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Q&A: Neurologist and author Lud Gutmann

BY CLAIRE DIETZ | JANUARY 22, 2015 5:00 AM

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Lud Gutmann was a professor emeritus at West Virginia before coming to University of Iowa about a year and a half ago. Gutmann is a UI clinical professor of neurology and the author of several narrative nonfiction works including The Immobile Man and the memoir Richard Road: Journey from Hate. Gutmann will read from his new short-story collection, The Sunken Fang Society, at Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St., at 4 p.m. Jan. 25.

Daily Iowan: How do you balance medicine and writing?

Gutmann: Writing is a very complicated process. First, you have to have an idea, and then you have to think about it, and then you have to put it into words. Over the years, the practice of medicine in some ways has been my writing laboratory, because that is where I get my ideas and my inspirations.
I never know when it is going to happen. I'm working on a story right now about a patient with Lou Gehrig's Disease … It all begins [with] finding the time to sit down and write.

Sometimes it's difficult; I look forward to holidays and weekends. You start out with the idea and the inspiration, and there has to be a time where you can think about it and how you're going to put this down. And this happens when I'm running, walking, or biking; I spend about an hour or so a day doing that. Then about two or three weeks a year, my wife and I — Mary is my editor, and she is also a writer — take a vacation. In the past, it's been at the beach or the Rocky Mountains, and that's all we do for a week, is write. 

DI: Does medicine play a large role in your writing?

Gutmann: That's one of my main concerns: if you go back into a different time and different era, doctors were loved and respected. They made house calls, they spent lots of time with their patients, and they were very limited in what they do.

Now, we are not so limited, we do a lot for our patients, and guess what? We're not as popular as we used to be. And the reason is because we have such good technology that gives us such good answers that we don't have to spend as much time with a patient to figure out what's wrong and what's going on. And that is a real concern of mine; we treat diseases over patients. So with my first book The Immobile Man and my current book, Sunken Fang Society, they really are stories about people who happen to have diseases and how they deal with them. 

I tell medical students, if you want to learn neurology, these books are not the books they want to read, because these books are about the people, they're not about the diseases. But the point is that it is the people who have these diseases, and in the end you have to take care of the people … he's more than just an elderly gentlemen, she's more than just a granny. Find out who the human being is behind the face.

DI: What was your favorite project you have written?

Gutmann: I really put a lot into the memoir. I guess my life has been a little complex. I was an immigrant kid, and my parents were forced out of Europe, I was too small to have any emotional hurts from all of that, but my parents certainly did, and that sort of got translated into the way they dealt with their children.

And I guess all of us have our own complicated stories, telling it is in some ways therapeutic, but it also involves a lot of thinking about events, and the way I view my father and mother now is different from 10 and 20 years ago. I think that project has consumed more of my time and energy than any other project. The short stories make up a month or two, and then it's done. But the memoir took years.

DI: Do you think you are seeing more doctors coming in who enjoy writing?

Gutmann: I think there are doctors who enjoy writing; we've got a lot of famous writers who were also physicians, not just in recent years but throughout history. But doctors like to write because they have extraordinary stories to tell.


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