The San Francisco-based author’s latest book, “The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray’s Anatomy” (Ballantine Books, 272 pages, $24.95), is receiving positive reviews across the country.
In fact, all three of the 47-year-old author’s books – which include “Sleep Demons: An Insomniac’s Memoir” (2001) and “Five Quarts: A Personal and Natural History of Blood” (2006) – not only follow Hayes’ obsession with the body, but they do so with the same kind of blended-genre style.
In “The Anatomist,” for example, Hayes both tells the story of the writing of “Gray’s Anatomy,” the 150-year-old medical textbook, and of Hayes’ own experience at carving up cadavers while enrolled in an anatomy class held for medical students.
Born in Minneapolis, Hayes and his five sisters were raised in Spokane. Their folks moved here when Hayes was about 3 (his father bought the local Coca-Cola bottling plant in 1964 and ran it until about 1980).
After attending elementary and middle school at Cataldo, Hayes graduated in 1979 from Gonzaga Prep. He attended the University of Santa Clara, moved to San Francisco in 1985 and never left.
Following is an edited version of a short phone interview with Hayes that took place on Feb. 7.
Dan Webster: When did you get interested in writing?
Bill Hayes: “I’ve been writing since I was a kid, really. And actually I’ve been serious about it since high school. There were a couple of great creative-writing teachers at Gonzaga Prep, and I was part of a little creative-writing group. I focused on writing after college, but like everyone else I took a series of jobs and would just write in my spare time. I really began focusing on freelancing in the ’90s.”
DW: That’s when you began writing books?
BH: “My first book was called “Sleep Demons.” It grew out of a short personal essay that I wrote about being an insomniac. I decided with that book to combine memoir with the history of sleep science. And that’s really where this style started of mixing medical history with memoir.”
DW: Your second one is about blood, right?
BH: “Yes. It’s about blood, and it’s looking at the history of blood – blood in culture, history, literature and mythology. And then, of course, the new book (‘The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray’s Anatomy’) deals with ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ but also weaves in this chronicle of my taking anatomy classes and learning anatomy virtually from scratch.”
DW: Where did your interest in medicine and the body come from?
BH: “I’ve always had this fascination with the body and with medicine. I guess the best way to explain it is to compare it with a doctor’s. You know, there’s this conception that doctors become doctors purely out of altruism and the desire to help their fellow man. But I think doctors also become doctors because they’re really fascinated about the body – and health and illness. I share that fascination; I just took a different career path. And I’m able to explore these different subjects through my books.”
DW: Even though you live in San Francisco, you still do have ties to the Northwest.
BH: “I do, which is going to be a fun part of my coming back to Spokane. My parents are still alive, but we just moved them over the Seattle, where my sisters are, a few years ago. But my four or five high-school buddies are still my closest friends. Last summer we had a little reunion up at Priest Lake. I get up there at least once or twice a year.”
DW: What’s your next book?
BH: “Well, I have an idea. I started working it, but it’s so early that I’m not really talking about it yet. But I can say that it’s still in this genre of medical or scientific history combined with personal narrative, which is what pulls readers through the book. Actually, at the moment I’m still busy with this book. It is my third book, but it’s gotten kind of a higher visibility, reviews and that sort of stuff.”
DW: Any time you get any sort of mention in The New Yorker, you’re in another realm.
BH: “Believe me, that was a thrill. I was like a 12- or 13-year-old in Spokane when I first started reading The New Yorker, you know, and just dreaming about that. So a week or two ago when I saw my name in there, it was a big deal.”