Literature David Hoppe On Having a Heart Attack: A Medical Memoir By William O’Rourke University of Notre Dame Press; $18 One of Indiana’s most versatile writers, William O’Rourke has written novels (Idle Hands, Criminal Tendencies) and nonfiction (The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left, Campaign America 2000), and essays (Signs of the Literary Times). He has served as a regular political columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. O’Rourke’s latest book is a memoir based on a heart attack he experienced at a Notre Dame football game, On Having a Heart Attack: A Medical Memoir. NUVO spoke with O’Rourke via telephone at his home in South Bend. NUVO: What prompted you to write about your own heart attack? O’Rourke: I read most everything I could get my hands on about heart attacks and I discovered that there wasn’t very much by actual patients that dealt with the heart attack itself. To me, that seemed a real void in the literature. I knew the heart attack consumed my consciousness for as long as it was happening — which was almost an hour. So my first impulse was to write about what the experience was like at length. Everybody talks about heart attacks, but nobody talks about what the experience is like. NUVO: What surprised you about the experience? O’Rourke: Everything is a surprise in some ways. It’s a seismic event. But I was also surprised by how everybody told me how lucky I was. Of course, the luck was surviving the heart attack. The kind of heart attack I had, close to 50 percent of people die from that. Also, in my case, my antisocial tendencies were made clear to me in a way they hadn’t been before. I was surprised by how many people made friendly, heartfelt gestures towards me. I had a wider circle of friends than I would have imagined. William O'Rourke NUVO: You also write at length about the rehab process. O’Rourke: I wanted the book to be useful. Most people who write about these events aren’t really writers, so they have a hard time dealing with the mundane. But because I’m a writer, I can make the mundane a little more interesting. NUVO: You make interesting connections in the book, linking character and illness. O’Rourke: How you treat illness in your life is almost like how you treat betrayal, or other emotional shocks. Though it’s not so much about what others are doing to you as what you are doing to yourself. You ask, how culpable am I? You can’t avoid that what you’re dealing with is weakness rather than strength. NUVO: The heart attack becomes a presence your family has to deal with. O’Rourke: It’s a symbol as well as fact. The heart is a repository for everything — especially in a marriage. So a heart attack seems in some ways a challenge or an insult to one’s own family. It has this effect of making you seem older or more distant, more separate. What you don’t want to do is change into your predicament. You don’t want to become the heart attack victim and take that on as an identity. The whole fight is to know who you are and still be that person regardless of what medical setbacks you may or may not have. NUVO: Do you feel gifted with time because of this experience? O’Rourke: Yes and no. There is a romantic aspect to this in the sense that you feel these things very intensely for a while — that everything is a gift. Then the intensity wears off, just like in adolescent romance. What’s clear is that all of this can be snatched away and that’s the indelible part of the experience. You see so clearly life going on without you. And once you have that perception, the way one has it while having a heart attack, it’s hard to forget. One tries to make a difference after that. It’s transformative, but you are drawn back to whoever you are. The task is to let the experience make whoever you are a little more vivid.