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posted: 10/29/2013 5:30 AM

Des Plaines native's writing just what doctor ordered

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  • James Kahn said that being a practicing physician has given him a level of empathy that has helped in his storytelling, no matter what the medium.

      James Kahn said that being a practicing physician has given him a level of empathy that has helped in his storytelling, no matter what the medium.

  • James Kahn grew up in Des Plaines before he became a doctor, screenwriter, novelist, musician, producer and even an actor, briefly.

      James Kahn grew up in Des Plaines before he became a doctor, screenwriter, novelist, musician, producer and even an actor, briefly.

  • Video: "Delores Quits Dancing"

 

The way James Kahn figures it, he became a doctor to support his writing habit.

The Des Plaines native has written original novels, such as his New World trilogy, short stories, 20 years worth of television screenplays ("Star Trek: The Next Generation," "Xena, Warrior Princess," "Star Trek: Voyager," "Melrose Place" and even the soap "All My Children"), and novelizations based on the screenplays to "The Empire Strikes Back," "Poltergeist II," "The Goonies" and "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."

Quite a habit, in other words.

"I wanted to be a writer," said Kahn, 65, "but the income prospects weren't very attractive. I always loved science and medical things, and my dad was a doctor, so it didn't look like it could be that hard. So I went that direction."

Actually, Kahn went in a lot of directions. He's even dabbled in film acting, although his role as a medical emergency technician in Steven Spielberg's "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" (he's the guy with the clipboard) likely didn't stretch him much as a performer.

Still, it's an unusual path for a guy from Maine West High School.

Kahn went to the University of Chicago's medical school, worked in Los Angeles area emergency rooms, and finished his residency training at UCLA where he helped create the school's resident program in emergency medicine.

He currently practices in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Why would an accomplished physician feel compelled to fit an entire writing career into his sparse spare time?

"It's a combination of things," Kahn told us. "It's a love of language that I've always had. I think I got that from my parents.

"I love words, and I love the way you can put words together. Reading a beautiful sentence. To spend time crafting a beautiful sentence. It's really very satisfying to me."

Kahn admitted being a huge fan of science fiction literature, especially during his teenage years.

"The thing about science fiction is that it can take you to different worlds and different places," he said, "but really good science fiction is always a metaphor or an allegory for things that are very important in our own lives, things that would be hard to address directly."

Given that Kahn has so many entertainment careers at his command (including writing music: He self-released the Americana/folk CD "Waterline" in 2010), how does he do it? Where does the drive come from?

"It's not like a test I had to study for," he said. "It was always like following the thing that I really wanted to do. I was excited by it. So I would do it. It was never a big deal."

Kahn said being a physician gives him great insights into people and situations he can easily utilize in his writing.

"I think it puts me in the trenches of humanity, if that doesn't sound too pompous," he said. "I interact with people from all socio-economic classes and ethnicities. It gives me a real empathy with people."

Empathy, of course, is practically a requirement for storytellers. And for many Midwesterners.

Kahn recognized that, as a product of the Chicago suburbs, he shares many common traits with his fellow Midwesterners. He said it's easy to spot them, aside from the accent, of course.

"There's a real-world sense about them. I can't characterize it better than that," he said. "I could use hack, stereotyped phrases such as 'salt of the earth.' There's a certain realness to them.

"They react to you from a place of core values, of core feelings. And they're not afraid to tell you what those core feelings are. They're not impressed by superficialities that people on the coasts are."

Credit Chicago winters.

"There's a harshness to the (Chicago) weather that the people in L.A. don't experience," he explained. "There are long stretches of time you can't go out because it's snowing heavily, and there's not much to do, so you turn inward to your own fantasies, your own thoughts, your contemplations."

Kahn met his wife, Hyde Park native Jill Littlewood, while in medical school and she was attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. They have three grown children; the oldest is currently in medical school.

"I have a wonderful family, and they're doing well," Kahn said. "I'm doing all the things I ever wanted to do. I can't imagine a better life."

-- Dann Gire

• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are now working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make an interesting column, email them at dgire@dailyherald.com and jsotonoff@dailyherald.com.

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