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Tracy Kidder: can a writer be a social activist?

Prize-winning journalist Tracy Kidder wrote a popular book on social activist Paul Farmer. But how involved should he have become in promoting Farmer's work?

By Leora / May 31, 2011

Paul Farmer is surrounded by members of the medical and religious community during a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the opening of a new medical clinic in Boucan Carre, Haiti. Dr. Farmer is co-founding director of 'Partners in Health,' which provides health care services and undertakes research and advocacy on behalf of the ill and those living in poverty. He is the subject of a biography, 'Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World,' by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Tracy Kidder.

Ana Elisa Fuentes/ZUMA Press/Newscom/File


Can writers promote causes for social change, and should they? Tracy Kidder is author of numerous essays and books of fiction and nonfiction, and is recently best known for Mountains Beyond Mountains, his story of the life and work of Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health, an organization working in global preventative health care. Below, Dowser talks with Mr. Kidder about what drives him to write about passionate figures, how he builds empathy in his books, and how to work with “the problem of goodness.”

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Dowser: How did you start writing? How did you start writing nonfiction?
Kidder: I discovered I wanted to be a writer in college. I fell under the spell of a wonderful teacher, Robert Fitzgerald, who took us very seriously and was demanding. I didn’t know what else I was going to do exactly after college. I went to Vietnam as a soldier, came back and wrote this novel about all the experiences I didn’t have.

Then I went to Iowa, where almost no one at the time was writing nonfiction – it was fiction or poetry there. The company I was in there was pretty humbling. At the time my resources for writing fiction felt like they were drying up – the only fiction I really got off there was one short story. But I wrote this one nonfiction story about Vietnam that made it into the Atlantic Monthly. Meanwhile it seems to me there was a guy named Seymour Kramer has been working on the 'new journalism.' A writer named Dan Wakefield showed up, who was very helpful to me, and helped me to get some nonfiction into the Atlantic. At the time it was great because it was something no one else was doing. I didn’t have to compete with anyone.

What role do you – as the person mitigating the story – play in generating interest in change work, as in, say, the work of Paul Farmer?
I think there was a time when I was quite young when I thought that the written word could actually change something. I’m not sure it ever actually has. I’m told "Grapes of Wrath" did, or that other books influenced the minds of influential people, but I think that approaching writing from the point of view of thinking you’ll make change has severe limitations. I’ve written a few polemics for the New York Times Op Ed page, but that’s pretty much what I confine it to. I try to mostly keep away from writing expecting to change something when writing narrative nonfiction.

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