Physician turns what-ifs into novels: Ryan Spielvogel ’02

A family practice physician and faculty member, Spielvogel has written two science-fiction novels in the spaces between patients as a resident and now, as a new father, late at night after his son has gone to bed.

Ryan Spielvogel ‘02 was halfway through his medical residency in obstetrics and family medicine, so he was accustomed to chopped up sleep. He was also accustomed to daydreaming, kicking “what if” ideas around in his head. He’d play with the idea of how one change in reality — life in space, say — would impact the people around him, society, travel, or commerce. One night as he lay in bed trying to fall asleep after a long day, a flash of inspiration hit him. He spent a half hour or so thinking about one such scenario. He woke up the next morning with a mostly formed plot outline to a science-fiction novel.

“I realized I had this whole story in my head that I felt like I had to put to paper,” Spielvogel says. He ran the notion of writing a book past his wife, also a medical resident. “She’s excessively pragmatic. I was expecting her to say, ‘That’s ridiculous,’ but to my surprise she said ‘I believe you, I think you should do it.’”

And so he began writing, for the first time in his life. He wrote the first draft of Gateway to Oblivion over the next eight months. “A lot of that time was actually spent on call in the hospital. When I should have been sleeping, I was on my computer, writing dialogue or a scene in an email to myself. I would come back from the operating room and continue where I left off.

“One time I was interrupted in the middle of a dialogue scene in my head to go admit a patient to the emergency room,” he sheepishly admits. “We were just waiting for the patient’s labs to come back, but the patient wasn’t stable enough for me to go back upstairs. So I went over to the nurse’s station and started writing again. I had my emergency medical records screen up, too, in case anyone walked by and I could minimize my Gmail screen.”

After researching the quickly changing world of literary agents and publishing houses, Spielvogel opted to self-publish his novel, along with A Galaxy Shattered, its sequel. “There’s a large and growing community of indy writers who know the publishing world is significantly changing,” he says, “so the traditional establishment, like bookstores, are taking them more seriously.”

He became a full-fledged “physics nerd” at NCSSM, he says. and enrolled at University of California, Berkeley for undergraduate studies because of its robust physics department. But he changed course and chose a medical career halfway through college because a career in physics seemed too solitary. “I’m really a people person. I couldn’t see myself spending the rest of my life in a basement with a piece of chalk as my best friend.”

Spielvogel drafted his second book in just six months. Half of it he wrote during his month off between the end of his medical residency at University of California, Davis and the start of his “real job,” as a family medicine residence faculty member at Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento, CA. It’s busy work, but he still finds pockets of time when his mind wanders to more “what ifs,” and he has a few new projects still in the works.  

“You can’t shut off the ideas,” Spielvogel says of writing. “I enjoy the process immensely.”

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