Who is your favorite novelist of all time? And your favorite novelist writing today?
First, I should confess that while I’m an avid reader of fiction, I’m an amateur. I still have swaths to catch up on. But keeping that in mind, my all-time favorite novelist is Leo Tolstoy. He had this extraordinary capacity to see all the forces coming to bear on people at any given moment — desire, family, culture, history, accident — and to somehow bring the relevance of those forces alive without beating you about the head with it.
My favorite writing today: Hilary Mantel. I have zero interest in historical fiction, let alone historical fiction about the Reign of Terror or the court of Henry VIII. But she has that same Tolstoyan ability to make the odd and faraway worlds her characters inhabit feel like they matter to us. I want my writing about our own world to connect with people at least a little bit the way these writers do — meaning both viscerally and intellectually, and with a recognition of all the forces at work.
Who is your favorite doctor character in fiction?
Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. I’ve been hooked on Sherlock Holmes for years — every story is a kind of diagnosis — and Watson’s is the inviting voice of the entire series. He is intelligent, observant and faithful, the way we want all doctors to be. He is also guileless and naïve, where Holmes is neither, and that is his ultimate limitation in each mystery. But his lack of cunning is why we trust him — and why Holmes does, too.
It's no surprise Atul Gawande is as well read as he is. Great writers seem, without exception, to be great readers.