Physician/author feels a sense of homecoming as he shares his first novel with “the place where it was written”
SAN ANTONIO (Feb. 10, 2009) — Abraham Verghese, M.D., established himself as an author with two deeply personal memoirs. Now, with the release of a new novel, he is returning to his first love: fiction.
“Cutting for Stone” is, in the words of its author, the story of a physician “finding himself, finding his family and finding what is important in life.” It was released Feb. 3.
Dr. Verghese, the founding director of the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics, will return to The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio for a reading on Wednesday, Feb. 18, at 6 p.m. in the auditorium.
“There’s a sense for me of homecoming, a sense of pride in wanting to share this new book with the place where it was written for the most part,” said Dr. Verghese, who in 2007 became Stanford University’s Professor for the Theory and Practice of Medicine. “I see this as a celebration.”
Dr. Verghese had always intended to write fiction, but he got sidetracked almost as soon as he started. He published a short story, “Lilacs,” in The New Yorker in 1991, the same year he earned a Master of Fine Arts Degree from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Editors at the magazine learned of his time in eastern Tennessee, where he witnessed the emergence of AIDS in rural Johnson City. That led to a contract for a nonfiction book, “My Own Country.” Dr. Verghese followed that with “The Tennis Partner,” the story of his friendship with a medical resident who was losing himself to cocaine addiction.
Eager to return to fiction, Dr. Verghese passed up an offer to write a third nonfiction book.
“Cutting for Stone” is the epic story of twin brothers born to an Indian nun and a British surgeon in an Ethiopian mission hospital. In a time of great political and social upheaval, the first twin, Marion Stone, faces the death of his mother, abandonment by his father and betrayal by his brother. He makes his way to New York City and becomes a medical intern. There, illness forces him to rely on the father and brother he no longer trusts.
The novel spans continents and decades. Dr. Verghese is drawn to such epics; he describes himself as a fan of old-fashioned novels that allow readers to disappear into another world.
“And you feel like you’ve lived a lifetime,” he said. “You feel like you’ve experienced all the lessons of a lifetime.”
He wrote the book over eight years. “Medicine takes up so much of my time,” he said. “It’s the reason this book has taken so long. I’m not in any big hurry. I have a lovely day job.”
That day job informs his writing. Hospitals provided the backdrop for his two nonfiction books, and the main characters in “Cutting for Stone” are doctors. The book’s title is a play on the words of the Hippocratic Oath: “I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.”
“Who I am is being a physician,” Dr. Verghese said. “The writing, I think, emerges from that.”
That said, Dr. Verghese notes that he never puts “M.D.” after his name on his books. Medicine has clearly left its mark on them. But the writing has to work on its own level, Dr. Verghese said, and be judged according to the standards of literature, not those of medicine.
Books hold lessons for living, Dr. Verghese said, and in difficult times we need to be reminded what is important in life.
“A good book can sometimes bring us back to that, can save us in a way,” Dr. Verghese said. “It was my ambition to write a book like that.”
The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is the leading research institution in South Texas and one of the major health sciences universities in the world. With an operating budget of $668 million, the Health Science Center is the chief catalyst for the $16.3 billion biosciences and health care sector in San Antonio’s economy. The Health Science Center has had an estimated $36 billion impact on the region since inception and has expanded to six campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. More than 24,000 graduates (physicians, dentists, nurses, scientists and other health professionals) serve in their fields, including many in Texas. Health Science Center faculty are international leaders in cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, aging, stroke prevention, kidney disease, orthopedics, research imaging, transplant surgery, psychiatry and clinical neurosciences, pain management, genetics, nursing, dentistry and many other fields. For more information, visit