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Barry Eisenberg of ‘Primal Calling’: “Revealing them may be seen as a sign of weakness”

It seems that much of what we are instructed to do in life is hold our vulnerabilities inside. Revealing them may be seen as a sign of weakness. Without giving anything away about the book, the characters discover the empowering nature of being more open with one another and with themselves. This is not to […]

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It seems that much of what we are instructed to do in life is hold our vulnerabilities inside. Revealing them may be seen as a sign of weakness. Without giving anything away about the book, the characters discover the empowering nature of being more open with one another and with themselves. This is not to suggest that they completely shed guardedness. But as they learn to trust one another, their facades weaken, and they discover personal strengths buried deeply within.


As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Barry Eisenberg. Barry is the author of Primal Calling, his debut novel. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, among others. An associate professor of health care management in the School for Graduate Studies at the State University of New York Empire State College, he is also a health care management consultant and a former hospital administrator. An avid bicycle rider, Eisenberg lives in New Jersey with his wife, Amy.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

Thank you so much for inviting me, it’s great to be with you!

I have always loved to write and find that I really enjoy expressing myself that way. My work as an associate professor involves writing almost every day, however mostly about health care, the field in which I primarily work and teach. Until recently, I have not had as much time to devote to fiction as I would like, so Primal Calling was written in small stages when I could carve out the space in my days. It has been so energizing to work on, and I’m so excited about my second novel that I’m currently writing.

The first meaningful piece of writing I did was when my wife, Amy, and I were dating. We decided to take a cross-country trip and camp out along the way. So, we bought a tent, sleeping bags, a Coleman stove, and off we went. We had agreed to keep individual journals that we would share when we finished our trip. One evening at sunset, sitting by a lake in a campground in Indiana and taken by the serenity of the setting, I wrote a poem in my journal. About a year later, Amy and I revisited that poem, re-wrote a few of the lines, and she set it to music. We recorded it, with Amy singing and playing guitar, accompanied by our friend, Tim, on flute, and it became our wedding vows. Although I write a lot and often, I will forever hold that piece closest to my heart.

In the case of Primal Calling, the defining moment came about more by chance than design. Driving home from work one evening, I turned on the radio in time to catch the very tail end of a story about a young man who was searching for a father he never knew. I was intrigued by the idea of the daunting task before him. For days, the story marinated in my mind, until I realized that a story about family, determination, and self-discovery had been brewing inside me all along. Now I had a protagonist! I named him Jack and together we set about on his journey to find his father.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

Having worked in health care for my entire professional life, I am always reminded of the importance of seeing each patient as a distinct human being, with feelings, anxieties, hopes, and fears. I wrote about one such reminder in a book chapter on developments in higher education. I thought I’d share just a brief excerpt as the experience was so clarifying for me:

Recently, I was consulting on a project that brought me to a health care system in the Midwest. I spent the day at one of the member hospitals and, at about 9:00 PM, was preparing to leave. I stopped in the lobby and sat on a couch to gather my papers before heading back to my hotel. Sitting next to me was a woman who appeared to be in her 70s. Dressed nicely and sitting quietly, she sat with her hands folded in her lap. After a moment, she leaned toward me and asked if I had been visiting a patient. I replied I was there on business.

“And you?” I asked. “Are you here to visit someone?”

She sighed, shifted her gaze to the floor, and then looked back at me. “My sister has been here for three days. She has cancer. They told her today she has about three months.”

I looked in her eyes and could see a trace of redness. Otherwise, her face did not reveal her sadness. Maybe she was still in some shock. I expressed how sorry I was and asked if I could help her with anything. At that moment, a young woman wearing a hospital ID badge approached the woman sitting next to me. She put her hand on the woman’s shoulder and said, “Mrs. Sullivan, we can meet now. Let’s go to my office.”

Mrs. Sullivan introduced me to the young woman, a social worker who was going to help Mrs. Sullivan get support for the difficult time that lay ahead. As she stood, she shook my hand, thanked me for offering to help, and then said, “I’m in good hands here.”

I have worked in health care for many years, most of them in health care management. I made it a point to visit patients regularly, to ask how their stay was going. I made sure our employees did as well. But at this moment all I could think about was that I had walked through hospital lobbies thousands of times, and now I wondered how many Mrs. Sullivans did I pass by? People suffering quiet moments of powerful sadness? Or having exhilarating moments following the birth of a child? Or anxiety over the expense of all this care? Or confusion because they did not feel capable of navigating through a complex organization? How many people have I passed by, never knowing how their time in that place may have changed their lives? How many people felt as though we did not do enough for them? Or that we botched something? Or that we did not care enough? That a pressing need for an answer to a question went unmet?

I looked down at the folders in my lap. They were filled with charts and graphs about admission patterns and target markets. Revenue streams and aggregate labor costs. Juxtaposed against the difficult days ahead for the Sullivan family, this stuff can feel awfully sterile. But in the grand scheme of things, maybe not. Healthcare is a gigantic business, a behemoth industry. Yet, at the same time, it is a million very human encounters, people helping people, touching their lives in the most extraordinary way. One perspective is neither more important nor more correct than the other. The challenge is to bring both perspectives together, to help all the people who devote themselves to the organization to view these perspectives as compatible, necessary, and as pieces of the larger picture.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

After decades of writing primarily about health care, trying my hand at fiction felt more like a guilty pleasure. I assumed many people felt the same way as I did about attempting something new, that is, wondering if I could be good enough. I would often write in private, getting absorbed in the story and assuming it would remain personal. Learning to accept my voice and be proud of it took time, and there were moments where I would long to share an excerpt or idea, but self-doubt would prevail. While believing in yourself when embarking on a new journey is far easier said than done, I would say trust that you have something to offer. When I finally shared early drafts of Primal Calling, I was supported by family, friends, and colleagues and I felt very encouraged. I was reminded of the importance of being open to feedback and suggestions while having faith in yourself and finding your own voice.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Our house has always been filled with pets, one of whom is Nelson, our parrot, who enjoys flying from his perch to the kitchen counter where he can steal a treat. I generally write in a home office, but on one occasion I brought my laptop to the kitchen to write there. I left the room for a few minutes and came back to discover Nelson had created a new perch for himself — my laptop, and he was happily dancing about on the keyboard. Somehow, he managed to focus much of his dancing attention on the Delete key. About four paragraphs of text were completely gone, forever erased. My biggest mistake was not teaching Nelson how to use the “Save” key before commencing his ballroom routine! Or perhaps Nelson was commenting on my work?

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
As mentioned, I am currently working on a novel about a family trying to navigate the difficult path of caring for an elderly relative. There are many competing needs in modern lives, that it is not a simple decision by any means. Partners are not always in sync about a course of action as their own needs and desires could feel compromised. Children, whether grown and on their own, or still living at home, may feel displaced. Relationships between and among family members may be tested in ways that could not have been anticipated. And all the while, an aging relative may slip more and more into decline. It has been a personal journey for me and my family and is one shared by families all over the world. I am hopeful that my story will resonate and perhaps, in some way, be helpful.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

Jack, the protagonist in Primal Calling, is searching for a father he never knew existed. Along the way, he learns about countless others on similar journeys. Most of the stories he talks about in the book are of my own imagining. But one is from an actual experience of one of my distant relatives. Apparently, she had never been told that she had been adopted at birth. She found out by accident and did not want to let her adoptive parents know for fear they would feel hurt. Unbeknownst to them, she founded an organization to help adoptees find their birth parents. One night, as her parents were watching the evening news, they saw their daughter on television talking about her organization and its mission. The proverbial cat was now out of the bag, and her parents, though initially shocked, embraced her and aided her in her quest, further strengthening their bond. Although she was lucky to have such support, not everyone is. While this story was more personal for me than some of those I researched because of the family connection, I was overwhelmed and touched by each family’s journey. I was lucky to grow up in a close-knit family and, because of that, I am aware that I was able to take a lot of things for granted. Learning about the struggles, trials, and tribulations of people on a mission to find answers to questions about their origin sometimes broke my heart, but their dedication and determination inspired me in ways I had not foreseen.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
It seems that much of what we are instructed to do in life is hold our vulnerabilities inside. Revealing them may be seen as a sign of weakness. Without giving anything away about the book, the characters discover the empowering nature of being more open with one another and with themselves. This is not to suggest that they completely shed guardedness. But as they learn to trust one another, their facades weaken, and they discover personal strengths buried deeply within.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

Perseverance and attention to detail are certainly important. They are necessary to honor your audience. It means not cutting corners. It means doing the necessary research to make sure the fact-based elements of the book are accurate and validated. Primal Calling required me to learn about oil exploration, strategies for discovering lost relatives, and international espionage. (Yes, these seem unrelated, but they are woven together in the book.) Researching these subjects was fascinating, and especially getting first-hand accounts from people involved. But most importantly, I would want readers to feel that my treatment of these subjects was credible. As an associate professor in a graduate program, research is part of my job, and something I naturally enjoy. There is always more to learn in the world! Deciding to fill out the world in which Primal Calling takes place was not a question to me, even if that meant I fell down some rabbit holes while researching, so to speak, making the writing process take time. It was important to me that the book felt as complete as possible, thus helping to answer questions for the reader before they needed to ask them.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

There are so many who have inspired me, it is difficult to create a list. My son, Jesse, an accomplished playwright and author, as well as an actor, would be near the top of the list. I understand this can come across as being biased, but I have learned so much from his writing and, of course, I have the benefit of first-hand insights into his thinking process. He has a more developed skill than I in bringing readers into the deeper and more nuanced parts of a character’s psyche, the parts that drive them to do what they do and feel what they feel.

In your opinion, what are the “Five things you need to become a great author”?

  1. Don’t write with the goal of becoming a “great author,” write because you have a story to tell. Being true to yourself comes through.
  2. Curiosity is a wonderful asset. Always be open to learning more about the subject you are writing about as well the world around you. Pay attention when people speak, ask questions, and value each person’s perspective. I always learn more from listening than I do from speaking.
  3. Don’t take shortcuts on researching material for your book. A work may be fiction, but the parts that are real should feel credible and authentic to an audience.
  4. Writing should be enjoyable! Well, at least I think so. There are a million reasons why I love to write, and I fully understand and appreciate the value and power of words and language. I believe that if you want to write, value it as a priority — create and carve out the time and space for it!
  5. Don’t get paralyzed by the belief that you need to have the whole story in your head before beginning. Stories unfold and take on life as you write. Characters grow as you let them, and you may lead them to places within the story that you didn’t plan or foresee. Just start.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

When I first started working in health care as an administrator, I remember so vividly visiting the Emergency Department at 3:00 AM to talk to the staff. A young woman was in the reception area waiting to be seen, with two young children in tow. She was coughing and visibly uncomfortable. I asked if she had been seen and she said she was waiting to be called in for her exam. The next day, I asked about her and learned she had pneumonia. The Emergency Department physician said that had she sought medical care a week earlier, when the symptoms started, she could have been effectively treated with 5 dollars worth of antibiotics. But because she didn’t have medical insurance, she delayed seeking treatment, hoping her issue would resolve itself. Having waited, her condition became much more serious; she also exposed her children to illness, missed work, and required more expensive treatment.

Fast forward to today. The COVID-19 pandemic starkly has revealed that if you are uninsured, Black or Brown, or live in financially disadvantaged conditions, the likelihood of contracting the virus and dying from it are higher. This is a national disgrace, one which we should not tolerate. Access to good health care should be a right for everyone. I am fortunate to have a platform through my role at the university to bring greater awareness to this issue.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Website: www.barryeisenbergauthor.com

Instagram: @barryeisenbergauthor

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