Tracy Kidder ’67, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, is known for nonfiction works such as “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” about the global health work of Professor Paul Farmer, and “Among Schoolchildren,” about a classroom in Holyoke, Mass. Kidder spoke with FM about his undergraduate years at Harvard, his creative process, and his plans for his next project.
1. Fifteen Minutes: How does Harvard compare to the way in which you remember it from your time as an undergraduate?
Tracy Kidder: Well, that was the ’60s. I think it’s probably a more serious place now, in some ways, more serious academically. The inmates were kind of in charge of the place or were trying to grab control of the place, as I recall. It’s hard for me to know, but I am auditing one course, Stephen Greenblatt’s Shakespeare class, and I sense that the undergrads are very smart. I introduced Paul Farmer a few years ago at Sanders Theatre, and I found myself saying, though I didn’t plan on saying it, that it was really interesting to be back here, in this lovely auditorium, where I had slept through so many classes. For me, the most important thing here academically was having a close relationship with a couple of faculty members.
2. FM: Anyone in particular?
TK: One was an extremely distinguished guy named Robert Fitzgerald, a wonderful translator and poet. I took a writing class with him. I just kept taking them for three years. There were years when I didn’t do much but write stories for him. I’d go to bed around the time that my other classes were starting.
3. FM: Did you know when you were a student here that you wanted to become a writer?
TK: I sort of discovered this at Harvard. It sounds preposterous, but I think it’s true. I was majoring in Government. At that time writing still seemed like a romantic profession, at least for me. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner: those were the romantic figures. So it seemed like a good opportunity to impress girls. But once I got into Fitzgerald’s class, he took us seriously and expected a lot. He was very kind, but he was very stern and elegant. He made it seem like a high calling, and I keep thinking of the forks in one’s life, that you take one and then you take another, and pretty soon you could never get back to where you were before. Then I made the stupid mistake and went to Vietnam as a solider. I don’t entirely regret it, but it was a stupid mistake in that I didn’t entirely mean to do it. I’d feel a little bit better about if I had. After that experience I came to think of myself as a writer even though I didn’t publish anything.
4. FM: Have you and Paul Farmer spent time together since you’ve been back at Harvard?
TK: Yeah, but briefly. Since the year 2000, I’d been in really close contact with him for three years, of course. But ever since my book was published, things changed. Writing a book about someone is an odd basis for friendship. It’s really hard to be scrutinized by somebody, and I don’t think I’d let anyone do it to me. My hope was when I was here we’d spend a lot of time together, but then the earthquake hit Haiti, and he’s been straight out.
5. FM: Did you ever contemplate being a novelist?
TK: That’s what I started out as. I was going to be a novelist. I wrote fiction here. And after I came back from Vietnam, I wrote a really bad novel about experiences I didn’t have in Vietnam. I ended up going to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I did this more in search of a refuge than anything else. It was a legitimate place, and it was also far away. I went there not knowing how bad that novel I’d written really was. I went there full of self-esteem, let’s say. At a certain point there, I don’t know exactly why—maybe because I had a rather happy childhood—I just wasn’t moved that much to write fiction.
6. FM: How was the experience of composing a memoir distinct from writing your other books?
TK: It is, for me, much harder. The truth is—at a certain point in my life, anyway—the person I was least likely to write honestly about is myself. It took me a long time, 15 years really, from the time when I started it, to solve the problem of that book, which was, broadly speaking from the drafts of it, false apologizing.
7. FM: I read in an interview from a couple of years ago that you consider “Mountains Beyond Mountains” to be your best book. Do you still feel this way today?
TK: Had I just written it?
FM: It was probably about six or seven years ago.
TK: Probably. I had just finished it.
8. FM: Is that how you tend to feel when you finish a project?
TK: No, not always. I do think it is the most-read of anything of my books, and I do think it was extremely fortunate that I ran across such a fascinating story, and the kind of story I had been looking for a long time. It’s often said that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to write about virtue. It almost felt like something I had been waiting for. I’ve never sent to press anything I didn’t think was good, or the best that I could do. But whether I disagree or not isn’t up to me exactly.
9. FM: You said in your recent talk with Darcy Frey that you had 150 notebooks filled for “Among Schoolchildren.” Do you still take notes by hand?
TK: I didn’t for my last book. I wasn’t able to. The person I was with didn’t want me to be seen taking notes openly when we were in east central Africa. So I used a recorder, but I don’t like it. A little recording device has been extremely useful, but I’d much rather take notes. I think in a funny way they’re more accurate, handwritten notes. That sounds ridiculous, I know, but all that’s recorded by a recording device is speech and there’s a lot of other stuff if you want to record, it seems to me, if you’re taking good notes. And there’s another good thing about it—there’s no concealment there.
10. FM: What’s your editing process like?
TK: From start to finish, I work with him [editor Richard Todd]. I discuss ideas with him. His wife accuses me, in a friendly way, of using him as a kidney. Mostly I worry, aloud. And he tolerates it. I never feel that he’s not telling me what he really thinks, but it never feels destructive. He understands better than anyone I know how tender shoots are.
11. FM: Do you ever re-read your books?
TK: I look back on certain books with a fair amount of fondness, but I don’t re-read them. Because the two things that tend to happen when I do re-read them is, “How did I let that paragraph go into print?” or, “Did I used to write that well?”
12. FM: What kinds of books do you most enjoy reading?
TK: I’m really eclectic, an eclectic reader. Not so very long ago, I rediscovered Graham Greene, the great English novelist, one of the greatest novelists along with Tolstoy, who never won a Nobel Prize. In recent years, I’ve been reading a lot of poetry.
13. FM: What are you working on next?
TK: I’m working on this new book about writing, but I don’t know what I’m going to take on next. I have some ideas, but they’re not even half-baked. They’re not even dough. But I have several possibilities. I think the truth of the matter is the way I work I don’t usually pick subjects, I have to choose people that interest me.
14. FM: Do you have a process for finding these stories?
TK: I don’t, because it’s so chancy. The most extraordinary story I came across was Paul Farmer’s, and I met him completely by accident in Haiti when I was doing research for a story on American soldiers for The New Yorker. How do you pre-arrange something like that? I’ve often wasted a lot of time—I mean, spent a lot of time—deciding what to do next.
15. FM: Do you find that openness exciting?
TK: Well, you know, I don’t. My job is a wonderful job. I’ve been able to spend time with really interesting people and satisfy my idle curiosity on a whole host of subjects and get paid for it. I’ve been very fortunate to write for a living, which is very unusual. I think anyone who does manage to do that and doesn’t admit that they’re extraordinarily lucky is nuts. This is the one part of the job that I find difficult, that I don’t see there’s any way for me to master. It somewhat has to do with what Keats would call “the holiness of the heart’s affections.” I have to be interested. I don’t care if the subject is interesting to anyone else. It has to be interesting to me.