Interviewed by Jamais Jochem
Jamais Jochem: What was the inspiration for Mia?
Bernard Leo Remakus: As a physician and medical journalist, I always try to look at things from as many different angles as possible. I try to find the little-known exception to a rule and the one possibility hiding among one-million unlikely options. While I was in medical school, I met a stunning woman who attributed her physical beauty to recent advances in the fields of plastic surgery and gender reassignment. I found it hard to believe that this gorgeous woman was once a man. She spoke intelligently in a soft female voice and claimed to love her wife – as well as her husband – and to experience intense orgasms as a woman. She also claimed a highlight of every year was receiving a Father’s Day card from the child she fathered before she began the long process of gender reassignment. I filed that meeting in the back of my mind for future reference, but continued to research gender reassignment as my medical education progressed. Years later, after I was already well established as a physician and writer, I recalled that meeting and realized society still had many misconceptions about the process of gender reassignment and the individuals who felt compelled to have their sexes changed surgically. I knew I could publish an article about the topic in a medical journal or magazine and correct a few popular misconceptions about gender reassignment, but it suddenly occurred to me there was a better way to do the same thing. The better way was a novel – a human interest story that taught readers about the process of gender reassignment, but more importantly, also convinced readers that transgender individuals are real people with real families, real needs and real aspirations. As I began to see the possibility of a novel with a transgender theme, I realized such a novel had to be timely and unique, and have a twist that would take readers by surprise. That’s when I came up with the idea of a war hero sustaining unthinkable injuries in the line of duty and agreeing to undergo gender reassignment for the sole purpose of returning to the scene of the crime and neutralizing the menacing terrorist who was responsible for his injuries. As a subplot, the hero would be declared missing in action, resulting in a wife’s depression and son’s incorrigibility. A motivation for the transgender assassin to survive the covert operation would be the chance to return home, and as a beautiful stranger named Mia, try to help a widow and son get their lives back on track.
JJ: Why the rural setting? Mia seems a little high-powered to let loose on that particular high school.
BLR: Writers have a distinct advantage when they write about what they know. I have lived in a rural area for the past 30 years and understand life in the country, so rural America is my setting of choice when I’m writing fiction. Having also lived in a metropolitan area, as well as smaller towns and cities, I know what makes rural areas unique, and I try to accentuate the unique aspects of the country and its residents in my writing. Many people who have never lived in the country have major misconceptions about rural life. They don’t realize rural areas are significantly different from larger towns and cities politically, legally, economically, socially, and philosophically. The ability to point out these differences in a novel enhances the work and provides a greater number of story options. To some readers, Mia might seem a little high-powered to let loose on a small rural high school, but in truth, Mia would be too much for any high school. Choosing a small school for her to work in eliminated many potential distractions and allowed her to focus on the reason she came to Paculah – to straighten out the lives of Pete and Molly Adams. Besides, Paculah was Mia’s hometown, so after many years in the Middle East, it was important for Mia to return to her home and family, even if no one knew her real identity.
JJ: Did you coach any sports yourself?
BLR: I coached high school varsity basketball and baseball while I was still in college and again later when I became a high school science teacher. A few years ago, one of my patients, a high school athletic director who knew of my previous coaching experience, asked me to rebuild his high school baseball program that won only one game in three seasons. I took over the program and established a winning record over six years. My teams went to the district playoffs four times in six seasons, and my team won the league championship the final year I coached. The program I developed was the subject of a feature story in the publication, Collegiate Baseball. While I was coaching, I also scouted high school athletes for various colleges, and helped a number of my players get college scholarships and tryouts with major league baseball teams. The most significant feature of my baseball program was that it was run at a small rural high school that played its games against teams from much larger schools. The program included both varsity and junior varsity teams, but on average, only 17 students came out for baseball each year. Fortunately, the varsity games were played on week days and the junior varsity games were played on week-ends, so a core group of underclassmen played on both the varsity and junior varsity teams. I never cut a player from any of my teams, even though a number of players had criminal records, alcohol and/or drug problems, physical and/or psychological disabilities, family problems and academic difficulties. A number of the players I coached are now doctors, teachers, high school coaches, counselors, businessmen, commodities traders, craftsmen, career military men, law enforcement officials, government employees and hard-working laborers. Before I entered the medical profession, I taught on the high school and college levels. When I finished my medical education, I became a clinical assistant professor at my alma mater, the Temple University School of Medicine. During my teaching career, I had the rare distinction of teaching and coaching the same student when he was in high school and again years later when he was in medical school. Today, he is a highly respected physician, and still the best second baseman I ever coached. Many of the classroom and athletics scenes in Mia were made possible by my experiences as a high school science teacher and coach.
JJ: How about wrestling? There was some nice detail in the book.
BLR: I grew up in a tough neighborhood, and although my high school didn’t have a wrestling program, impromptu wrestling matches and fist fights were a prominent part of my childhood. Later on, I got interested in judo and worked out with an Army veteran who taught hand-to-hand combat in the service. Over the years, I became interested in other martial arts and acquired additional skills in self-defense. Although I never coached wrestling, I understand the principles of the sport. The scene in Mia in which Sister Rose defends herself against two terrorists was written as a fast-paced action sequence in which the nun uses judo, a champagne magnum and a high heel shoe to neutralize her unsuspecting captors. The scene in which Pete wrestles Mia was written to contrast the skills and techniques of the wrestler versus those of the martial artist. The scene in which Pete wrestles Orestes Murphy for the state championship was written to demonstrate the effects of multi-discipline training in a scholastic wrestling match.
JJ: What is your prior military experience?
BLR: I have never served in the military, but I have always been a student of military history and a fan of military cinema. Throughout the years, I have developed an extensive network of human resources who I can call whenever I have a question about something outside my own areas of expertise. While I was researching the military themes in Mia, I consulted a military intelligence officer who recently spent a great deal of time on active duty in the Middle East. Although the officer did not divulge any classified information, his overview of America’s war against terrorism in the Middle East gave me the kind of information I needed to write an interesting and believable novel.
JJ: There is a definite change-up between Mia’s prep for her mission and when she gets ready to get home, from over-the-top action to more homey interactions. Why did you choose to do it that way?
BLR: Mia’s mission to neutralize Chameleon was a suicide mission. She accepted the risk of not returning alive from the mission because Chameleon was the most dangerous terrorist in the world and he had to be stopped at all cost. What’s more, Chameleon was impossible to find, and Mia realized she would have a very small window of opportunity to locate and neutralize the terrorist. The scenes Mia shared with Chameleon were action scenes, as were her scenes with Chameleon’s henchman and her escape from Chameleon’s headquarters. On the other hand, the scenes Mia shared with Molly and Pete were human interest scenes. With the exception of Mia’s wrestling match with Pete and Pete’s attempt to win his fourth state wrestling championship, there was very little physical action in the final chapters of the book. Of course, physical action of a different sort does occur in the novel’s final chapter. In contrast to her mission against Chameleon which was a matter of life and death, her mission in support of Molly and Pete was a matter of life and life. Mia set out to kill Chameleon. She set out to save the lives of Molly and Pete. Therein lies the difference.
JJ: How big a fan of 80′s movies are you? It may sound weird, but the fast-moving beginning backed by a slower middle and end was a common movie construction then.
BLR: I am a very big fan of movies from every era, including the 1980s. In fact, I am much more conversant in cinema than I am in literature. The fast start to a movie, followed by a gradual tapering off of action is by no means unique to the 1980s, but it certainly was present in many of the films of that decade. When I write a novel, I write it as though I am writing a screenplay. I create characters and immediately try to visualize what actor or actress would be able to play each of the characters if my novel became a movie. In 2007, I wrote the screenplay for Mia immediately after I completed the novel. Mia was my first screenplay, and I found writing a screenplay much more demanding than writing a novel because of the formatting requirements. I must have formatted the screenplay satisfactorily because it became a finalist in a Hollywood screenplay competition.
JJ: When you wrote Mia, how detailed were your notes? It just seems that you would need a tight outline to ensure that there weren’t continuity errors.
BLR: Whenever I write a novel, I start by developing the book’s ending. In the case of Mia, I knew the book would end with Mia reading the newspaper headline. Developing a novel’s ending first helps avoid continuity errors because the finish line is clearly in sight before the race begins and while the race is still in progress. After I decide how the book is going to end, I start creating characters whose only requirement is that they are memorable. The characters are created as needed to develop the story and added to the mix, one by one. Each character is allowed to develop within the limits of his or her individual personality. This makes each character believable. I do not use notes when I write, and I do not construct an outline beforehand. I just create a group of unique characters and record their individual and collective actions as they happen. As soon as the last character reaches the finish line and the requirements for the book’s ending have been satisfied, the book is finished. When I type the novel’s final period, I do so emphatically and immediately think of James Caan finishing his novel in the movie, Misery, and celebrating with a cigarette and glass of Dom Perignon. I don’t smoke, and rather than drinking champagne after I finish a book, I prefer to celebrate with a drink that has direct ties to the novel. After I finished Mia, I celebrated with a glass of Calvados, a French apple brandy that Mia drank to celebrate a major accomplishment of her own.
JJ: For that matter, how detailed were your character notes?
BLR: I don’t use character notes, because my characters have a way of developing by themselves throughout the course of the novel. I try to create fresh characters that readers have never met and use my understanding of human nature to set the parameters that regulate what each character is capable of doing and not doing as the story develops. For me, the ability to create new characters and record the events in which they participate is the best part of the entire writing process. I actually have fun while I’m writing and consider writing a stress reliever rather than stress producer. I know how successful the finished product is going to be by how much fun I’m having while I’m writing it.
JJ: Were any of the characters based on real people? How do you think they would feel if they knew? Or do they know?
BLR: Mia’s characters and events are all fictional. From a theoretical perspective, real people would probably feel gratified if a book told their story in a favorable way and disappointed if the book told their story unfavorably or inaccurately. Regardless of the way in which the story was told, many people would probably become angry if they read something about themselves that was unauthorized or meant to be private. With the millions of books currently in print, it is not inconceivable that the events of a person’s entire life could be published as an act of fiction without the person ever knowing it. On the flip side of the same coin, a person could erroneously conclude a fictional character was based on his or her life. Shortly after I published an earlier novel, Cassidy’s Solution, I started receiving friendly calls from readers who were sure they knew the true identity of the fictional character, Teddy Edwards, a sleazy businessman who controlled the financial and political workings of the rural town in which the book takes place. The people the readers mentioned as the inspiration for Teddy Edwards had nothing in common with the character other than the fact they were all small town businessmen who some people considered sleazy. I initially got the idea for Teddy Edwards by watching Dabney Coleman portray Jerry Caesar, the porn king, in the movie, Dragnet. Edwards is more intelligent, serious, and corruptible than Caesar, but like Caesar, Edwards always has one eye on the ladies and the other eye on everyone else’s money. When I shared this tidbit with the callers, they all agreed there was more of a resemblance between Teddy Edwards and Jerry Caesar than there was between Edwards and the people they knew in real life.
JJ: When it came to the town, did you draw from a map? It seemed as if you knew where everything was in relation to everything else.
BLR: I have lived in a rural community for most of my professional life. During that time, my family and I have traveled extensively across America and visited all 50 states. Although Paculah is a fictional town in Kentucky, it resembles most rural towns in that state, and for that matter, most rural towns in most other states. A writer can pick two points on any map of any state in America, and chances are, there will be a town resembling Paculah somewhere between those two points. Of course, to meet Mia, you’ll have to travel to Paculah itself. Directions to Paculah are included with every copy of Mia.
JJ: Why no antagonist for Mia? I’m not saying that she needed an A-Squad of terrorists after her, just curious why the artistic choice for a series of problems rather than a villain of some sort.
BLR: In reality, Mia had a number of strong antagonists. Chameleon was the first and the wrestling coach, Lloyd Henry, was next, but the most formidable was Pete Adams. Mia spends most of the book trying to cure Pete of incorrigibility brought on by the reported death of his father. Throughout the book, Mia is in a constant fight with the youngster and forced to take drastic measures to get the kid back on the straight and narrow. Pete gives Mia a run for her money and becomes as much an antagonist as Mia could handle, given the multiple subplots still operative while Pete and Mia were squaring off against each other. When I was writing the book, I gave brief consideration to making Lloyd Henry more of a bad guy and allowing him to go head-to-head with Mia on a few more occasions, even making unwanted sexual advances toward her. The only problem with that tact was its distraction from all the other events of the book, its interference with the way Mia finally gets to Henry and its risk of making Mia more of a superhero than she was intended to be.
JJ: Mia’s first mission was pretty rough. Why the threat of rape when she could take out Chameleon whenever she wanted?
BLR: To take out Chameleon, Mia first had to find him. The C.I.A. codenamed him Chameleon because he blended in with his surroundings extremely well and was impossible to locate. The C.I.A. was able to identify him only by his voice print. That’s why Mia went undercover as the missionary nun, Sister Rose. The C.I.A. closely studied Chameleon’s past performances and realized he was a sadomasochist who kidnapped beautiful American women throughout the Middle East, and after using and abusing them, eventually eliminated them. Sister Rose was a beautiful American nun who became very visible when she began helping Middle Easterners rebuild their war-torn homes and villages. Chameleon’s henchmen took the bait and kidnapped Sister Rose but never attempted to rape her. Their only threat was to torture and kill the three other nuns in her group if she refused to cooperate. Sister Rose was their gift to Chameleon who never threatened rape either. Instead, he offered to marry her, literally moments after she was brought to him. Chameleon felt she was a strong girl who was simple-minded and afraid to disobey him because of what might happen to the other nuns. He also felt his next trip to the United States, which promised further terroristic activities, would be facilitated by traveling with a wife who looked, spoke and acted like an American. Sister Rose knew Chameleon was capable of rape and torture, but his proposal of marriage bought her time. Because Chameleon was always surrounded by his two armed guards, Sister Rose also realized her time alone with him would be limited. She knew marrying him would include a wedding night and the chance to neutralize him in the privacy and comfort of her own wedding bed. Sister Rose agreed to marry Chameleon, and their wedding night is one of the book’s defining moments.
JJ: Do you think that Arab readers will take offense at the terrorists?
BLR: The terrorists portrayed in Mia are never identified by nationality, religion, or affiliation because to do so would unnecessarily cast dispersions on millions of good, peace-loving people who do not support terrorism but who are unfairly linked to the ideology because of where they live or the language they speak. Chameleon could have been identified as a European or even an American in the book, and neither the plot nor the outcome would have changed because, in the final analysis, Mia is not about nationalities, theologies or politics. It is about people – extraordinary people who, by book’s end, overcome much more than just terrorism.
JJ: Are you expecting to get any grief from feminists from some of the actions Mia takes, such as her being such a kick-ass protagonist, who started her life as a man?
BLR: Mia is a controversial book, no matter who reads it. Any special interest group, including feminists, could spin the book in any direction they wish. A feminist could probably argue Mia is a transgender female, which is not the same as being a female from birth, and any of her accomplishments as a woman must be marked with an asterisk. Conversely, another feminist could probably argue Mia only became successful in life when she became a woman and adopted the tenets of feminism. How any group spins the book or measures it against the ideologies of their group is irrelevant to me. Although the early published and unpublished reviews of Mia have been overwhelmingly favorable, I expect dissenting opinions, but certainly not grief – well, maybe a “Good Grief” or two.
JJ: Why make Mia an attractive woman? Sure, it helped in her mission, but that would be one heck of a cost to justify later.
BLR: Why not make Mia an attractive woman? When I started writing the book and creating characters, I began to wonder which actors and actresses would be the best choices to play the characters if Mia became a movie. Guess what? Every actress I pictured was drop-dead gorgeous. For example, I visualized Angelina Jolie as Mia. The last time I looked, she was still a very attractive woman. Judging by her performance in the movie, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, I’d say she would also be a natural to perform the martial arts required of the character. I also thought of Charlize Theron, a knockout who showed some sweet moves in the film, The Italian Job. And how could I not consider Demi Moore, another beauty whose stunts in the movie, G.I. Jane, were superb, or Catherine Zeta-Jones, a gorgeous woman who showed a lot of athletic ability in the film, Entrapment, or Anne Hathaway, another doll who also showed some moves in the film, Get Smart? My choices to play the wife, Molly, in any cinematic adaptation of Mia, are also attractive women. My short list for the part includes Renee Zellwegger, Carey Mulligan and Michelle Williams. Any of these fine actresses, along with someone like Danny DeVito, Paul Giamatti, John Turturro, William H. Macy or Oliver Platt in the male lead of Tarzan, would make Mia one blockbuster of a movie.
JJ: What about the transgender community? Mia does touch on some of those subjects.
BLR: The transgender community should be very supportive of Mia, because the book clearly explains the entire process of gender reassignment in language easily understood by readers without medical backgrounds, and in doing so, corrects a number of popular misconceptions. More importantly, the book portrays transgender individuals as human beings. Shortly after the book was published, I received a call from a retired teacher who thanked me for clearly explaining gender reassignment in the book – a concept that had confused him his entire life. Mia is not an endorsement for gender reassignment. It is simply a book that explains a complicated process in a tasteful manner while telling a truly unique story.
JJ: Molly seems to have no problem accepting Mia for who she is, especially when she finds out her true identity. Would Pete, their son, have been so accepting?
BLR: In time, Pete would probably be able to handle Mia’s true identity, but the time for such a revelation would have to come years from now – after Pete graduated from West Point and after Mia and Molly decided the time had come for Pete to learn the truth. The limiting factor in the current novel and any sequels would be Pete discovering something that could seriously compromise national security. Mia assured Tarzan she would never divulge her true identity to anyone. That included Molly and Pete. Technically, Mia never told Molly who she really was, but to obviate Molly’s impending nervous breakdown, Mia handed Molly two plus two and allowed her to come up with the correct answer herself. Even then, she told Molly, “Zack is dead. My name is Mia.” Hypothetically, Pete would have been able to handle Mia’s true identity within the framework of the current novel because he was a very intelligent kid and he trusted Mia. Handled in the right way, Mia could have told Pete her secret and eventually he would have accepted Mia for who she was. Once again, sharing a secret that could seriously compromise national security with an 18 year old kid, who was about to go away from home for the first time in his life and attend a military academy, would have been ill advised. Will Mia, Molly or someone else ever tell Pete the truth about Mia? I don’t know. Stay tuned.
JJ: The CIA is used only for an occasional assist. Was there any temptation to explain away any pet conspiracy theories?
BLR: In the movie, Sneakers, the character, Mother, as portrayed by Dan Aykroyd, gives the audience liberal doses of conspiracy theories, such as the Air Force bringing a space visitor to the White House for an interview with President Eisenhower, the C.I.A. visiting Nicaragua the day before the country was hit by an earthquake and N.A.S.A. faking the Apollo Moon landings. Mother’s conspiracy theories are effective in the film because they bring comic relief. Conspiracy theories have been used with good results throughout literature and cinema for many years, but the atmosphere has to be right for the technique to be successful and the theories have to be offered by the right kind of characters who are usually paranoid and verbose. Realizing this, one has to ask how many different books or movies have to claim the Apollo moon landings were staged before readers and movie patrons start getting tired of the same old schtick? As the C.I.A.s representative in Mia, Tarzan would be the logical character to come up with conspiracy theories, but he is not the kind of character who runs off at the mouth. Instead, he speaks only when necessary and is cautious in his use of words. What’s more, he is unlikely to share conspiracy theories with other characters when he is usually the one behind the conspiracies. I enjoy reading about fresh conspiracy theories and seeing them explored on the silver screen, but I never considered them an option in Mia.
JJ: Will there be a sequel to Mia? Or will the girls just follow the open road for a while?
BLR: Many readers have already asked this question, because the novel leaves a number of questions unanswered. It also presents numerous possibilities for more adventures and more explorations of the human condition. A sequel could follow Mia and Molly in their travels on the open road, or drag Mia back into the C.I.A. and world of covert operations. Another sequel could bring Mia and Pete, the recent West Point graduate, back together in some kind of military mission. Do you think the possibility of Pete discovering Mia’s true identity would be worth the price of a sequel? I do, and from the interest Mia is currently generating, so do a growing number of readers. If a sequel is meant to happen, it will. If not, the world will keep on spinning.
Bernard Leo Remakus, M.D. is a native of Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He received his B.S. degree from King’s College, M.Ed. degree from East Stroudsburg State College, and M.D. degree from the Temple University School of Medicine. He completed a three-year residency in internal medicine at Abington Memorial Hospital which led to his certification as a Diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine.
Dr. Remakus has practiced internal medicine in a rural, physician-shortage area of Northeastern Pennsylvania for more than three decades. During that time, he has published three novels – Keystone, Cassidy’s Solution and Mia; three works of non-fiction – The Malpractice Epidemic, Medicine From The Heart and Medicine Between The Lines; and one screenplay, Mia. He has also authored more than 200 scientific articles that have been published in: The New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, Newsweek, Medical Economics, The Archives of Internal Medicine, Internal Medicine News, Consultant, Geriatrics, Medical World News, Hospital News, The American Magazine, Pride and Internal Medicine World Report. Many of these articles have been reprinted in popular newspapers and magazines. From 1991 to 2002, Dr. Remakus was the featured columnist and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of the medical publication, Internal Medicine World Report. His column in that publication had the distinction of being one of the most widely read and longest running physician-written columns in America.
When not practicing medicine or writing, Dr. Remakus serves as a professional speaker and Clinical Assistant Professor at the Temple University School of Medicine. In previous years, he has also performed clinical drug research, worked as a medical examiner and consultant, and coached his local high school baseball team to a league championship and four post-season district playoff appearances in six seasons.
The recipient of numerous awards and citations, Dr. Remakus has been named to every edition of “America’s Top Physicians” since 2003. He is listed in multiple “Who’s Who” publications, including “Who’s Who in Medicine and Healthcare,” “Who’s Who in America,” and “Who’s Who in The World.”
Dr. Remakus and his wife, Charlotte, have been married for 37 years, and their three children, Chris, Ali and Matt, are all physicians. Their son-in-law, Mark, is also a physician, and their daughter-in-law, Sanda, is a Ph.D. in medical microbiology. Their only grandson, “Earthquake Jake,” is the descendant of long family lines that originated in Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Sicily and China.