Peter Palmieri is a board certified pediatrician with 20 years of experience who has built a reputation for reporting on issues of pediatric medicine with objectivity and skepticism. He was raised in the eclectic Italian city of Trieste on the Adriatic, returning to the United States at the age of 14 with just a suitcase and an acoustic guitar.
Peter graduated from the University of California, San Diego with double majors in Animal Physiology and Psychology before earning his M.D. from Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine. After a year of pediatric internship at the University of Chicago he returned to Loyola where he completed his pediatric residency and was selected as Chief Resident for an additional year. More recently, he earned a Healthcare M.B.A. from The George Washington University. After nearly two decades of private practice, Peter is now a fellow in the academic general pediatric program at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas.
He’s honed his writing skills by attending countless writing seminars and courses, including Robert McKee’s famed Story seminar, the SEAK Medical Fiction writing seminars on Cape Cod taught by Tess Gerritsen and Michael Palmer, and the Writer’s Path courses at SMU. Most importantly, he is an avid reader and a movie fanatic.
Article first published as Interview: Peter Palmieri, Author of ‘The Art of Forgetting’on Blogcritics.
Hi Peter! I am so happy to be interviewing you today. I have visited your website and I am more than intrigued about your new book The Art of Forgetting. But before we dig into some of the details about your book, I wanted to start off by getting to know you and what makes you thrive!
Your bio says you returned to the United States when you were 14. Were you born here in the U.S. or in Italy? Did you travel with your entire family?
I was born in the United States, the youngest of five children. When I was four years old, I was living with my mother and my siblings in a small town in Colorado while my father, an army sergeant, was stationed overseas. My mother developed a terminal illness and decided to bring us kids to Italy so that we could be raised by our aunt and our grandparents. In Italy, I attended the International School of Trieste, which went only up to the eighth grade, so when I was 14 I returned to the United States to join my older brothers and sister who had already returned.
Do you still enjoy playing the guitar today?
I do. It’s a great way to relax and clear my mind.
You are pediatrician and that is a very special job. It takes a very special person to be a pediatrician in my eyes, as I have a 4 year old son who has been very vocal recently about not liking his ‘new doctor.’ What is the most rewarding part of your career?
I think the most rewarding part – and this is probably true of any job – is knowing that you’ve made a difference in someone’s life. This doesn’t necessarily mean nailing a particularly tricky diagnosis or “curing” someone of their illness. For example, about a year ago I received an e-mail from a former patient of mine, now all grown up. He was about to start his first year of medical school and felt compelled to write to me to tell me that his decision to study medicine had largely been influenced by my interactions with him when he was a child. What could me more rewarding than that?
After studying animal physiology and Psychology, what made you decide that being a pediatrician was your calling? Was there any specific influence or experience that lead you to this specific practice?
I knew I wanted to study medicine by my junior year in high school, so my double-major in college was designed to prepare me for this. I actually thought I was going to be a psychiatrist (after watching the movie, Ordinary People). I kind of went into pediatrics by default. I had a scholarship with the National Health Service Corps which requires its recipients to pursue a career in primary care. At the end of my third year of medical school, I received a letter informing me that psychiatry was no longer a valid choice to complete the terms of the scholarship. After a weekend of brooding, I decided to do pediatrics. In retrospect, I’m glad things worked out the way they did.
I can imagine your schedule is really busy. How did you manage to fit in your writing classes with your career as a doctor?
About eight years ago, I left office pediatrics to do shift work, first as a hospital-based pediatrician and thereafter working in a pediatric urgent care center. By working shifts, I had entire days off where I could write. The key is turn the TV off and not get sucked up in all the social media on the internet. I carry a notebook around so I can write my first drafts long-hand whenever I get a free moment.
Tell us a bit about The Art of Forgetting and the concept behind the story. What is it about?
It’s about a young doctor who has found a very promising but highly controversial treatment for memory loss and dementia. He’s quite anxious to get human trials going for some rather self-serving reasons: for generations, the men in his family have fallen victim to a severe form of early-onset dementia and he’s convinced he’s acquired this tribal curse. When things start going terribly wrong in every sphere of his life, he is forced to face some sobering truths about his past and is confronted with extremely difficult choices. That’s the plot, anyway. What it’s really about is how we create our identities based on stories we script about our life. But too often, these stories are based on gross misperceptions.
In The Art of Forgetting, Dr. Lloyd Copeland is one of the main characters. Can you tell us about him and the ‘brilliant author’ that he is trying to help?
Lloyd Copeland is not the most likable guy. He’s an arrogant womanizer who shuns any sort of meaningful relationship. In truth, he’s quite a pathetic human being who is clinging desperately to pathological defense mechanisms to avoid falling into utter despair. As the story unfolds, he’s given plenty of opportunities to reveal his true character as he deals with one crisis after the other.
Cecil Spalding is the formerly brilliant science-fiction author who is imprisoned by severe amnesia. His character was inspired by a video I saw which featured my favorite college professor, the great neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran. In the video, Rama tells the story of a man with one of the worst cases of amnesia ever documented. Cecil Spalding’s amnesia is so severe, every time his wife walks into the room he is overwhelmed with joy, thinking he has not seen her in ages though she might have just stepped out for a minute.
Wow, I am more than intrigued. There is a bitter sweet attraction to characters that are unlovable. Surely these fictional beings make for a great read! I will be adding The Art of Forgetting to my To-Read list.
Would you say that the psychological suspense in your book is based off of a particular patient or treatment of a patient from your past? Or is it something similar to a fascination of what humans are capable of?
One might say that the seed of an idea for this book was planted in my brain some 38 years ago when my grandmother developed dementia. Over just a couple of years, I witnessed the dramatic transformation by which this strong, independent, cheerful, witty woman became a frail soul who needed around-the-clock care and often was unable to recognize her own family members.
Now, I’m sure you’ve had the experience of trying to think of a word or of someone’s name which is on the tip of your tongue but stubbornly remains elusive. For most people, this is little more than an annoyance. For me, especially as I’m getting on in years, these events have the effect of producing unmitigated panic. It sure feels like my memory is declining. Am I going to suffer the same fate as my grandmother? Did I inherit those genes through my mother’s bloodline? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. The suspense is killing me.
I can imagine that had to be difficult for you and your family. Do you have any words of encouragement for other people who are dealing with dementia up close and personal?
This is a condition that is particularly challenging for family members and caregivers. It may help to know that you’re not alone: about 5 million people in the United States suffer from dementia. The Alzheimer’s Association has some great resources including information on caregiver support groups. Their web site is www.alz.org . If one of your family members is affected, I urge you to reach out to this wonderful organization, and, of course, I wish you strength, serenity and the best of luck.
Before we wrap up this interview, I would like for you to be completely random and spontaneous and tell us something, anything that you want readers to know about you and/or your book.
Often, creativity stems from blending two seemingly unrelated subjects together to come up with a new idea. I was suffering a dreadful case of writer’s block when I came across a scientific article that did the job for me. It brought together two subjects that interested me a whole lot but I had never suspected could relate to each other.
The article discussed research involving a potentially beneficial effect of prions (these are the particles involved in causing a group of devastating neurologic conditions such as Mad Cow disease). Specifically, the researchers were looking at how prions might mediate long-term memory. Now, if you’re not a science buff, don’t worry: the prions are the MacGuffin of my novel, and if you’re not familiar with MacGuffins, don’t worry about that either.
Anyway, the article got me unstuck. I began to wonder if prions might be modified so that they could be injected into people to treat memory loss and dementia. Then I asked myself what type of person would pursue such a risky form of therapy. And finally, who might be interested in blocking it. Pretty soon, the characters started coming alive and they basically told me the story. I have to admit, I was completely caught off guard by all the twists and turns.
What is next for you, Peter? Do you have another novel in the works?
I’m working on my second medical suspense which has the working title, Borderlandia. I’ve been telling my friends that it’s Doc Hollywood meets The Firm. It will feature widespread corruption among a group of doctors in South Texas, a drug cartel, an aspiring politician, an exodus of unaccompanied children flooding across the border, and a young doctor, still reeling from a horrific experience near the end of his training, who must find the courage to perform an incredible act of heroism and selflessness.
Please do share your website info and where we can find you online. Facebook, Twitter…etc.
I always enjoy hearing from my readers who never fail to teach me something.
My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org