Tracy Kidder has won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize and written books that have touched, changed, even saved countless lives.
But he admits he started writing in college not to change the world but to meet and impress girls.
"It sounds ridiculous when you think about it, but when you were 18, what was more important than that?"
In an interview from his home in western Massachusetts, Kidder recalled the creative writing class he took at Harvard "just for fun ... some of the stories were kind of lively and the teacher liked them, and so did some of the young women in the class."
This ploy to land a girlfriend "was a complete failure," he quips, then allows that ultimately "it may have helped."
Kidder, 63, comes to the Mondavi Center at the University of California, Davis, at 8 p.m. Monday to discuss "Mountains Beyond Mountains – The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World" (Random House, $15.95, 336 pages).
The book – which has sold about 750,000 copies – is the epic saga of how Farmer and others gave up comfort and security to battle HIV and tuberculosis in Haiti, Peru, Cuba and Russia.
It was chosen for the UC Davis Campus Community Book Project this year to inspire students "who are often discouraged from active service in the world," said Gary Sue Goodman, assistant director of the university writing program. "We really felt it was a fantastic example of how one dedicated, perseverant, intelligent, stubborn human being can take an enormous problem and make a difference in thousands of peoples' lives."
Kidder said Farmer's organization, Partners In Health, raises $30 million annually though private donations.
"They're quite confident they've got AIDS completely under control in the whole central plateau of Haiti," he said.
They've also taken the fight from a little AIDS project in Boston to Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Russia and Africa, Kidder said. "They have a very large project in Rwanda and fledging projects in Lesotho, Malawi and Burundi."
His next book, "Strength In What Remains," to be published in August, is "a story about escape from civil war and genocide" in Burundi and Rwanda, Kidder said. "It's also a story about recovery, finding one's way in the world. It's really a story about courage."
At the Mondavi, Kidder will speak on "The Problem of Goodness: The Story of Paul Farmer" and provide a list of student organizations that have formed around Partners In Health, "some of them quite remarkable."
He doesn't expect every student to try to become the next Paul Farmer, "who was already very well known in three disciplines – infectious diseases, epidemiology and medical anthropology – before I got there."
"It's a matter of doing what you can do," he said, "a matter of facing the grim realities of the world and not pretending they aren't there, which is so easy to do in many parts of the country, or it used to be."
Kidder didn't find instant writing success. After finishing Harvard he went to Vietnam in June 1968, which inspired his 2005 memoir, "My Detachment." He returned from Vietnam with a Bronze Star in 1969, studied writing at the University of Iowa and "wrote a lousy book about the Juan Corona case."
But he didn't quit.
"I have a wife who was able to keep us fed for a number of years while I was writing for Atlantic Monthly," he said. "I met her at a party in Boston – I was telling everybody I was a writer before I was."
Frances, his wife of 37 years, is a painter who "was teaching then. She has a habit of falling asleep when I read to her."
As the written word on paper gives way to cyberspace, "it's really hard to make it as a writer, but it's not impossible," Kidder said. "The first thing you have to do as a young writer is try to imagine the editor's problem at the magazine.
"What does the editor want from you, what does a magazine need and how can you persuade another person to make a bet on you?
"It's not charity, and it's going to take a while for people to recognize your genius."
It all starts with an idea. You have to find a subject that really interests you, Kidder said, "then you have to find time to do the story on 'spec'," which means write it first and try to sell it later.
And you "need to be really lucky," Kidder said. "I had enormous good luck in my 30s with 'The Soul of the New Machine.' It got a lot of attention, it won prizes, and it made money for the publisher, too."
Kidder said he also caught a break with the reviewer picked by the New York Times who "got the review on the cover" of the book review section.
Journalism is no longer the natural path to successful long-form nonfiction.
"This whole world of print journalism is in trouble – it irritates the hell out of me because there are still a large number of people who want to read things in print, millions and millions," he said. "It all seems driven by these idiots on Wall Street, and now we all know what idiots they have been.
"I dread such a society – the loss of paper," said Kidder, noting that many of the best magazines are propped up by wealthy individuals or foundations because they don't make money.
Young people still write to each other, even if it's text- messaging, he notes.
"There's not much care that goes into that sort of writing," he said. "I'm too old for most of the Internet. … I find myself getting utterly bored and peeved when I look at most stuff on the 'Net."
It's probably tougher to make it as a writer "than it has been in years and years," Kidder said. But writing courses "have a certain value, whether you're a writer or not. It's important to learn how to write because writing is a form of thinking, and people in power will always need someone to tell them what they think."
True writers of the future will have to overcome discouragement, he said.
"On the other hand, when you're in your early 20s you've got the luxury of some time and you can make some mistakes."
Call The Bee's Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.
To Register for the workshop: Click here.