July 07, 2020
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Abraham Verghese

The Stanford professor of medicine, on his first foray into fiction

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Abraham Verghese
Abraham Verghese
Writing or medicine—which do you enjoy?

Medicine is my true love, my vocation. My writing is related to it. If I stopped working as a physician, it would be withdrawing from life and so I would no longer be a reliable observer.

You called bypass operations a "blowjob"?

I got into a lot of trouble for calling bypass the great blowjob of American medicine—lucrative for one, satisfying for the other, and biologically a dead end. But I was speaking when its benefits were less proven.

How has medical practice changed in India?

I’m not sure. But we surely don’t need that many CAT scans and MRIs in every city—but such technology is a cash cow.

What’s the difference between writing fiction and non-fiction?

One you make up and it’s real hard work to get the reader to suspend disbelief; the other really happened, so you’re stuck with the events.

Why go for fiction when non-fiction is a more accessible and popular form?

Only in fiction can you go back in time, cross over to the grave and come back. Or like Kafka, turn your narrator into a giant cockroach.

The most important thing about writing is...

The art is in revision.

And in medicine?

Learning to listen.

Your children—are they doctors, engineers, writers or something else altogether?

My three boys are interested in other things.

Will your next novel also be on medicine?

I think of this one as being about life, with medicine as a backdrop. The next one would not trace the same path but I won’t seek to avoid it.

If there was a Hippocratic Oath for writers, what would it be, you think?

First: Don’t show your work to anybody unless you’ve sat on it for six months and then pulled it out and read it again. Second: your parents, spouse and friends are not the people to ask for opinion of your work.

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