#VaReads Writer of the Week: Bruce Hillman

Welcome back to a new blog series from the Virginia Center for the Book, in which we highlight the work of one Virginia writer each week. This week’s spotlight is on Bruce Hillman, an academic physician who writes books of creative nonfiction, including A Plague on All Our Houses: Medical Intrigue, Hollywood, and the Discovery of AIDS and others.

How did you get your start as a writer?

Since I was first encouraged by a high school English teacher, I have always imagined I would write creatively. During summers in college, after days of moving furniture to make tuition money, I started several autobiographical novels, writing dense longhand passages on lined yellow tablets. I imagined myself a young James Michener. Thankfully, none of my miscreant efforts survived.

And then I forgot about it. Medical school, training to become a radiologist, marrying and raising a child, and starting an academic medical career took precedence over adolescent fantasies. It’s not that I didn’t write. I wrote plenty… scientific manuscripts, healthcare commentaries, editorials. Several hundred of them and still going strong.

About ten years ago, on a whim, I turned off my computer and attended a two-hour, weekday morning, enrichment program on creative writing, held in a medical school classroom at the University of Virginia. In concluding the session, the instructor asked that we write and turn in to her the first paragraph of a hypothetical future novel, starting with a sentence she had devised. A week later, the instructor called to say that she had enjoyed reading what I’d written. For several years, she and a few women friends had gotten together monthly to read and critique each other’s creative writing. They thought they were ready to include a man. Was I interested? I was.

Describe your work in three sentences or less.

I have been told that my writing reflects the two aspects of my personality: the rigorous scientific and the less predictable artistic-creative. As a physician-researcher and a writer of creative nonfiction, I delight in finding stories about doctors and scientists, researching their ideas, and writing books that meld the personal and the scientific into an interesting literary construct. My goal is to both instruct and entertain so as to bring readable, understandable, interesting stories to readers who might otherwise not be attracted to books with scientific themes.

How does living in Virginia influence your writing?

Writing creative nonfiction is a natural extension of my work as an academic physician at the University of Virginia. The three roles of an academic physician are providing clinical service to our patients, teaching medical students and trainees, and conducting and publishing meaningful research. My writing brings to bear forty years of experience in these endeavors, along with what I’ve learned while serving as editor of three different medical journals, to achieve my goals as a writer.

What’s your favorite part of your most recent book?

My most recent book, A Plague on All Our Houses, exposes readers to the rigors of academic medicine, a world mostly hidden from public view. Dr. Gottlieb confronts often petty, sometimes cutthroat university politics, the burdens of personal fame, and the irresistible attraction of Hollywood celebrity while trying to gain recognition and funding for AIDS research and achieve his goal of academic advancement.

What are you working on next?

I have a contract to write a memoir of my ten-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. The idea is to present a physician’s perspective of what it’s like to confront the certainty that the disease will progress and my faculties decline. As with my other books, I intend to meld the personal and the scientific; provide insights into the origins, biology, and treatment of the condition; and, hopefully, give readers hope about what has heretofore been a hopeless disease.

To learn more about Bruce Hillman, visit his website at brucejhillmanmd.com

Through this series, we hope to showcase the depth and breadth of our state-wide literary community while also encouraging readers in the Commonwealth and elsewhere to challenge themselves to read more books by Virginia writers. If you have an author you’d like to suggest for this series, please email sdlawson@virginia.edu with details. Our focus is on writers with books that have been published in the past two years (self-published is welcome as long as the writer’s most recent book is held in at least one public library in the state).