Just reading Neal Baer‘s bio makes you feel like you should attend medical school in your spare time. The seven-time Emmy Award nominated writer/producer graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in Political Science and began a career in TV before attending Harvard Medical School. While at Harvard, he did double duty, continuing his work in television while managing to get his M.D. by taking courses at UCLA and returning to Harvard during breaks in production.
Now, Baer, who for years wrote for “ER” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” is not only the executive producer of the CBS series A Gifted Man, airing Friday nights at 9 p.m., he is also the co-author of the novel Kill Switch, with his long-time writing partner Jonathan Greene.
So how does he do it all? “I don’t know,” admits Baer, who also keeps his medical license up-to-date. “I guess I am just curious by nature. That helps because I want to understand, learn and create things. I wish I had more time. I guess I am organized.”
Kill Switch introduces us to Claire Waters, a forensic psychiatrist with her own childhood demons that involve a kidnapping, who gets involved in a serial killing through her work at New York City’s Riker’s Island. Along the way, as the crime spree escalates, the medical thriller also investigates the repercussions of designing biological agents that could be highly lethal to mankind when Claire partners with homicide detective Nick Lawler.
To find out more about how Baer does it all, read on:
You work in TV. Where did the idea come from to do a book and why this book?
It actually started out as a movie script ten years ago. Jonathan Green and I wrote the outline and literally put it away. I put it in my bottom drawer at SVU. It sat for 10 years literally, until my book agent Lydia Wells called and asked if we — knowing I am a doctor — had anything medically oriented for a thriller. I said, “It so happens that I do.” I pulled out the outline and said, “We wrote this a while back as a feature but we never wrote the script, just a 35-page outline.” She asked me to send it to her and I did. She asked that we write five chapters, which we did, and we sold the book.
I was curious about your choices. You paired up a very smart woman with a cop who is losing his eye sight. What if you want to write a sequel? He can’t be on the force very long.
He could be at a desk job. He will be back.
So you are doing a sequel?
Yes. It’s a three-book deal.
So talk about your decision to write Claire. Is it because you know that woman buy more books than men, or do you like to write strong women?
I have been writing women characters since I was on China Beach with Dana Delany‘s character. I love to write both women and men. Strong characters who have some psychic damage are good characters because they are conflicted internally and they often get into external conflicts as well. Claire is a great character to write about and for because she doesn’t know exactly who she is. She thinks she knows who she is but that is not necessarily the case. She has covered up her feelings with so many layers of shellac at this point with her deep interest and faith in the neurosciences to answer questions like, “Why do people do criminal things or behave so horribly?” and, I think, that is because she wishes there were some simple answer to the question in her life: Why was Amy kidnapped and not her?
Obviously, being a doctor gives you ideas for medical elements that others of us don’t have. What was the inspiration for the mutating Epstein Bar virus and could something like that really happen?
Two weeks after the book was published, research came out on H5N1 where scientists from the University of Wisconsin and Amsterdam manipulated the virus that causes the bird flu to be more transmissible to human beings. It is very lethality. I think it is like 80 percent lethal if it is contracted by human beings. The fortunate thing is it is not very transmissible or communicable. But it was tricked out — so to speak — so that it was more transmissible. That struck me as going to the core of what Kill Switch is about. The scientist who was manipulating the kill switch in genes that can stop a cell from becoming cancerous. So we chose Epstein Barr because it is the kissing virus and that seemed interesting because it is a virus that can be transmitted through kissing. But the virus is also associated with lymphoma, so what if the switch was turned off and it suddenly just kept growing at a wild rate, what would happen? Could something like that happen? I imagine if we keep going down that path looking at apoptosis, I imagine it is a possibility.
Really what this was about was to raise the question of how far do we go as a society in doing this research? Do we stop it? If you can’t stop technology, what should we be saying about it? What should we be talking about? So, what happened in the real case two weeks after the book was published is that the federal government asked Nature & Science to suppress the information in the article so that they do not publish how the mutation was made. I found that really interesting.
So with his loss of eye sight to RP, can Nick still have a job?
He can have a desk job. He isn’t completely blind so he can’t be out, but he can use his detective acumen to help her solve crimes. We will definitely have her coming to him for help.
So you have book two in the works, is it easier?
It is not easier. It is always a challenge. It is easier in the sense we know who the characters are. It is always a challenge to come up with a new compelling story.
With the book, how do you and Jonathan divide up the work?
We talk through the whole book and outline. Then we divvied up chapters and then we would rewrite each other’s chapters. We have been writing together since 2000. Look for it next December.
Do you still practice medicine?
A bit. I keep my license going. I haven’t in a while but I sometimes go … I was in Kenya a few years ago and seeing kids but not on a regular basis.
Tonight’s episode of A Gifted Man with Christina Milian sounds like a good puzzle. How did you come up with the idea?
We like the idea of this upstairs/downstairs, which is what Michael’s (Patrick Wilson) life is about, so we thought what if it is the same case but the two patients went to the different places based on their ability to pay. Christina character is a wealthy pop star and her housekeeper and her daughter are not.
Did you think it was important to cast a real singer … or it just worked out that way?
Yes, because we wanted her to sing. We were looking for a singer. You will sing Patrick sing on an episode on Feb. 24