I have always been interested in doctors — as persons more than as physicians, per se. My mother worked some 30 years for doctors, first at a pediatric clinic, then next door at a surgical clinic. The doctors she worked for were people we knew, fathers (they were all men, then) of boys and girls I knew and went to school with, played with. They were a varied group, from the clean-cut and pious type to the wild-haired alcoholic to the quiet, sad-faced, fatherly depressive who often performed his examinations with a cigarette in one corner of his mouth. All but the pious one often smelled of strong hand soap, cigarettes, and sometimes, I think, whiskey. That may have been only the alcoholic (at least he was the only obvious alcoholic, with a reputation). They were kindly, all. They had great senses of humor. They were loyal to the women — nurses and receptionists and insurance clerks (like my mother) — who worked for them, even if they didn’t especially pay so well. Then again, no one paid women well. Otherwise, though, they treated their employees kindly, and the employees’ children got special treatment. Unlike most children, I actually liked going to the doctor’s office, even if I was going to suffer a shot. It was like visiting a house full of kindly uncles and aunts.
So it’s no mystery to me that my novels, The Heaven of Mercury
and Miss Jane
, feature important supporting characters who are old-fashioned doctors. Doctors who make house calls. A small-town doctor in Mercury
, a country doctor in Miss Jane
A very loose model for Dr. Heath in Mercury
was a chain-smoking, hard-drinking physician/local politician I knew when I was a reporter on the Gulf Coast. We got tipsy together one night flying back from a political jaunt to Montgomery and he told me some great stories, stories good enough to make his political aide uncomfortable. “You’re talking to a reporter, Dr. __,” the aide said. The doctor waved him off. “He’s OK,” he said. “It’s off the record.” I once went by his office (semi-retired, he still practiced medicine most weekday mornings) at 11 in the morning, as he was closing up shop. “Be with you in a minute,” he said, lighting a camel non-filter and pouring a coffee cup to the brim, neat, with scotch. “Excuse my manners. Like a drink?”
In early drafts of my new novel, Miss Jane
, my country doctor character, Dr. Thompson, was kind of round and heavy, bearded, jovial, and very outgoing, sort of a cross between Burl Ives and the older Orson Welles. That wasn’t working, and he evolved into someone I began to realize resembled the famous biologist E. O. Wilson
. I’d met Wilson once and was astonished at his humility, his interest in a bunch of young fiction writers and writing in general, and, yes, by his very avuncular air. The one eye that had been blinded when he was a boy, leaving him with one very good eye, 20-10 vision, and a new interest in “small things” — specifically, insects. His boyish handsomeness, which persists even now in his later years (he must have been in his 50s at that earlier time). And, especially, by what seemed a genuine kindness in his manner, a generosity of spirit I never forgot in such a renowned man of science, an unlikely celebrity student of ants, a pioneer in sociobiology and biodiversity, among other things.
From the moment I realized I had a man like Professor Wilson in my head, I enjoyed every moment I spent writing about my character, Dr. Eldred O. Thompson. I heed my colleague Joy Williams's
warning about caring for your characters, but I couldn’t resist the affection I felt for this man, who gives so much of himself to the main character, Jane Chisolm — love, time, moral and even financial support in the end. Dr. Thompson is, of course, his own character, quite different from his inspirational model as far as I know. Like any fictional character inspired to some degree by a real person, the character only comes alive after growing either beyond or in a different direction from the real-life person. Otherwise, we writers are too limited by what we don’t know. The imagination has no room in which to operate, so to speak.
There was a time in my life, in my early-to-mid 30s, when it seemed as if my ambition to write and publish books of fiction just wasn’t going to happen, and my mother’s older sister offered most generously to help me go to medical school. Everyone was worried about my failure as a writer, worried that I would come to nothing much, and that I would be miserable and poor for the rest of my life. I was grateful, but after thinking about it I could not see myself becoming a physician in these times. Even when I was a boy, doctors had long been confined to the clinic and the hospital. No doctors had made house calls for decades.
In college — which I had not expected to attend, really, being married quite young — I had briefly wanted to double-major in biology/zoology and English. I couldn’t pull that off, because I was
already married, a father, and working 35 hours a week in a local wood shop, in addition to taking courses at the junior college. Our families had no extra money to support us, so I worked as much as I could. I had no time for the long afternoon labs I’d have to take for the zoology degree. And I needed to finish college as soon as possible, in order to make a better living.
I can’t help but wonder, though — and I have thought about this at times when I’ve reconsidered the course my life has taken — if I’d have taken my aunt up on her offer, had I already completed the undergraduate science courses needed as prerequisites for medical school. I’ve entertained myself at times with the notion of reviving the small-town/country-doctor figure in my own modest right. Of bucking the system, getting the M.D. (with maybe some holistic training, as well), buying a reliable pickup truck, hanging a shingle on the entrance to a modest office but doing most of my practice the old-fashioned way, announcing my willingness to make the rounds, see and treat patients in their own homes, instead of making them (while sick or injured) go to the trouble and suffer the discomfort of driving to the clinic and sitting in an uncomfortable chair in a crowded waiting room in order to see the doctor. Instead, they could wait in their own beds, resting, for the doctor to come to them. Maybe I’d even take the occasional payment in eggs, fresh milk, or chickens. Or a little homemade 'shine.
One of my favorite writers, Lars Gustafsson
, has published (not all translated into English, unfortunately) a series of five novels in which he imagines different ways his own life may have played out, had circumstances been different or different choices made. I’ve always been plagued — haven’t most, if not all, of us? — by the regret that we have only one life to live, that we can’t somehow simultaneously live out our lives in a variety of ways, enjoy the profound luxury of a variety of paths that no one in our own experience of space and time can possibly make happen. I think this is one of the big compulsions moving fiction writers to do what they do. If we can’t live alternative lives, at least we can imagine them, live in the other lives and the worlds of those lives for the time it takes to write the stories or novels. It gives at least some simulation of substance to the idea, the experience, at least. As far as I know, it’s about as close as we can get. (Of course, many fictional lives are not so pleasant, but there is a satisfaction in having the virtual experience, even so.)
Maybe one day soon, virtual reality technology will allow us to enter a room, sit in a special chair or lie on a special cot, be hooked up to special machines that put us into a dream state in which, in our minds at least, we spin out entirely different lives, live them from beginning to end. I explored this idea in the title story of my 2010 collection, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives
. I suppose it’s one of the reasons that particular story is one of my favorites. It’s immodest to admit being moved by one’s own work. But I suspect it’s not so much the writing that moves me as it is the idea of living out an alternative life in the mind, truly believing yourself to be alive, living it, in that way. Of having that experience, no matter how devastated you might be if, having woken up, you wished that it, that life, had been the one you made happen, instead of the one you are inexorably bound by in “real” life. In a way, my character Jane Chisolm in Miss Jane
, with her rich imaginative life, provides this kind of experience for herself as much as is humanly possible, making it possible for her to enjoy a measure of happiness.
÷ ÷ ÷
teaches creative writing at the University of Wyoming, Laramie. His first collection, Last Days of the Dog-Men
, won the Sue Kauffman Award for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; his first novel, The Heaven of Mercury
, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and his Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives
was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Miss Jane
is his most recent novel.