PW: Where do you get the authentic background of To the Bone and your other medical thrillers featuring doctor/detective Carroll Monks?
Neil McMahon: A husband and wife team are the main source, specifically my brother, Dan McMahon, and his wife, Barbara. Dan has been an ER physician in the San Francisco area for more than 30 years. The character of Monks is, to a large extent, based on Dan.
PW: Do you admire any mystery writers?
NM: I'm reluctant to name favorite contemporary writers, mainly because I don't want to offend anyone by accidental omission, and there are so many good ones. For those [who've] passed on, I'd put Chandler near the top of the list. Hammett, certainly, albeit less so, and Graham Greene, although The Heart of the Matter, my favorite of his, isn't a mystery. And I'd add Hemingway to the list—hardly in the mystery field, but I don't know of anybody who ever got tension on the page so well.
PW: Speaking of Hemingway, you were an amateur boxer and wrote short stories about boxing. How did you get into that?
NM: I started boxing for whatever reason it is that young men want to test themselves. I competed for three seasons as an amateur heavyweight. I wasn't very good, but I learned a lot, such as what it's like to open your eyes and realize you're looking at another man's ankles. One particular bout stands out. In 1973, a friend and I entered the Montana State Prison invitational—I should probably make it clear that we weren't inmates: we only went in for the tournament. I lost in the finals to a full-blood Crow Indian who was terrifying. That fight, added to the business of being in the old territorial prison, led me eventually to write a story about it called "Heart" [anthologized in Boxing's Best Short Stories]. Which, in turn, cemented my addiction to writing, which, in spite of many lean years, I've never been able to shake.
PW: You also have a passion for Zen?
NM: My interest in Zen is oddly rooted in boxing. My career, such as it was, ended late on a February night in 1974 when I caught a bad punch that crunched the bones under my left eye. While I was healing up from that, it came home to me that I didn't have a clue about my life. It was as if that punch shocked me into coming to grips with a deep dissatisfaction. That led eventually to the study of Zen. I can't articulate the reasons I'm drawn to Zen, just as I can't explain the urge to write fiction. But both have been enormously important in sustaining me.
PW: What can you tell us about the writers' scene in Montana?
NM: I think it's pretty well known by now that in Montana, you can't throw a trout in any direction without knocking a writer off a raft. It's great country—lovely, wide open, comparatively cheap and has a lot of good bars. It's also well known that writers' work is lonely, and thus they're drawn together in their free time, often in situations that involve alcohol. There was a place called the Eastgate Liquor Store and Lounge, which had to be smelled to be believed, which served as a sort of clubhouse for years. James Welch, James Crumley and Jon Jackson have been fast friends of mine for decades. I don't know James Lee Burke as well, but I sure like what I do know.
PW: What's next for Carroll Monks?
NM: Carroll Monks's next adventure begins when he is violently kidnapped by a sinister group, taken to their mountain hideaway and forced to give medical treatment to one of their number, a three-year-old boy with diabetes. While Monks struggles to keep the little boy alive, he learns this bizarre clan is not just a bunch of outlaws: they're highly organized, and they have a frightening agenda for disrupting society on a major scale.