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April 23, 2009

Frank Huyler on RIGHT OF THIRST and More

Posted by carol
Frank Huyler's novel Right of Thirst is the story of a successful cardiologist who, shattered by his wife's death and his part in it, volunteers to assist with earthquake relief in an impoverished Islamic country and instead becomes swept up in circumstances he didn't expect. In today's guest blog post, Frank shares some of his global adventures and his thoughts on reading and writing literary fiction.

An emergency physician in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Frank is also the author of the essay collection The Blood of Strangers and the novel The Laws of Invisible Things.

I think most writers rely heavily on personal experience when writing fiction, and I'm no different. I had an odd upbringing in many ways; my parents were teachers who spent their careers at various international schools, and as a result I moved around a lot to different countries, each profoundly different from the other.

I had a lot of wild experiences as a kid --- listening to the crowds chanting "Allah Akbar" (God is Great) every night for hours during the Iranian revolution while the army fired automatic weapons wildly into the air; or camping in the African bush near a pride of lions, one of whom walked right by our tent in the middle of the night, breathing heavily and thoroughly terrifying my brother and me; or sailing down both the Amazon and the Nile; or climbing mount Fuji by moonlight, surrounded by pilgrims in white robes and carrying lanterns; or getting caught in a stampeding crowd in a soccer stadium in Brazil; or seeing a child struck and severely injured by a car in Bombay --- the list goes on. And yet it's a list, a random collection of experiences that remained, and perhaps still remain, in many ways unprocessed. It was all very bewildering, and though perhaps it sounds romantic, only some of it was. A lot of it, as I remember, was hot, dirty, shocking, and troubling. It gave me a strong sense that the world is a very small place, and though cultures differ, often profoundly, they are informed by basic human traits that vary little no matter where one is.

As an American, much of my adult life has been defined, in various ways, by the American achievement culture. I became a doctor, a conventional choice for middle-class achievers, and soon reached my limits in that profession. Along the way, I've become increasingly suspicious of, and I think wearied by, the idea that relentless hard work, drive and discipline will lead to a successful life. I'm guilty of this myself, but as an organizing principal, it's pretty thin and narrow. A great many people in this country spend their lives competing for nebulous goals, sacrificing the present for the future with only the dimmest understanding of what it is they are sacrificing for. This collective behavior has resulted in great national prosperity relative to the rest of the world, but as recent events have shown we may not in fact be as prosperous as we thought, and all that work comes at a heavy price.

For the vast majority of us, no amount of striving is likely to get us all that far in the end, yet as a culture we've fallen wholesale for the idea that individualism and relentless competition are unequivocally good things. Of course, a great many people are just trying to get by, to make their bills at the end of the month. I see more and more of them every day at work. But the goal in America is never to get by --- it's to win. Losing gets old quickly, as everyone knows, but it seems to me, in middle age at least, that winning for its own sake gets old as well, it just takes a little longer to see this and many never do. If winning gets old, then, why is there so much individual and national ambition everywhere one looks?

The obvious, and perhaps easy, answer is that it’s human nature --- it's hard-wired into us. The concept of the American dream resonates because it is a human dream, not simply an American one. Unsurprisingly, China and India and all the other rising powers are now trying to do exactly what the western world has done, and they’re not asking questions either.

People, it seems to me, are capable of wondrous complexity in the aggregate, but as individuals the vast majority of us really aren't very complicated at all; our hopes, desires, and fears, far more often than not, are common ones. As the saying goes, yes, you are unique --- just like everyone else in the world.

One of the things I see every day as an ER doctor is how patterns of human behavior repeat themselves over and over again. The screaming, spitting drunk, tied to the gurney? Almost certainly a male between the ages of 15 and 40. Suicidal gesture? Most likely a female of the same age. Gunshot wound? Another young man, nine times out of ten. Blood test after blood test, CAT scan after CAT scan --- the counts are identical, the liver hasn't moved, the brain looks exactly like it did at the dawn of history.

What does all this have to do with literary fiction? Well, for me, at the risk of seeming hopelessly earnest, fiction is serious --- it's not simply meant to entertain and amuse, but also to provoke, question, search, and ultimately synthesize experience. In many ways, I think the purpose behind reading a serious novel and writing one is the same; novels are about more than entertainment or aesthetic pleasure, although those elements are important. They are also about emotional engagement, about making sense of things, about trying to lead examined lives, perhaps even about trying to be better than we are, because after all those are human desires as well, and are arguably what’s best about us.

I frankly loved writing Right of Thirst, and trying to explore themes of this sort in fictional form --- it was a great challenge and a huge amount of fun --- and I can only hope that some of you reading this will be prompted to give Right of Thirst a try. I can be contacted through my website,, or directly at [email protected], and I'll do my best, schedule permitting, to reply to any emails I get.

---Frank Huyler