Bookpleasures. Com welcomes as our guest Dr. Richard Barager whose second novel, The Atheist and the Parrotfish follows his award-winning Altamount Augie published by Interloper Press in 2011. In 2018, Evolved Publishing plans to release his Red Clay, Yellow Grass: A Novel of the 1960s.
By day Dr. Barger is a nephrologist, treating dialysis patients and kidney transplant recipients. By night he writes fiction. He believes the two finest callings in life are doctor and writer, one ministering to the human condition, the other illuminating it, each capable of transforming it.
Dr. Barager earned BA and MD degrees at the University of Minnesota and did his postgraduate training at Emory University in Atlanta and the University of California in San Diego. He lives in Orange County, CA.
Norm: Good day Dr. Barager and thanks for participating in our interview.
Dr. Barager: Thank you for having me, Norm. It is my pleasure to be here.
Norm: What do you consider to be your greatest success (or successes) so far in your writing career?
Dr. Barager: The unexpected critical acclaim my first novel, Altamont Augie, received, including a Silver Medal in the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Awards.
Norm: How long have you been writing and why do you write? Do you have a theme, message, or goal for your books?
Dr. Barager: I began writing about ten years ago. It is something I had always longed to do.
I never got over the wonder of entering the fictional world of a novel, as if events were occurring before my very eyes, in real time.
And the sensation of having a personal dialogue with an author long dead, in the case of the classics, across centuries of time. I marveled at the ability to create such a thing. It made me want to do that, too. I write for this reason, to engage with people in an intimate and meaningful way, and to seek meaning through storytelling.
Norm: Do you write more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two? Summarize your writing process.
Dr. Barager: My writing
process is a combination of logic and intuition. I typically get
interested in some big idea, and then research whatever has captured
my interest for at least a year.
Characters come next, the actors in
the story, and then the plot. I plot my story before writing it.
can take up to another year, but it allows me to write a cohesive
first draft without the frustration of writer’s block, since I
don’t have to search for the story—I already have it.
But the creation of story structure and scene writing are both logical and intuitive actions for me—some scenes and key plot points are intuited, others must follow logically for the story to make sense. I find that once I have the general structure of the story worked out, I am free creatively to go where I please, within the broad confines of my story. Another way of thinking about it is a journey with a known departure point and destination, but, like starting in New York and ending up in Los Angeles, with many possible detours and unexpected problems along the way.
Norm: What do you think most characterizes your writing?
Dr. Barager: I would characterize my writing as accessible literary fiction, driven equally by plot and character and inspired by large thematic ideas.
Norm: Where do you get the information and ideas for your books?
Dr. Barager: I get my ideas from big issues of the world around me that interest me. I then read exhaustively on this big theme—books; internet searches; personal interviews with experts in the field—until I have formed a much deeper understanding of it. Probably 80% from books, 15% from the internet, and 5% from personal interviews. Only then do I begin to imagine characters and the outline of a story.
Norm: How many times in your writing career have you experienced rejection? How did they shape you?
Dr. Barager: Rejection is a constant companion of writers, even after publication. Each of my novels was rejected by dozens of literary agents and publishers, and once published each was subject to some negative reviews, which is rejection by readers rather than professionals.
I try to look for common themes in rejections of my work in order to identify weaknesses in my writing that can be improved. But just as often rejection serves to thicken my skin and make me trust my own instincts rather than the judgments of others.
Norm: Could you tell our readers something about the similarities between practicing medicine and writing fiction? As a follow up, how has your education and upbringing informed your writing?
Dr. Barager: Medicine and fiction have much in common. Patients are real people who need to be related to in three dimensions in order to deliver effective care to them: physical, emotional, and spiritual. And every illness is a story, with a patient as the main character.
Similarly, a character in a work of fiction must possess these same three dimensions to be believable. In this way, the roles of doctor and writer are the same—each must understand the central character and that character’s role in the story.
My education and upbringing greatly informed my latest novel, The Atheist and the Parrotfish, in that I was raised Catholic, have a Psychology degree, and went to medical school— all very useful in a novel with a spiritual theme and a cross-dresser and doctor as main characters!
Norm: I understand that you prescribe fiction to patients to help them cope with an illness. Could you elaborate how you do this and why you do it?
Dr. Barager: I use literary fiction in
my medical practice to help patients more fully comprehend the
meaning of their illness. I sometimes even “prescribe” certain
novels to them, selected works of literary fiction that are capable
of altering the arc of illness through the power of story.
Sometimes, only great fiction can tell the truth in a way that is transformative; we humble doctors lack the words. There are many such books, but two of my favorites are a short story by T. C. Boyle called Sin Dolor, about the nature of pain, and Everyman, by Philip Roth, which explores aging and the meaning of death.
Norm: Do you believe in the healing power of literature? If so, please explain how this works and which books would you recommend?
Dr. Barager: I do believe that literature can aid healing. The subtle nature of literary fiction and its ability to cause readers to inhabit the minds and lives of others can be particularly therapeutic. Literary fiction fosters empathy, and in so doing, enables people to reflect upon and change themselves, as they must do in order to cope with and recover from serious illness. Here are some other books that come to mind.
The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers: rare neurological illnesses; family loyalty in combating illness
A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe: epidemics; a foreshadowing of AIDS
Saturday, by Ian McEwan: the life of a doctor; doctors as heroes
The Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy: premature death; death with regret; cancer; origins of hospice
Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides: sexual identity and gender dysfunction
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey: mental illness; nurses and compassion
Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese: becoming a doctor; the practice of surgery; foreign medical graduates
I Know This Much Is True, by Wally Lamb: schizophrenia; sibling relations, family caregivers
Norm: Has fiction inspired you to provide better care for your patients? If so, how?
Dr. Barager: I find that by regularly reading literary fiction, I am able to refresh the empathy center of my brain and keep my empathic connections from atrophying. Engaging in fiction by reading and writing it has helped make me a more contemplative physician with the capacity to view my patients in a more deeply human way. Patients recognize this as genuine interest in them, and many studies have shown that patients who believe their doctor personally cares about them achieve superior clinical outcomes.
Norm: Could you tell us something about your second novel, The Atheist and the Parrotfish and how the writing of this novel was different from your first one, Altamont Augie?
Dr. Barager: The Atheist and the Parrotfish is a story about a doctor whose disbelief in the afterlife is tested when a cross-dressing transplant patient begins to exhibit behaviors and traits of his female organ donor. The organ recipient believes that he has been inhabited by the soul of his donor. The patient’s eerie knowledge of his donor’s greatest secret forces his skeptical doctor to consider the unimaginable: transmigration of a human soul.
My first novel dealt with Vietnam and the 1960s, and the lead character was not at all autobiographical. This story’s main character was developed much more closely from my own life and experiences, both personal and professional. It made the research much easier!
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your work?
Dr. Barager: At my WEBSITE
Subscribing to my author newsletter via the subscribe button on my site is a great way to get more personal updates from me.
Norm: What is next for Dr. Richard Barager?
Dr. Barager: Evolved Publishing is going to reissue my first novel with an updated cover and title and some additional editing. Red Clay, Yellow Grass: A Novel of the 1960s will be out in 2018, hoping to reach a much larger audience this time around. A little commercial success to go along with the critical kind.
Norm: As this interview comes to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has?
Dr. Barager: I want someone to ask about the surprising connection the story discovers between Christianity and cross-dressing, and the essential truth they share—along with parrotfish! A universal truth that unifies the entire story.
Norm: Thanks again and good luck with all of your future endeavors