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Powell's Q&A

Abraham Verghese

Describe your latest project.
I think of Cutting for Stone as an epic, family saga, and a medical saga. I also think of it as an extended love story: both about the crazy obsessive love one can have with medicine, as well as secular love — the two forms of love are almost inseparable in the story. The main narrator, Marion, saves himself, or tries to (as many of us do), by discovering a life in medicine. But then, like his father, he is also in danger of losing himself because of medicine. The story is also about Marion's love for his family and for a woman; it is about a quest to unlock the mystery of his abandonment.

My view of love is generous, I suppose: I see it as a trip wire — hence we "fall" in love instead of simply "arriving" to love. As a result, love can become a set of wills trying to match, but instead misfiring and mismatching in spectacular fashion. In the early AIDS era in particular, as a physician I got to see the existence of love, the meaning of love — and especially the discovery that the meaning of life turns out to be all about love — as something people realized too late. Only when they were at death's door did the redemptive property of love become apparent.

  1. Cutting for Stone
    $8.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    Cutting for Stone

    Abraham Verghese
    "[F]ascinating...the story bobs and weaves with the power and coincidences of the best 19th-century novel." Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    "[M]arvelous....[W]ildly imaginative....The novel works as a family saga, but it is also something more, a lovely ode to the medical profession. (Grade: A)" Entertainment Weekly

  2. My Own Country: A Doctor
    $9.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "[A] memorable tale that both captures and transcends time and place." Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    "[A] heartfelt perspective on the American response to the spread of AIDS." Library Journal (starred review)

  3. The Tennis Partner
    $3.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    The Tennis Partner

    Abraham Verghese
    "[A] brave and heart-baring story....It will speak to anyone who has looked with his heart instead of his eyes." Time
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I would say it was being an orderly when my medical school education was interrupted. In the process of bathing patients, helping them get dressed, dealing with bedpans and all that, I began to see what it was the patient really went through in the 23 hours and 55 minutes of the day when the doctors were not around. I look back on that period as terribly important in teaching me humility about the doctor's role and the importance of the role of the nurses and nursing assistants.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I am a big fan of C. S. Forester, who wrote the Hornblower series. I read those books as a kid and I thought they were wonderful. I have been rereading them recently and am amazed to find how compelling they remain, in the creation of unforgettable and sympathetic characters, in introducing the reader to the complexities of the profession of sailing a ship of war, and of course in the creation of a believable world. I would begin with Ship of the Line, but you could pick up any of the books and not go wrong.

How do you relax?
I noodle around with a guitar. I find that very relaxing, and I work on my repertoire of tunes and riffs that I am trying to master. When I learn one, I seem to have to forget another. No one gets to hear me. It is strictly for myself, and it seems like such an egocentric and yet benign activity.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Yes, to visit Charles Dickens's house in London, twice. Always came away in awe of an intellect and imagination managing to create in that particular setting. It was a very comfortable place by the standards of that day, and yet it was also spare and simple.

What is your astrological sign? If you don't like what you were born with, to what sign would you change and why?
I am a Gemini. I am told I am archetypal. My two sons have birthdays within several days of mine, and they too are Geminis. I will stay a Gemini, but thanks for asking!

Fahrenheit, Celsius, or Kelvin?
Fahrenheit, but alas, these days on the wards, when students or interns present to me, they are always giving me the patient's temperature in Celsius, and I have to do a mental calculation.

On a clear and cold day, do you typically get outside into the sunshine or stay inside where it's warm?
Outside, definitely. But so many cold days are also dark and far from clear, and then I would rather be indoors, bundled up.

Who are your favorite characters in history? Have any of them influenced your writing?
William Osler — or should I say Sir William Osler — the great American physician who died in 1919. He was a true character — the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of him by Harvey Cushing, makes him a most compelling, funny, naughty, and brilliant character. He has influenced my writing in the sense that he was a great example of being diligent, productive, efficient with your time, and not distinguishing between forms of scholarship — he was as learned in medical matters as he was in other spheres of knowledge. And a great bibliophile.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.

Five Great Books That Might Inspire Readers to Find Their Calling in Medicine:

The Citadel by A. J. Cronin

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

The Keys of the Kingdom by A. J. Cronin

The Puzzle People: Memoirs of a Transplant Surgeon by Thomas Starzl

Not as a Stranger by Morton Thompson

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Abraham Verghese is Professor and Senior Associate Chair for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine. He was the founding director of the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics at the University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio, where he is now an adjunct professor. He is the author of My Own Country, a 1994 NBCC Finalist and a Time Best Book of the Year, and The Tennis Partner, a New York Times Notable Book. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he has published essays and short stories that have appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Granta, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. He lives in Palo Alto, California.


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