Q & A With Don J. Donaldson
Don J Donaldson is a retired professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology. His entire academic career was spent at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, where he published dozens of papers on wound healing and taught microscopic anatomy to over 5,000 medical and dental students. He is also the author of seven published forensic mysteries and five medical thrillers. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee with his wife and two West Highland Terriers. In the spring of most years he simply cannot stop buying new flowers and other plants for the couple’s backyard garden.
Where are you from? Tell us a little about yourself!
I was born and raised in Sylvania, Ohio, a little suburb of Toledo. It was a nice little town, where as a kid, I spent untold hours fishing in a nearby creek. My favorite spot was under a big poplar tree, whose roots formed a large tangle over the water. Through those roots, I caught many pumpkinseeds, a kind of bluegill with turquoise markings on the side and a bright orange belly. It was probably those beautiful fish as much as anything, that made me want to become a biology teacher.
But after college I discovered there weren’t many high school biology jobs to be had. I’d have to work my way up to that exalted position by first teaching ninth grade general science. I remember being surprised by that and being told by my university job placement officer, “Beggars can’t be choosers.” WHAT? I’m a college graduate and I’m now a beggar?
Okay, I’ll do it. General Science could be fun. And eventually, I’ll move up. Except I soon found that ninth graders aren’t interested in Science. Nor was that what they really needed. They needed someone to teach them how to be civilized human beings. Though I loved the kids, this wasn’t what I signed up for. That and the fact my wife and I couldn’t afford to pay our December utility bill, even though she too, was working, made me rethink things.
While taking a post-graduate course for science teachers, I ran into someone who pointed me in a new direction. Dr. Art Kato taught embryology like a detective story. He didn’t just tell us what was known about development, he talked about the experiments that revealed how a fertilized egg becomes a child and he spoke with passion about the men who did those experiments. I wanted to be like those men.
So, with Dr. Katoh’s help I got a graduate student fellowship in the Tulane Medical school department of Anatomy in New Orleans. Before leaving to start my new life, another member of the faculty at the public school where I taught came up to me and marveled about how brave I was to be “leaving all this” to become a student again. I guess he didn’t have any trouble paying his utility bills.
During my five years at Tulane I had no thoughts of writing novels. Memorizing thousands of anatomical facts and trying to carry out a research project worthy of a Ph.D. degree were all I could handle.
Then came two decades of teaching and research at the University of Tennessee Medical School. In all those years, I never thought about writing anything but research papers, grants, lectures, and test questions. Then one day, I woke up and thought… I want to write a novel. I have no idea where this insane idea came from. I call it insane because I had no training in writing fiction. They say there are more unfinished novels in this country than unmade beds. So chances were good that I’d never even complete one novel let alone get it published. I’m not going to tell you how long it took me to write that first novel because it’s embarrassing. But of course, I had a lot to learn. That book became, CAJUN NIGHTS the first of my seven Andy Broussard/Kit Franklyn forensic mysteries.
How did you create your characters?
Long before I started that first novel, I attended a talk given by Dr. Bill Bass, the forensic anthropologist who created the real Body Farm, made so famous by Patricia Cornwell. In that talk Dr. Bass described some of the fascinating forensic cases he’d worked on over the years. This was well before forensics became such a prevalent part of popular culture, so I had never heard about such things. Later, when I got the urge to write a novel, there was no question that the main character just had to be someone in the field of anatomical forensics… like a medical examiner.
But I’m not a pathologist. So how could I write like one? Fortunately, one of my colleagues at the University was Dr. Jim Bell, the county ME. Jim generously agreed to let me hang out for a couple of weeks at the forensic center and follow him around, which I did. Sadly, Jim died unexpectedly a few months before that first book was published. Though he was an avid reader, Jim never got to see a word of the book he helped me with. In many ways, Jim lives on as Broussard. Broussard’s brilliant mind, his weight problem, his appreciation for fine food and antiques, his love for Louis L’Amour western novels and his good soul… that was Jim Bell.
Kit Franklyn was created as a naïve counterpoint to Broussard. I thought it would be interesting to see how a beautiful young woman working for a medical examiner as a suicide investigator would react to the horrors the office has to deal with. I also anticipated that through her relationship with Broussard I could show that mutual non-romantic love was possible between an unrelated man and woman of greatly differing ages. Though he’d never admit it, Broussard loves Kit like the daughter he never had. More open about her feelings, Kit loves Broussard like a father. Of course, being set in New Awlins, I also had to add a couple of eccentric Cajuns to the mix.
Tell us about your newest book? How did it get started?
After writing six books about Andy and Kit, I took some time off to try my hand at medical thrillers in which each book would have an entirely new set of characters. That turned into a four novel hiatus during which I thought I would probably never write about Andy and Kit again.
And for a long time, I didn’t. In fact, worn out from the rigors of creating so many characters and stories, I stopped writing for a while. But Andy and Kit remained a part of me, so much so that a few years after Hurricane Katrina, I began to wonder if it would be possible for Broussard to solve a crime in the aftermath of that storm. With the city in a shambles and no one where they would normally be, could it be done… could it be written? BAD KARMA IN THE BIG EASY is the result.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
My first piece of advice is to get copies of 10 best-selling books in the genre you like, and study them. Read carefully and try to figure out why they’re so compelling. That isn’t an easy thing to do, because in good books, you’ll get carried along in a scene and forget to analyze. That’s the time to stop and ask yourself how did the author draw me in like that? In time, you’ll begin to see techniques you can copy in your work. And this is one test where copying is perfectly okay.
What I said above applies to anyone who wants to write a novel. But here’s some advice for the younger aspirant:
I once heard a tattoo artist say that tattooing was all he wanted to do in life. So to make sure he’d be a success at it, he had his face tattooed, the idea being that looking as he does, he’d never be able to get any other kind of job. It would force him to be a successful artist. That’s certainly an admirable level of commitment, but what would he do if his eyesight failed, or getting body ink suddenly became unfashionable?
Writing is a brutally difficult profession. For decades it’s been nearly impossible to get an agent, let alone a book deal. Sure, with the new digital age and the advent of e-books and the many small publishers springing up, that’s changing to some extent. And now, Amazon even has a self-publishing program. But ultimately, you still have to generate a product that will sell books. To do that, a writer must be able to draw on first-hand experiences to create a compelling world that others want to share. My anatomy and research background enabled me to understand the science of forensics, and the technology behind the things I’ve written about in my medical thrillers. It also provided a decent income while I figured out how to write fiction. And if I had never been able to find a publisher for my work, or sold a single book, I could still have a rewarding life. So, yes… dream about writing that novel, and hone the necessary skills. But also become a policeman, or a carpenter, or a sewer inspector (yes, there is a mystery series with a sewer inspector as the main character). Figure out how to make a living that doesn’t require you to produce a best-selling novel. Then you’ll not only have a Plan B, but might even be able to work your “real life” world into your writing.
Astor + Blue Editions is proud to present a heart-pounding new thriller by D.J. Donaldson, Bad Karma in The Big Easy!
Best-selling mystery author D.J. Donaldson (New Orleans Requiem, Louisiana Fever) invites readers back to the Bayou with his latest New Orleans adventure Bad Karma in the Big Easy. Plump and proud medical examiner Andy Broussard reunites with gorgeous psychologist Kit Franklyn as they face off with their most gruesome foe yet.
A killer lurks in The Big Easy, his victims found among the many bodies left in the wake of the devastating Hurricane Katrina. But with the city’s records destroyed, and the police force in complete disarray, Broussard must take matters into his own hands. Soon, he and his courageous sidekick, Kit, find themselves on a dangerous and labyrinthine journey through the storm-ravaged underbelly of the ever-mysterious and intensely seductive city of New Orleans; leading them to a predatory evil the likes of which they’ve never encountered.
Written in his uniquely brusque style, Donaldson’s Bad Karma combines hard-hitting, action-packed prose with a folksy, sweetly Southern charm. Add Donaldson’s brilliant first-hand knowledge of forensics and the sultry flavor of New Orleans, and the result is a first class forensic procedural within an irresistibly delectable mystery that will leave fans hungry for more.
Bad Karma in the Big Easy is available to purchase from