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Interview with Tracy Kidder

By Aaron Calvin

Last Monday, Tracy Kidder, the Pulitzer prize winning author of this year's common read, Mountains Beyond Mountains, came to speak to first year students. In his book, Kidder follows the medical anthropologist Dr. Paul Farmer in his crusade to bring medical help and disease prevention to the people of Haiti. Kidder also spoke to the crowd about Farmer's organization, Partner In Health, as well as the importance of recognizing the humanity of all people and pursuing a life with meaning. WRHU and The Chronicle sat down for a joint interview with Kidder before the talk:

WRHU: What was the experience of writing this book like?

Tracy Kidder: Really, it's about Paul Farmer. It's a portrait of him. For me, it was exhilarating and a little horrifying. I'd never seen poverty like [they have in Haiti]. A bunch of terrorist groups were running the country at that time. I remember vividly, after having driven on unbelievable roads and arriving at an oasis [Farmer's hospital]. I had a childish feeling of "how is this possible?" It often feels like we are in the grip of systems we can't control, and it was a feeling of "how was this possible when it's so bad elsewhere?"

WRHU: How was writing this book different than writing a journalistic article or a novel?

Kidder: It's nonfiction, but it's still storytelling. Storytelling is what really good histories do. And I don't think storytelling is really the property of fiction.

WRHU: What compelled you to write this book?

Kidder: Farmer was just a very interesting person. He was already very well known in the world of disease prevention and medical anthropology. He could have lived a very cushy life, but he lives a rough life and I asked "why?" And in some way my research was to get an answer to all that. There's a conversation at the end of the book about traveling over these high mountains to treat a child. [In the conversation,] he told me "if you want to win, the easiest way is to align yourself with the winners. Like it would be easier to align yourself with the Yankees instead of the Mets. But that wouldn't be helping the poor like he wanted. It sounds like a simple proposal. But it's harder to live that.

WRHU: What did you personally take away from traveling with Farmer?

Kidder: I didn't feel a lot of moral envy. I never could have or would have done what he's done. For younger people, it's important to learn, but you shouldn't try to live a life just like his. I have a great job where I see parts of the world I've never seen before. I came away feeling like I did something I was obliged to do. It's a model in fixing some of the problems of the world. I'm mostly grateful.

WRHU: What message would you like students who read your book to come away with?

Kidder: Well, the first thing I want is for them to feel transported and that it was an interesting read. I suppose it's the wealth of possibility. It shows you that there's emptiness in some lives and that [Farmer's] life is not empty.

The Chronicle: What do you think students should take away from their college experience?

Kidder: You need to find out what you want to do in life. Part of my experience was trying to just get good grades, but now it doesn't matter. College is just a wonderful privilege.

The Chronicle: The band Arcade Fire has a song on their record that came out last year that has the title of one your books in one of their song titles. Did you know about that?

Kidder: Yes, the band did something rather nice. My book had never been published in French before and they helped engineer a Quebecois French translation of my book.


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