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Rutland Doctor On Becoming A Novelist: 'I've Been At This A Long Time'

A person smiling.
Peter Hogenkamp, Courtesy
Peter Hogenkamp has been working on becoming a writer for years and says it's "thrilling" to finally see his first book, "The Intern," for sale. The Rutland doctor has two more novels set to be released over the next 18 months.

Peter Hogenkamp has been a primary care doctor in Rutland for more than 20 years. The 56-year-old father of four is also a writer and this month, for the first time, he’s a published author. His debut novel, The Intern, has just been released by TouchPoint press.

And he’s secured a separate book deal with an even larger British publisher for two more novels that will hit book stores over the next 18 months.

Hogenkamp told VPR this has been a long time coming.  "I've been at this for more than 15 years. I mean, I spent less time studying and learning to be a doctor." 

"I spent less time studying and learning to be a doctor." — Dr. Peter Hogenkamp

And that long-awaited book tour he's been looking forward to? Coronavirus has put the kybosh on that. 

Hogenkamp talked about his novels and his passion for writing – which he said started early — on the back porch of his Rutland Town home.

"I wrote a book when I was 13,” Hogenkamp said with a smile. “It was a thriller, about a guy trying to steal nuclear weapons to end the world.”

Hogenkamp said he loved to read growing up and was especially fond of Scottish author Alistair MacLean, who wrote bestselling adventures like The Guns of Navarone and Ice Station Zebra.

In eighth grade, Hogenkamp figured he’d try and craft his own cliffhanger. “I got about 100 pages into it and that was the end of it…I actually showed it to my father and he told me it needed work.”

Later, when he told his father that he wanted to actually become a writer, his dad cautioned him to make it a sideline and pursue a more stable, better-paying career.

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So Hogenkamp became a doctor. But his desire to be a writer never left him. 

With a growing medical practice and four kids, however, he had to fit his writing in where he could, often tapping dialog or story ideas into the notes app on his iPhone.

“I read that John Grisham wrote his first book by waking up at 4:30 in the morning, said Hogenkamp, "So that's what I did. I woke up at 4:30 in the morning and I would write from 4:30 to 6:30 and then start my day. And probably one of the reasons why my first book was so bad, is because I was exhausted the whole time,” he admitted with a laugh.

That first manuscript is still in a drawer somewhere.  But Hogenkamp didn’t give up.

Peter Hogenkamp's debut novel, "The Intern," has just been published by TouchPoint Books. Rutland artist Peter Huntoon provided the cover art.

He went to writing conferences, started blogging, worked on his dialog and transitions, got and lost an agent. And he got better.

“I’ve been at this for a long, long time,” he said nodding.

That tenacity has paid off. His debut novel, “The Intern,” went on sale this month.

The book plays off the tension between doing something you love versus doing something you think you ought to do — a struggle Hogenkamp knows well.

Maggie, the main character, is a young doctor who feels pressured to become a radiologist so she can join her father’s prestigious orthopedic practice.

But during her first year of residency at a gritty hospital in Spanish Harlem, Maggie realizes she doesn’t like where she’s headed. “She’s a pleaser," explained Hogenkamp, “She's always wanted to please her dad, which makes her the perfect kind of person to learn from Bobby, you know, who she meets during her pediatric residency.”

Bobby is a jaded, sarcastic 13-year old, who’s dying of cancer. Because he has no family, he’s lived most of his life in the hospital where Maggie is doing her medical training.

“And they form this great bond," said Hogenkamp. “Maggie keeps on trying to heal him, but he's incurable. And because this woman has cared for him and no one else in his entire life has ever cared for him, he kind of wants to help her. And he helps her by trying to get her to do things for herself,” Hogenkamp goes on. “He's always pointing out, ‘Listen, you're doing this for other people. What do you want to do?’”

“The Intern,” is filled with boot-camp style banter and hospital war stories quarried from Hogenkamp’s own sleep-deprived residency in Syracuse, New York.

Peter Hogenkamp said when he began writing the book he didn’t have a publisher, so in 2014, he posted the story as a serial on a popular storytelling website called Watt-pad.

“Every week, I’d write a new chapter,” Hogenkamp said, nodding.

“Well, it really kind of took off, especially among medical students and residents and nurses, allied health professionals. And before long, I ended up with 60,000 of the readers actually went so far as to make a cover for me because she was that enthusiastic about the story.”

TouchPoint Press noticed and in late 2018 the company offered the Rutland doctor his first book deal. It was supposed to come out last year, but Hogenkamp says it was delayed because of a problem with the cover art. 

So Hogenkamp reached out to Rutland artist Peter Huntoon, a friend, and Huntoon’s painting is now on the cover. “He did a brilliant job," Hogenkamp gushed. “He really kind of embodied the whole gist of this book in one painting.”

"You just have to continue to believe in yourself and steel yourself for all the negativity....there's a lot of it. But when I finally got that first, yes, it was like I was floating." — Dr. Peter Hogenkamp

Meanwhile, another novel Hogenkamp had written was also getting noticed by even larger publishers.

Absolution is a thriller about a priest who tries to stop a plot to kill the pope.

It’s the novel Hogenkamp is most proud of,  but the Rutland doctor says he was unable to sell it to any of the top U.S. publishers.

But last year, Absolution was a finalist for the 2019 Killer Nashville Claymore Award. And that helped Hogenkamp secure a two-book contract with Hachette UK, a major British publisher. 

“After so many rejections, and that's the difficult part of writing. You think you've done something, you've written something worthwhile. I mean, I think Absolution is a fantastic book. It got rejected by so many people, so many editors, so many agents. You just have to continue to believe in yourself and you have to steel yourself for all the negativity. And there's a lot of it. But when I finally got that first, yes, it was like I was floating.”

Absolution will be released in October and Doubt, the second book in that series, is set for publication a year later.  After that? Hogenkamp says he’s already got a rough outline for a follow up novel to The Intern.

While his writing career is taking off, Hogenkamp says he’s not quitting his day job. He and his wife Lisa, who’s also a primary care physician, have shared a practice in Rutland for more than 20 years. They’re busy, and both are involved in Rutland Regional Medical Center’s COVID-19 response.

Because of the pandemic, Hogenkamp has had to cancel several book tour events which he admits is disappointing. But he’s waited this long to get published, so another delay isn’t the end of the world.  

And who knows, he added, with so many people hunkered down because of COVID-19, maybe they’ll be more interested in reading a good novel or two.

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