Wow, a blog. I've never done a blog before.
Well, we're here to help you through it.
Who the heck are you?
We're your self-interviewer. Together, we're gonna get you through the whole week. So tell me, what's your first reaction to having such a wonderful podium — at Powell's yet, one of the nation's preeminent book stores, with the most discerning reading public you could ask for?
Flattery will get you everywhere.
Let's hope so. So tell me, how does the blog feel so far?
I feel a little like I did when I was at Larry's bar mitzvah back in the '60s, and after the ceremony was over and everyone adjourned to the banquet hall, I wandered up to the mike in the empty auditorium and started speaking into it. I had no idea it was live and it was being pumped into the banquet hall. Everyone was amused by my rather profane ramblings except for one person, my Dad, who started searching the place furiously to find out where I was so he could relegate me to the parking lot, sans lunch. That's when Larry showed with a plate of strawberry shortcake for me.
Of course, forty years later, Larry is not above reminding you of this, as part of his way of guilting you into going to China with him to get him a kidney. As he says, you kind of owe him.
I'm glad you say, PART of his way. He throws everything he can at me to go with him: guilt, bribes, blackmail...
Though he conspicuously never offers to defray part of your expenses...
No, he wasn't in a position to offer, nor would I have accepted. For the record, though, I must say he was always generous with what he had. Overly generous, which was part of the reason he was poor. He always gave more than he got. His financials had been in distress for years.
Nor were yours exactly thriving...
But money wasn't really the point, was it? The guy was dying. What was I going to do, let him go over there all by himself and die on some street corner?
Of course, cynics could suggest that you might be rewarded in another way, like through a book deal.
Perspicacious you! Cynics HAVE suggested it.
Let me ask you point blank, then. Did you expect to get a book out of it?
It's true that Larry has always appealed to me as a character. He's one of the most colorful people I've ever met: deliberately (one might say, vainly) rough around the edges, but brilliantly original in his approach to almost every situation life throws at him. And he was offended that he was left out of my last book, where I described sword fighting with our other cousin Mike in my grandfather's cellar, with a real saber. His feelings were hurt that I didn't say he was there with Mike and me.
I guess you made it up to him now.
You never know.
So, did you expect to write a book?
In point of fact, no. I thought I might well have an article. I never thought it would be a book. The fact was, I had just started another book that I was very excited about, so when I got a call from my cousin, I was kind of bummed about having to leave the process.
When did it occur to you that I might be a book?
Things just kept getting zanier in China. And funnier. I found myself leaning against lampposts for support, I was laughing so hard. What, my cousin was staring death in the face and this was turning out to be comical? But Larry had this wry way of looking at things, and he turned out to be a magnet for every crazy in the country, so every night I got back to my little hotel room that I called the Super 2 and started transcribing the day's events, and the pages started adding up like magic. But I think the moment it hit me was in the dusty courtyard of the rural clinic where Larry was refusing to have dialysis, and our little soap opera was being watched by a urinating beggar and teenyboppers hanging out the clinic windows, as well as by Mary, the mail-order bride, and her entourage, including the taxi driver guy who turned out to be a woman, that's when I said, "Wow, this may just insist on being a book..."
But a FUNNY book, about a dire topic like medical tourism?
That seems to be my M.O., to take a sacred cow and attack it with humor. After all, in my last book, Hiding Places, I took two irrepressible, pre-teenaged sons with me to Europe to introduce them to the Holocaust; what I wanted was to take a deliberately fresh (while at the same time respectful) approach to a seemingly sacrosanct topic, and through humor to freshen material that was in danger of being overly reverent and stale. In that manner I hope the situation sneaks up on you when your defenses are down and becomes as unexpectedly poignant as it fully deserves to be.
So are you satisfied with the book?
You know what I'm satisfied with? That I was equal to the story. It came at me fast, and I was able to get up to speed almost instantly. That's what comes from decades of writing every day, I guess. You never know when a story is going to hit you, so a writer had better be in fighting trim.
Will you ever be allowed to go back to China?
No idea. They're a complex people, more than capable of appreciating a complex portrait. I wouldn't be surprised if they enjoy my description of China, warts and all. And don't forget that I do fall quite deeply in love with China in the book. It stays with me now, two years later: a warm flush of affection for the Chinese, without whose unstinting help, after all, we never would have gotten that elusive little life-saving kidney...