Welcome to my Frequently Asked Questions for my novel, The Stars That Govern Us.
Where can I buy your book?
You can purchase a copy of The Stars That Govern Us at Amazon.com. Or just click here.
Where did you come up with the idea to write a novel about the heart-lung machine?
The Stars That Govern Us is a standalone prequel to my first novel, Five Fathoms Beneath. When I was coming up with Five Fathoms Beneath, I wanted to make the main character’s father a very sympathetic character. And so I hit upon making him a pediatric heart surgeon.
As it turned out, I fell in love with the father’s character. I wanted to write a more mainstream novel (Five Fathoms Beneath is a dark and difficult story), and I thought the story of two young heart surgeons who build a heart-lung machine was perfect. The heart-lung machine is a story that begged to be told, and I was surprised no one had tried to do so in fiction.
Where did the title come from?
The Stars That Govern Us comes from a line in Shakespeare’s play, King Lear. The line is spoken by Kent – who, in my opinion, is one of Shakespeare’s most truly good characters. The full line is:
It is the stars,
The stars above us, govern our conditions;
Else one self mate and mate could not beget
Such different issues.
King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, and you can read it online for free here.
Why did you set the novel in Perth, Western Australia?
There are a few reasons. First, I want to emphasize what I say in my novel’s blurb and in the Author’s Note at the beginning: this novel is set in a fictionalized version of Perth, Western Australia. Obviously, there is no way to see Perth as it was in 1956, and for a variety of reasons, this novel needed to be set at a fictional hospital, meaning I would need to change a number of details anyway. I’ve never been to Australia, but I spent a lot of time reading about Australia and studying the country. I also had a friend who grew up in Melbourne read the novel and one of my beta readers was an Australian.
Back to why Australia. Because the story of Gibbon’s “invention” of the heart-lung machine is fairly well-known, I decided I would write about a surgeon who is first in his country to perform surgery using the heart-lung machine. So the first criteria was the place needed to be one where the medicine was advanced enough that they would be doing open-heart surgery. A number of countries fit the bill, but what drew me to Australia was my decision that Alec would be an “ownvoices” character — that, like me, he would have a mood and anxiety disorder. And it was an Australian psychiatrist, Dr. John Cade, who first “discovered” lithium could be used to treat bipolar disorder. So for that reason, I ended up settling on Australia.
(And frankly, the more I read about Australia, the more in love I fell. If any Australians happen to be reading this, you do indeed live in a “lucky country” and one of the real joys of writing this novel was getting to learn more about your country.)
Are Alec and Pete real people?
No. Alec and Pete are entirely fictional. But their backstories are based on fact.
In writing historical fiction, one of the first questions an author faces is: Do I write about someone who was a real person? Or do I make up a person and insert them into history? I chose the latter approach. Authors who write historical fiction set in more recent times face special ethical and moral issues when they write about someone who may have died relatively recently (and therefore may have living family and friends) or someone who may even be still living (and could potentially bring a claim for defamation or invasion of privacy; it is important to remember when you write about real people and real events that just because what you’re writing is 100% true, that does not mean that if the person you’re writing about is not a famous person that you’re off the hook for invasion of privacy). Of course, this issue is not only limited to very recent historical fiction, as director James Cameron found out when First Officer William Murdoch’s family and hometown took offense to the way Murdoch was portrayed in the blockbuster movie, Titanic.
In my case, I am writing about events that took place over sixty years ago, and most of the early heart pioneers are now deceased; Dr. John Gibbon was one of the first to pass away, in 1973 (of a heart attack while playing tennis) with Dr. Richard DeWall being one of the last, dying in 2016. But I wanted to be sensitive to still-living family and friends. Consequently, I decided that for my novel what I would do is create two surgeons and insert them into history; that would allow me to keep my mentions of real people historically based and more neutral.
But this would also allow me more freedom to create my characters and shape their backstories and personalities. If you decide to write a book about a “real” person, then you’re more or less stuck with their personality and the events of their life, unless you’re writing alternate history, of course. When you create a character, it’s more work, but you can shape them any way you like.
If Alec and Pete aren’t real, who did do Australia’s first heart-lung machine operation?
Just as in the novel, Australia’s first open-heart surgery with a heart-lung machine was performed in May 1956. That procedure, performed by Charles James Officer Brown, a 59-year-old thoracic surgeon from Melbourne, was accomplished at Alfred Hospital. Following up on Brown’s success, in 1957, K.N. Morris began a congenital heart surgery program using a Sigmamotor pump and a bubble oxygenator like the one Alec and Pete built.
I’d like to learn more about the heart-lung machine. Do you have a list of resources?
I do. Not being a doctor, and given that surgery has obviously changed quite a bit in the last sixty-five years, I was pretty heavily reliant on non-fiction in developing the story and describing how the heart works. (If this were nonfiction, there’d be citations all over the place!)
You can download the book’s sources/bibliography by clicking here. (Note that this is a PDF.)