From Superbug To Super Deal: How One Couple Cured the Incurable And Lived to Write the Book
Over a year ago, we received a dream email from Steffanie Strathdee and Tom Patterson. They wrote to tell us about how our book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, helped them do just that. The email detailed their ups and downs on the road to getting their book deal, and the ending couldn’t have been a happier one. They landed a major contract with Hachette for their book, The Perfect Predator: A Scientist’s Race to Save Her Husband from a Deadly Superbug. It was such a great story that we couldn’t wait to interview them upon publication.
The Book Doctors: You have one of the single most compelling personal stories we’ve ever heard. Give us the trajectory from this incredible period in your lives to the moment where you decided to write a book about it.
Steffanie Strathdee: When Tom acquired a life-threatening bacterial infection while we were on vacation in Egypt that became resistant to all antibiotics, my professional and personal lives collided. As an infectious disease epidemiologist, it seemed like a cruel joke that my husband was dying from a wimpy bacterium that I used to grow on a petri dish as an undergrad back in the 1980s, when only a lab coat and gloves were required.
After months in the ICU, Tom was on life support and almost comatose, but he managed to squeeze my hand one day when I asked him if he wanted to keep fighting to live. Since I’m not a medical doctor, and I study HIV, not superbugs, I had no idea where to turn; so, I did what anyone would do, I Googled it. When I proposed bacteriophage (phage) therapy — an idea from the 1920s — to Tom’s doctors, most were skeptical. But he woke up a few days after we began the treatment and began to recover.
After Tom came home in August 2016, we started talking about what we’d both been through. We realized we had gone through the same ordeal but had different experiences. We began writing to help deal with our PTSD, and to help understand what each other had gone through.
When we realized that the physicians who had treated Tom were now successfully treating other patients with superbug infections with the same kind of therapy as a direct result of their experience with Tom’s case, we realized our story was bigger than us. We wanted to give back. The idea for the book grew out of the desire to use our story as a lens, in order to raise awareness of the growing global superbug crisis, and to resurrect a hundred-year-old forgotten cure to combat it.
TBD: Did you naturally develop the pitch for the book out of describing to people what you had gone through? Or was it a more cumbersome process to be able to quickly tell people enough of your story so that they’d want to know more?
SS: When Tom’s case was first presented at the Pasteur Institute in Paris at the 100th anniversary of the discovery of bacteriophages in April 2017, the story went viral. In a good way. People reached out from all over the world, seeking phage therapy to cure their loved ones of their superbug infections. Since total strangers had helped me save Tom’s life, I felt obligated to help them. All had questions about how we had managed to arrange phage therapy for Tom. And then the press descended upon us. So, our pitch evolved as an organic process, as we got better at explaining our story. Everyone who heard our story said that it should be a movie. And we thought, well, if our story could become a movie someday, we’d better write the book first.
TBD: Tell us about the process of finding an agent. How did you go about putting together a list of agents to query? What kind of responses did you get?
SS: We lucked out. A friend of ours, Jon Cohen, is a seasoned journalist who has written several non-fiction books. Over dinner one night, we asked him if he could help us find a publisher. He said, “You don’t need a publisher; you need an agent.” He connected us to his agent, Gail Ross, at Ross-Yoon, who is one of the most respected agents in the non-fiction world. I wrote her an email and she wrote right back: “What a story! When can we talk?” After we connected, Gail asked us to send her a few chapters. She liked what she read, even though it was admittedly rough in spots. We developed a proposal with her help and that of another agent in her company, Dara Kaye. I was at home on sabbatical caring for Tom during his recovery, but I loved writing so much that I got up every morning at 5 AM.
TBD: What was the process of selling the book like?
SS: Selling the book was a lot harder than we had thought it would be, at least at first. Gail showed our proposal to a handful of editors that she knew and trusted. They all gave it a deep read but came back and said: ‘Illness memoirs don’t sell. I was hoping for a medical thriller.’ We were devastated, but by then we had purchased your book, “The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published,” and pored over it. We realized that we’d been very naïve and were incredibly fortunate to have gotten this far already as newbies in the publishing world.
TBD: When did you bring in a professional writer to help you with the book? What did you learn about writing and developing a narrative by working with this writer?
SS: After our first book proposal was passed over, Gail said that “the market had spoken.” She suggested we bring in a co-writer. Initially, I wasn’t enthusiastic because by now we had written a full manuscript, and I thought it was pretty good. But Tom and I were both about to go back to work. Together, Tom and I have published over 1000 scientific articles, but this was a different genre altogether. We knew that we needed some help; and that if we chose the right co-writer, we could hone our writing skills. We also re-read the chapter of your book on whether and how to enlist a co-writer. The stories of seasoned, well-established writers who had been rejected by publishers for years assuaged our fears of losing control over our story. Gail introduced us to Teresa Barker, with whom she’d worked before. Teresa had co-written a number of books, including a bestseller. She read our proposal and a few of the articles that had been written on our story in HuffPost and Buzzfeed and was transfixed. We spoke to her on the phone at length and explained that we weren’t looking for a ghost writer; we wanted to be very involved in the process. She came down and spent a weekend with us, and afterwards we corresponded through email and phone every day, re-working the proposal. It was wonderful working with Teresa. She is like family to us now. With her help, for example, the first sample chapter was split into two shorter chapters and edited to end on a “beat” that our film agent, Jody Hotchkiss, later described as a “gotcha.”
The second version of our proposal was much stronger. Gail sent it to several senior editors; and within a few short weeks, it went to auction with four publishing houses bidding. We were delighted with the outcome when Hachette came out on top. Although it took a year from the time we first connected to Gail to when we sold the book, it was well worth the extra energy that we put into developing the proposal. We were able to draw from the original manuscript we had written as source material so that the book went to press within a year.
TBD: As a husband-wife writing team, we always like to hear about how other husband-wife writing teams work. The book is mostly in Steffanie’s voice, but you are both the authors. Tell us about that process.
SS: Writing began soon after Tom came home from the hospital. Initially, his hands were so stiff he wasn’t able to type or hold a pen. Between physical therapy, PTSD sessions and naps, he dictated his hallucinations to me, which were incredibly vivid and powerful. They’re my favorite part of the book. As the writing progressed, we realized that it didn’t make sense to have both of our voices reflected equally in the narrative, because let’s face it, Tom was in a coma most of the time. Working with Teresa and our editors at Hachette, we all agreed that Tom’s hallucinations should appear as interludes interspersed throughout the story.
Our collaboration was an extension of the writing we have done in our real-world jobs as AIDS researchers. All told, it was a cathartic but exhilarating experience, and we look forward to working together on other books.
TBD: What was the biggest challenge of turning a great story into a great book?
SS: From the beginning, we knew that we wanted to co-author this book. That was non-negotiable. We were relieved that Hachette agreed. However, because Tom’s name and photo were on the jacket, the reader would know at the outset that he lived. So, it became a book not about what, but about how.
The biggest challenge, though, was finding the right balance between the narrative and the science. We wanted to tell our story and to have people walk away feeling enlightened after having learned about superbugs and phage therapy, but we didn’t want the book to be preachy or overly dense. We shared early versions of the manuscript with several people who were in the demographic we were trying to reach to get their opinion. I was elated when my 25-year-old son told me that he could hardly put the book down, even though he knew how the story ended.
TBD: What is your advice to other professionals with book ideas but no book writing experience?
SS: Honestly, we have been asked that question a number of times; and our response has always been to read The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, and to do so before you start writing. If we had done so, we would have avoided several mistakes, like how to avoid harassing your agent! We consulted your book several times through the writing process, and it was an immense help. Tom calls it “The Book Bible.”
We also learned that it is really important to reflect upon why you want to write your book in the first place. That should guide your path. By staying true to our main message, we were able to achieve the balance of narrative and science we were after.
I also took your advice and developed my social media platform early on. I have almost 9,000 followers on Twitter, many of whom seem as excited about our book as we are. Social media has also helped develop my science communication and advocacy skills. I probably tweet more than the President! You can follow me at chngin_the_wrld.
Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.