"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 story.
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 skills.
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 career path?
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 write.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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