A DOCTOR’S INITIATION (AND AN AUTHOR’S): AN INTERVIEW WITH SANDEEP JAUHAR
by Erika Dreifus
(This interview was first published in The Practicing Writer‘s January 2008 issue.)
A little more than a year ago, I read an article in New York magazine by Sandeep Jauhar. Since I’d been following his writing with great interest for several years–he is married to the elder sister of one of my own sister’s very best friends–I was delighted to learn in that article’s bio note that he was completing a memoir. I e-mailed him right away, and asked if he’d participate in an interview for The Practicing Writer once the book was published. He responded immediately, and affirmatively, and most graciously.
So I am thrilled to present this interview, timed to coincide with Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s publication of Intern: A Doctor’s Initiation. Knowing Sandeep (and having read many examples of his excellent prose) before the book’s publication, I suspected he’d have a lot to share with us, especially concerning writing nonfiction about science and balancing writing with another, highly demanding full-time career (plus family life). He hasn’t disappointed.
But before we get to the Q&A, let’s introduce him a little more completely. Sandeep Jauhar is the Director of the Heart Failure Program at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, the largest program of its kind on Long Island. He trained as an experimental physicist at the University of California-Berkeley, where he was a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow. After earning his Ph.D., he went to medical school at Washington University in St. Louis. He completed internship, residency, and a cardiology fellowship at prominent teaching hospitals in New York City. Since 1998 he has been writing regularly about medicine for The New York Times. He is the recipient of a South Asian Journalists Association Special Recognition Award for outstanding stories about medicine. His first book, Intern: A Doctor’s Initiation, which focuses on a key year in his medical training, has just been published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He lives in New York City with his wife and their son.
Erika Dreifus (ED): Fairly early in your memoir, you tell us that “journalism had always been a passion” of yours. You mention that you spent the summer before starting medical school on a science journalism fellowship sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. You also mention an internship you undertook–while you were a full-time medical student–with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Please tell us a little about your training and development as a writer–how these (and any other) experiences proved formative.
Sandeep Jauhar (SJ): In high school I always enjoyed writing. But like most budding writers, I didn’t know how to parlay my interest into a career. When I went to Berkeley in 1985, I made a deliberate choice to focus on science and math. My writing interest lay dormant for many years until I came across a brochure advertising the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program. I applied and, much to my amazement, got the fellowship. I spent the summer of 1995 at the Washington, DC, bureau of Time magazine.
That experience convinced me that journalism and writing had to be a part of my career if I was going to feel fulfilled. Heeding the advice of journalism mentors, I landed a reporting internship at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during my second year in medical school. The internship taught me how to write 500-word news stories on deadline. These pieces and some longer feature articles became the portfolio I presented to The New York Times. Cornelia Dean, the science editor, gave me my first big break in 1998 by accepting a query for a 1200-word piece about the closing of a leprosy hospital in Louisiana. I eventually started writing essays about internship and residency for the science section of The Times. (My first essay required 3 or 4 complete rewrites! I remember Cornelia advising me to stop being “writerly” and just tell the story.) After a couple of years I moved on to 3000-word pieces for the Sunday Times Magazine.
ED: Which specific writers, teachers, and other works have influenced you?
SJ: Several doctor-writers have made a strong impact me: Abraham Verghese, Melvin Konner (whose memoir Becoming a Doctor accompanied me everywhere during my first two years of medical school as I looked forward to my clinical rotations on the hospital wards), and Berton Roueche (the old New Yorker writer whose baroque clinical tales inspired a generation of readers). I also enjoy reading Atul Gawande’s insightful essays in The New Yorker.
The non-medical memoir that has had the most influence on me is Stop-Time by Frank Conroy. Conroy, of course, ran the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for many years. His memoir of adolescence is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. When I first met with my book editor, Paul Elie, he asked me about some of my favorite books, the sort of books that I might aspire to write. When I mentioned Stop-Time, Paul immediately started recounting the prologue, which finds Conroy speeding in a car through the English countryside. (At that point I knew I was working with the right editor.) Other memoirs I’ve especially enjoyed reading recently are James McBride’s The Color of Water and Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone.
ED: What resources might you recommend for those interested in developing their skills in (or simply learning more about) writing about science for a general audience?
SJ: The Mass Media Fellowship is a great way to start for scientists and engineers. For non-scientists, I’d recommend making a habit of reading the science section of The New York Times and science pieces in The New Yorker. The “best science writing” anthologies are also excellent introductions.
ED: One of the episodes in this book that really caught my attention concerns your first visit to the Times offices. I won’t ask you to recount that here (readers, you’ll have to check it out yourself!). But I will ask you to describe a bit about another event: the first Times essay acceptance. As you narrate it, the publication of your essay (a piece of writing whose purpose you characterize as “to warn hospital administrators and future residents to the dangers” of an element of your own training, “caused a firestorm” at the hospital. To put it bluntly, not everyone at the hospital was happy with it. Were you aware of the reaction the essay might provoke ahead of time? And, on a related note, how did you learn to negotiate the particular ethical and professional concerns you have faced as someone whose work as a writer is so entwined with the very personal medical stories of your patients?
SJ: I knew the essay would not be well received, but at that point in my internship, I didn’t care a whole lot about what hospital administrators thought of me. I wanted to see the essay get published, for other residents, and also for myself.
Preserving patient confidentiality is a concern of any medical writer. I believe that my work as a doctor is a part of my story, but obviously this story overlaps with the stories of my patients, so privacy and confidentiality need to be protected. It is probably more difficult to do this in a publication like the Times than in magazines or in books, where pseudonyms can be used and identifying details can be changed. These devices aren’t allowed at the Times, so one often has to leave out interesting details, which isn’t ideal for writing but is obviously the right thing to do.
ED: In the memoir’s acknowledgments, you thank your agent, Todd Shuster, whom you say “knew [you] should write a book well before” you did. That’s intriguing. Tell us more! How, in fact, did you realize that you had a book to write? And how did you come to work with this agent?
SJ: Todd actually contacted me after an essay of mine about mysterious fevers was published in the Times in November 1999. He tried to convince me for many years to try my hand at a book, but I could never find the right subject. Eventually, I proposed compiling the essays I had published in the Times into a book. We circulated a proposal and received interest from several publishers. FSG was interested, too, but not in the book I had proposed. They suggested instead a book about my education as a doctor. That was in August 2003.
ED: Since I know a little bit about you–I know that in addition to treating patients you teach medicine; I know your wonderful wife and son (and I can attest that you are a hands-on dad–I’ve seen you with your adorable little boy at his swimming lessons!); I continue to see your byline in the Times. When on earth did you manage to write this book? Many writers find it tiresome to talk about their “routine,” but I’d really like to know how you’ve been able to nurture your writing career, especially given how consuming a life in medicine, as you describe it in your book, can be.
SJ: People find time for what they enjoy. I write on weekends and at night after my son goes to bed. I sometimes find time at the hospital during the day. Luckily for me, my work informs my writing, so the whole thing is sort of “organic.”
ED: Anything else you’d like to share with us? News on upcoming appearances, for example?
SJ: [In the near future] I have two book readings scheduled: on January 3 at 6 pm at the Corner Bookstore in Manhattan (Madison at 93rd St) [Editor’s note: I attended this packed reading, and it was terrific] and on January 17 at 7 pm at the Barnes and Noble in Manhasset. [Editor’s Note: On December 27, Sandeep and his book were also featured on National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation.”]
ED: Thank you so much, Sandeep.
Visit http://www.sandeepjauhar.com to learn more about Sandeep Jauhar and his new book.
(c) 2007 Erika Dreifus