Melissa Yi: You and I have both written fiction inspired by ancient history. What drew you to the Greeks?
Frank Warsh: I’ve always been fascinated by Ancient Greece going back to grade school. Its literature, art, and even political theory is still relevant today. We hold the Olympic games. We tell stories using techniques described by Aristotle. We talk about Achilles’ heels, Trojan horses, and “falling on your sword” in everyday conversation.
MY: You wrote about the plague. Did COVID-19 surprise you?
FW: (turns on medical/public health brain) COVID-19 exposed just how fragile the social fabric can be. Whatever you think of the policy responses – lockdowns, mask mandates, etc. – there really is no “fix” for a catastrophic outbreak. It’s a question of very serious tradeoffs, and none of the options are good. Many millions of people’s lives will never be the same again, even if they or their loved ones never come in contact with the virus itself. The final death toll from COVID and the response to it, factoring in suicides, overdoses, and deaths due to restrictions on health care services, will take years to unravel. (turns off medical/public health brain)
The political upheaval from COVID-19 … was exactly what happened during the Plague of Athens. Granted, Athens was a small, overcrowded city-state embroiled in a brutal civil war at the time. But Thucydides’ chronicle makes it clear that the Plague caused unrest and even wantonness among the populace. It also cost the most powerful Athenian politician of the day his job. Sound familiar? History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes, to borrow from Mark Twain.
On a lighter note, I always envisioned an extinction-level event entailing a lot more drunken revelry or sex with random strangers, and a lot less Soviet-style lineups for toilet paper at Costco or countless hours of sitting in front of a screen like the human blobs in WALL-E.
MY: Ha! When you read Scorpion Scheme, you noticed that I described Egyptian legends in detail because I couldn’t assume that readers would be familiar with this culture, whereas many Westerners already know Greek myths and history. Could you explain, and would you choose a similar culture for your next book?
FW: Classical Greek art and literature happened to end up as the foundation for Western civilization. Homer was read for centuries as ubiquitously as Harry Potter is today. Western music is based on the experiments of Pythagoras. And the most famous myths – the Trojan War, Perseus and Medusa, the labors of Heracles/Hercules – are still fodder for Hollywood more than 2500 years after being put down in writing.
A lot of it is the dumb luck of history, of course. Other ancient cultures almost certainly had their own rich canons of literature and mythology. The Greeks just happened to have books and plays their conquerors enjoyed enough to preserve.
I don’t know if I’d tackle a similar project again. Ancient cultures are a much bigger challenge if you’re not already a scholar in the field. That means a lot more research and fact-checking around everything from political institutions to mealtime rituals to the system of weights and measures. I really enjoyed researching and writing Hippocrates: the Art and the Oath, but there were countless small details I just don’t have the time to research these days.
MY: I get that. Now for questions about your other book, The Flame-broiled Doctor, your memoir.
MY: I marvelled at your rage. You’re right. Why aren’t more doctors pissed off, or even talking about it publicly?
FW: Talk about a pivot! A few thoughts to unpack. First, I think many doctors do express their anger publicly, or at least try to. One need only spend an hour on Twitter or medical Facebook forums to bear witness to just how much anger is out there. But that anger is horribly unfocused. Doctors will spend as much time sniping at each other – specialists vs. generalists; men vs. women; young vs. old; left-leaning vs. right-leaning – as they do at administrators, government, or anyone else.
On a more serious note, the profession, the training in particular, subsists on fear. One bad evaluation, one bad rotation, one bad patient encounter…all it takes the slightest infraction, heck, even the *impression* that you’re not cutting it, and your entire career can be derailed. With the costs to enter medicine these days, and the tight competition for residency spots, there’s simply too much at stake to make waves. Even once training is done, it doesn’t get any easier. One complaint to the College, however trivial, can take months and months to resolve. It’s no fun having that hanging over your head, and the anxiety can be paralyzing if there’s substance to the complaint.
MY: Why do anti-Semitic comments make you laugh so hard you might pee your pants? Seriously.
FW: Ignorance is funnier to me than farts. I nearly peed myself watching Blazing Saddles, but I laughed myself breathless watching Borat.
MY: I had to stop reading when you described basically scamming a Middle Eastern resident into taking all the calls overnight so that you could sleep.
That would honestly never occur to me. In fact, I couldn’t think of a female physician, offhand, who would do this. (I’m sure I do know some, but they don’t spring to mind.) But I know a lot of male physicians who would.
How do you feel about this episode now?
FW: It was a total dick move, but I don’t dwell on it. The stunt was contingent on this one resident’s self-defeating habit of getting pissed at medical students and deciding never to page them again. Like, dude, you’re giving me plausible deniability for any negative comments you might have about my performance!
But I see where you’re coming from with a woman’s perspective. And I confess I’ve never thought about it, at least not in this particular instance. I spent so much time trapped in my own head during residency (and still do) I wouldn’t think to pass judgement one way or the other on a peer, unless they were so mediocre they made me look good.
We’ll agree to disagree on our perspectives. Overall, I enjoyed reading both books. Good luck on your future writing, your work as a coroner, and of course your personal and family life.