Medicine, Money and Morals - An interview with Harry Bingham
As an ex-City trader, Harry Bingham is well-versed in the ways of high finance, which makes up one side of his new novel Sweet Talking Money. But as he tells us, the medical side of the novel is also informed by personal experience. And the central issue which the novel faces - the battle between preventative and drugs-based medicine - is not a simple one. "Think about it. Does the manufacturer of a cancer drug have any interest at all in a preventative approach to cancer?" We talked to Harry Bingham and asked him to introduce Sweet Talking Money.
Before you turned to writing full-time, you worked as a City banker so we can assume that some of the research for the book is from first-hand experience. How did you go about researching the medical content of the novel?
Alas, researching the medical content of the novel was all too easy. My wife, Nuala, suffers from a serious viral illness and we′ve seen more doctors and read more health books than you can shake a syringe at. If the next book is all about dodgy dealings in the Cayman Islands, you can bet that all our hard work has paid off, and Nuala has got well enough for us to take a long holiday in the sun!
There is a keen sense of what is right and wrong within the pharmaceutical industry in Sweet Talking Money. Are these ideas based on facts? What are your views on the moral issues of money-making being at the forefront of much medical research?
The issue-type stuff in the book is based on some very serious facts. Think about it. Does the manufacturer of a cancer drug have any interest at all in a preventative approach to cancer? Answer: absolutely no way, you must be joking. Would that same manufacturer have any interest in an effective but non-patentable product (ie: one that anybody would be allowed to produce and sell)? Answer: course not, mate, you must be off yer chump. Unfortunately our medical culture is dominated by drugs-based medicine. Often, this is terrific stuff, and the only hope for cure or treatment. Equally often, however, a sensible preventative approach or natural-based curative one would produce infinitely better results. My book certainly goes into this, and I hope that it makes people think - as well as keeping them glued to their seats, of course.
Do you believe that in the future Immune Reprogramming could replace treatment of such diseases as HIV?
I don′t know. Something similar to my fictional Immune Reprogramming has been tried in relation to cancer, and with good results. The notion of investigating what natural substances the body needs, and then supplying them, is already fundamental to most doctors with a non-pharmaceutical orientation. (Such people do exist, honest!)
Do you think it is necessary to use animals in medical research in order for scientists to pioneer new methods of treatment?
Interesting question. It′s definitely true that there′s a huge amount of cruelty towards animals in medical research. There are essentially no rules about what can and can′t be done - and bear in mind that an average research virologist, for instance, might easily get through 10,000 laboratory rats in a single year. Is this scale of cruelty justified? Perhaps - as long as the final product is really essential to the treatment of a serious non-preventable illness. How often is this the case? I′d guess much less than half the time.
How true would you say it is that large corporations are riddled with corruption?
It′s certainly true that big corporations are fairly casual about ′minor′ law-breaking. Just think of what the supermarkets did when they decided it was time for Sunday trading laws to go: they simply opened on Sundays and ignored the law. Virtually no retailer bothered to observe the law simply because it was the law. (An excellent argument to use next time you′re caught shop-lifting - not that it′ll make any difference to your sentence). At the same time, I personally doubt that many large corporations actually go in for really serious stuff: burglary, thuggery, murder. I don′t think this because I admire the moral standards of these outfits a whole lot, but because I think the risks and consequences of getting caught are too big.
What made you decide to bring a Welsh character into the story? Is Bryn based on anyone you know?
My family has owned a cottage in Wales for nearly forty years, and I spent a huge chunk of my childhood there. That made it fairly natural for me to use Wales as a setting - but no, Bryn isn′t based on anyone I know.
How did you go about developing your three very different main female characters?
Characterisation is one of the most difficult and interesting parts of writing. Ideally, you should be able to recognise a character from the sound of their voice on the page, and the tiniest detail about them should tell you something important about who they are and what they′re feeling. This is easy to say, but tough to do. Two of my three main female characters were fairly easy to write, but the third (Dr Cameron Wilde, one of the two main protagonists) I found very difficult to get right. Fortunately my wife always read the book as I wrote it and set me straight any time I went off key. We′d spend hours talking about Cameron′s likes, dislikes, innermost hopes and fears. As for the key emotional stuff with her counterpart, Bryn, we could spend days and days getting the right feel. It was a lot of work, but in the end I think Cameron is one of the strongest characters I′ve written. She′s certainly somebody I′d like to meet: fiery but naive, scientifically brilliant but warm-hearted.
Which would you consider to be more important in your novel - the power of characterisation or the plot devices?
Definitely character. If the reader cares about the major characters, they′ll stick with the book whatever happens. If the reader doesn′t believe in the characters, let alone care about them, then all the plot trickery in the world won′t end up being satisfying. At the same time, of course, what people really want is to see characters that they love in situations of real (and believable) danger. Getting the balance right is yet another crucial art.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to write a novel?
Still want to? OK then. Bear in mind that most novels don′t get published and that even those that do are relatively poorly paid, unless you make a real success of it.
Still want to? OK, good for you. Then the key piece of advice is always seek perfection. Every single word matters, every tiny piece of dialogue, every miniscule piece of plotting. Imagine that your reader is the most important person in the world, and that you mustn′t allow them to grow bored for even half a sentence. If you start with this attitude, then you stand a pretty good chance of producing a strong and thrilling read.
Are you working on another novel at the moment?
Yes. It′s a book about the oil industry, set across both world wars, and telling the stories of two brothers who fall out and become bitter enemies. It′s a departure for me as it′s got a historical setting and the fifty-year span of the book can seem quite daunting. On the other hand, I′m very pleased with it so far, and I′m enjoying the history element. Right now, my wife and I are trying to decide on titles. Working title: To Inherit The Earth - but all suggestions welcomed (and a free signed copy to anyone who comes up with the winner).
About Harry Bingham