Addiction on Trial – An Interview with Dr. Steven Kassels

From time to time, Maine Crime Writers like to introduce you to other Maine writers and to new books for (we hope) ever growing TBR pile. Today our guest is Dr. Steven Kassels, whose book, Addiction on Trial, is garnering rave reviews for the way he uses a taut thriller to raise reader’s awareness of a major social problem. Here’s a description of the book:

9781491825327_COVER.inddThe Book: When Downeast local Annette Fiorno is found at the bottom of a ravine, outsider and relapsed drug addict Jimmy Sedgwick is accused of murder. Unassuming Maine lawyer Rob Hanston and big shot attorney Shawn Marks form an unlikely legal team as they attempt to discredit the overwhelming evidence. Addiction on Trial, the first in a series of Shawn Marks Thrillers, revolves around the murder cases of attorney Marks, an egotistical yet likable high-powered Boston attorney who can juggle an array of female companions without taking his eye off the legal challenges of his work. Addiction on Trial sends a powerful message of societal discrimination toward drug addicts and explores common misperceptions about what drug addiction really is—a chronic illness requiring a treatment approach similar to other chronic diseases. Medical and behavioral aspects of addiction are woven into the intrigue of this thriller, which culminates in a riveting murder trial.

1. As a physician, how did the area of addiction become of interest to you and what are some of your concerns?

As a physician working in emergency medicine, I became aware that in many cases, more than 50% of patient visits to the hospital emergency room were related, either directly or indirectly to the disease of addiction. For example, the child with asthma due to a parent smoking in the home, the unexpected teenage pregnancy due to drugs or alcohol, auto accidents, patients feigning back pain or kidney stones to get pain medications, heart disease, etc. This led me to also become board certified in addiction medicine. As I continued in my years of practice in Emergency Medicine and Addiction Medicine, I have had the privilege to treat patients from all walks of life as there are no socioeconomic or geographical barriers to most illnesses or addictive behaviors.

From a medical perspective, it is very clear that we have differences, but we are more similar than not. When we are sick, we all benefit from compassion and care. Society should not differentiate between what diseases we should treat.

Accessible treatment (location and cost) needs to be available to patients with the disease of addiction. How is treating one with chronic drug addiction any different than treating one with chronic diabetes? Both can have a genetic predisposition and for both there can be a strong socialization element as well. Who wants to be the only person not drinking alcohol at a party or not eating a piece of birthday cake? If medications are readily available to treat diabetics, are they prescribed along with the necessary referral to meet with a nutritionist or dietician about dietary choices/changes? Should not this type of supportive counseling also be readily available for patients with addictive-related diseases?

2. What led you to write the book and how did you come up with the theme?

As a physician, I have learned an incredible amount from the many courageous patients who entrusted me with their medical care. Since I always wanted to write a novel, what better way to entertain than to combine my knowledge as a physician with my imagination as a fictional storyteller; albeit based on medical and legal truths? I also wanted to convey a message, but who wants to read another scientific book about addiction? Not me! So I created Addiction on Trial as a murder-mystery/legal thriller with the issues of addiction woven throughout the storyline.

I hope I have accomplished my two goals: one being to educate about addiction without it coming across as a lecture, to encourage discussions, and to raise awareness that the disease is everywhere; the other to create an easy to read, sit on the beach or by the fire murder-mystery that would be enjoyed by readers and passed on to a friend, family member or acquaintance.

3. Why did you chose a work of fiction to address the complex issues of addiction and its effects on family and society?

As a physician with years of practice in both Emergency Medicine and Addiction Medicine, it became evident that many patients, and sometimes a majority of patients, presented to the Emergency Department with injuries or illnesses related to the disease of addiction, often relationships that aren’t immediately recognized such as the diabetic who has a food addiction, the heart attack patient who smokes and/or drinks excessive alcohol, the automobile accidents, the unexpected teenage pregnancy from having sexual relations while intoxicated, the relative or friend injured by a heroin/opiate addicted person bent on getting their prescription drugs. The list goes on and on.

When I would give lectures to a wide range of groups, it became evident that I was preaching to the choir and I needed to take the message to regular people, not just those working in the fields of addiction treatment.  With the Heroin/Oxycontin addiction epidemic destroying communities across our nation, the desire to reach a broader group synced up with my longstanding desire to write a page turner. I put the impulses together – why not create a murder mystery/legal thriller based on medical and legal truths about addiction and educate through the back door?

By turning fact into fiction, I have been able to reach a much wider audience of readers; those who would not choose to pick up a scientific book book about addiction. The characters, some from Maine and some from away, some with addiction and their families who live with them, are exposed through omniscient narration, allowing the reader to experience the despair and the hope that touches so many of us and our communities.

4. You set your novel in Maine. Why? What’s your connection to Maine?

Since one tends to write what one knows, and I have lived in Maine for the past seventeen years, now spending approximately five months on Mount Desert Island and the remaining time in Boston, I set my novel in Downeast Maine (and yes I know some prefer to spell it Down East Maine and my editors debated this one issue until the cows came home:)  Unfortunately, Maine is not immune to opiate (heroin, oxycontin, etc) addiction; it has one of the highest rates and consequently now has more deaths that are drug related  than from automobile accidents. Other reasons I chose the setting of Maine is because of my love for the state and wanting to make a change by using entertainment to also educate.

And of course, the setting of Downeast Maine would be a great backdrop for a blockbuster movie!

5. If we asked you to disclose a special Maine place that not everyone knows about, what would you tell us?

Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park are no secrets.  But there are some hidden gems that many do not know about.  One such place is Little Hunters Beach, and although it can be accessed by the Park Loop Road of Acadia National Park, its secluded view from the road makes it a rarely visited spot. Take the steps and a ten minute stroll down to this cove with cliffs hanging above and listen to the smaller stones make their music as the surf carries them in and out and over and under. A wonderful place to get in touch with one’s soul!

5. Maine crime writers are also big foodies, so where in your part of Maine would you take us to eat, and why?

Let’s go on a journey to a place where time stopped in the 1950’s, but the culinary delights did not stand still.  Isleford Dock Restaurant sits on Little Cranberry Island, just a 20 minute ferry ride from Southwest Harbor or Northeast Harbor on Mount Desert Island. Yes, that’s correct, we go island hopping to have lunch or dinner at this special spot sitting, as its name states, on the dock, surrounded by lobster boats galore.

On Tuesdays there is nary a seat to be had despite a limited menu because the main focus is the live music.  But on other evenings the menu is a culinary delight with great variety for the vegetarian, pescetarian, or flexetarian (my daughter coined this phrase for those who usually don’t eat meat, but on rare occasions are “flexible” – hence “flexetarian).  You will be amazed at the gourmet delights of Scallop Ceviche, Roasted Beets with whipped yogurt and spruce oil, the freshest of salads, or Lamb for Two Done 2 Ways. Other delights are Halibut with kohlrabi and fiddleheads, Lobster served with Burrata Cheese and pickled beach rose petals, great burgers and always a unique vegetarian entree. Sit at the bar or at a table and watch the sun set over the mountains of MDI.  After dinner wander through the art gallery or the pottery store and take in life as it was decades ago!

Dr. Steven Kassels, physician and author, has been board certified in Addiction Medicine and Photo Author ColorEmergency Medicine and has authored the book, Addiction on Trial: Tragedy in Downeast Maine. He is a graduate of Milton Academy, Lake Forest College, and Wayne State University School of Medicine. He has served as chief of Emergency Medicine at an inner city hospital and currently serves as the medical director and is a founding member of Community Substance Abuse Centers, with treatment facilities in Maine and throughout New England. Steve is a member of the American Society of Addiction Medicine and has presented numerous lectures and round table discussions on drug abuse related topics, as well as having testified as an expert witness at criminal trials. It is from these experiences that Steve has been able to create a crime fiction novel based on medical and legal truths. Steve has also written Op-eds for the Boston Globe and the Bangor Daily News and maintains an active blog, Steve resides in Southwest Harbor, Maine and Boston, Massachusetts with his wife Ali. They have four children and five grandchildren. Steve’s other passions include tennis, backcountry skiing, biking, music and the Boston Red Sox.


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3 Responses to Addiction on Trial – An Interview with Dr. Steven Kassels

  1. Gram says:

    Going to look for this author. Thanks 🙂

  2. Barb Ross says:

    Welcome to Maine Crime Writers, Steven. A worthy topic that affects us all, I look forward to reading this novel.

  3. John Clark says:

    Adding this to my next book order for the library. When I was involved in the creation of assessment tools to detect dual diagnosis in patients at the old Augusta Mental Health Institute (early 1990s as I recall), we predicted we’d see a 50% rate of addiction and mental illness. After a year, we were seeing the dual diagnosis #s at closer to 85%. Now that I’m working in a rural public library, I see the effects of substance abuse, both direct and indirect several times a day and it’s very painful to watch train wrecks when some are ten years old.

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