Q&A with Tracy Kidder
BRIAN LAMB: Tracy Kidder, when did you know you had a book called Strength In What Remains?
TRACY KIDDER, STRENGTH IN WHAT REMAINS: Well, I think actually when I went and heard the story for myself. The outlines of it I I had met him three years previously and Deo that is. And when he told me his the story, the rough outlines of it, he it was something I mean, it seemed very dramatic and I was drawn to it and I but it was one small thing really that convinced me that I wanted to do it, which was that he told me that when he was homeless in New York City, having fled you know first civil war and then genocide in East Central Africa, and getting to New York City, coming without any English, hardly any money, no friends or relations anyway, when he was living in Central Park but he told me that he would he would look both ways, all around him to make sure that no one saw him entering the park at night. Because anyone who saw him entering the park at that hour would realize that he was homeless. He found this humiliating.
And I remember when he I remember him telling me this and I remember thinking about my daughter who I think she was about 10, went to New York City with my wife and at some point tried to cross the street against the light and my wife yelled at her. And afterward my daughter said ”thanks a lot, mom, for ruining my reputation in New York City.” And, you know, somehow or other I knew that what I was hearing was the was the true thing. And I could imagine myself in that situation, fearing the eyes of strangers, people whom I you know and the contempt or the pity of strangers, people I’d never see again. And somehow it made me feel that I could find a way into this story, to understanding it.
LAMB: The country he came from was Burundi.
LAMB: And I read that it’s 60 percent Catholic.
KIDDER: I think it’s the last figure I saw was about 70 percent.
LAMB: And his name was Deogracias .
KIDDER: Yes, it is.
LAMB: Thanks be to God.
KIDDER: Thanks be to God.
LAMB: Where did he get the name?
KIDDER: His mom gave it to him. She this church Latin that she’d learned, you know, she she is a remarkable woman, but illiterate.
LAMB: Burundi, how big, what surrounds it?
KIDDER: It’s roughly the size of Belgium, it’s cruel and stupid colonial master. Stupid back then. It’s about the same size as Rwanda, which is the nation to the north, of course far better known. They are both agrarian nations, mountainous nations, very beautiful. To one side of Burundi is Lake Tanganyika or to the southern part of Burundi. And to the other is and the Congo is across that way, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the other way is Tanzania. So it’s this little tiny country. They are centuries old they’re ancient kingdoms, both countries, Rwanda and Burundi. And they’re like fraternal twins, very alike but very different in consequential ways.
LAMB: There’s no picture of Deogracias in this book.
KIDDER: Deo no. And that’s deliberate. Deo is very publicity shy and I think he feels I mean, I didn’t I didn’t try to talk him into letting me do this. But it took him a long time to decide that he wanted to. And I think that he you know, I think he always had strong and mixed feelings. He comes from a culture where silence is valued. On the other hand, he did tell me at one point that he didn’t want to be silenced. And I at his request have just tried to keep him, you know, out of the limelight. But he’s real.
LAMB: Where is he today?
KIDDER: I’m not going to say. He’s in he’s back in medical school, but I’m not going to say where.
LAMB: Back in medical school ... in the United States?
KIDDER: Yes, more or less.
LAMB: Well, he so he didn’t get a medical degree.
KIDDER: No, no, he he dropped out of medical school. He was he had completed one year of medical training here, went and he tried to do too much, I think. He he was trying to do that while managing the construction of this clinic and health system, public health system in back home in Burundi. A remarkable thing that he undertook to do. He here is an American citizen, and yet he decided that he must go back to Burundi and build a clinic and public health system in a rural place, just to try to contribute to what he one hopes is the rebuilding of that country. The country was plunged into civil war for 13 years. Terrible civil war. And he fled the origins of it. But, I mean, this was an act of ideal you know an idealistic act and he’s and it’s been very effective. But he I think it just made it impossible for him to continue medical school. So in a sense he deferred it. And but the clinic is up and functioning, it’s doing really well now. It has a tremendous amount of American support as well as Burundian support. It’s called Village Health Works.
LAMB: Where is it located?
KIDDER: It’s located in a village called Kigutu in Burundi.
LAMB: Let’s get a quick timeline. Deo we’ll just use the use the short form.
LAMB: Deo was born what year?
KIDDER: I should know. He
LAMB: I vaguely remember 1970. Am I --
KIDDER: No, no, no. It would be ’80 what am I why am I yes, of course, 1970. I believe he’s born in ’70 or ’68.
LAMB: He’d be roughly 39 38-39.
KIDDER: Yes, yes, about 38-39, yes.
LAMB: And he lived in Burundi for how long?
KIDDER: Until 1994. And he never left well, he went once to Rwanda. But he never left it otherwise.
LAMB: Well, you know, we’ve read a lot about Rwanda and the 800,000 or a million people who were slaughtered to the Tutsis and the Hutus. But there the Tutsis and the Hutus are in Burundi. But you never hear about all that. I mean, there’s hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives there.
KIDDER: Exactly. And I don’t know why that is. I don’t know why the one country got all the the catastrophe in one country got all that publicity and the catastrophe in the other didn’t. It’s unfortunate in some ways because, you know, Rwanda does get considerably more international aid at this point, and Burundi needs it at least as much, probably quite a bit more.
This ethic these ethnic wars I mean, in Rwanda that was definitely that was a genocide planned by a faction in the government. In Burundi it was really a civil war, an ethnic war. These categories are really bizarre and difficult to understand. The history of them is murky and disputed. The actual ethnic compositions of both countries are also not precisely known and have been used for political purposes over the years. But I think it’s fair to say that there are that the big majority is Hutu and the big minority is Tutsi. The two countries what essentially happened was that in Burundi particularly this difference pre-existed the arrival of the Europeans, first the Germans then the Belgians. But it wasn’t the most significant as I understand the history the most significant social distinction. Not by a long shot. But the Belgians, as they did in Rwanda, made it into something it had never been before, which was a racial difference, which is complete nonsense of course. I mean, these are people who had lived together for centuries. And there even was some Burundian society was very complex and there was some permeability involved, more than perhaps in Rwanda. In any case, I mean, what happened was, you know, for the advantage of a few and post I’m sorry, I’m being so incoherent. Post colonialism, of course the people trying to get power, some used this difference as a as a way to gain power. And it it had terrible consequences in both countries, of course.
LAMB: So in 1970 born, 1994 came to the United States. At in 1994 what was he doing in Burundi?
KIDDER: He was a young medical student. I think he had just finished his third year. He was working as sort of as it was on the European system, so it’s seven years of medical training. But he was at the end of his third year. He was working as a sort of intern at a large rural hospital. And the first elected president of Burundi had been assassinated and all hell broke loose. Quite literally. And sort of rebel militia men came into the hospital and just started killing people, presumably trying to kill Tutsis, but
LAMB: And he was a Tutsi or he is
KIDDER: He is he is Tutsi, yes. Although, you know, those distinctions don’t matter that much in Burundi anymore as far as I know. I’m, expect for the entrepreneurs of violence. Because Hutus are in power, it’s the real issues in Burundi now are poverty. But in any case, just to finish that story. He left his door open he ran back to his room, hid under his bed as others did, but let his door open. And for that reason the killers came to his doorway, they assumed he had left he had fled already. So they didn’t come in. So he lay there and listened and smelled the massacre. And then after they had gone and it grew dark, he escaped. And then for six months he escaped on foot, first from Burundi to Rwanda, unfortunately. Because he thought he would be safe there, but six months later the genocide began. And so escaped back from Rwanda to the capital of Burundi. It’s a long story. And then almost by accident ended up on airplane going to New York City.
LAMB: From where?
KIDDER: From Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi.
LAMB: Why by accident?
KIDDER: Well, it wasn’t completely by accident. He thought his whole family had been slaughtered. He had a young he had a friend, a medical school friend who was half European. And this friend helped him he got his father to get him tickets on Aeroflot. And helped he showed him the ropes for getting a visa at the U.S. embassy. It was a visa obtained under false pretenses, however I mean, that has all long since been ironed out. And off he went to New York. Not with no English, 200 bucks that his friend had given him.
LAMB: Well, where did the 200 bucks come from?
KIDDER: His friend gave him that. This young man who was half European, who had been a medical student a medical school classmate.
LAMB: So he arrives in the United States with $200 in his pocket and ...
KIDDER: No English.
LAMB: ... knows nobody
KIDDER: Knows nobody. And doesn’t speak English. That’s pretty pretty tough.
LAMB: When did you first meet him?
KIDDER: I met him in 2003. I had gone to visit Paul Farmer, one of my previous subjects or victims. He had an operation. My wife and I went to see him. And Deo was there in the apartment. And as it happened that day, I talked to Paul mostly and my wife talked to Deo and heard a fragment of his story, which she then told to me in the car going back. And so it sat in my mind in the back of it.
LAMB: What year was this?
KIDDER: That was 2003. And then I went to see him again in 2006. It takes me a while sometimes to
LAMB: And then how many places did you go with him to tell the story and how many days did you spend with him do you suspect?
KIDDER: Well, I I went to New York with him and I spent a fair I’ve spent a fair amount of time in New York with him. The time that I spent with him you know, time in these I did not spend anywhere near as much time with him in any of these places as I have with some people in the past. But time is a elastic in these situations. It was really intense. So we visited the sites of his former homelessness in New York and we went up to Columbia University, of course, which is one of his places where he was saved in a sense.
LAMB: He went to school there.
KIDDER: He went to school there. I mean two years after coming to New York and being homeless in history he was enrolled in Columbia University. And it was partly through the kindness of strangers. First an ex contemplative nun whom he met while delivering groceries who decided to find him a family. And this childless couple, neither young nor rich, took him in. It was extraordinary. And the next thing you knew he was he went to ESL he took an ESL course at Columbia and then soon after that was enrolled as an undergraduate.
LAMB: When you started following him, were you absolutely sure you had a book?
KIDDER: Never absolutely sure. It always feels is it I’m not sure if it’s George Orwell. Someone once said that writing a book was a I think he said it was like a long illness. But he may also have said that it was like jumping out a window and not knowing what story you were on. Anyway, it does feel that way. But I felt pretty strongly that I did. And when I went with him on probably the most intense trip of my life with a subject, even more intense than some of my trips with Paul Farmer, I went back with him to Burundi and Rwanda. I knew I had a book, but I feared that I had done something wrong here. I mean, in that it just was so hard on him to it was as though these memories of his, memories of horror were still alive in the landscape, like some bacilli that you know, long-lived bacilli waiting for him to return. I think it was hard on him. I know it was hard on him. And I
LAMB: Did you pay him anything?
KIDDER: No, I didn’t pay him. No, I the agreement was I you know I can’t do that out front. But if someone agrees not to you know agrees to that, then I can do whatever I want. So I have contributed to his cause, yes.
LAMB: So he get does he get any of the royalties off of this book?
KIDDER: No. No, I no, not by well, it’s tricky. I mean, that is once I can’t I don’t want to do what’s called checkbook journalism. On the other hand, once it once this is an act of free will from the subject, once somebody says, yes, I’ll do this and, no, I understand I’m not going to be paid, then I feel I can do whatever I want. And I found myself so moved by the beginnings of this clinic that I you know, that I did contribute. And I’ve continued to. And I feel that it’s very important to contribute to his medical education. You know, I
LAMB: How close is he to a degree?
KIDDER: He’s got he’s got about two and a half years left. He’s back at it. He’ll do fine. He’ll get there.
LAMB: Let’s get some more guideposts here.
LAMB: You’re a New Yorker, lived in Oyster Bay out in Long Island.
KIDDER: I grew up there, yes. I was born in the City. But, you know, I’d never seen the hospital where I was born, St. Luke’s, until Deo took me uptown there and showed it to me.
LAMB: What year were you born?
KIDDER: Nineteen forty-five.
LAMB: Father’s a lawyer, mother’s an English teacher.
KIDDER: High school English teacher, yes.
LAMB: You say in one of your books she’s a famous local high school teacher.
KIDDER: She was a famous local high school English teacher. I didn’t know that when I was growing up. But in years since then I keep running into former students of hers. One of them, my favorite one, was said to me did you know your mother was the teacher who girls would come to if they had gotten pregnant? And I was astonished, because somewhere I mean, this is sounds preposterous, it is but I thought I wasn’t even sure my mother knew what the word pregnant meant. I mean, she was so proper. It was kind of nice. Yes, she’s and she she used to read to us when we were kids, me and my brothers.
LAMB: You went to Andover Phillips Academy.
LAMB: And what’s the impact of that place on you?
KIDDER: Well, it’s a it’s ambivalent. I feel ambivalent about it. It it was the most rigorous part of my education, without question. And it was a place where, you know, you had to you had to learn to write an English sentence and a paragraph and so on. On the other hand it was a very cruel place. It was all boys then. And it seemed to me there was no meaningful adult supervision. And I remember we had to go to chapel every day. And I don’t remember a single sermon on the cruelty that was just rampant in the student body. I was I don’t I don’t look back on it at all on it all that fondly. But I you know, I’m grateful for that kind of education. It was a it was a kind of Jeffersonian academy. It wasn’t one of the snootier prep schools at you know, it sort of it seems to honor you know, it was a place where you could excel academically and certainly athletically and be praised. But it was very cruel to people who were neither.
LAMB: When did you use the first name John?
KIDDER: I tried to use it when I was there, but because I wanted to change my name. You know, I wanted to I don’t know, just do other people do this when they get to be teenagers? I wanted to be someone else. And but I and I think tried to use it there, but when people called me John, I didn’t know who they were talking to. So, oh well, the heck with it. And I might have I might have done it if I had known that Tracy was going to become such an androgynous name. It’s my mother’s maiden name, my middle name. What the heck.
LAMB: On to Harvard.
KIDDER: On to Harvard.
LAMB: Studied what?
KIDDER: First I studied political science, which at Harvard is called government, which I thought it was a statement of its intentions. And at that time in ’63 it really was practically the government during JFK’s, you know, first presidency during JFK’s presidency. And I but I got kind of bored with it and I I remember I quit and also by then I had discovered writing. I discovered writing short stories in a creative writing class. And I was taking a course from the then not very famous Henry Kissinger in something to do with World War I. And I I remember there was a debate he decided to have a debate with his graduate students, some of them, about the Vietnam War. And I got up and left and quit studying political science and went over to the English department office and signed up. I should have stayed around to listen to that debate, as I think I’ve written in my little memoir about Vietnam.
LAMB: What was his teaching technique? Was it any good?
KIDDER: I didn’t think so. But I could hardly understand it. I just remember the line France was a demoralized nation after World War I. Which of course is true but I it’s not wasn’t entirely Mr. Kissinger’s fault. I was I had by this time decided I was going to be a writer, that I already was a writer and I was going to and I didn’t think writers should be interested in politics. I was callow, of course. It hadn’t occurred to me then that writers ought to know about something so as to have something to write about.
LAMB: I tried to I count nine books.
KIDDER: Let’s see.
LAMB: And that’s not counting Ivory Fields.
KIDDER: No. That was this hard dreadful novel I wrote after Vietnam about experiences I didn’t have in Vietnam. I thought there were seven.
LAMB: Well, let me
KIDDER: Oh, wait. No. OK, there’s
LAMB: Well, let me let me just tell you want to do, because I want to go through them very quickly and give you a synopsis a brief synopsis of the book. I went on Amazon and found each of the books and found the number of reviews. And I’m going to start with the least reviewed book of yours, and it’s one that you can buy, but you have to spend between $69 and $200 to get it. It’s called The Road To Yuba City.
KIDDER: Well, I you know, that’s a book that disappeared. I hoped without a trace. And I ended up buying the rights to it back so that it couldn’t be republished. And I even told Google they can’t publish it.
LAMB: But Amazon sells about I think they have seven or eight copies of it.
KIDDER: They do.
LAMB: Yes. $69 is the least expensive. One review what was it quickly, in 1974.
KIDDER: I don’t know.
LAMB: I mean, what was the book.
KIDDER: Oh, it was about a murder a terrible murder case in California where a bunch of migrant worker no, a bunch of mostly not migrant workers so much well, what used to be called hobos were slaughtered and buried in a in a grove in the Sacramento Valley.
LAMB: And you really dislike it so much you don’t want anybody to read it?
KIDDER: Yes, I think it was a naοve book and it’s not very I just I don’t want to read it either.
LAMB: Well, the second least reviewed book is Old Friends. I mean, these numbers don’t mean anything. It’s just a way to get you to talk about it. That was 1993, Old Friends, and it’s actually on the list of best sellers. It’s 241,000.
KIDDER: But it’s not in print anymore.
LAMB: Yes, well, I mean, you can still buy it on Amazon. You know there’s not many books you can’t buy there. But what that’s story?
KIDDER: That’s about a couple of old primarily about a couple of old men in a nursing home in non-fiction in Massachusetts. And you know I guess the short way to say it, they’re doing something more interesting than playing bingo in their last days. They’re I still think it’s a rather good book.
LAMB: Where is it?
KIDDER: It’s in North Hampton, Massachusetts.
LAMB: And North Hampton is a place that you wrote a book about.
KIDDER: Yes, it is.
LAMB: Did you which did you discover first? Because Home Town, the book on North Hampton, came after that. So did you discover the idea of doing the book after when you were doing
KIDDER: I think actually they weren’t exactly related. I had for quite some time been writing about books writing books that were set very close to my home in New England.
LAMB: And where was that?
KIDDER: In Massachusetts.
LAMB: Where did you live?
KIDDER: A little town just north of North Hampton called Williamsburg. I still live there. And I love it there, but I but some I mean, they were getting closer and closer, the subjects. They were just down the street by the end. I started writing about North Hampton for two reasons I think. One was that I had been in been in Haiti in ’94 when we sent all those troops there. And I was struck by, you know you know, I’d come from a place where practically nothing worked. And it seemed to me that this town worked rather nicely, and I wondered why. I mean, it was a that was a general thing. But the real reason I did it was almost it’s almost always been the case with me I meet somebody. I mean, that’s for me a character has primacy. I’m a story teller if I’m anything at all. And story and you know human characters and catching that reflection of human character on the page is the is the sine qua non it seems to me of story telling.
I met this cop. He had stopped me for speeding. And then I remembered and he had stopped my wife for speeding the same day, but hadn’t given her a ticket. And it turned out that he didn’t usually give women tickets because he didn’t like to see women cry. And he although he would give them tickets if they were already crying, because he’d say she’s already upset, I might as well write her up. Anyway, this guy was very engaging. A lovely I think a wonderful young man. And he’s not that young now. Named Tom O’Conner. And he said to me come ride around with me in my squad car. He was a sergeant then or something. I’ll show you a town you never thought existed. I don’t know if those were his exact words.
LAMB: But did he know you were a writer?
KIDDER: Yes, he did. Yes, yes. And he did. And I got fascinated. I mean, this was such a peaceful looking town. And it is a peaceful town. But it like every place in America it had an underbelly. And of course that was it just seemed like a wonderful way to see a place, through the eyes of a small town cop. And his own anyway, and his own story is in there mingled with some other stories of people in the town.
LAMB: There’s that wonderful statue in the middle of the right there in the city hall area of Calvin Coolidge.
KIDDER: Calvin Coolidge, yes. Well, although it’s not quite the right size. So he looks like he’s his head is about well, it’s sort of peanut size.
LAMB: But what I thought was interesting about it is it goes from when he was you know like on the town council all the way up to being president of the United States and it lists every job he ever had, which he had them all.
LAMB: Mayor, governor, lieutenant governor --
KIDDER: Yes, that’s right. Yes, he did.
LAMB: And then it’s got Smith’s College. And so
KIDDER: Which is a wonderful institution.
LAMB: What was your take on the town, what else what else did you write about it after you decided to do this.
KIDDER: I wrote about one of the you know, this strange denizen of the town, a guy who had been a real estate entrepreneur who was suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder who was kind of this figure you know, he couldn’t touch things. And I wrote about a student at Smith who had had a Smith has this wonderful program called the Eight Account Stock Scholars. And she had come back after, you know, a rough life to school as grown as an adult woman with a son. She her story is to me quite moving and wonderful. Who else did I write about in that? The bit about the mayor and about my favorite judge. And but mostly the cop.
LAMB: Did it have any impact on the cop after you wrote it?
KIDDER: Yes. Well, I don’t know if the book did. I think his experiences, the ones that I recounted there, one of his best friends he felt confessing to him to an awful crime, you know, of sexual abuse a girl his own daughter and somehow something got spoiled for him in the town. And also he and his wife were it turned out unable to have children. He ended up applying for the FBI and he’s a proud member of the FBI, as is his wife.
LAMB: He doesn’t live there anymore.
KIDDER: He doesn’t live there anymore. And his his father was just one of these wonderful Irish story tellers. And he’s since passed away. But he used to come back constantly to see his dad.
LAMB: 1981, re-issued in 2000, The Soul Of A New Machine.
LAMB: That’s the one you got the big award for?
KIDDER: I got the Pulitzer for that. And what was I guess I think it was called the American Book Award. But the people at the National Book Foundation said just say National Book Award. So I have. Yes, it did win those prizes. It that’s the book that made it possible for me to write for a living.
LAMB: What got people’s attention?
KIDDER: Well, it was a you know, there was no such thing as a personal computer then. Computers were still rather rare and rarified devices. Certainly to me. When my editor at the Atlantic Monthly suggested Dick Todd suggested that I look into computers, I laughed. I said what about them? But he knew this guy. And I went to see him. He was at a company called Data General, which doesn’t exist anymore. It was called a which was a mini computer company. And he he told me some stories that sounded intriguing, although I was kind of baffled by them. And what I do remember I remember being hooked on this story when he said go talk to this guy in my team, his team of computer engineers, who were essentially building a computer against their company’s wishes. I mean, that’s a little over-simplified. But anyway, this guy took me off the a guy named Carl Alsing, wonderful guy. He was a software engineer. Micro coder. And he took me to a corner of a cafeteria that was as far as from the security cameras I guess as possible. And he started telling me all these stories. And they were full of this marshal language, people who shot from the hip and there was blood on the floor. And as near as I could tell at this stage he was talking about the creation of these immobile plastic boxes. And I thought this is pretty interesting. And --
LAMB: And you started your research in ’78, 1978?
KIDDER: Yes. Yes, I think so. Right at the end of ’78 or early ’79.
LAMB: But at the time how big were computers?
KIDDER: They well, they were now they were by this time producing enormous amounts of wealth. These mini computer companies, which were really in service of engineers and so on were really booming. The big one was Digital Equipment, which also doesn’t exist anymore. IBM was still ruling the roost with very large so-called mainframe computers. But the but the moon shot had changed begun to change the landscape because of the develop well, the development of the transistor, which had led to the development of the chip, the you know, had as this is so vague in my memory now had really boosted a kind of change that was coming, and coming rapidly. But I do remember some very smart people telling me even at this point, you know, late ’70s that the personal the idea of the personal computer, that was a canard, they said.
LAMB: The Pulitzer came your way for that book. And what impact did the Pulitzer have on your future?
LAMB: How? Explain that.
KIDDER: Well, it just meant that well, for one thing I think it meant that I could write for a living. I think it you know, it meant that people you know, that if I didn’t make a gross mistake with the next book, that if I didn’t choose if it wasn’t a complete flop commercially or critically or that I could, you know, continue to write for a living. Because I don’t know that the Pulitzer the book made a lot of money for the publisher. Made some for me, too. And I think the I think the Pulitzer probably helped. But it it just it also changes your name, you know, if you get one of those prizes.
Russell Baker said something really interesting some years after that. I heard him say he talked about how, you know, he used to be so disdainful of the Pulitzer Prizes. After all, Duke Ellington never got one when he was alive. I don’t know how many decades it took for John McPhee, one of America’s most elegant writers, to get one. But he said, you know, when you get one yourself you start to think, oh, how perspicacious. You know? How smart these judges are. Well, I was a judge for the Pulitzers one year, and I realized, you know, this is like all of these, all such things, it’s there’s a lot of whimsy and capriciousness in this in the process. I’m not criticizing that prize over any other prize, but the you know, I was a little too young to receive something like that with equanimity at the time.
LAMB: How old were you?
KIDDER: Let’s see, that’s was ’81. I was 36, something like that.
LAMB: How often do you run into people that have read all your books and analyzed them all and become Tracy Kidder followers?
KIDDER: Not very often.
LAMB: Do you know of any teacher that’s using your books to teach writing?
KIDDER: To teach writing.
LAMB: Because I read a lot of reviews on Amazon where they were that he talks about one particular book, breaking it down and using it in a writing class.
KIDDER: Gosh, I’ll have to make sure to avoid that.
KIDDER: It’s just that I I try to avoid reading about that sort of thing. I mean, I want to go on to the next thing. I don’t like to re-read what I’ve written, at least after a little a decent interval. In part because only two things can happen, and neither is good. Either I feel like I feel, you know, how could I possibly have let that sentence or that paragraph go into print, or I think did I used to write that well? You know, it’s not the idea for me is just to is to get onto the next thing. I sometimes at book stores, you know, when I’m signing books someone will say I’ve read all your books. But there’s usually not time for me to have to ask what they think of them, and I’m not sure I want to know. I’ve tried I try not to read reviews. It’s not that I don’t believe in criticism. I think it’s great. But I find that unless someone you know, one of my you know, some friend says you really should read this one, I find they simply confuse me or, you know, pre-occupy me in a way that I and also, you know, it’s funny. Once I’ve finished a book and it’s gone to print, it doesn’t feel like it really belongs to me anymore. I wouldn’t want Amazon or Random House to take that too literally. But, you know but it doesn’t it’s not something that I can change, and I’d rather think about the next thing that I want to do.
LAMB: When did you meet your wife?
KIDDER: In 19 was it ’69 or ’70. I was in Boston sort of boarding at a place in the south end, a place I’d been helping the owner fix up in return for my room. I was a would be writer. I met her at a party. I was quite taken with her right away.
LAMB: Does she have a profession?
KIDDER: She’s a painter. Her name is Francis Kidder.
LAMB: And do you have children?
KIDDER: Yes, we have two. One is a unfortunately our the one with the with my grandson lives in California. But he’s he works for a small advertising company in San Francisco and he does a lot of video and graphic design. My daughter is in Boston. He’s also married, but no kids, no grandchildren yet. And she’s a doctor. She’s a young doctor. She’s really she’s just a resident still.
LAMB: And you still live in
KIDDER: Western Massachusetts.
LAMB: Western Massachusetts. And how long have you lived there?
KIDDER: Thirty-three years. Is that right? Yes.
LAMB: Where do you write?
KIDDER: Well, I have a place also in Maine and I’ve got a beautiful little cottage by a little cove. And I
LAMB: What part of Maine?
KIDDER: The mid coast. It’s on the Damariscotta River. And it’s that’s a wonderful place to write. But I and I have a place at home. It’s sort of in the basement of my house in Massachusetts. I don’t really care so much I mean, the whole for me the real exercise is trying to become unself-conscious and almost unaware of my surroundings. What I do need is a door and I have to be sure that there’s not a place where someone could come and look in at me. I don’t know why. Perhaps because, you know, it’s sort of like surrendering yourself to sleep. You don’t want to you it can feel dangerous somehow. I think if if some I just need I need to be able to close the door and make sure no one can look at me so I can give myself over to something.
LAMB: What time of day do you write and how many days a week would you write?
KIDDER: When I’m actually writing I start really early. I try to start early, 6:00-7:00 in the morning. This has just changed as I’ve gotten older. The last book I didn’t do this. But usually rough drafts are hard for me to write. And I have a hard time sitting with them for more than four hours somehow at the most. But by the time but I love to re-write. And then I usually I can go for, you know, really long stretches, or I used to, sometimes 13 or 14 hours. Sometimes I’d get up really early in the morning only because I couldn’t I’d wake up with this thing in my head, you know, at 3:30 in the morning. And rather than just lie there and vibrate and worry my wife, I’d get up and get to work. It just a sort of strange feeling to realize at noon that you’ve put in a pretty long day. I try to write I usually it’s usually by the- at a certain stage it’s all I want to do. So I sometimes write all seven days.
LAMB: This is private information. You don’t have to say anything about it. But with all these books that you write, are you still getting residuals on all of them? I mean, does that help you not have to worry about the next buck?
KIDDER: I still get some on The Soul Of A New Machine, but not much on the others. For some reason The Soul Of A New Machine was adopted by Harvard by some class at Harvard Business School. And they’re good enough to
LAMB: And that was re-issued in 2000?
KIDDER: Yes. The Modern Library picked it up. And I think it’s still in print with Little Brown.
LAMB: After you did The Soul Of A New Machine back in ’81, the next one was House.
LAMB: In ’85. And that’s listed at about 27,000 on the Amazon list, which is hundreds of thousands of books. There were 32 reviews. And that was Amherst where they tell the story about the House.
KIDDER: Well, I had I had bought a house, you know, some years before that and I got kind of intrigued in it about the whole business of house building. The house and my hand still have some of the scars to prove my I I did some of my own carpentry, sort of learning on the on the go. And I got I met these this group of carpenters and I got very interested in them. Charming people I thought. And I wanted to follow them around in the building season, and suddenly a house came along that a brand new architect, who is now very famous, named William Rawn. But this was his first solo design. I mean, he had worked on big projects before. But he this was his own design. And a couple who were old friends of his who lived in South Amherst. And suddenly I had what I I’ve said this before but a mιnage a trios without sexual connotations.
And there were some very interesting fights. I and, you know, these were real craftsman. These were Yankee craftsman, although they were these carpenters.
LAMB: Was this a big house, by the way?
KIDDER: Pretty big, yes, about 3,000 square feet. Cost the enormous sum at the time of something like $150,000.
LAMB: And how long did you live with that process?
KIDDER: I hung out with the carpenters and, you know, kept going among the various to the various parties for I guess the whole thing took the better part of a year. Not and yes, maybe a little less than a year, from, you know, the foundation to the finishing touches. That was a I still look on that book back on that book pretty fondly, though I haven’t read it for a long time. I mean, something fell into place there that made a lot of sense to me. And I remember people what I remember most fondly about it is friends or acquaintances asking me what I was working on and saying I was writing a book about the building of a house. I remember one person saying you mean a whole book on building a house?
But it turned out to I mean, it you know it’s not really about the building of a house. It is but it’s but it’s about something else as well. It’s about social class. Anyway. I found it I found the whole thing intriguing. I got fascinated with the anthropology and even the religion that’s associated with building homes. I remember tracing the lumber, the framing lumber all the way back to where it came from in the Maine woods. It’s always a lot of fun. I mean, at was it that I was still quite young and I was thinking, you know, this is a wonderful job. I’m getting paid for satisfying my idle curiosity. You know those hieroglyphics that are stamped on framing lumber? I thought what do those mean. So I went all the way back --
LAMB: Did you change their lives in any way from that book?
KIDDER: I don’t think so. I think that I made one mistake, which was that I made too much of a I made it pretty clear where this house was. And I think it drove the home owners slightly crazy. People from time to time would just drive right up.
LAMB: Are they still there?
KIDDER: Unfortunately the man of the house died recently of cancer. Terrible. The carpenters split up after a while after my book was done. Their team. But I’m not sure that wouldn’t have happened anyway. I mean, who knows. As for the architect, I don’t know if it helped him or not. You’d have to ask him. I he was on his way I think. A pretty a very interesting guy. He has a gosh, he’s he did the Ozawa Hall, the concert hall at Tanglewood and tons of other stuff.
LAMB: Four years later you did Among School Children.
LAMB: That had a lot of reviews, 74 reviews, and they’re still popular, 13,000 on the list.
KIDDER: Oh, well.
LAMB: The Kelly School. Where was it?
KIDDER: In a little Massachusetts mill town Holyoke. And Holyoke was one of these planned industrial communities. Irish potato famine labor basically built the huge dam on the Connecticut River that powered these mills, that made it for a time a very one of the largest producers of paper in the country. And one of the largest polluters of the Connecticut River. It was a town that had you know, that has seen successive waves of immigrants, and the most recent wave was Puerto Rican by the time I went to the school. That’s the one book where I actually went out looking for a looking for a person, not finding a subject through a person.
LAMB: A teacher?
KIDDER: I went looking for a school teacher. I my editor’s wife was an elementary school teacher and she suggested this. So I thought, well, I knew enough I or I’d read enough about public education in America to know that elementary education was a burden that had been almost exclusively carried by women. And I wanted to go to a school that wasn’t, you know, in a fancy suburb, but this town seemed about the ideal size. I could wrap my mind around it.
LAMB: Teacher’s name?
KIDDER: Christine Zajac. And she was of the town and she was quite a quite a wonderful character.
LAMB: What impact did the book have on her?
KIDDER: Well, it could have had a much larger one, but she’s a sort of principled person. She wanted to stay in the classroom. And then she when she finally sort of felt she couldn’t do it anymore, she’d told me she she went and became an assistant principal. And I think the school committee kept trying to make her take over one of the schools. But she had such a wonderful principal she was working for, she didn’t want to do that. And when he retired, reluctantly I think she took it over. She’s
LAMB: How did you do that one? Did you spend time in --
KIDDER: I spent there are 180 days by law that school has to be open, public school in Massachusetts. And I spent 178 days in the classroom. And I spent a lot of time with her outside of class. It was a it was an interesting experience. I it was it’s still quite vivid in my mind. And she she wasn’t a super star teacher. I don’t know you know, but she was she was just what these children needed. I mean, she said that to me once. She said most what they need most of all is a stable mother. And that wasn’t true of all the students in the class, but it was of many. And she was very good at teaching some things. She by herself acknowledged that she wasn’t much good at teaching science. And in subsequent years I think they tried to you know supplement.
But, I mean, basically she was conducting elementary school education the way it had been conducted essentially for ever since we had it in this country. I mean, I think I wrote somewhere in that book that if a student could from the 19th century could have entered this classroom and not been terribly puzzled as to, you know, what was going on. I mean, many, many things had changed, but the the fundamentals of school you know, you take a bunch of kids and put them in a room, close the door, and particularly for little boys, you try to you it’s -- I also wrote that it was as if a committee now lost to history had sat down and tried to figure out what it is that the children are at least apt to do and then decide to make them do it. Just sit them at their desks and it was a there were parts about there were things about that experience that were very discouraging. Of course you know, just the unfairness of life.
You know, as I think about this, I’m not I’m not equipped I think intellectually to discover great new truths. But I do think that, you know, narrative has a way of rediscovering those things. I mean, for instance, in my current book I talk about I mean, that’s a book that’s about civil war and genocide. But we know those are deplorable, we know that charity exists, we know that durability exist. And we also know that that life isn’t fair. But somehow or other I think, you know, narrative can get you to places where the academic approach can’t get you. And to see it again in a vivid way. I mean, that was what a lot of that book was about.
LAMB: We talked about Old Friends in which was 1993. And talked about Home Town, which was about North Hampton, Massachusetts, in ’99. And then comes along the book that’s the most reviewed still to this day.
KIDDER: Yes. Mountains Beyond.
LAMB: Mountains Beyond. Mountains 224 reviews in Amazon, which is huge. It’s 389 on the best seller list. It’s about a lot of things, including Dr. Paul Farmer and Brigham and Womens. But how did you get into that one? That was after you did North Hampton. You’re still up there in Massachusetts. You’re in Boston now. How did you how did you find Dr. Paul Farmer?
KIDDER: In 1994 I went to Haiti to write a story for the New Yorker Magazine about American soldiers in Haiti. We had sent, as you recall, something like 20,000 troops to restore the constitutionally elected government. And in the course of my time there with these special forces soldiers, I found myself out in the central plateau of Haiti in a kind of run-down market town called Nubela. And one night Paul Farmer arrived to talk to the American commander. It was a very interesting conversation they had. Then quite by accident when I went home for Christmas I left the soldiers and went home for Christmas to come back again. I ran into him on the airplane. And I talked to him then. And
LAMB: How old was he then?
KIDDER: He would have been oh, I’m sorry, I’m terrible about this. He would have been 30 late 30s I think. Or ’94. My goodness. He’s he just turned 50. So or he’s just turning 50. So what
LAMB: He would have been would have been almost 15 years ago.
KIDDER: Yes. So ...
KIDDER: ... about 35 or so. And he was still a I think an infectious disease fellow at the Brigham Women’s hospital.
LAMB: Which is a part of the Harvard Medical System.
KIDDER: Yes, yes. One of the great teaching hospitals in the world. He had already founded this organization called Partners In Health along with a bunch of friends. And such as Dr. Jim Young Kim, a well known guy, and this Boston heavy construction guy named Tom White, who put up most of the money in the early years. In any case, I got to know just enough of him just enough about Paul Farmer to know that he was almost certainly someone worth writing about. But I didn’t pursue him for six years. And I went off and wrote my book about North Hampton on which I’m well, I’m not sorry I did, but it does strike me as odd that I would have waited that long for someone who was so clearly an interesting character. Because I was quite aggressive back then. And I think the reason was Haiti. Haiti shocked me. I’d been a soldier in Vietnam, although I hadn’t seen combat. But I’d never seen anything quite so distressing as Haiti and all that unnecessary sickness and death.
And I think I when I got back from Haiti I tried to reconcile the fact of Haiti with my privileged American life. And you know and I I knew that if I started following this guy around he would disturb me. He would he would ruffle my peace of mind. But in late 1999 I decided to get in touch with him. I started hearing more and more about him. And I and he invited me to come and see him at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. And
LAMB: How much time did you spend around him?
KIDDER: Oh, parts of some really intense parts of three years. The first trip I took with him was about a month. We went I went with I was in Haiti with him and then we went to South Carolina, then back to Haiti, then to Cuba, to Paris, to Moscow, back to Boston. That was what he called a light month for travel.
LAMB: What was your agreement with him about how close you could get to him and how much time you’d spend with him and all that?
KIDDER: Well, it started with my doing a profile of him for the New Yorker. But there was no there was no agreement about I don’t think we ever had a sort of agreement. He’s a sophisticated person to say the least. And I think you know, I think he just he knew that I was going to write a profile of him. I think he would have been much more comfortable with a book that wasn’t as personal. But I I thought I tried to make it clear that that was the kind of thing I was going to write.
After I’d published the profile I asked if he would give me access to write a book about him. And it took him a while. But he just said he finally, yes, all right.
LAMB: What’s been the impact on him?
KIDDER: I think it’s been mixed. I mean, I think for him personally it’s been in some ways really uncomfortable. Because, you know, he has said and I think this is quite true that he’s only part of a large organization, and to single him out in this way is both inconvenient and unfair. And that’s true. Although I still wouldn’t have done it any other way.
On the other hand, I think that for the organization it’s probably been a good thing. Look, I you know, I didn’t set out to do a good deed. I set out to write as good a story as I found an interesting story and I wanted to write it as well as I could. So I don’t want to take a lot of credit for this. But it has helped Partners In Health quite a bit, I gather. One of the major donors to the organization told me that he had done a canvas of other major donors, and it seemed like a majority of them had come to it through my book.
LAMB: How many can you tell us how many copies have been sold of that book?
KIDDER: I don’t know exactly. It’s something on the order of 800,000.
LAMB: That’s major money for Tracy Kidder.
KIDDER: Well, yes, but a lot of it I finally got some royalties the other day. I mean, I was well paid I got a good advance. I should I’m certainly not complaining. But the fact is that most of those sales I’d say the majority of them have gone to colleges for one reason or another. A host of colleges, something on the order of 150, have chosen to inflict it on their incoming students. And those are great that’s great business for a publisher, because there are no returns and they get to ship all the books to one place and they get to pay me a quite a vastly reduced royalty.
LAMB: Is that right?
KIDDER: Yes, on these special sales, on these special sales. I I perhaps just was careless looking at the contract. But I look, I’m doing fine. I have no complaints.
LAMB: But if you move off of that 2000 oh, wait, you went to 2005. We haven’t talked about My Detachment: A Memoir.
LAMB: And we’re running out of time as we always do.
KIDDER: Oh, I’m sorry.
LAMB: Yes, I mean, it’s a story about your Vietnam experience.
LAMB: One question on that. By the way, there’s 25 reviews on Amazon and it’s 109,000 on the list in case you wonder. The question I have on that book is why did you wait for what years were in Vietnam?
KIDDER: I was there from ’68 June of ’68 to June of ’69.
LAMB: And so we go 30 years later
KIDDER: Well, actually I started writing that book back in 1985 and I put it aside because I was it was what I was writing was dishonest. It was weird. I was trying I think a lot of my time in Vietnam memories of Vietnam embarrassed me. They weren’t tragic, but they embarrassed me deeply. And I think I was trying to when I first took my first shot at writing that book I was trying to to make it seem as though this young lieutenant and I were only distantly related, if we were related at all. It was and somehow when I finished Mountains Beyond Mountains I was prepared to write much more honestly about myself I guess. And I think, you know, whatever whatever else it is, it’s a pretty honest document. For some people I think it’s funny. Others have not liked it very much.
LAMB: Well, coming full circle back to you know The Strength In What Remains, the book about Deogracias . You said in the early discussion that you met him in the was it the apartment of Paul Farmer?
KIDDER: Yes, he was staying well, he was living at Elliot House at Harvard at the time. Well, I mean, he had a apartment there. It’s hard to be living in any one place. But Paul had had this awful operation on his knee and I went to visit him.
LAMB: Why do you call it an awful operation?
KIDDER: Well, it was an not awful, but he’d injured his knee years and years before and then finally had to fix it. And I guess it was a it was major surgery. I remember he was he was really in bed, he couldn’t out of bed.
LAMB: How did those two get together?
KIDDER: Well, Deo found his way to Paul Farmer. He was he had come up to Harvard the Harvard School of Public Health to take a summer course. Deo had. And he had in the meantime before that, though, at browsing the stacks of Baker Library at Columbia he had found this book called Infections And Inequalities, one of Paul’s books. And he reading he thought this is about me, this is about my people. Because Burundi is a one of the poorest countries in the world and Farmer is a poor people’s doctor. And so is Partner in Health that, you know, cubed.
And Deo just was said I’ve got to meet this guy. And he was up at the Harvard School of Public Health and he saw that Paul was giving a lecture. So he went to the lecture. And afterward he he’s a very thrifty guy, Deo, but he had left his copy in New York of the book. So he went and bought another book, which is a great extravagance for him, so that he could Farmer to sign it. And Paul signed it. And, you know, he does this little rock star thing after his talks. And he Deo waited his turn and then said can I be in touch with you? And Paul gave him his e-mail. And Deo went over to the library Lamont Library at Harvard and e-mailed Paul and received an answer almost immediately saying come on over and see me at Eliot House. And they spent the whole night talking while Paul was doing his e-mail. And neither one sleeps very much, I have to say.
LAMB: How did Deo learn English? And how is his English?
KIDDER: His English is great. His English is wonderful. But it’s it’s salted with I dare say, you know, French and Burundi speaks French fluently, too. So he has these wonderful expressions. Like instead of, you know, he’ll say I had to bite my heart or run like a thunder storm. His English is impeccable. It’s just fine. But colorful. And he learned it he learned it by initially in book stores, the and reading dictionaries and in libraries. And eventually he went to he took an ESL course, a very rigorous one that Columbia has. And I think that’s where he got it. Although, you know, even so, when he started at Columbia as a freshman all over again, you know, starting college all over again, he would I loved his story about reading Chaucer. He saw the he opened his the reading and saw (INAUDIBLE) and said what is this, Chinese?! Oh, he was just
LAMB: Well, what are his degrees in now?
KIDDER: He has we he hadn’t finished his he could very quickly get a degree a public health degree I mean a yes, a school public health yes, he could one a master’s in that. He has his he has his BA.
LAMB: Where? Where’d he get them?
KIDDER: Columbia. And he doesn’t have the degree from Harvard, although he might go and finish that. But right now he’s getting his medical degree. So those are the degrees.
LAMB: Your next book
KIDDER: I wish I knew.
LAMB: You have no idea.
KIDDER: I have no idea. I don’t think I think it’ll be different from what I’ve these last two. I mean, Paul Farmer’s story and Deo’s story are in some way connected. They’re both people who are you know who’s subject really is medicine and public health and poverty.
LAMB: How we’re out of time but how would you say your writing has changed from the first to the last?
KIDDER: I don’t know. I hope it’s gotten better. But I don’t
LAMB: I mean, in your own mind how do you do you approach it any differently than you used to?
KIDDER: I don’t think so. Each book asks something different from me. And that’s one of the great things about this job. It’s that I can change I can change the subject without having to change professions.
LAMB: Tracy Kidder, author of Strength In What Remains and eight other books, plus the one we didn’t talk about, Ivory Fields he went to 33 publishers and none of them would buy it. Anyway. Thank you very much.
KIDDER: Thank God they didn’t. Thank you.
LAMB: Thank you very much.