Armed with a journalism degree from New York University, an impressive resume of reporting for major media outlets, and a vivid imagination, Kira Peikoff is a writer of medical thrillers that seamlessly and relentlessly blend suspense with topical scientific themes. Her books have been praised for their excitement, plausibility, and timeliness.
Her debut novel, LIVING PROOF, a near-future tale of assisted reproduction and the ethical issues surrounding it, garnered rave reviews from the likes of Douglas Preston, Steve Berry, and Lisa Unger. Lee Child noted that LIVING PROOF makes “you think, makes you sweat, leaves you happy—everything a good book should.”
Now she returns with her second novel, NO TIME TO DIE, a white-knuckle yarn exploring the genetics of aging. The late Dr. Michael Palmer called NO TIME TO DIE an “intelligent, exciting tour d’ force” and a “crackling good read.”
Ms. Peikoff recently offered her thoughts on a range of topics including the art of crafting a medical thriller, Dr. Palmer’s mentorship, and the worst writing advice she ever received.
The biology of aging plays a central role in NO TIME TO DIE. How did you first get interested in this topic?
My interest in biology goes back to a fascinating science course I took in college that opened my mind to the exciting possibilities of biotechnology and the ways that researchers are innovating creative solutions to improve our health. I’ve also always been keenly aware of the aging process in a way that most people my age probably aren’t, because I have a dad who’s much older than the norm (he’s now eighty). So the biology of aging interests me on both a personal level and an intellectual level.
Without revealing any spoilers, it’s safe to say that there are several creatively written death scenes in NO TIME TO DIE—one in particular that jumpstarts the story with quite a jolt. How did you approach composing these scenes?
I wanted to write something out of the norm to grab readers from the start. I took advantage of the setting—a chimpanzee lab—to work up some unexpected drama. I also needed, for the story, to create a couple death scenes that wouldn’t leave behind traces of the murderer’s identity. I guess I have a pretty twisted imagination!
NO TIME TO DIE incorporates complex biomedical principles as key components to the plot. How do you research the scientific concepts underpinning your novels?
I do have some background, thanks to having taken several biology and genetics courses at the college level. So I was able to understand the research I studied on a basic level for the book. Mainly I connected with a leading scientist whose expertise is in the genetics of aging. He ended up talking me through—in excruciating detail—all the nitty-gritty details I needed to tell the story in a credible manner.
There are some provocative discussions about government regulation of the drug industry and scientific research in NO TIME TO DIE. How much of these themes reflect your own beliefs?
I am raising the issue in the book to hopefully get people thinking about whether our society’s current heavy-handedness in drug development and scientific research is really the best way to advance medicine, and ultimately, to improve people’s health. Personally I believe the FDA overreaches and, despite its mission to protect the public, does far more harm than good; it’s too paternalistic and removes consumer choice from what should be private individual assessment of risk. In my research for many of my journalism articles, I’ve spoken to numerous scientists and patients who complain that the FDA is a massive bureaucracy that discourages innovation and lets desperate patients suffer or die rather than giving them the option to try new drugs at their own discretion. I completely sympathize with this perspective.
You’re a student of bioethics. How does this experience inform your writing?
Studying bioethics has provided me with a fantastic context to write about issues I was already interested in. After having taken bioethics courses in history, philosophy, law, and more, I feel I have a better grasp of many of today’s complex problems and can write about them more effectively.
The late Dr. Michael Palmer was a mentor of yours. What was the single most important thing you learned from Dr. Palmer?
Michael was a brilliant writer and mentor, and I will always value the time I had with him. In one of our last correspondences, he wrote to me a sentence I have never forgotten. He said: “You have a terrific writer’s mind so long as it remains open to all possibilities and permutations past the very last minute.” I often go back to this to remind myself to stay open-minded to whatever direction my plot or characters might take, and not to feel boxed in by what I’d already planned. He was so cheerful and competent when approaching difficult plot problems, and his attitude gave me confidence during a particularly frustrating stretch of writing.
Are there other writers who have influenced your work, or whom you particularly admire?
Lisa Unger, Tess Gerritsen, Gillian Flynn, Curtis Sittenfeld, and so many others.
Any plans to write a series with recurring characters?
A few of the characters in NO TIME TO DIE actually recur in my next thriller titled DIE AGAIN TOMORROW, coming in 2015. But this new book has a completely different storyline and protagonist, so you don’t need to read NO TIME TO DIE first.
Outline, or no outline? Why?
Definitely an outline. Otherwise I would not be able to write with purpose to advance my story. That said, I do allow myself to deviate from the outline as new and better ideas occur to me (see Michael’s advice), but I generally keep the same overall narrative arc as I planned from the start.
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve written stories as long as I can remember. It probably stems from being an only child and needing to find creative ways to entertain myself alone. But I remember declaring at age twelve that I wanted to grow up to be a professional writer, after I got excited by reading Agatha Christie and GONE WITH THE WIND.
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer of medical thrillers?
After I’d written my first book, LIVING PROOF. That story idea had come about organically, after a reporting experience I had one summer dealing with the politics of stem cell research. In my reading habits, I gravitated toward plot-driven fiction with high stakes, danger, and a fast pace. So I incorporated those qualities into LIVING PROOF, which happened to deal with a life-or-death medical issue. Later, a writing teacher of mine told me it was a medical thriller.
How did you break into the business?
I actually worked in publishing houses for a few years, so I figured out how the business works, but it wasn’t until I’d sent out a ton a query letters and gotten many rejections over the course of a painful year that I found my wonderful agent, Erica Silverman. Then she found my first publisher, Tor.
If you had to choose five books every aspiring writer should read, what would they be?
ON WRITING, BIRD BY BIRD, WRITER’S MARKET, and the rest should be great novels in the genre they want to write.
Have you ever considered exploring other genres? If so, which ones?
I may move away from medical thrillers at some point to psychological suspense. I think I will always be drawn to some kind of suspense though.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received? How about the worst?
Best: Every word is guilty until proven innocent. Worst: That you always have to adhere to the mantra “show, don’t tell.” You do have to tell sometimes, when the pacing requires skipping through certain parts rather than dramatizing them. The art of storytelling is knowing when to show and when to tell.
What books are currently on your own nightstand?
THE FEVER by Megan Abbott, DESPERATE by Daniel Palmer, and an old out-of-print book that was recommended to me called HOW TO THINK CREATIVELY by Eliot Hutchinson.
Kira Peikoff is a writer based in New York City. She graduated with high honors from New York University in 2007 with a degree in journalism, after four years of various reporting internships: covering street crime for The Daily News, writing about Capitol Hill for The Orange County Register in Washington, D.C., reporting on business and technology for Newsday, and researching feature stories for New York magazine. After completing her first book, LIVING PROOF, Peikoff worked for several years in the editorial departments at two New York publishing houses, which gave her an invaluable inside look at the publishing process and the rapidly changing industry. Her latest thriller NO TIME TO DIE will be released in Fall 2014. Peikoff is working on her third thriller, freelancing for a variety of major media outlets, and attending Columbia University’s Master of Science program in Bioethics.
To learn more, please visit her website.
Photography credit: Matt Jacob