How did you meet Paul Farmer, and what made you want to write about him?Read the entire interview.
I met him in Haiti in 1994. I was doing a story on American soldiers sent there to reinstate the country’s democratically elected government. Farmer showed up one night at the barracks and got into an argument with the commander. I wasn’t very interested in him then, but a few weeks later I ran into him on the plane to Miami and I began to learn some of the outlines of his life, which I found very interesting. Farmer was the second of six children, and spent most of his childhood in Florida, the whole family living on a bus and a houseboat that was moored in a bayou on the Gulf Coast. He went to Duke on a full scholarship, and then, while he was earning his M.D. and Ph.D at Harvard, he conceived and helped to build an amazing health care system in one of the poorest corners of Haiti. Around the time when I met him, he and his small band of colleagues were about to go to war against the dominant ideologies in international health — eventually they’d actually win some significant battles.
And I was drawn to the man himself. He worked extraordinary hours. In fact, I don’t think he sleeps more than an hour or two most nights. Here was a person who seemed to be practicing more than he preached, who seemed to be living, as nearly as any human being can, without hypocrisy. A challenging person, the kind of person whose example can irritate you by making you feel you’ve never done anything as important, and yet, in his presence, those kinds of feelings tended to vanish. In the past, when I’d imagined a person with credentials like his, I’d imagined someone dour and self-righteous, but he was very friendly and irreverent, and quite funny. He seemed like someone I’d like to know, and I thought that if I did my job well, a reader would feel that way, too.
My favorite teacher once used to talk about how writers often have their best stories bestowed upon them, seemingly by accident. I felt as though, in meeting Farmer, I’d been offered a rare opportunity.