If you were a book editor who wanted to create the perfect writer for a best-selling epic novel of an African-born doctor forced to take refuge in the U.S., you might pick someone from Ethiopia. Make him of Christian Indian parentage. Educate him in medicine and send him to the Iowa Writing Program. Make him work in top medical jobs with HIV patients who’d force him to examine his own prejudices. Get him to write a pair of acclaimed medical memoirs. Just to keep him on his toes, give him a demanding job as a professor at Stanford University Medical School. Name him Abraham Verghese, and you’d have one of the most compelling writers in world fiction these days, with an ability to bring big, societal issues into close personal focus. Oh, wait, somebody already created this guy. Here he is:
You’ve had a career in medicine that most doctors would envy and success as a writer that few memoirists or novelists attain. How do you manage both careers so well?
I think there is no separation between the two. My identity, beyond that of being a father, a son, a citizen and so on is completely that of being a physician, of having the privilege, the honor, the calling to serve. I am old-fashioned in that sense, and get much satisfaction from this sense of serving the profession, honoring its ideals, celebrating its grand history (in novels or memoirs), and in repeatedly professing my faith in the “Samaritan function” of being a physician (to use the late physician Robert Loeb's term). I resist the definition of the writer as somehow separate and divorced from my day job, as if it were akin to leaving work and performing burlesque after hours. I do subscribe to the notion as a form of research, exploring the truth. Having said that, I feel that the writing (no different than, say, the music if you are a musician, or the bump and grind if you do burlesque) has to stand on its own, has to work by the standards of the discerning literate reader for whom I write. He or she cares little, I suspect, what degree I have behind my name (and I don’t put M.D. behind my name on my books). Writing has to work by the standards by which writing works.
How long did it take you to get your first memoir published?
It was my fictional story, Lilacs, in the New Yorker in 1991 that led to my getting a contract to write, My Own Country. It came right after my five years at a small hospital in Johnson City, Tennessee, where, in a town of just 50,000 people, as an internist and infectious diseases specialist we were looking after nearly a hundred people with HIV infection, an unexpected number for that population. It turned out there was an explanation for that mystery, and I wanted to tell it. I go the contract to write it in 1991, just after graduating from the Iowa Writers Workshop. I actually wrote the book while working full time in El Paso at the teaching hospital at Texas Tech. I wrote it in my nights and weekends and it took four years.
Would you recommend any books on writing?
So many good ones. A new addition is Francine Prose’s Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People who Love Books. John Gardner's books, The Art of Fiction and Becoming a Novelist are still so precious, as is Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings. But truly the most important thing to do is keep reading and keep writing. It is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.
What’s a typical writing day?
Given my day job all these years (which I love and which is who I am), writing for a set amount of time every day is not going to happen. Something that really helps is that I have a secret second office, without even a sign on the door, where I escape a few half days a week to write. It is a great source of peace and gives me time to be reflective and write. Of course, I also do a lot of writing at nights, early mornings and over the weekend, and sometimes that is hard on my family.
“Cutting for Stone” is an epic of two orphaned Ethiopian brothers. How would you describe its themes?
I think the themes are epic themes – of love and loss, success and failure, life and death. And how medicine and a career in it can save you or destroy you. And how love redeems us and seems to be the only thing that lasts.
Where did the idea for the novel come from?
All I had at the outset was an image of a beautiful Indian nun giving birth in a mission hospital in Africa, a place redolent with Dettol and carbolic acid scents, a place so basic, so unadorned, that nothing separates doctor and patient. You know what I mean: no layers of paperwork, cubicles, computers and forms--just a line of patients stretching out the door. That is all I had. I did not know the whole plot or how it ended. What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?
No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place....Isaac Babel. I love Babel and the quote says it all. Period.
What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?
Flannery O’Connor’s description of a face being as round and innocent as a cabbage.
Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?
Goodness, that is hard. I admire so many for so many reasons: John Irving is a masterful storyteller, an architect of stories, and how to construct a plot, not to mention incredibly original and funny. Ondaatje does miracles that are hard to even explain – they just manifest as you read. Gunter Grass, Gabriel Garcia Marquez . . . so many. As you can see, I am partial to the epic and multigenerational story – a life or several lives playing out on a large canvas.
Your earlier books examined issues like AIDS and the abuse of drugs and alcohol by stressed physicians. Do you think someone who lacked your experience as a physician could’ve written successful books about these subjects? If someone had tried, how would their books have differed from yours?
There were and are many books written about AIDS and about physician abuse of drugs and alcohol, which is actually a more widespread issue than is generally known. I think that these issues can be addressed in many different ways, and sometimes a book works. Against my initial inclination, my editors urged me to make myself (and my experience as a physician) a character in the book to make the subject and the story compelling. With some trepidation, I did so – and it worked. Much of a book’s success can often be due to timing and I have been lucky with that – shortly after My Own Country came out, another physician wrote a story about AIDS, about his own struggle having contracted HIV in a needle stick. But despite great publicity and coverage, it did not do well. America had by then lost interest. I happened to be luckier with the timing.
What’s the best idea for marketing a book you can do yourself?
Tell a good story. Have a fabulous editor. The two go together. (My editor was the marvelous Robin Desser). Short of that, it is all witchcraft, and God knows if the book tours and PR and all the other things we do make that much difference. If you have a good story, then you can pray that a word of mouth is created. If any of us really knew the answer to your question, we’d patent it and sell it!
What’s your experience with being translated?
I’m delighted that Cutting for Stone has been translated into as many languages as it has been. I have worked closely with some translators and have been impressed by the questions they ask and the ambiguities in my own writing they found. But since I can’t actually read a translation, it is a bit hard to say what has happened in the process, or if it has succeeded or been even better than what I originally wrote.
Did you write unpublished books before you were actually published?
No. I have been very fortunate to have a contract for each book before I began.
What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour (apart from being asked to answer these questions)?
I have had two people turn ill at two different locales when I read a scene about a vasectomy. I suppose it could have been something they ate, but I took responsibility.
What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?
That would be revealing my deepest, darkest secrets. You’ll just have to wait and see. More Writing Life Interviews on The Man of Twists and Turns: http://www.themanoftwistsandturns.com/category/matts-writing-life-interviews/