Interview with Don Stewart, author of 'Past Medical History'

Don Stewart has a bachelor’s degree in Biology and Art, with honors, from Birmingham-Southern College, and an MD from the University of Alabama School of Medicine. He also served a year-long surgical internship at the Mayo Clinic, where he published some of his first composite drawings, and won awards for poetry and short fiction.

Dr. Stewart’s short stories have since been published in Pulse–voices from the heart of medicine, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Placebo Journal, and The Journal of Irreproducible Results, where he is listed as honorary Art Editor. For four years he served as Contributing Editor to Informal Rounds, the newsletter of the University of Alabama Medical Alumni Association.
For the past quarter century he has made his living as a self-styled Visual Humorist, hammering words and pictures together at the DS Art Studio Gallery in Birmingham:  You can also find him at

His latest book is the autobiography, Past Medical History.

Can you tell us what your book is about?

          Past Medical History is the story of a young surgeon-in-training, who left the hospital just in time to avoid a successful career in medicine.

Why did you write your book?

          I always knew I would one day write a book called Past Medical History. The title is a medical term, part of the interview process when a doctor meets a new patient: a list of illnesses and treatments that the patient has had in the past. When applied to my life, it makes for an unavoidable pun, and a pretty good story.

          I guess you could say writing the book was a bucket list sort of thing, too. After all, there aren't many who leave the medical profession prematurely, and far fewer who do so to pursue a life of comic art.

          Over the years, my art customers have asked me why I made such an unusual career change. This book seemed the best way to answer that question - for them, and in retrospect, for me as well.

What kind of message is your book trying to tell your readers?

          Past Medical History is a collection of autobiographical short stories. Arranged in chronological order, they act like chapters in a storybook that tells a larger tale. Hopefully that larger story reveals why this particular personality was at first drawn to medicine, then distracted by more creative pursuits.

          In the process, the book also reveals some of the pitfalls of medical education, a bit of the unpleasant behind-the-scenes stuff that the general public isn't familiar with. Hopefully that will be of interest to readers, especially students considering a career in medicine.

Who influenced you to write your book?

          I wrote my first stories to entertain myself, and my kids. After that, it sort of became a habit – and a sometime obsessive endeavor that my wife was kind and patient enough to encourage.

          Michael Crichton was an early hero, who showed me there were options to life after medical school. Tim O'Brien’s The Things They Carried showed me that I didn't have to re-work my short stories into a conventional narrative to make them into a book. Steven Pressfield, whom I had met in the course of promoting my military drawings, encouraged me (and many others) to stop waiting around, and get on with it.

Is it hard to publish a nonfiction book?

          I tried for several months to gain the attention of either an agent or a publisher, but the longer I investigated, the more I understood that it would be quicker, easier and more cost-effective to do it myself. If the book succeeded on its own, then it might one day be more attractive to a mainstream publisher. If not, we would still have books that we were proud of to sell along with the artwork in our studio. Either way, I would have learned a great deal of valuable information about the book business.

          Of course we already knew how to market our art, and we had been successful producing (and selling out, and reprinting) an earlier book of drawings. So the idea of self-publishing wasn’t all that daunting. Once you have a good product – in this case, a good story in a well-designed package – you need capital, a marketing plan, and a distribution network. Through our studio, we had everything in place except the capital to print the books, and we were able to raise that through our Indiegogo campaign.

Which author(s) do you admire?

          Pressfield, Crichton, O’Brien, all mentioned previously. Robert Heinlein. Daniel Pink. Inman Majors. E.O. Wilson. Clifton Meador. Tim Dorsey. Thomas Ricks. Andre Codrescu. I have pretty eclectic tastes.

Have you suffered from writer’s block and what do you do to get back on track?

          Creative blocks of any sort are temporary. If I’m not writing, I’m drawing, or researching my next art project. If the art isn't going so well, I write. If neither is moving along, I’ll work on a new marketing plan for the books or the pictures, or whatever else we’re involved in at the moment. Or I go and play in the garden.

What would you do with an extra hour today if you could do anything you wanted?

          Whatever I’ve been doing for the preceding ten or twelve. Or go home early and cook something fun for dinner.

If we were to meet for lunch to talk books, where would we go?

          Any place with good coffee and cheap dessert.

What do you like to do for fun?

          Read & draw, both exercises in banging images and words together until something sticks. Cook. Play in the garden. Sit for hours in bed watching TV.

Can you tell us about your family?

          I am giddily married to Sue Ellen Brown, an artist from a medical family who was smart enough to go straight to art school, talented enough to work for Hallmark, and bold enough to establish her own studio long before I met her. She occupies the colorful side of the studio. I have two grown sons from an earlier marriage.

          As the book tells in greater detail, my mother died when I was very young. I have long been aware that her illness and premature death were a huge influence in my decision to become a doctor. What I did not fully realize before this book was written, is that she was also responsible for my artistic inclinations as well.

What do you like the most about being an author?

          I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the title ‘author’. I’m an artist who happens to write.

          What I like most about words is that they offer me another medium for self-expression. If this book does well, I’ll be encouraged to keep at it.

What kind of advice would you give other non-fiction authors?