did you spend an extraordinary amount of time researching Vaccine Nation? Was there more information you would have liked to include had you not been limited by the scope of your book?
My research for Vaccine Nation began with my exposure to the vaccine debate through my wife’s work as a documentary filmmaker in the health-related field, including films on ADHD and related drugging of children, and on vaccines and autism. We met ten years ago, so I’ve spent hundreds of hours reviewing dailies of filmed interviews of MDs, other experts involved in the vaccine debate, and parents. That gave me a knowledge base from which to start when I decided to write a thriller that dramatized the vaccine safety debate in the U.S. I did extensive research through a number of websites devoted to the topics of autism, vaccines and developmental disorders, including National Vaccine Information Center, Dr. Joseph Mercola, Safe Minds, Age of Autism, Generation Rescue and AutismOne . David Kirby’s book (Evidence of Harm – Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy) and Kim Stagliano’s memoir (Kim is Managing Editor of the Age of Autism website) of raising her three autistic daughters (All I Can Handle: I’m No Mother Teresa) were also sources. The NIH, CDC, FDA, Office of Special Counsel and U.S. Supreme Court websites and countless blog, periodical and newspaper articles were important mines of information.
And, yes, I had tons of information that I could have included but didn’t. Vaccine Nation is a novel, not a non-fiction primer on vaccines, autism or any other developmental disorder. A novel’s role is to enlighten or entertain through dramatization; every element of a novelist’s research doesn’t always fit into the drama.
Some people have said your villain just isn’t believable, that a giant from a pharmaceutical company would have no reason to kill just to keep the kind of information Dani North has from getting out, how do you answer your detractors?
That anyone would say it isn’t believable that a corporate CEO from any industry would have no reason to lie or kill to protect his industry, his company or his personal way of life is pathetically naive in our world. Would, for example, all the CEOs from the top tobacco companies sit in front of Congress under oath and lie that nicotine isn’t addictive and isn’t killing thousands of people each year?
Would Ford Motor Company have tried to bury internal research that exposed the fact that the gas tanks on the Pinto could explode on rear impact?
The tobacco companies agreed to an over $350 billion settlement with 46 states for the costs of compensating victims of their products. Ford paid over $20 million to the family of one victim of a Pinto rear-end crash alone.
People—particularly those in power—have done venal things for centuries to advance their philosophy or protect their way of life, even if they have to pay a high price if they get caught. A CEO killing a whistleblower and then trying to kill the woman the whistleblower gave his evidence to, evidence that could destroy the CEO and his industry, isn’t as far-fetched as, say, terrorists hijacking airplanes and crashing them into some iconic office towers in one of the most populous cities in the world.
Do you think vaccine manufacturers should be forced to make safer vaccines available, even if it means higher costs?
Yes. Why on earth not? Shouldn’t the manufacturers be required to make the safest products possible? And in this case, who cares about costs, within reason? So what if the manufacturers have to absorb a buck or two more per vaccine in cost? Or even if the parent has to pay even ten bucks more per shot? Wouldn’t any rational person swap that for potential adverse side effects, or permanent developmental disorders in their babies?
I’m not qualified to answer the question in detail. Some doctors say there’s no such thing as a safe vaccine, given that you’re injecting either inactivated bacteria or live viruses into people. But as a reasonably well-informed layman on the subject, I’d like to know why the vaccine manufacturers can’t find an adjuvant other than a substance as toxic as aluminum to stimulate immune response. Or why they can’t use a preservative/disinfectant other than thimerosal (49.9% mercury, one of the most toxic substances on earth) in the flu shot or place all flu vaccines in mercury-free single dose vials, even if it costs a little more.
Do you advocate doing away with mandatory vaccines or simply changing the schedule so children receive no more than one vaccine each visit over a longer period of time? I have to admit I’m highly in favor of forcing the development of safer vaccines but I fear what might happen if everyone were free to choose for him or herself whether or not to vaccinate their child? Wouldn’t we see a return of potentially fatal illnesses like diphtheria and whooping cough and diseases like polio?
I think parents should have the right to exercise informed consent to vaccination, which is a medical procedure that does carry a risk that can be greater for some than others depending upon individual biological susceptibility. I think parents should have the freedom to make an informed choice about whether or not to give their child a particular vaccine, depending upon the benefits and risks for their child. If parents choose to vaccinate, they should be able to work with their pediatricians and individualize the CDC’s one-size-fits-all schedule, such as electing to have doctors administer vaccines in multiple visits to minimize the chance for side effects. If that means one shot per visit, then so be it. There is very little testing—and sometimes none at all—done by the manufacturers or the FDA before a new vaccine is licensed to prove the vaccine is safe when given with other vaccines or drugs, yet it’s standard practice for infants to get six or seven shots in one wellness visit. That doesn’t make sense to me. The average adult is, say, ten times the body weight of a six-month-old infant. Imagine getting 60 or 70 vaccines in one day. Don’t you think you might get sick? Or even suffer permanent damage to your health? The comparison isn’t perfect, I admit, but consider the fact that adults are neurologically fully developed and have mature immune systems. That is not true for newborn infants and young children.
And I don’t buy the argument about the public health being threatened if parents are free to make informed vaccine choices. If people choose to vaccinate and the vaccines are as effective as the drug companies and most doctors say they are, then the majority of vaccinated children are immune. So, if someone else’s children are not vaccinated, that fact should not affect those who vaccinate at all. If vaccinated kids are immune, they’re immune, whether or not the unvaccinated kids next door get measles, diphtheria, whooping cough or whatever.
What do you envision as the ideal solution for this situation. After all you must have drawn some conclusions from the research you did? While Vaccine Nation is a fictional work, with the exception of the information Dani North carries, your data is factual. What kind of conclusions did it lead you to draw?
Yes, the facts in Vaccine Nation are accurate—in 1986 Congress passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act and selded the pharmaceutical industry from liability for injuries and deaths caused by government recommended and mandated vaccines. Doctors administering vaccines were shielded from liability, too. There was a loophole in that 1986 law that allowed civil lawsuits against manufacturers if it could be proven that the company could have made a safer vaccine, but last year the U.S. Supreme Court decided that they would absolve vaccine manufacturers from liability—even if they could have made a safer vaccine. The issues in the book are real and the 30-year old debate about vaccine safety is not going away. In fact, it is increasing: recent CDC statistics show that 10% of parents (up from 2% to 3%.) are avoiding or delaying vaccinating their children because of concerns about vaccine safety.
A former head of the NIH, Dr. Bernadine Healy, courageously said that we can’t say there is no link between vaccines and the development of autism in some children. That’s in part because the drug companies and the government are not doing all the research they could do, I suspect, because they are afraid of the answers they would get. We need to do good scientific research. I think we need to demand that our government fund sound vaccine safety research—both basic science and epidemiological research. We should have studies looking at the health of vaccinated vs. unvaccinated populations of children to assess the impact of vaccines on childhood development. I think tens of thousands of parents would volunteer to enroll their children in the unvaccinated group.
We need to change our policy on vaccinations. We need to turn our focus to educating parents about vaccines and giving them a choice to vaccinate or not, instead of stampeding them into following the CDC’s vaccination schedule with scare tactics about what will happen to their kids if they don’t comply. We need to change our priorities to acknowledge that educated parents aren’t the enemy of national health.
And we need to come clean on what we know, or do the research to understand what we don’t yet know, about the damage that vaccines may have caused, and fairly compensate those who’ve been damaged. The National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 established a “Vaccine Court”—a system of financial compensation for vaccine injuries and deaths that is adjudicated by Special Masters in the U.S. Court of Claims in Washington, D.C., as an alternative to traditional tort lawsuits held in civil courts before judges and juries. The federal vaccine injury compensation system was supposed to be a non-adversarial, no-fault compensation mechanism for vaccine damaged-children that was less traumatic and less expensive and provided more just and quicker compensation for families than the traditional court system. The Vaccine Court has awarded more than $2 billion dollars to victims of vaccine injury, who suffered brain and immune system damage, but has refused to compensate those with the word “autism” in the claim. I think that’s tragic. It may be understandable in the context that to do so would open the floodgates, but if children suffer brain inflammation and regress into autism after vaccination, they should be compensated. In the 25 years since the compensation fund established by the 1986 Act was set up, only about 2,600 claims have been compensated, taking an average of two years from the time the claim was filed until it was resolved. The fund still has $3.0 billion sitting there unspent. That doesn’t sound to me like a speedy, no-fault mechanism that’s working. Ask any insurance agent how many no-fault automobile fender-bender cases have been compensated over the last 25 years and I think you’d be shocked at the answer. It’s not just 2,600.
Do you think vaccine manufacturers should be protected against lawsuits seeking damages from their products? If not, what should be the first steps in trying to end this exemption?
No. You’re talking about companies getting paid billions of dollars a year for their vaccines and making huge profits. Shouldn’t they be held responsible if the product they are selling to doctors and the government that is being shot into the bodies of our babies is causing harm? What precedent is there in human law or fairness that would allow profit-making corporations to be absolved for the damage their products cause, particularly if they’re mandated by the government to attend school or even hold a job if you are a health care worker? Vaccine exemptions are becoming harder and harder to get. Congress needs to act to repeal the vaccine manufacturers’ liability exemption. Congress created the bailout in 1986, and the Supreme Court interpreted that the exemption extended to product design defects in 2011, so the only way to hold drug companies accountable for the harm their vaccines do to people is for Congress to act. That is a process that would require public pressure on individual members of Congress, and if effected, might result in a number of vaccines being dropped from the schedule because manufacturers wouldn’t be willing to bear the liability risk associated with continuing to produce vaccines that carry unacceptable risks. Maybe we’d go back to the vaccine schedule that existed when I was a kid. I think I got maybe four or five shots, instead of the 49 doses of vaccines by age six that is the childhood vaccine schedule today. Would that be so bad as a starting point? Maybe do it all over again the right way this time?
Now let’s turn the focus onto your writing craft and away from the questions Vaccine Nation brings up. So far Vaccine Nation has been quite a success for you, how long was your journey to this point?
After I finished Trojan Horse I got caught up full time in my career on Wall Street again, until about 3 years ago when I got serious about writing again. I wrote another novel and started shopping all my stuff around to agents, including pitching at Thrillerfest in New York. When I couldn’t find the right agent to take me on, I self-published on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform. I put out three books in the first half of 2011: Trojan Horse, The Gravy Train and Bull Street. All made the Kindle Top 100. Vaccine Nation was released late in 2011 and is doing well. I’m working on my next thriller now. I write because I love it, but also because I got to the point where I could no longer ignore the compulsion to do so.
I’ve read another of your books, Trojan Horse, which I also thought was excellent. How many books do you currently have available? Are they all suspense/thrillers?
I have four books out now and I’m working on my fifth, all thrillers. Trojan Horse is an espionage thriller with a terrorism plot that has a love story wrapped into it. The Gravy Train and Bull Street are suspense thrillers set on Wall Street, each with a young protagonist who finds himself confronted with crooked bosses who will kill to keep their schemes going. Vaccine Nation is an action and suspense thriller.
What is your personal writing routine?
I was taught by my first editor (who also, I’m thrilled to say, edited Vaccine Nation) to do character bios and a scene-by-scene outline of the entire novel before starting to write. My outlines run 35 to 40 pages. Since then I learned some techniques from an experienced Hollywood script development exec, like starting with a one-sentence log line that captures the story, and then building the outline, including key dramatic steps, in three acts from there. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat has a great “beat sheet” that I use.
I shoot to average 1,000 words per day, meaning 365,000 words per year, although I didn’t hit that goal in 2011. When I’m actively working on a book I keep count. I’m always playing catch-up. Vaccine Nation came in at about 72,000 words, less than what I was targeting (after editing and rewrites it ended at about 65,000). I finished it on schedule over the summer, some days writing over 5,000 words in order to catch up for days I didn’t write. I know for some writers, 365,000 words per year is easy. Not for me.
What advice would you offer to writers just starting out?
Hire an editor. I don’t see how anyone can be successful, or grow as a writer, without an editor. I’m not talking about a beta reader, copyeditor or proofreader, I’m talking about a developmental editor. Your mother will always (well, usually) tell you she loves your book. Your girlfriend, boyfriend or wife will usually be a little more honest, but doesn’t have the technical skill or experience that a professional editor does. And an editor, whether she’s the best in the business or only mediocre, will give you an objective viewpoint and be honest.
What advice do you have for writers considering going indie?
First, if you’re going to epublish, treat it like a business, because it is. Educate yourself about what’s happening out there. Look at what successful authors are doing with pricing, their platforms, their content. Check out who’s selling in the Top 100 and the Top 100 in your genre. Read blogs and other tools to learn the business. Joe Konrath. Kindle Review. Kindle Nation Daily. See what people are talking about on the KindleBoards. Read Steve Windwalker’s excellent book on pricing ebooks for Kindle. Read Joe Konrath’s book, The Newbie’s Guide to Publishing. Read Scott Nicholson’s book, The Indie Journey.
Write the best material you can and find people to edit, proofread, format and produce professional covers for it. Buy a Kindle and see what your books look like on it, and on the mac or pc version of Kindle before you release them. Be realistic about pricing strategy. As an unknown, going up against established writers at $9.99 or even $6.99 isn’t sensible. Try different prices and see how your book does, and don’t feel like you’re giving away your hard work if $0.99 is where it works best.
Then spend at least a few hours of every day staying current with the blogs, maintaining your social network presence, corresponding with your readers and doing everything you can to expand your readership. Solicit opportunities to guest blog or be interviewed on others’ blogs. Try book-of-the-day sponsorships on Kindle Nation Daily, eReader News Today, The Frugal eReader or Kindle Author to see if they work for you. Don’t spend all day writing.
What has been your greatest reward as an independent publisher? What has been your biggest trial?
Since I uploaded my first novel onto Kindle Direct Publishing’s platform in January of 2011, I wake up every morning and something good happens. I’ve had the thrill of having three books in the Kindle Top 100 at the same time, getting offers of representation from first-rate agents, publishing offers from senior editors of top publishers, articles about me in Bloomberg and the New York Times, a spot on Bloomberg TV, and an attractive deal from Amazon Publishing’s Thomas & Mercer imprint. That, and the satisfaction of knowing I’m writing the best stuff I’m capable of and working hard to stay true to my readers. This has been the greatest ride of my life, on top of a pretty wild ride as an investment banker for over 25 years. Life is good. And I’m grateful, but also looking forward to having it continue.
My biggest trial has been to balance the writing with managing the promotional side of being an author. It’s hard to keep the day-to-day from intruding upon my writing time.
Now time for a few quick questions so our readers can get to know you a little better:
Coffee or tea? Green tea, occasional coffee (but only with our Amish farmer’s organic heavy cream, when we can get it).
Rock or classical? Both, but more rock, and I’m still a die-hard Beatles fan.
Book or movie? Both; books for more serious fare, movies for action.
Favorite cartoon character? Bart Simpson.
Football or hockey? Football (NY Giants, but I also follow the Jets).
Place you’d most like to go on vacation but haven’t been yet? Tuscany.
Thank you David for joining me today. David has graciously offered a free eBook copy of Vaccine Nation to one lucky commenter. As always our winner will be chosen by randomizer. We’ll draw for the lucky winner on January 31st so you have just over two weeks to leave your comments about vaccines, autism, Asperger’s, and David’s wonderful book Vaccine Nation.