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My way to The New Yorker


The first book - Doctors: The Biography of Medicine
Sherwin Nuland Surgeon
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So, I was working in the historical library quite a bit, and there was a man named Lesley Adams working in Alabama, Montgomery, Alabama, who had started up a library of reproductions of great medical classics, and he would often use the originals from Yale and do some photography process, and reproduce them in leather. In fact, that's it back there. That's the whole library. And he was calling for information that people working there didn't know. And so, they would ask me, and eventually he started calling me for information. He asked me to be editor of the library. And with every new book, I would write an essay of about 5000 words, which is a pretty good-sized length of essay. And they would go out with the books. He would sell them to doctors at about $75 apiece. It was pretty cheap for what they got: leather-bound books on acid-free paper, perfect reproductions of some of the great medical classics. And people would write in and say: these essays are really good. And I got the notion, since my writings for the journal had been so well received, that maybe I could make a book out of the essays I was writing. Well, lo and behold, my wife, Sarah, had a good friend named Maria Tucci, who had worked with her at the American Shakespeare Theater and other places, whose husband just happened to be the President of the Alfred A. Knopf Publishing Company. And I had met Bob Gottlieb, you know, had dinner with him and chatted about various things, and I liked him. So, I went down to New York to visit him at the Knopf place, the building. And I said, look, I've got these essays. I'd sent them in advance, so he had read them, and he… I sent him five, and he said, you know, this is all very well and good, but how do I know you can sustain a book? A book is not just being able to write essays. So, I said fine, I'll write more. And I presented him, about a year later, with more material, and he said, 'Good, we've got a book'. And that was my first book. It was called Doctors: The Biography of Medicine. It was a medical history based on the lives of some of the leading people. And I thought, you know, it's a Knopf publication, but it's not going to sell a lot of copies. He gave me a very small advance. I didn't realize how small it was until later, years later. And I said, do I need an agent? And he said, no, I'll take care of you, you don't need an agent.

Sherwin Nuland (1930-2014) was an American surgeon and author who taught bioethics, the history of medicine, and medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine. He wrote the book How We Die which made The New York Times bestseller list and won the National Book Award. He also wrote about his own painful coming of age as a son of immigrants in Lost in America: A Journey with My Father. He used to write for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Time, and the New York Review of Books.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Yale University, American Shakespeare Theatre, Doctors: The Biography of Medicine, Leslie Adams, Sarah Peterson, Maria Tucci, Robert Gottlieb, Alfred A Knopf

Duration: 3 minutes, 1 second

Date story recorded: January 2011

Date story went live: 04 November 2011