Josh Bazell started writing his debut novel, Beat the Reaper, while studying medicine at Columbia. The result is a “composite hellhole” of hospitals he’s worked at, starring an eccentric (to say the least) protagonist, hit man turned physician Pietro Brwna. The novel sparked a bidding war (Bazell landed a two-book deal for seven figures), and Leo DiCaprio is going to produce the film version. Bazell, now a medical resident in San Francisco, spoke with Lori Fradkin.
So, Leonardo DiCaprio—not bad! Think he could play your hero?
The thing that’s ironic is, I walk down the street and people mistake me for DiCaprio all the time.
No. I’m just making this up. I like him a lot. I didn’t write with the idea of its being a movie, and what I was going for was the idea of somebody whose previous life as a violent criminal is evident on meeting him, even though he’s no longer a criminal.
That doesn’t scream DiCaprio, but maybe if he shaves his head …
Pietro’s head is shaved in the book, but who knows? It could take place on an airplane in the movie. I’m looking forward to being surprised by whatever they do with it.
Where did you get the idea for the book?
I wanted to explore the extent to which somebody can change himself. And I felt I might have something to say about the Mafia that hadn’t been said before.
I’ve read lots of Mafia memoirs, this sort of repulsive subgenre where people who’ve gone into witness protection write tell-alls in which they claim to be ashamed of their former lives yet can’t stop bragging about them. In books and on TV, the mob tends to be either a sort of omnipotent conspiracy or a bunch of lovable doofuses who do petty crime. I love The Godfather, but the idea that somebody like Don Corleone sits around granting favors is clearly inaccurate. The favor is that if you pay them 60 percent, they don’t break your legs.
Your book points out some unpleasant aspects of the health-care industry.
It’s hard to practice medicine without being aware that your work is being undermined by pharmaceutical and insurance agencies, both of which are involved without the patient’s best interest in mind. Pietro is a good physician, but it takes a lot of energy for him to be that. Whereas mayhem is second nature, medicine is tough.
Is it true that U2 is popular background music for surgery?
Yes. I love U2, but surgeries can take twelve hours and the playlist can get extremely tight. There’s some very light rock being played.
If this becomes a movie, I’ll definitely be covering my eyes for the last scene.
It didn’t strike me as out there at the time. But when I reread the scene a couple of months later, I felt physically ill. And I wasn’t unhappy about that.