So to resume, we were talking about the tone of Larry's Kidney, which you characterized as one of "pizzazz, for better or worse."
I don't mean to claim that all my writing has pizzazz, but this one certainly did. I locked myself in my attic for six months and just let it tell itself, with all the color and crazy dust of China still on it.
Six months!? Yet the book previous to this one, Hiding Places, took you almost ten years.
Well, that one WAS about the Holocaust, after all. Pretty daunting. Medical tourism is a snap after the Holocaust. (I can't believe I just said that.) But six months does help bring down my average considerably.
Didn't you call your attic, where you wrote it, "China"?
Yeah: I locked the door, hung Chinese scrolls all around, and started transcribing my 600 pages of notes. Gave the kids a cell phone and told them to call me if they needed anything.
Your wife truly is incomparable, as you say in the book.
Well, it was a bit of a vacation for her, don't forget. I can be kind of… intense.
You're telling me. I live with you, too.
Then you know! She likes and needs "white space," as she puts it. Big margins in her marriage, as well as in the books she reads.
I can respect that.
You'd better. You're married to her, too.
Is there white space in Larry's Kidney?
There's restraint, yes; but it's pretty much a full throttle grab-the-reader-by-the-throat kind of book. As Thomas Jefferson said after penning the Declaration of Independence, "That's just how it came out."
So to get back to pizzazz, that kind of characterized your whole attitude in China, too, didn't it? You were pretty damn unsinkable most of the time. Where did that come from?
It was a matter of necessity. With Larry staring death in the face, and with the ever present possibility that the authorities could scoop us up at any moment and throw us in the slammer to make an example of us, I was forced to be upbeat. It was kind of a selective optimism, a situational or strategic pizzazz, if you will. If I had allowed myself to be scared, I would have frozen up, and then I would have been of no help to my cousin.
Oh come on, you can't kid a kidder. Pizzazz is probably just who you are.
Well, you're getting kind of personal now, but sure, I'll confess that when I was a kid my parents always said I was full of piss and vinegar. Does anyone use that expression anymore? Maybe pizzazz is the adult manifestation of piss and vinegar.
Couldn't some people be bugged by the pizzazz? After all, these are serious topics you're toying with.
In the book, it certainly pisses off an American bureaucrat I meet over there. But as I explain to him, the jauntiness keeps me from clutching.
So how's Larry doing now?
His kidney is fine. The rest of him… always been questionable.
How are you and he getting along?
Let's put it this way. We weren't speaking for something like 15 years before he called and asked me to go to China with him, then we spent two extremely intimate months together talking about everything under the sun, and now we're not speaking again. The only difference is, he's got a great new kidney inside him.
How did he feel about your writing an extremely personal book about him?
He granted me full permission, from the outset, to write whatever I wanted. No holds barred. Once I realized it might turn into a book, several weeks into our trip, we discussed it and he asked me if it would be something he'd be proud to show his godchildren. (He has like a dozen, whom he's very attached to.) I thought about it for a long minute and said, "You know what? When you first see it, you're going to feel terribly exposed, and you're going to wonder why you ever let a writer in so close to all your thoughts and fears and shames and dreams. And then after the dust settles, in a few months or maybe a few years, you're going to be moved that someone cared enough, paid that much attention, to get your deepest self down on paper."
How did Larry react when you said that?
First you have to imagine his voice…
Right, as you say in the book: "like that of a lugubrious funeral director with a slight speech impediment…"
And I quote: "That seems a fair answer to what I think was a fair question."
Was that about the time you told him that you loved him?
It was around that time that I made that discovery, yes.
And what did he say when you told him THAT?
"Thank you, Dan," he said. "I appreciate that."
No tit for tat at all?
Oh God, no. This is not a sentimental man. Shrewd? Yes. Brilliant in his own way? Without a doubt. But not someone to wear his heart on his sleeve.
So in the final analysis, is that why you dropped everything, why you let go of all your grievances against him, and went to China with him? Because you loved him?
The whole book is an exploration of why. I'm certainly not a saint — far, far from it — and I'm not at all clear what my reasons are at the outset… all I know is that I can't let him die without lifting a finger. By the end of the book, when I'm having that wrenching goodbye with my guide Jade, I finally understand why I did what I did.
Sorry. As my analyst used to say just when it was getting good: "Whoops, time's up!"