A prescription for success

Daniel Kalla, whose latest novel hit the stores this month, discusses balancing his literary and medical careers.

David Kalla (photo credit: Courtesy)
David Kalla
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Daniel Kalla has seen many curious cases during his medical career, but the infamous SARS outbreak in 2003 served as a launching pad for an equally successful career as a novelist. The head of emergency at a large Vancouver teaching hospital, he has effectively combined the practice and bureaucracy of medicine with a burgeoning writing career that has seen seven books published and more on the way.
His best-selling contemporary medical thrillers – Pandemic, Resistance, Blood Lies, Cold Plague, Rage Therapy and Of Flesh and Blood – focused on such diverse and compelling themes as super-bugs and the growing threat of antibiotic resistance, psychiatry and the potential for patient abuse, DNA evidence, drug addiction and even Mad Cow Disease. But he has also written about terrorists, mysterious murders and general societal turmoil, in a style that has garnered him a loyal following throughout the world.
Still a full-time emergency physician, Kalla sees his two worlds colliding these days.
“I do see patients who recognize me sometimes from either the media or my writing,” he says. “But the truth is, the very first person who recognized me from my writing is insane.”
A high-functioning attorney who developed a severe psychosis entered the emergency ward expressing bizarre delusions associated with schizophrenia, he relates. She suddenly stopped, and in a moment of lucidity, said, “You know, Dr.
Kalla, I read your book Pandemic and I loved it!” While that lucid moment represented a good prognosis for his patient, for Kalla, this was a surprising source of praise.
With a list of popular scientific medical thrillers behind him, he jokes, “I shouldn’t be surprised that I’ve been called a professional fear mongerer.”
Whether that appellation is true or not, there is no doubt about the international popularity of his books. Translated into 11 languages, a couple of titles have already been optioned for feature films destined for release on the big screen.
His latest book, The Far Side of the Sky – available in bookstores this month – represents a further evolution of his literary career into the genre of historical fiction.
While medicine remains a significant backdrop, what is so unique about this work is its noteworthy Jewish premise – survival in wartime Shanghai.
Although the author was born, raised and educated in the cosmopolitan western Canadian city of Vancouver, medicine was in his genes, and his genetic roots stemmed from a Jewish family that emigrated from Europe. His parents both became medical practitioners – his mother a physician, and his father a surgeon.
Their respective families managed to avoid the Holocaust due to the fortuitous timing of emigration – his mother’s family left Prague on one of the final flights before the Nazis took complete control – and his father’s family emerged from the war unscathed in Budapest. This personal background no doubt contributed to his interest in the little-known story of a largely Central-European population of Jews who managed to survive the war in Shanghai.
Based on a true story, The Far Side of the Sky focuses on a widowed Jewish surgeon from Vienna who finds refuge with his daughter in the multinational and dangerous Chinese city shortly after the November 1938 terror of Kristallnacht.
In the 1930s, despite all that was happening in neighboring Germany with the Nuremburg Laws and various repressions, Austria still had a democratic government under which the Jews felt relatively safe – until the Anschluss of March 1938 saw the Nazis take control, bringing Nazism into historic Vienna and a sense of great threat to the Jews. By late 1938, for those Jews who had not already managed to flee Germany, there was virtually no place left for them to go.
Shanghai proved a successful escape route for thousands of German Jews, who were able to leave the Nazis behind just before the war.
The story’s protagonist, Dr. Franz Adler, arrives in this “Paris of the East,” a city that was reachable if one could show the Nazis proof of departure on a transporting vessel – in this case, a luxury liner floating out of Italy and arriving in China after a one-month journey.
Shanghai was still an open city without passport control or visa requirements, and those who could reach it found a chance to start a new life.
Shanghai was a colorful place in the 1930s. “It was this amazing microcosm of a world at war,” Kalla explains. “It was governed by three nationalities, none of which were Chinese. It was the fifth-largest city in the world and the third financial center.”
The city’s art-deco architecture along the Bund – a street that remains prominent in Shanghai today – was very European.
Shanghai also had a dark side full of gangsters, rogues, opium dens and infectious diseases.
“It was a treaty city,” the author explains, “a city people used to escape to.”
By the time German Jews reached the city, the British, French and Japanese ruled it, with borders separating each district early into the war.
Yet in formerly British-controlled Shanghai – one of five treaty ports over which Britain had gained control following the First Opium War – there was an already thriving Jewish community, complete with functioning synagogues. This was a place the German Jews would flourish, establishing restaurants, shops, newspapers and theaters.
The city became a true place of refuge from Nazi-dominated Central Europe, including for the fictional Dr. Franz Adler.
Comprising the Shanghai Jewish community were three separate groups of Jews.
First, there were the prosperous Iraqi Jews who arrived early on, helping establish the Jewish community in a city that, ironically, was so international that it had its own Chinatown. Second, several thousand Russian Jews had arrived following the Russian Revolution. Third, German Jews came in significant numbers in the late 1930s, largely aided by the Russian Jews; the wealthy Iraqi Jews fled in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, as the Japanese were now at war with Great Britain, with which the Iraqi community had been aligned since arriving in Shanghai during the 19th century.
Kalla further stresses that Shanghai was also where “a highly functional refugee hospital [was] built from these German refugee doctors” – the hospital around which he largely sets his story.
A medical drama with intrigue and romance, The Far Side of the Sky has Adler meeting a local heroic Eurasian nurse who captures his attention in the midst of a wartime city not only under siege from the Japanese Army, but also infiltrated by Nazis.
The author chose this exotic setting for his novel several years ago, when an interviewer from Reader’s Digest, discussing Pandemic, mentioned in passing that her European Jewish parents had grown up in Shanghai during the war. He was intrigued in light of his own family history in Europe, and ultimately researched and visited Shanghai, believing this was too important a historic place to ignore.
“What I loved about this story is that this is one of the few hopeful stories of what happened in World War II. Most of these people survived under incredible conditions,” he points out, adding that “for all the terror and horror there was during the war, I think this is an amazing story of humanity.”