Q. Stephen, you’re a fiction writer based in Western Massachusetts, and Thomas, you’re a cardiologist. What made you want to write this book, which covers 4,000 years of humans’ understanding of the heart — and is part medical science, part creative writing, and part literary history?
Stephen: This book is about the kind of awe with which we hold the heart. On the one hand, you can look at its beauty, its role in love, its incredible 2 billion beats in a lifetime. But you can also look at the terror, especially for middle-aged men.
Q. You move through the book from ancient Egypt and Greece to our contemporary understanding and treatments, showing the progress.
Thomas: The irony is our Greek grandfather had a heart attack in 1950s Detroit and the treatment he got was basically no different than he would have had 2,000 years earlier. The treatment was bed rest and oxygen and hope. There was this voodoo approach and no understanding of what to do. It’s amazing in just half a century how much our understanding from a scientific and medical standpoint progressed.
Q. So, we’re in a much better place now, with high-tech treatments?
Thomas: If we could get people to not smoke, and exercise and reduce salt and fat in their diet it would save more lives than all the high-tech stuff we do combined.
Q. Your father died suddenly a decade ago from a stroke caused by a blood clot that started in his heart. Is that one of the things that motivated your interest in this subject?
Stephen: Spending those few days with my father as he died really taught me something Tom sees every day but I don’t know anything about and that is the power of your heart, the incredible sway it holds over your mortality.
Q. It seems like people are much more fearful of cancer than heart disease, yet heart disease kills more people, right?
Thomas: You tell a general audience that more women die of heart disease than men and they don’t believe it, or that 10 times as many women die of heart disease than breast cancer, and it astounds people. Our treatments for cancer are so harsh — people think about the nausea, weight loss, and the hair loss. I think part of it is the fear of a prolonged painful and awful treatment. People don’t really see that for heart disease. For heart surgery, if it goes well, I’ll be home on day 4 and back to work in four weeks.
Q. Did writing this book change the way you view the heart?
Thomas: I still primarily view the heart from a medical and scientific standpoint: how it works, how it becomes diseased, how we fix it. What this book has done for me is it has made me more aware of how the people I’m treating may think about their heart or how they think about what’s going to happen to them after their heart stops.
Q. Since it’s Valentine’s Day, do you have a Valentine’s message from the book?
Thomas: I personally like to fully take advantage of Valentine’s Day to get people thinking about the heart not so much as a sign of love and devotion, but as something you need to take care of. Instead of sending a box of chocolates, maybe quit smoking. I think that would be the best gift you could give.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.