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.
Read the rest of this post on my blog The Man of Twists and Turns.
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