"I started writing Himalayan Dhaba during the winter of 1991,
while my wife and I were working in a hospital in the mountains of Northern
India. The story began as a screenplay. The world we were immersed in was so
visually stunning, it seemed the perfect setting for a movie. But as the
characters evolved and their stories took hold of the writing, they demanded the
time and development that can only be accomplished in a novel. I still think it
would make a great movie, but it's an even better book."
Q. How would you describe Himalayan Dhaba?
Himalayan Dhaba is the story of Mary, an American woman doctor
struggling to run a hospital in the mountains of northern India. The novel
tells how five very isolated and extremely disparate people find themselves
touching bottom both physically and emotionally, and how their lives become
enmeshed as they each find a very different pathway to redemption. I can't
stand reading novels about people that are completely unsympathetic, so I
crafted my characters so even the most despicable ones act in such a way that
you understand what motivates them. The novel is about how these people find
their way out of their own personal hells; about how fate and their own
decisions get them back to the surface of life.
Apart from the characters, Himalayan Dhaba is also a story about a
place. I wanted to cast a description of this town and the surrounding valley
and mountains as it was when my wife and I lived there. Walking through some
of the nearby villages was like passing through a window of time, watching
people wearing homespun wool, living in stone-and-timber houses that could
have been built centuries before. And yet, the town itself was growing
frantically, and I know that even in the last ten years it has changed
significantly, and not necessarily for the better. I wanted a record of the
place as we knew it. As I handed first drafts of each chapter to my wife for
her reaction, she would invariably ask, "where are the smells?" I'm
a very visually oriented person, and she would remind me that sounds and
smells were as much a part of the experience as the beauty and ugliness. I'd
go back and spend hours trying to fit the other senses into the rhythm of the
Q. Is there some autobiographical nature to the book?
Like Doctor Mary, in the early nineties my wife and I arrived in the
Himalayas to work in a tiny hospital, only to find that the surgeon who had
agreed to train us had left three days earlier for a nine month sabbatical.
For the first few months, there were some other medical volunteers, but for
about half of our six months in the mountains we were the only ones running
the hospital. So the basic premise, as well as the medical details and the
physical descriptions of place, came from my own and my wife's experiences.
But aside from that, the story is fiction. I developed the characters based on
a mix of people we came in contact with while we were there, and then had the
pleasure of allowing them each to tell me their story as I imagined them
facing their individual dilemmas. It's the most fun part of writing.
Q. Was there ever a point where you thought about telling your own
non-fiction story rather than the fiction story that became Himalayan Dhaba?
Not ever. As I mentioned above, the most fun part of writing is discovering
who your characters are and then allowing them to tell their own story. To
write my own story would be boring. I'd rather work in the garden.
Q. Do you see yourself in any of your characters?
Doctor Mary's experiences were closest to my own, but I think there's a bit
of my personality in each of my characters--even the nasty ones. Once Phillip
was strapped to his board, I had to imagine seeing through his eyes so that I
could describe what he saw... and when I did that, I would also imagine what
he was feeling, both physically and emotionally. For me to understand him well
enough to make his story believable, then he must in some way BE me. But thank
goodness I have other parts of my personality that have some tact and social
Q. What is your writing schedule like?
I'm not terribly disciplined in most areas of life, but I like to work hard
on my writing. When I'm writing, especially on a first draft, I work in the
morning, before my head gets cluttered with reality. When I'm editing, I can
work eight to twelve hours at a stretch, but when I'm producing new material,
I can only write for four hours. After that I'm fried. Even on days when I
feel like continuing, anything written after the fourth hour ends up being
thrown away the next day because it just doesn't measure up. I write very
carefully and slowly, spending a lot of time reading and rereading the last
sentence or paragraph. I'm happy if I produce a page of new material in a
morning. It sounds pretty flaky when writers describe how they let the
characters tell the story, but it really does work that way, at least for me.
And I think that's why I can only work for four hours. I have to go into this
writing trance where I can give myself up to imagination. The rest of the
world has to disappear in order for me to go back to a little town in the
Himalayas, to see the mountains and smell the ether in the operating room. And
then, my own personality has to disappear as well, so that I can see and feel
what my characters are experiencing. After four hours, I can't hold that kind
of concentration, and I'll go weed vegetables or chop some firewood.
Q. Was the transition from practicing medicine to writing books difficult?
I actually didn't have to make the transition. I've been writing fiction
since I was a teenager, and wrote the first draft of a novel as my thesis for
a creative writing degree in college. I wrote the second draft while living in
a little coconut-wood shack on an island in the South Pacific, where I went to
join my wife-to-be for the last six months of her stint in the Peace Corps.
Unfortunately, that manuscript is still collecting dust in a box in my office.
I didn't get involved in medicine until Beth was most of the way through
her first year in med school. We were living in Baltimore, and to pay the rent
I was working as the production director for a tiny advertising agency. It was
the early 80s, and I had agreed to take on a job and a half for a $20,000 a
year salary, and so I was working 60 hours a week, not writing at all, and
every evening I'd come home late to find Beth studying hard. She would then
tell me about her day, all the interesting things she'd learned, and I said
"I want to do that!" So I quit my advertising job, took some science
classes at the community college, and was admitted a year later to a Physician
Assistant program. We graduated within two weeks of each other. I resumed my
writing while I worked full time in Family Medicine during the three years of
Beth's residency program. Then we went to India, and I've worked in medicine
only part time since then, while working full time writing.
Q. Do you see yourself returning to medicine, or is writing your new
I stepped out of medical practice last year, just before we released the
self-published edition of Himalayan Dhaba. I was only practicing two
days a week at the time, I'd been writing full-time off and on for over 20
years, and it was either go all the way with the writing or give it up. The
amount of mental energy it takes to stay current in medicine is enormous, and
the more energy I put into writing, the less I had left over for medicine. I
would have loved to keep my practice up, but I was afraid I would end up
hurting a patient because I wasn't as up-to-date as I should have been. I have
no regrets, though. Medicine is a fascinating profession, but I really love to