Author Alex Dolan builds a thriller around the topic of mercy
killing in his first novel, 'The Euthanist'
Arriving with eerily uncanny timing, Alex Dolan's debut novel, "The Euthanist" (Diversion Books, $16.99 softcover, 315 pages), tackles the prickly topic of death with dignity.
The 43-year-old San Leandro writer's thriller about a right-to-die activist helping terminally ill people choose the timing and circumstances of their deaths plays against a real-life backdrop. The state Senate earlier this month passed the controversial End of Life Option Act, known as SB 128, which allows adults with terminal illness to request and receive life-ending medications from a physician. If the measure is passed by the Assembly and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, California will join five other states with physician-assisted suicide: Washington, Vermont, Montana, New Mexico and Oregon.
"I wrote about it because it's worth debating the subject," Dolan says. "We're all going to get to that point. Societally, we're at the intersection of death-with-dignity and lethal injections. It's unresolved: How do we execute inmates? What should the end of life look like?"
"Euthanist" introduces a tough female firefighter, Kali, and FBI agent Leland Moon. Each character has reason to take part in the death-with-dignity movement. Their motivations -- compassion, vengeance and more -- provide a subtext for the action-packed story.
Growing up in Boston with parents who were painters -- his father was a designer at Houghton Mifflin -- Dolan was surrounded by books. "I remember the giant warehouse sales. We'd dig in cardboard boxes filled with Peterson Field Guides, 'The Hobbit,' all genres of books."
Ian Fleming's gadgetry-filled James Bond spy novels were early favorites, as were tales of mythological "ubermen" such as Theseus.
"There were fun villains, and the sexuality of Bond just flew over my head," Dolan says about Fleming's books. "Theseus was fighting people, not monsters. He had to outwit them, not just overpower them."
Attracted from an early age to the power of "people solving problems with their brains" and intimidated by his parents' skill as visual artists, Dolan forged a separate sense of self.
"When I was 5 years old, I had it in my head I wanted to solve the national deficit. I had no idea what a trillion dollars was, but I went door-to-door to raise funds. "People were tickled. I think I raised 12 bucks. My parents said it was cute, but they made me give the money back."
Eventually, armed with a master's degree in strategic communications from Columbia University, Dolan began a marketing career; wrote and recorded a half-dozen CDs ("I call it rock you can dance to," he says, of the cross-genre recordings), and established a writing regimen.
He keeps a notebook by his bed, saying that ideas "popcorn" into his head when he's relaxed or dreaming. When a premise resonates, he spends months developing characters, answering questions such as, "What terrifies them?" "What do they not like about themselves?"
Dolan, like his fictional Kali, counts spiders as a top fear and confesses to having walked out on "Raiders of the Lost Ark." As a writer, his greatest fear is rejection letters.
"I've probably had thousands of them from when I started writing books in my 20s," he says.
After the unexpected death of his father five years ago, end-of-life issues bubbled up as primary. "It was a bacterial infection that shut down his lungs. Random. Out of the blue. We had a living will that clarified things, but it's hard to know when someone wants to end their life," he says.
Working in the bookshelf-lined studio that resembles a 19th-century library in his 1927 Tudor-style home -- or in the filtered light of a rose-covered pergola in his backyard garden -- Dolan spent four months writing an outline in 2012. Conducting research and interviews, he had a final draft by December 2013 and an agent by the following Valentine's Day. Diversion made an offer in August, and after light edits, the final draft was complete in January.
"It's really exciting to have people in your camp," he says. "A book deal is a complete rush. It's a huge step for me but a small step in carving out a career as a professional novelist." Continuing his day job as an executive with San Leandro-based Energy Recovery, Dolan says he will keep working with an agent while completing his next book.
"I worked at a literary agency early on and saw that people sometimes pushed a book out too soon. Writing is collaborative. You need other people to make you better."
Book two is a thriller set in the art world. A painting by an artist whose body of work has been expunged appears and causes a generational feud between two families. Expect fireworks -- and people solving problems with their brains as much as with their brawn.