Embracing your inner opportunist

Patricia 1How far over the speed limit do you drive? Come on. No one drives it exactly. One mph? Two? Me, I allow myself up to about nine under normal circumstances.

How fast does someone else have to drive before you’re happy to see them get a ticket? If they’re going much more then ten mph over, I feel like public safety is being preserved. Less, and I rant about how we live in police state. Let’s face it. We all push the rules, and we all have our own particular definition of when enough is enough.

In my novels x0 and c3, I crafted villains who were clearly evil. In y1, I opted for someone easier for me to understand. He’s a man who pushes the rules, just like we all do, and a man who knows how to profit well from the little opportunities that his rule bending provides.

I put him in charge of marketing at a pharmaceutical company, not because I dislike prescription drugs or the companies that make them. I have had plenty of reasons to be grateful for modern medicine. But I do know that there is a lot of grey area in selling medication, regarding both the doctors who write the prescriptions and the eager public who watches the ads on television. Just like everywhere else, rules can be bent.

Doctors can be encouraged to write frequent off label prescriptions, something intended by law to be rare. They can feel slightly obligated to preferentially prescribe a new drug in spite of its not fully understood side-effects, and they can be encouraged to do both of these and more with travel, food, honorariums, and gifts. Most people in the medical profession are at the very least decent and well meaning, and they will truthfully insist that they cannot be bought for the price of a lunch.  I am sure that they can’t, and I made the same argument when potential suppliers took me out to lunch in my profession.

raising 3So how many lunches for how many people in the office does it take to have an impact? The folks in marketing are trying to find out. How lavish do the gifts have to be? Should we be ignoring the fact that the product itself has a unique capability to effect the health and happiness of others in a way that only medication, with all its side effects, can?

My villain in y1 is a very fine opportunist, happy to push those boundaries further each day, and glad to pay the nuisance fines slapped against his firm when he goes a little too far. Just the cost of doing business he tells his staff, ignoring the dangers of the products he makes and sells.

I got far enough inside this guys head to make myself squirm, before I let him spiral out of control and engage in the equivalent of doing 70 mph in a school zone. That way I knew that my readers would all be happy to see him caught and punished in the devious way I had intended all along. Before he turned ultra bad, however, I hoped that my reader would squirm a bit as well, and think about the fuzzy boundaries between playing the game well and doing harm.

(Please like writer Patricia Polacco’s Facebook page and the page for Raising Ecstasy, the sources of these two clever images. Please see my x0 blog for a post about crafting villains that are unambiguously evil from the start, and see my z2 blog for an upcoming post about my tale of researching racist groups in America.)

A good choice

Some readers of y1 have praised the story’s criticisms of the zealous marketing of prescriptions drugs in American, particularly mental health drugs to children and young adults. A couple of readers have taken issue with it.  For me as a writer, the subject was representative of the larger issue of putting profit ahead of the well-being of our children. It was a vehicle to make a bigger point.

tearsBut as a mother, the idea of routinely prescribing drugs with serious side-effects and unknown long term consequences to children as young as two years old hits home with an emotional wallop of its own. Every once in awhile I come across an article that reminds me why I thought that  pharmaceutical marketing targeting children would provide a good villain for my story.

Gwen Olsen, who worked for fifteen years as a drug rep for Johnson & Johnson and Bristol-Myers Squibb, was recently quoted on Alternet as saying: “Children are known to be compliant patients and that makes them a highly desirable market for drugs, especially when it pertains to large profit-margin psychiatric drugs, which can be wrought with noncompliance because of their horrendous side-effect profiles.”

Great. Adults are allowed to follow their best instincts and listen to their own bodies, and therefore frequently stop taking drugs they find more harmful than helpful. Children can be ordered to take their medicine, and their parents can be scared into making them do so.

It is enough to make a healthy adult want to cry.