By Zoe Leavitt
Stanford depicted in novel about suicide, sex and secrets
One sole mention of an unopened biology textbook is the only studying that gets done on the campus of David Carnoy’s Stanford.
The Stanford portrayed in Carnoy’s recent novel, “Knife Music,,” teems with gun-toting frat boys, guzzled pills, sexual assault and casual blackmail with horrific consequences.
“I grew up in Palo Alto and it’s kind of a boring place,” Carnoy said. “We called it Shallow Alto. There’s some stuff that goes on that you wouldn’t necessarily expect for such an idyllic place.”
In “Knife Music”–named after the term surgeons apparently use for the songs they listen to as they perform surgery–a 17-year-old girl commits suicide after her parents find her diary describing graphic sex between her and the doctor who operated on her the previous year. Is the diary entry true, and is the doctor then responsible for her death? The detective assigned to her case believes so, but secrets revealed throughout the book about her time at a Stanford frat party the night of the alleged assault may tell a different story.
Carnoy, who attended high school in Menlo Park and whose father, Martin, is an education professor at Stanford, pumps the book full of local references, from the Dutch Goose pub to the Stanford Bookstore to the mesh wire chairs outside Tresidder. While he traded his college upbringing for an East Coast education at Wesleyan, some of his own high school experiences inform the basis of the novel.
“Girls in our high school would go to Stanford parties to lose their virginity,” he said.
However, University officials needn’t get too worried. Having traded his Cardinal upbringing for an East coast education, Carnoy’s Stanford in “Knife Music” creates a melting pot of details designed to show how the highest GPAs can mask the darkest extracurriculars.
“I went to Wesleyan, so it’s a partial composite of college frat life,” Carnoy said about his characters. “Wesleyan is a very PC place, and we had some incidents you wouldn’t expect. Some of the issues can happen anywhere.”
“Knife Music” also explores the increasingly complicated obstacle course of forbidden attention, closed doors and threats of litigation hospital workers navigate every day.
“With doctors you get it both ways. Sometimes you get patients that are very uncomfortable about their bodies, and sometimes you get the opposite, patients that are a little too comfortable,” Carnoy said.
Even on those mundane hospital days without sexual harassment lawsuits or overly excited patients, Carnoy saw how the health care system can wear doctors down–especially doctors who spent their most formative years in labs and classrooms while leaving their lives unexamined.
“A lot more doctors put in all this time becoming a doctor and then there’s this moment where they’re not sure they should have,” Carnoy said.
“A lot of people are making money doing other things, so to be a doctor in this environment, when you look around at all these startups, [is difficult],” he said about Silicon Valley’s unique challenges.
Carnoy, meanwhile, is no stranger to startup culture. As an executive editor for CNET, a media news website, and author of the technology column “Fully Equipped,” “Knife Music” presents a departure from his normal style. However, his position at CNET helped him market his book from a rather unusual position.
After deciding to publish the novel on his own, Carnoy put it out as an iPhone app. However, the tech-savvy move wasn’t so easy.
“[My app developer] e-mailed me one day and said the app was rejected by Apple for having objectionable content,” he said. “They had actually taken a screen shot of one line in the book they flagged,” he added with a laugh.
Luckily for the book, some people just couldn’t get enough of hearing about Apple’s antics.
“To have your book essentially censored by Apple was kind of a big story,” Carnoy said, “so a lot of tech blogs picked it up. It sort of mushroomed. It’s all been Internet word-of-mouth, and I’m competing with books that have multi-million dollar marketing budgets.”
Now, despite the lack of any formal marketing budget, the book has become a top-selling e-books. But don’t mistake Carnoy for a guru, he said.
“A lot of people come to me now and ask for advice, and it’s so different for every book,” he said. “I personally get a little tired of talking about how the book got published.”
Want to publish your own side of Stanford outsiders never see? If you think your steamy goings-on at Lake Lag, tales of sex and death in freshmen dorms or musings on the Axe and Palm’s dark side have got what it takes, the M.F.A. grad urges you to push yourself.
“You really have to be incredibly persistent,” Carnoy said. “If they slam the door in your face, you’ve gotta try to find a window.”