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 , Dowser.org

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    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.
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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.”

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.

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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.

Someone once said to me something about how I’d been really lucky about a book I’d written, and that kind of bothered me, because I don’t think it was about that. But it’s about writing itself. All stories are created. There’s a lot to do. You need to get to the point where your hands don’t show. Someone once said to me that if you get good as a writer you develop your own style, and if you get very good you learn how to hide it – which is as good a definition of art as any.

Do you see yourself as actively working for social change and human rights as a writer? I know you have direct links on your website for people to support Partners in Health and Village Health Works
The notion that good writing can try to make changes in the world was never mine. If I had tried to write about Paul Farmer with a burning desire to change issues of poverty and disease, to make people care about those issues – I think it would have been a terrible flop. What I thought was that I had an interesting story, and I wanted to tell it as well as I could. I came to feel that art was possible with nonfiction stories.

Of course, what’s at the center of the stories I write are human beings. So on that level, of course I was interested in Farmer and Farmer’s cause and I was interested in the things that preoccupied him, but only to the point that made it a good story. And of course I was incredibly moved by things that I saw through him.

How did you first get drawn to Paul Farmer’s work?
It’s really the way I wrote it at the beginning of Mountains Beyond Mountains. I was in Haiti to report on American soldiers there, and I met him completely by chance. I didn’t really like him at first because he seemed to be giving this American captain a hard time, which he was. But then when I met him again by chance on a plane, he was so warm and generous. I got to know him just enough to know I’d stumbled on a really interesting story. I think my first constituency is the vast – or maybe tiny – group we call the 'reader.' Those are the people I look to when I’m writing for some sort of context. I wanted to tell Farmer’s story to them. That required that I start to understand what he was really up to. He was pretty famous within his field at the time, but not the way he is now.

When did you go from seeing yourself as telling Farmer’s story to seeing yourself as involved in Partners in Health?
The way I acted and felt about him and the book when it was published is a different thing altogether. There was a time when I reflectively thought about expressing my support for Partners in Health – but I was thinking about people in journalism who wouldn’t approve. I remember once the book was done having a conversation with [Partners in Health Executive Director] Ophelia Dahl about how I needed to be careful not to seem too partial. And then after the book was done, I thought, really, why was that? It was 2003, in the middle of the Bush administration right then, and there were journalists all around me really sucking up to power in the most disgusting ways. And I thought, 'I don’t care if I express my opinion about this cause outside of the book.' In the end, I care deeply about this subject, but I’m not going to write a book trying to convince someone of that.

Why do you think the book resonates with so many, especially young people?
I can’t speak for them, but I’ve given many lectures and talks to students and communities. Oftentimes they’ll all line up to get their books signed, and they’ll say things like, 'Your book is, like, awesome!' or 'Your book changed my life.' I think, well, if you’re 18 and you don’t have a life-changing experience every week there’s probably something wrong with you! But really, I think there are a lot of Americans who feel how meretricious this culture is, and how filled our culture is with frank consumerism that leads into a kind of selfishness. I think a lot of young people are thinking, 'there has to be something more.' Something that can change communities. I think they see that in Farmer’s story. The great error that young people sometimes make is then trying to imitate Paul Farmer.

When you speak to college or other large audiences, do you see yourself as a representative of Partners in Health, or as speaking to what it’s like to be a nonfiction writer? How do you see your role there?
Usually I’ll retell the story of the book in a slightly different way and only later address the larger questions. One of the first talks I ever gave was at Brandeis, and afterward a very nice woman said to me, 'yes, but the students want to know what they should do.' Then I got that I was in that role. I see it within my role as a lecturer to answer those questions. I don’t see that as a real contradiction. You can section off parts of your life. I wouldn’t convince people of what they should do in my writing, but as a lecturer it’s different. As a lecturer I don’t feel accountable in the same way.

What are some of the other challenges of describing a passionate cause-driven character like Farmer?
Well, the first challenge is the research. Another is delving into things that are difficult for the subject, which I encountered particularly with Deo while writing "Strength in What Remains." We often got into memories that were very difficult for him to relive. I offered to stop at those points, but he didn’t take me up on it. I don’t like to think about myself as traumatizing people, but just as stealing their shadows. It’s a lopsided personal relationship - you’re both getting to know one another, but they’re not writing down what you tell them! Writing a book about someone is not a ripe basis for friendship. I think it was very difficult for Farmer to be scrutinized this way.

You said once that the role of a nonfiction writer is 'to make what is true believable' – can you elaborate on how that relates to the way you write?
First, there were a number of reasons for writing "Mountains Beyond Mountains" in the first person. The decision to do that wasn’t so that I could preach to the reader – it was to make the story palatable. Farmer presents a pretty daunting figure. Part of that choice to use the first person was to make him seem totally human. When I first gave this book to my editor, he said, 'you have a problem here, and it’s the problem of goodness.' How do you write about virtue? It’s a real challenge, and one I always wanted to undertake. It’s an old idea, but readers need an everyman, someone who they can relate to and understand through.

Did you see that 'problem of goodness' from the beginning, or was it pointed out to you later on?
I didn’t see it from the beginning. I wrote this profile on Farmer for The New Yorker, and I think it missed it on tone. The tone is essentially the attitude of the author toward the events and people in the story. Once my editor pointed out that problem of goodness to me, we set to work looking for the right places to acknowledge that this guy’s goodness might make you feel uneasy. I settled on having some conversation about my own relationship with Farmer’s virtue. I think there’s a reaction that often comes up of people of my generation, children of the 1960s who imagined that they’d be doing something like what farmer does, but gradually they became lawyers, investment bankers – all of which are perfectly fine, but I think there is some of that resentment in seeing that in him.

Are there particular ways in which you want people to empathize with characters in your books?
Sometimes, but I'd only address them after the book is done. Once when I was speaking at a college there was a young woman who really started in on me about Farmer’s wife being alone in Paris. For some reason I started telling her about this horrible disease that affects many poor pregnant woman in Haiti. I said to her, 'your imagination might be better used to imagine yourself as one of those poor pregnant women in Haiti than to imagine yourself as Paul Farmer’s wife alone in Paris.' In the end, Farmer is a guy I’m really glad is on the face of this earth. It’s not that I don’t have a view on him – I just didn’t start out writing the book trying to promote a view. If you set out to try to understand someone, you’ll never find a character who is wholly unlikable, and setting out to understand people is what I do when I write.

When do you consider a piece you’ve written a success?
I try not to read reviews too much anymore. A wise man once said to me, 'every writer needs another set of eyes,' so I have that. I rely on the pleasure of making something, and the pleasure, or at least the illusion, of making something really well. There’s a moment somewhere near the end of the process where I say, 'this is actually pretty good.' I read and edit with friends, and we help each other.

Did you approach "Strength in What Remains" any differently knowing the impact "Mountains Beyond Mountains" had on Partners in Health?
I don’t think so. Every book is different. Usually there’s one big problem in every book, and with "Strength in What Remains" it was really structural. I needed to figure out a way to organize the time in Burundi with the time in New York, and how to organize those around a character who was vastly different from many of my readers. I look at Deo’s story, and I think, would you go back to Burundi after all of that? I doubt it. Yet he did, and started this clinic. I don’t think most people would do that. Readers might not find that much to relate to in him. What I really want to do is to try to get a reader to care about the story.

How did you set up "Strength in What Remains" to encourage readers to connect with Deo’s story?
In the end, we decided on a very old technique, in media res, and decided to start the book in New York, in a place that was more relatable to readers. So the book starts there, and then goes back, and the sections in Burundi start short and get longer as the sections in New York get shorter.

I used to say that the whole idea of storytelling was to get life on the page. At some point after I’d been saying this for a number of years, my editor said to me, 'that’s not quite right – what’s really magical is getting life off the page and into the reader’s imagination.' You’ve got to get the reader to that brink of understanding without forcing them to accept it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This article first appeared at Dowser.org.

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