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Practicing sympathy: Doctor, author humbled by Iowa Short Fiction award based on debut collection

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By Rob Cline, correspondent

Though Robert Oldshue would be quick to tell you his knowledge of Iowa is limited at best, he is well-versed in the writing of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty. Indeed, he’s feeling a little concerned about how he’ll react if he meets any of them when he’s in town for the Iowa City Book Festival in early October. In particular, he’s nervous about meeting Ethan Canin (author, most recently of “A Doubter’s Almanac”).

“I hope he knows CPR,” Oldshue quipped during a phone interview from his Boston home. Oldshue, like Canin, is a physician, practicing family medicine at a community health center in Boston and teaching every other week at Harvard. So, he and Canin would no doubt have much to talk about were they to meet — assuming Oldshue could keep his wits about him.

He is certainly in full position of his faculties when putting pen to paper. Oldshue’s debut collection, “November Storm,” is filled with excellent stories, and much of their success derives from Oldshue’s ability to seemingly inhabit a wide variety of individuals faced with crises of various kinds. The book is the 2016 winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, selected for the honor by Bennett Sims, author of “A Curious Shape.”

SEE ALSOReview: ‘November Storm’

“I still haven’t gotten over the phone call,” Oldshue says of winning the award. The feeling, he says, is like being outside himself just a bit. “It’s like this person standing next to me won this prize.”

Asked about his ability to portray such an array of characters with compassion and care, Oldshue speaks of the difference between empathy and sympathy. While empathy, he says, is driven by the humane values that are the underpinning of his work as a doctor, sympathy allows him to wonder who his patients really are.

“Sympathy allows you to be curious in an unstructured way — a way you can’t be in the office.”

Oldshue says each story in “November Storm” has its origin in a medical situation he was either involved with or privy to. In each case, “I wondered what it really meant, and I could explore it in the privacy of my home.”

That doesn’t mean all of the stories take place in hospitals and doctors’ offices. For Oldshue, finding just the right way to get to the heart of a story is key. For example, the story “Receiving Line,” which explores a gay community in the late 1970s with AIDS on the horizon, found its footing when Oldshue realized he needed to insert himself — or at least a version of himself at 24, a straight man working as a waiter in a gay neighborhood — into the story.

“Once I got the perspective right, and got out of my medical skin (the story came together),” Oldshue explained.

Oldshue admits that “Being a doctor is both a help and a hindrance to writing.” On the one hand, he has access to conversations and dramatic situation he otherwise would not. On the other, his interactions with patients and families leave a lot out, a situation he compares to being on a tour bus. “It’s like driving by and looking out the windows and claiming to have learned something.”

It’s clear, however, that Oldshue’s imagination is fertile, and his ability to sympathize with his characters is immense. He believes part of that ability involves getting out of the way.

“I tend to shrink down myself and then watch what the characters do. And then when that happens, I choose the narrative form ... I’m very much following what these people are telling me ... I just don’t know that much about how to do this. I’ve got to reinvent it each time.”

That last idea might be false modesty, though Oldshue certainly sounds sincere. Either way, he has clearly given a great deal of thought to the underlying mechanisms of fiction writing.

“The process of writing fiction and the process of diagnosis are opposites,” he says. The latter involves looking at specifics and then generalizing.

The latter, says Oldshue, “is populating a generality with details.”

“November Storm” demonstrates that Oldshue’s undeniable skill at finding and relating the right details makes his stories fresh and fascinating.

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