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Q&A: 'Island Practice' Author to Perform Wednesday Night

Author and jazz musician Pam Belluck talks about Lepore book, TV pilot and upcoming island concert

A writer for the New York Times, a long-time musician and now the author of "Island Practice", a book chronicling the life and exploits of Nantucket's own Dr. Tim Lepore, Pam Belluck will be on Nantucket this Wednesday, Aug. 21st at Arno's at 41 Main for a free author talk and a jazz concert with the Matt Hutchinson Trio, starting at 8:30 p.m.

JBG: What's your history with and connection to Nantucket?

PB: My history and connection to this wonderful island and comes almost entirely through the reporting I did for “Island Practice.” Aside from a short visit about 8 years ago, my introduction to Nantucket came in 2007, when I reported and wrote an article about Dr. Lepore for The New York Times, which prompted calls from book agents and publishers suggesting that I write a book based on the story. I am very grateful to Nantucketers for being so welcoming, gracious, enthusiastic and supportive. It’s an amazing community and I feel very privileged to have been able to write about some aspects of it.

JBG: When did you meet or become aware of Dr. Lepore?

PB: In the summer of 2007, as the New England bureau chief for The New York Times, I was asked by the paper’s national editors to write a profile for a series the paper was producing called “American Album.” For the series, national correspondents in various parts of the country were asked to find someone in the regions we covered who was not well-known, but who was doing something interesting in an interesting place.

I considered writing about a guy in Maine who was running a nude bowling league, but that seemed a little too “interesting” for The Times, which also planned to shoot video to accompany the stories in the series. I considered a guy in Vermont who was campaigning for the state to become its own country (I asked if the plan was that the new nation of Vermont would survive entirely on Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey).

Then, in a big pile of papers on my desk, I noticed a Tufts Medical Center alumni newsletter, which I had saved for some reason. It contained one sentence about an alum named Timothy Lepore, saying he was the only surgeon on Nantucket. Something about that struck me as potentially interesting – the idea of someone handling these types of medical challenges and emergencies on an island. I called Dr. Lepore (completely mispronouncing his name at first) and we had a fascinating phone conversation. I then spent several days on Nantucket with a photographer/videographer (Stephen Crowley), and we produced an article and video.

JBG: Did you see the storytelling possibilities right away, or did the revelations keep coming as you got to know him?

PB: Good question. I had not really thought of further storytelling possibilities until I received the calls from book people. Even then, while I had found the story intriguing, I didn’t know that it would be so compelling and inspiring. As a journalist, and especially as a New York Times national correspondent for 10 years, I’d written about a wide variety of subjects, and while I’ve found almost all of them interesting, it takes something special to sustain interest in one area or subject for a long period of time. I found, and continue to find, the people, stories, and themes that became the subject of “Island Practice” fascinating and important. I learn something new with every visit, and every phone conversation or email with Dr. Lepore and other islanders. I feel that the people and the stories here exemplify the spirit, independence, creativity, and sense of community that really reflect the best values of America, and I think that is why so many people from other places and from different walks of life have felt a connection to this special island.

JBG: The book has gotten a lot of great attention, but how did the tv development deal come about and when can we expect to see the pilot?

PB: Thanks very much. The response to the book has been extremely gratifying and I feel very fortunate. I am a novice when it comes to the TV world, but as I understand it, the book received quite a number of bids from Hollywood producers and studios soon after publication. I have no role in this aspect of things, so will have to see what happens along with everyone else. My understanding is that there is never a guarantee a series will get made and that if one does, it can often take years.

JBG: You're a writer for the NYT and a jazz flutist. Did you grow up with music, the flute? Is being a musician a big part of your life or do you just perform here and there?

PB: Music has been an important part of my life since childhood. I studied piano for a few years, then switched to flute, although I continue to use the piano to write jazz tunes. I am also a lapsed saxophone player, and would love to pick up that instrument again someday.  I was trained in classical music, but now mostly play jazz, and I love being able to bring the tone and technique of classical flute training to the more spontaneous discipline of jazz. I also love the alchemy of playing with other musicians, listening to each other, responding in the moment to the music coming from someone else’s instrument. 

Wherever I’ve lived for my work as a journalist, I’ve tried to find folks to play music with. In recent years, since my husband and I have been working in New York and our children are a little older, I’ve been able to play more regularly. I play with a jazz sextet called “Equilibrium,” which performs regularly in Greenwich Village. And in the last few months, since the publication of “Island Practice,” I’ve started getting asked to do events that combine musical performance with a kind of literary discussion. So far, these have taken place in San Francisco, New York City, Kingston, Mass., on a Connecticut TV station – and I’m thrilled to be able to do one on August 21 on Nantucket!

JBG: What can people expect at the upcoming concert at 41 Main this Wednesday, Aug. 21st?

PB: I’ve actually never played with island musicians, and I am really looking forward to doing this event at Arno’s on August 21 with the extremely talented Matthew Hutchinson Trio. They are the pros, and it will be great fun to work with them.

As for what to expect, each of these “Island Jazz” gigs has been a little different. Typically, the idea is to alternate jazz playing with a conversation that’s partly about the book, but is more broadly a discussion about the creativity, energy and improvisation common to music, writing, journalism and, in this case, practicing medicine. And this event is especially exciting because it’s the first “Island Jazz” event with Dr. Lepore himself! No doubt he will have great stories to tell. As to whether he will do anything musical – well, I’ve heard him attempt to play a didgeridoo and, for a man of many talents, I think he’d agree that’s not his most impressive skill. But perhaps he’ll play a solo on one of his obsidian scalpels on “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”