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Richard Cytowic, Interview & Writing Sample

In Capital Letters (ICL): What do you want remember about the program in 10 years? 

That it was worth the money.

ICL:  From being part of the program and participating in workshops and the Visiting Writers series, what do you think are the most important things you have learned about your own writing?  How has your writing changed?  

Despite having written 7 books, I learned that other people knew far more than I did. Changing genres meant unlearning what I had learned over 30 years. I learned to write scenes from Richard, point of view from Kermit and E. J. Levy, and became even more attuned to language thanks to David.

ICL:  What is your favorite quote or line from a book?  

"Gin from a green bottle poured over brilliant cubes each afternoon at five, the ice bursting into applause." And I'm not going to tell you where it comes from.

ICL:  What have you read most recently that inspired you?  

James Salter for impeccable style. Edmund White for beauty of language and figures of speech.

ICL:  Tell us something about yourself that most people don’t know.  

I didn't go to my father's funeral.

ICL:  If your life had a theme song right now, what would it be? 

Nothing after 1965. How about Sirley Horn's "Here's To Life," Ray Gilbert's "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," or Leigh Harline's "When You Wish Upon a Star?"


Writing Sample

FromThe Magician’s Accomplice: My Father and I in the Age of Anxiety

There were quiet moments in my father’s company when I glimpsed his private sanctum sanctorum of medicine. In the 1950s he took me with him on housecalls to see first–hand what a doctor did. We visited Mr. Updike, the banker who had one of the biggest houses in Trenton. Three broad steps led up to a wraparound porch fitted with white railings, and from there to double glass doors hung with lace curtains. The first time I stepped inside I saw a rod at the bottom that kept them taut. That’s the kind of thing rich people do, everything kept in its place.

Mr. Updike was a widower. His house smelled old. So did he. Bent–over and creepy, he led us through a parlor with Chinese wallpaper decorated with pale blue birds. He offered me ginger snaps brought out on a tray. It seemed awkward, but he must have wanted to make an effort for his doctor. He motioned to a room beyond the wide mahogany arch and said, “Bring the boy in. He’s your apprentice, no?”

"A chip off the old block.”

Inside Mr. Updike’s room Dad set his black bag on the bed between them. It fell open along a bottom hinge into two equal halves. From one side he took his stethoscope and blood pressure cuff. Mr. Updike unbuttoned his shirt. Dad listened to his heart. He listened to his lungs, and then studied the whites of Mr. Updike’s eyes. He took Mr. Updike’s blood pressure. In the silence I watched the dial ratchet down.

“It’s up a little. I’m going to give you a shot.”

Mr. Updike looked at me. “That’s not going to upset you, is it, son?”

I told him no, though I was glad he was getting the needle and not me.

Another compartment of the black bag contained glass ampoules with names like atropine, aminophylline, and morphine, Dad took out a hypodermic. He snapped off the neck of a brown ampoule, filled the syringe, and injected the contents into Mr. Updike’s hip. When he was done he reached for his pad. “You’ll need this prescription, too,” he said.

My father wrote his prescriptions in Latin. It heightened the mystery and the “art” of medicine. His prescriptions were a kind of magic. Dad knew compounding, the formulation of botanical ingredients measured and ground in mortar and pestle by an apothecary, and then dissolved in generous amounts of alcohol. From thousands of formulas in the United States Pharmacopoeia he knew dozens by heart, ready to be inscribed in his tight, precise writing, his pen bearing down in powerful strokes. I once asked about a formula called elixir of I, Q, & S.

“That’s an all–purpose nostrum of iron, quinine, and strychnine—a little of each to give it some color and a bitter taste to make patients think it’s doing something. It’s in grain alcohol, 200–proof. It makes people feel good and helps the illusion.”

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Richard Cytowics