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More Medical Mysteries with Daniel Kalla

This week, author Daniel Kalla joins Brook and Sarah to discuss his medical thrillers and other writing. Daniel Kalla is an internationally best-selling author of many novels, including Fit to Die, The Darkness and the Light, Lost Immunity, The Last High, and We All Fall Down. Kalla practices emergency medicine in Vancouver, British Columbia. You can find him at danielkalla.com or follow him on Twitter @danielkalla.

photo credit: Michael Bednar Photography


Fit to Die (2023) Daniel Kalla

The Last High (2020) Daniel Kalla

High Society (2024) Daniel Kalla

Lost Immunity (2021) Daniel Kalla

The Far Side of the Sky (2012) Daniel Kalla

Robin Cook

Michael Cichton

Tess Gerritsen

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This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook, and we both love mystery.
SarahHi Brook.
BrookHi Sarah, we have a special treat today, another interview episode.
SarahI’m really looking forward to speaking with Daniel Kalla.
SarahDaniel Kalla is an internationally best-selling author of many novels, including Fit to Die, The Darkness and the Light, Lost Immunity, The Last High, and We All Fall Down. Kalla practices emergency medicine in Vancouver, British Columbia. You can visit him at danielkalla.com or follow him on Twitter @danielkalla. Welcome, Daniel.
Dan KallaGreat to be here, Sarah, Brook.
BrookSo Daniel, medicine is of course a field that requires years and years of study. And recognizing that your readers may not have the same background as you, how do you distill the knowledge that you have so that it’s accessible to your readers?
Dan KallaYeah, it’s kind of a fine balance, isn’t it? You know you don’t You never want to talk down to the reader, you never want them to you know, to to make them feel like you’re patronizing them, but you do want to get the important medical concepts or scientific concepts or whatever and themes are behind some of my novels um in a way that that’s understandable, even if you haven’t gone to medical school or nursing school. So, um I try to strike that balance and try to, sometimes I have to test it on readers, but I’ve been doing it so long. I think I’ve sort of got that, you know I found that kind of sweet spot. I also worked for years and years in an emergency room, so I’m constantly conveying medical information in layperson’s terms. So, I have a I think a sixth sense for you know how much technical information people can digest and still understand a concept. But it is ah it is kind of a separate art form when it comes to writing.
SarahYou mentioned themes in your in your last answer there, Daniel. Readers will recognize some of the themes that you write about as coming from the headlines.
DanielMm hmm.
SarahHow do you approach tackling what can be very sensitive issues in your writing?
Dan KallaYeah, I mean, I think, ah you know a know, people ask me if I use real cases or real, you know, patients and I don’t. Not only because of the confidentiality issue also because it just doesn’t work, you know, everything And whenever I’ve tried to use a real life person as a character, they’ve they’ve come across as a caricature because I over exaggerate them. So, I never do that. But but also I think it’s just desperately important to be respectful. You know, you’re talking about when I’m writing about pandemics, I’m talking about tragedies that affect people. You know, in my book of The Darkness and the Light, as you mentioned, touched on issues like suicidality and patient abuse. And you know they’re They’re very sensitive issues, but I think it’s important to talk about you know these issues. There’s this whole school of thought years ago that you shouldn’t talk about suicidality because it makes people suicidal, but but people realize that’s so not true. The opposite is true. It’s better to tackle these issue issues head on. I wrote a but book of you know Lost Immunity that was all about you know was a thriller about what was appeared to be a vaccine goes bad, but in fact was you know a much deeper conspiracy to make a vaccine look bad. And it came out right at the time COVID and all the vaccine furor was happening. And you know I tried to balance it. I’m obviously very pro-vaccine and believe in the science of them, but I tried to understand the anti-vax vaccine hesitancy point of view. So anytime I tackle an issue, I try not just to give my point of view, I try to create characters that might be on both sides of an issue.
Dan KallaMy last book Fit to Die it was all about you know toxic diet pills and the the you know the toxic effect of of body image issues on social media. and and It’s a very sensitive issue and it’s a very complex issue. and so you know I tried to take it from the victim’s point of view, from you know the detectives who are trying to track it down, from the doctors who are treating ah eating disorders and stuff, and just give a kind of broad perspective of of an issue.
Dan KallaBut at the end of the day, I’m writing fiction and trying to create you know good whodunnits and compelling characters and suspense. And so all of the nonfiction elements are just some background and you know some added detail for my readers, but they’re not they and they’re not meant to be the focus of the stories.
BrookNow I’m super curious. How did you ever start writing? Because you obviously have an extremely busy life, you know, and consumed with, I’m sure your first profession as a physician. So how did you start creating, um, how did you start writing mysteries?
Dan KallaYeah, no, it’s ah it’s a great question. ah you know I come by medicine as the kind of family business. I’m a third generation doctor. You know you can’t swing a dead cat at one of my family reunions without hitting a bunch of doctors. it’s it’s just you know ah My parents were both doctors and I love it and you know but it, but it was sort of very easy, familiar territory to tread.
Dan KallaBut when I was growing up, I i was passionate about storytelling and you know I pursued that. I sort of stopped by the time I got to the university level and focused on sciences and getting to med school, but it was always you know there in my heart and in my mind. And and you know once I got finished training and my first daughter was born, I cajoled some friends of mine to do a screenwriting course at a local university with me. And, you know, when our first project became a script that got option that never went anywhere as your typical failed option story. But um but it was enough of an incentive that it just gave me the bug. And and then this became my favorite hobby, my favorite pastime, my favorite release. You know, working in emergency is fairly intense and fairly people focused. And this this writing is a world I get to escape in on my own. And and I love it. It’s it’s been… I’ve never had a ah hobby that I’m as passionate about.
BrookThat’s fantastic.
Dan KallaThank you.
SarahSo how much creative license do you feel you have when writing medical mysteries given that medicine is a science?
Dan KallaThat’s a good question. um I feel I have a lot of creative license, but I want to be authentic. And that’s not just with medicine. Anything I write, I write realistic fiction, right? So anything that that I write, I want to pass the sniff test.
Dan KallaSo certainly the medicine should. I might invent you know I’ve invented new and you know new drugs in a story that that fit. You know, but it was consistent with how drugs are developed and and and and sort of fit. In the same way, you know a plot twist. and ah in and you know I want the reader to believe, yeah, that was believable. She could have done it. He could have done it. like you know and And there were some some breadcrumbs along the way. This didn’t come out from left field. Like I believe very much when you’re, my favorite thriller writers are thriller writers who I find in and mystery writers, too, of course, who I find realistic and believable, that you believe the characters’ motivations and actions, that you believe the plot twists that come, even if they, you know, hopefully they surprise you, but they have to be believable. And I get frustrated and in novels when, you know, when things are, are seeming very, they create a world that I can relate to, feel, over and then suddenly it turns into what feels like science fiction or fantasy. It’s so out of the left field for me. So I’m very rigorous in in in my own mind about about staying consistent and true and justifiable, both in the facts I provide and the story I create.
SarahI have to say that after I read The Last High driving around here in Vancouver looking at some of the houses thinking, huh, I wonder what’s going on. You know, is someone cooking something up in one of these houses? So, you know, you you do a great job of creating that reality.
Dan KallaThank you. Yeah, I mean, that was, you know, four novels ago now, but that was an example of a story I was incredibly passionate about, the theme of, you know, it was all about the fentanyl crisis.
Dan KallaAnd in my city, Vancouver, I work, you know, as you know, we have a huge tragic crisis here, and I work in the epicenter of it at St. Paul’s Hospital. And, you know, and so I really wanted to create a realistic world there and show and i have to add a lot to learn about the about the law enforcement side. I didn’t know where these drugs were coming from. I didn’t understand the gangs. And so it was a crash. I i had a friend who happened to be an undercover RCMP officer who worked in the drug world, and he gave me a crash course and all that. So I think that book’s an example of some very authentic, you know, and and even the whole premise of it, which starts with a bunch of kids experimenting with what they think is ecstasy, but dying at ah a party because it’s a super potent form of fentanyl. You know and unfortunately, we’ve we’ve had so many and we just had a tragic case of of ah of of of a of a colleagues of mine daughter who you know was and a bunch of kids who were lost to the same experience and it just it’s heart wrenching.
BrookSo what kind of investigations have you had to play a similar role to the one your character Dr. Julie Reese plays?
Dan KallaNow, know, she’s a toxicologist. We have real toxicologists. I have a couple of colleagues in my own department or one for sure who’s a toxicologist. And theirs is an interesting world because they get consulted from all over the province about interesting poisonings. And sometimes the police will consult them and need expert forensic advice. So I don’t, you know, ah police interview me about cases. I occasionally appear at court over things like assaults and stuff. But i Julie’s world is a lot more exciting than mine when i promised there when it comes to the criminal element. She gets actually involved in in investigations. so but yeah but i you know I know i’m I’m only one degree or two degrees of separation removed from from that world.
BrookThat’s the wonderful thing about creating a sleuth is we get to give them, you know, all the cleverness and the exciting ah situations that ah maybe, or just like you said, that one step away from reality.
Dan KallaYeah, yeah no that’s the the joy of what I do. right these worlds you know My newest book that just came out last week, High Society, and I’m proud to say it made the National Globe and Mail bestseller lists today, um even in the general fiction. I’ve never had a book that’s outside of the Canadian fiction that made it. And it was about psychedelics and my fascination with psychedelics both, you know, I’m sort of partly concerned with how prevalent they are, but I’m also a big believer in their huge potential and in issues of mental health. And I was I just so I took that was able to tackle this big theme and still create kind of, you know, a locked door mystery about a group of very damaged people working with a damaged psychiatrist to get over addictions.
Dan KallaAnd you know in using psychedelics and it let me delve into the whole background, the history, which is fascinating of psychedelics. And it was It was just a joy to write and you know and a joy to explore. and I wouldn’t have that if I didn’t have the medical background, if I didn’t have connections that could you know expert connections that could really take me to a deep level of understanding about about these substances. But I love sharing that with readers and being able to you know, show this world and show potential of psychedelics and maybe to a degree the downside. But um so it was really, really fun.
BrookThat’s great and congratulations on making the list.
Dan KallaThank you.
BrookIt’s exciting.
Dan KallaThank you
SarahWhat is your favourite medical mystery series?
Dan KallaAre we talking about books or TV or are we talking about?
SarahEither. Yeah. We, we talk about books and TV.
Dan KallaBecause, you know, I’m terrible. You know, ever since Michael Crichton passed and stuff, I don’t read a lot of medical thrillers, you know, and it’s it’s kind of a depressed. There aren’t that many, you know, Tess Gerritsen is a famous medical thriller writers. There. There’s not that many you know like it used to be. Robin Cook was so big in the 70s and 80s.
Dan KallaI guess Tess Gerritsen, trying to name of her protagonist, she writes a series that’s really quite good that became a TV series too. Anyway, I’m just blanking on the name. But in terms of, you know, I don’t even watch a lot of the, you know, I never got into, I never got into House. I never got into Grey’s Anatomy. I did get into yeah ER when it first came out. It was so relatively accurate for a medical series like the, and so I enjoyed that and I enjoyed some of the characters and personalities. But I don’t know, I think if you talk to a lot of people like at lawyers, I don’t think often read a ton of legal thrillers. I think doctors don’t tend to focus on medical thrillers. We we get to live the world enough. so yeah. And more and more as a writer, I’m trying to branch out and be more of a psychological thriller writer. you know And i’ve I’ve written some historical novels. And I i don’t like to, even though obviously my gimmick is medicine in a lot of my background. um you know In fact, I just handed a manuscript that doesn’t have any doctor or protagonists in it. It’s got a little bit of medicine as an aside, but the um the doctors are very minor characters in this story.
Dan KallaSo you know I um I consider myself more of a thriller writer than just a medical thriller writer, but yeah, ah don’t I don’t tend to focus on on medical series to be honest with you.
BrookThat’s interesting. So you mentioned writing a historical novel. What time period is that set in?
Dan KallaIt was actually a trilogy It was set in World War II. It was about was this incredible story I heard about these Jews in Germany and Austria who escaped to Shanghai and and you know survived the war under harrowing circumstances. But Shanghai had to be the most interesting city of the 20th century. That was you know run by and taken over by so many different powers, even during World War II. Everybody was there, from Nazis to Communists to Japanese to Chinese. And It was about oppressed people, both the Jews who ended up in a ghetto there and and the Chinese who were living under the thumb first of the British and the American and then the Japanese.
Dan KallaSo um yeah, it was just a it was I’d never planned to write a historical novel, but I was so fascinated by this story, and I couldn’t find other than sort of largely self-published memoirs. I couldn’t find anything about it. So I wrote this trilogy. The first book was called The Far Side of the Sky. And I’m very proud. And It wasn’t my most commercially successful, maybe one of my more critically successful efforts, but um it was just it was a joy to write and I had no intention of ever writing historical fiction.
BrookI think I’m harkening back to my earlier question with your busy life. You know, you mentioned you’re a parent. Where do you find time to write and how do you write? Like what’s your process?
Dan KallaWell, you guys are, I mean, as you know yourselves, everybody has their own different different process. And now I’m hearing this terms of panzers and planners. Have you heard that? People who… I’m very much a… You know, a freestyle writer in the sense that it’s all about the idea for me. It’s never about the time. If I have ah momentum and ideas, I can always find the time. You know, I’m lucky enough to work part time in the emergency room. And, you know, even when I was working full time, it’s a It’s a shift work job, so I would have times during the day. I do find I write better now, just as I’m getting older in the morning. But other than that, I have no writing routine at all. If if I ah start with a pretty basic skeletal outline for the most part, and then start writing the story, and when the characters start coming to life for me, and the the the plot elements start to fall into place you know to set up whatever I’m trying to achieve, then the writing generally takes off. you know I’m a pretty quick writer in the sense it often takes me months to write the first 100 pages, you know like two or three months, but but usually I write the second half of a book in under a month, sometimes in two or three weeks, you know of just intense writing, like 30 or 40,000 words.
SarahThat’s great. I love the idea of freestyle writing.
BrookYeah, that’s a good term.
Dan KallaHow about you two? What’s your approach?
SarahOh, we’re both, we we call it discovery writers. So, like you, you know, a rough kind of idea of what’s going to happen. And, um, I, I struggle with the first, probably getting the first 5,000, 10,000 words out and then that momentum builds and I can, I can carry on.
Dan KallaYeah, it’s amazing.
BrookYeah, we’re very similar in our in our methods.
Dan KallaThat’s great. Yeah, it sounds like you guys collaborate on on your at least ideas or stuff. I’m I’m guessing or am I just assuming wrong?
SarahAnd no; you’re absolutely right. We actually just started co-writing a book that we’re sharing with people as we write it to just add some extra pressure to ourselves.
Dan KallaWow, good for you and that’s putting yourself out there.
Dan KallaYeah. But it’s amazing, you know, when I talk to people about writing, when I talk to students, like. I cannot emphasize enough, you know, apart from the fact, as you both know, you just have to write. You’re never going to be good at writing without doing a lot of it. But but momentum is such a, you know, incredible element in in in storytelling. and And people feel the momentum, the the urgency that you’ve, I truly believe the urgency that you invest into writing that novel comes across to the reader later when they’re reading it. And I just, you know, the the beginning is, for I think for most people, always the hardest, but it’s incredible once that dam bursts and, you know, that incredible feeling when you almost can’t keep up and can’t type fast enough to keep up with the story is, to me, a sign that the story is working.
SarahYeah, I would I would agree with that.
SarahOK. So thank you. This has been so much fun to speak with you, Daniel. Where can our readers find you?
Dan KallaYeah, I mean, they can they can go through the website, as you said, DanielKalla.com. My new novel is now out and pretty widely available in stores, high society. So, but yeah, love to hear back from readers and through the website that you can call or on social media through Instagram or Facebook. I’m less active on Twitter or X or whatever the hell Elon Musk is calling it. But yeah.
BrookWell, thank you so much, Dan. And thank you listeners for joining us today on Clued In Mystery. I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah, and we both love mystery.