My guest today is Dr. Jim Bailey, author of the debut novel, The End of Healing. Bailey is a fellow in the American College of Physicians and professor of medicine and preventive medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, where he directs the Center for Health Systems Improvement, cares for the sick, and teaches doctors in training. His research appears in many peer-reviewed medical journals, including AMA, Journal of General Internal Medicine, and Annals of Internal Medicine. Dr. Bailey has an abiding passion for the classics, medical history, and ethics, and believes that sharing our stories can heal. Visit him at www.endofhealing.com and on Twitter and Facebook.
Welcome, Dr. Bailey! When did you decide you wanted to become an author?
After studying the great books at St. John’s College I dreamed of writing the next great American novel. I enrolled in a graduate writing program, where my fiction-writing teacher told me to write about what I knew. At that point I didn’t seem know much of anything, and medical school seemed like the easier option. Twenty years later, in 2003, I started writing The End of Healing as a work of narrative non-fiction. When my spouse, who is also my editor, told me I was writing fiction—and suggested I’d better stop because it would take me forever—my first reaction was denial. I assured her that I was, in fact, writing creative non-fiction. As usual, though, she was right. It was over a full year later, in 2004, I realized I was writing fiction—and that filled me with terror. I couldn’t write fiction. That had been determined, right? But despite my despair, getting out the story of The End of Healing was a compulsion and I wrote nearly every day from 2004 until its publication. I wrote and wrote and edited and edited and learned the art of storytelling because I had to do so. The story needed to be told. And it is a story you need to know.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?
Yes. I have been an avid reader of stories of all sorts since I was a young child. As a young boy I would read with a flashlight hidden beneath my covers late into the night and then sleep through my most boring classes during the day. I would hide a novel inside my textbook to pretend I was reading about the subject for the day. That worked pretty well until I got a little too entranced in a story. Once in fourth grade I heard my teacher calling my name and looked up to see that everyone but the teacher and I had left the classroom for recess. I had been sitting there for five minutes caught up in the imaginary world of the novel I was reading. As a child my favorites were fantasy like Ursula LeGuin’s A Wrinkle in Time, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. By early adolescence I was enchanted by science fiction and historical fiction like Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund.
Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.
My inspiration came on 9–11, my birthday, when I realized that as bad as the twin towers disaster was, healthcare was worse. I knew that a 747 planeload of people die from medical mistakes every day and we weren’t doing anything about it. To the contrary, many profit from it. And the public was oblivious of the danger. People view hospitals as great temples of hope and healing, when in fact they are the most dangerous places of all. As a physician and healthcare researcher, I knew I could write dozens of journal articles every year in the best medical journals but those articles weren’t likely to reach the American people and help them understand where true healing comes from. I realized it would take a good story to do that.
I started with stream of consciousness. There were numerous scenes in my mind that from the beginning were crystal clear. From the beginning I had a vague sense of how they fit into the arc of a bigger story. From there, I began to piece those scenes together and after about 6 months of serious writing my wife, Sharon, —who had not yet realized she would serve as my primary editor—insisted that I make a detailed outline of the chapters. I made detailed character notes and personality grids to make sure my portrayal of each character was consistent. Over time, my characters revealed themselves more fully, took over the storyline, and were responsible for the arc The End of Healing ultimately took. It became more like a process of discovery, rather than creation.
Did your book require a lot of research?
The End of Healing required a tremendous amount of research. Fortunately, in my career as a physician and professor I’ve spent over two decades studying health systems improvement and healthcare quality. I have access to the best researchers in America and worldwide. However, my most important teachers are my patients. Caring for the critically ill and listening to their stories and experiences of the healthcare system was of paramount importance in writing this book. As my young protagonist learns, in order to learn how to improve American healthcare, we must listen to the patients.
Who is your target audience?
Avid and educated readers who love historical fiction and the melding of the real world with the adventure and excitement of a mystery or thriller. The End of Healing particularly appeals to mature readers who have seen a bit of the world, who have experienced suffering and loss, and who know what it takes to pull oneself up from defeat. People who have experienced chronic illness either personally or in their families especially love this book. My best review of all came from a beloved AP English teacher who read The End of Healing in her last two months of life as she was dying from pancreatic cancer. I was deeply touched that she thought my novel worthy of her time in her final days and then directed her husband buy ten copies for the doctors and nurses who had cared for her.
What will the reader learn after reading your book?
The End of Healing will open the eyes, minds, and hearts of readers and encourage them to take charge of their health and healthcare resources. It will help them identify the potential pitfalls of modern medicine, ask the right questions, and be effective advocates for themselves and their loved ones. I hope it will help them avoid the unnecessary suffering caused by our sickness-focused healthcare system and the waste of lives and dollars spent on unnecessary care that isn’t really care at all. Readers will learn what a healthy healthcare system would look like. We could get so much more for the $2.3 trillion dollars we spend each year on healthcare. I hope my readers will be fascinated and empowered by The End of Healing. I hope that it arms them with the understanding they need to pass safely through the maze of modern medicine, take charge of their own health, demand the health care they deserve, and play a part in remaking our broken healthcare system.
Do you get along with your muse? What do you do to placate her when she refuses to inspire you?
My muse is implacable and his (not her) name is Dante Alighieri. His Inferno haunted me throughout the writing of The End of Healing. During a sabbatical year in Florence, Italy, Dante’s hometown, I rediscovered the Divine Comedy and found myself driven by his spirit to expose the hidden corruption in healthcare in the same way that he had exposed the hidden corruption of his time. I started writing The End of Healing that year, in 2004. Each time I walked past the statue of Dante in the Piazza delle Santa Croce, I’d see his grim visage scowling down at me with disapproval that I was out walking and enjoying the city and had not yet finished my book. Across the centuries, Dante both tormented and encouraged me to persevere and finish my work.
Describe your working environment.
I can write anywhere ––Whenever I get an inspiration, when an idea goes through my brain of the perfect phrase or the best arrangement of some book section, I immediately write it down. I scribble notes wherever I am – in the car (if my wife is driving), on beaches, planes, balconies, campsites, in lectures, in church. My favorite writing place was in the small rooftop study of our apartment in Italy. It looked out over the tiled rooftops of Florence. During the day it could really heat up in there, so my favorite time was in the morning when a cool breeze blew through the open windows.
As a writer, what scares you the most?
When writing, what themes do you feel passionate about?
The End of Healing explores themes of illness, loss, death, and dying, and the nature of true health, healing, and abundant life. It is interwoven with themes of classical literature and our best mythical stories of the underworld and afterlife. Race is also a prominent theme in the story. My protagonist, Dr. Don Newman, is black but passes for white. The End of Healing is not only about his struggle to discover his own identity as a true healer in the broken healthcare system, but also his struggle to come to terms with his deep confusion and shame related to his racial heritage.
How do you divide your time between work, family, and writing? Do you plan your writing sessions in advance?
Writing is hard. And it is hard to balance writing fiction with my already difficult work schedule as a physician, teacher and researcher, and my role as a husband and father. My wife takes care of most of the home-related chores, and we reconnect by taking our dog for long walks around our neighborhood. Early in my writing of The End of Healing I told a good friend and mentor of my despair and deep concern that I would never finish the book I had started. I still remember his advice. He said to just write a little bit every day. Set a schedule. Make a plan to fit a little writing into each day’s work and in time your effort will add up. So I followed his advice. Almost every day for the last decade I got up early in the morning while the rest of the house was asleep and wrote for at least 30 minutes, but most often for an hour or two. And lo and behold, I discovered that my dear friend—who has since passed on—was right. The writing did add up.
My website is EndofHealing.com and I have a blog at TheHealthyCity.org. Interested readers can find lots of supplemental material, reading group discussion guides, and information about upcoming events at EndofHealing.com.
Anything else you’d like to say about yourself or your work?
I was able to write The End of Healing because it grew out of my own experience and was a story I needed to tell. Whether you are writing a PhD dissertation or a poem, great writing begins with careful choice of your subject. You have to write about something that you care about–something that you care about a lot—or it will never resonate and you will never be able to finish. When it comes to great writing you will struggle to keep your focus and dedication to the task unless it is a task that matters, a story that matters. Look for the story that matters most in your life. That is the story you should aim to share.
Thanks for stopping by! It was a pleasure to have you here!