NOTE: This is the fifth and last of a blog series about the writers’ maxim: Write what you know. Each blog focuses on one of my novels and the experiences that hopefully enriched and informed them.
I lied. I said the last blog, about the happy topic of pedophilia within the Catholic Church, would be my last in this series. But one of my wonderful followers reminded me that, in addition to the other happy subjects I’ve covered—sexual assault (Left for Alive), the Holocaust (The Devil’s Breath) and pedophilia (Delicto), there was my laugh-a-minute experience with cancer, which is the basis for the above e-book, available at tom-hogan.com.
In terms of writing about cancer, know one thing going in: you’re going to have a hard time getting anything published. Why? Because so many people more famous than you have had cancer. I’ve even seen agents specify that they will reject any ‘my battle with cancer’ manuscript without reading a word. So you’re writing for yourself or a select audience.
In my case, the whole premise of Tumor Humor came from the dark humor that was my primary source of sustenance (other than the chemo cocktails) during my eight-month adventure. And it grew from there, as my friends started chiming in with their own perspectives on what I was experiencing. Some examples:
- After my initial diagnosis, my interviewing doctor asked me if I’d had oral sex with more than six women in my life. I thought I was being punked, but it turned out that in fact 70% of all cancers of my type—including mine—stem from human papillomavirus, or HPV. But damn, he could have prefaced the question with that information.
- During my initial radiation treatment, there was a beautiful and vaguely familiar piano theme playing during what was to be my daily radiation session for the next thirty days. I recognized it finally and started laughing. My radiation therapists asked me later what was so funny, that this was the first time any of their patients had ever laughed during treatment. I explained that the music was the theme from Terms of Endearment. The technicians looked at me blankly. “It’s a movie about a woman with cancer,” I said. “And she dies.” After that I brought my own music.
- That episode prompted submissions from my list of 60 friends who I was updating with weekly emails (to spare my wife a lot of time on the phone saying the same thing). A contest was initiated to find the most inappropriate song for my treatments. The submissions were both numerous and imaginative.
You get the idea. If the book was ever going to find an audience beyond my sixty frirends, it would be because of the dark humor. I remember listening to Fresh Air on NPR and she was interviewing a comic who had cancer. He was telling her about merkins, which are pubic hair replacements for people who lose their hair down there from chemo. You can’t make this shit up. (NOTE: When the doctors were giving us the forecasts for my treatment, they talked about the probability of hair loss. My wife, ever the sympatico, asked if there was such a thing as ‘spot chemo’—that she’d like them to take some of my back hair off, while they were at it.
If, after reading these gems, you’re interested in the entire journey—and just how darkly imaginative my support network became—Tumor Humor is available FREE on my website, tom-hogan.com.
So that finishes off the ‘Write What You Know’ series. Sexual abuse, the Holocaust, pedophilia and cancer. If the topic was ‘Write What You’ve Experienced’, I’d be one-for-four (four for four would make me the unluckiest bastard to ever walk the planet). But knowledge can be gained: in my screenwriting, I’ve come across case studies of people (such as the creator of Deadwood) who did multiple years of research before sitting down to write. In my own case, my next novel will be a thriller about Silicon Valley (which I don’t have to research, having been a part of it for 20+ years) and the new world of bio-hacking and the desire to live healthily past the age of 120. Needless to say, I’ve got a lot of research to do on that end. So as I edit my current novel, I keep a file open and every now and then take a break and go to one of the sites—usually dense with science-speak—that both educates and starts me thinking of directions to take the next book.