America Before "Normal" Existed

It has been a while since I picked up a book by Bill Bryson. Perhaps the last one I read was At Home: A Short History of Private Life. Or A Really Short History of Nearly Everything. I loved them both, not to mention his hilarious A Walk In The Woods. I had drifted away from him when an acquaintance recommended One Summer: America, 1927.

As I noted in my comments on Doris Kearns Goodwin, I am a sucker for good biography because I love the way it opens up an entire place and time. Bryson does this here without bothering to write an actual biography. True, he has characters—Lindbergh, Ruth, Coolidge, Hoover—that slip in and out of his pages and sometimes take up whole swaths of them. But his true quarry is the strange moment in time that was 1927 in America.

And it was strange indeed. He paints a picture of a nation that collectively behaves in ways that, 89 years later, seem variously to be charmingly naïve, deeply foolhardy, outrageously dangerous, and stupefyingly young. Imagine the entire country as a 13-year-old girl, but without any of the strictures placed upon her by the social expectations implicit in social media.

In fact—although he doesn’t come out and say it—what’s most striking to me in comparing the country of today to the one in his pages is how unfettered citizens seem to have been by social convention or expectation. Because we swim today in a media sea, we fail to understand how deeply influenced we are by television, consumerism, celebrity, and all the attendant social strictures and self-imposed expectations of how we “should” behave, aspire and achieve. The Americans of 1927, although they had newspapers and radio, didn’t have the ability to compare themselves to any sort of national norm. Consequently, they seem to have much more robust conceptions of individuality and a broader definition of normality.

Reading One Summer, you can see how far we have come in so short a time—and appreciate how while we have got better many ways, we also have impoverished ourselves.

 

Doris Kearns Goodwin Surprises Me

I have a soft spot for well-written biography. All of us love a good story, and good stories are about characters. But for them to really fill our heads, to suffuse the corners of the mind during the interstices of day, they must bring an entire era and society to life. A good biography is a time travel machine, carrying me to Peter The Great’s Russia or Krupp’s Germany.

Think of it like fiction: Why do The Hobbit or Star Wars or Harry Potter succeed? Because they build worlds. We want story, but we also want to be transported. And this desire is not limited to books, of course. The explosive rise of first-person video gaming, from Minecraft to Call of Duty, underscores my point.

For my money, nobody can touch the late, great William Manchester when it comes to writing immersive biographies. But Doris Kearns Goodwin isn’t far behind. I picked up The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and The Golden Age of Journalism on a whim, and was sucked into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There’s much to recommend this book, not the least of which is her portrait of Taft as a sympathetic, almost tragic figure and of Roosevelt as a man who was almost certainly manic depressive but who turned those characteristics to extraordinary advantage.

What I least expected, however, was to be pleasantly surprised by her portrayal of political corruption. I previously had no comprehension of how deep and widespread corruption was throughout the land, all the way down to the municipal level. In one instance city legislators even printed a price sheet for votes and distributed it to lobbyists. This revelation gives me cheer in these dark political days of Citizens United and the Koch brothers. I long have wanted to believe that America will turn a corner and move closer to her better nature. After seeing the ingrained and powerful forces that Roosevelt confronted and, with the help of crusading journalists, ousted, I have renewed hope for America. We turned back the forces of corruption and oligarchy before; we can do so again.

John McPhee on "Omission"

For the past couple of years John McPhee, the eminence grise of nonfiction reporting, has been publishing occasional pieces about the craft of writing in the pages of The New Yorker. Each time I see one I nearly salivate. Every one is a gem, not only in the advice he gives but in the writing itself. He walks his talk.

The September 14, 2015 issue contains the latest jewel, "Omission: Choosing What to Leave Out." Fans of McPhee and his seminal book "Oranges" will howl at the story of how that article, and the subsequent book, came to be. McPhee takes two pages just to set up a punch line about the term "short form extractor" that is a study in comedic writing. It's a little gift hidden in the larger present. I can't recommend the piece enough. Any writer who can follow McPhee's advice will be a writer much in demand, indeed.

With luck, this link will work for you, although you may find the article behind a paywall.

A New Way to Make Books

I've been doing a lot of work lately with Book In a Box, an innovative startup headquartered in Austin. There are a lot of things I like about this company (it's virtual, team members are valued based on what we do rather than the time we put in, there's a refreshingly honest and adult culture). What I like most, though, is the company's central premise: pretty much anybody can write a nonfiction book if they follow the Book In a Box Method.

The company's tagline is "Unlocking the world's wisdom." The founder believe that almost everyone has something they could and should share with the world. Accordingly, most of the authors I've worked with at Book In a Box are high-performing business people who want to write to a specific audience, although I have also worked on memoir (we don't do any fiction). I work with authors at the beginning of the writing process to build a structure for their books. This means I get to spend several hours getting inside the heads of fascinating people. It's like being in college while on speed. (Case in point: this week I'm working on an African-American woman's memoir, a strategy for software engineers to turbocharge their careers, and investing in wine.)

So what would you call what Book In a Box does? It's not ghost writing, it's not book packaging. BIAB is a new creature. We facilitate the creation of a book in the same way producers, songwriters, backup artists and sound engineers facilitate a Beyoncé hit. Yes, Beyoncé can sing, and yes, these people can write in their own voices. Beyoncé's producers make her songs happen, and Book in a Box makes books happen.

The company's founders have explained their system, which includes not only the creation of text but titling, cover design, marketing strategy and tactics, in -- surprise! -- a book. If you read this blog you probably feel you know how to write. Nevertheless, you might learn a thing or two, especially about marketing books. Check it out.

Book Serendipity

One of my favorite bookstores is The Book Worm, in Boulder, Colorado. The BW carries only used books and is a popular stop for my entire family, even my eight-year-old, who scours the shelves for new (used) Garfield and Wimpy Kid books. Recently I wandered past a copy of Adam Leith Gollner's The Fruit Hunters. This is the great thing about used book stores -- it was only a few dollars, so deciding to buy it on a whim wasn't a financial stretch. The book ended up traveling to Europe and back with me, and I savored Gollner's adventures into the world of fruit obsessions, including his own. What was serendipitous about this is that I'm working on a novel the revolves around a plant-obsessed character. Gollner's book turned out to be great background reading.

Along the same lines, I walked into our local library and found Dr. Judy Melinek's new memoir, Working Stiff, on the "new books" shelf. Turns out my novel has some scenes that involve post-mortem investigation. Bingo! Melinek's book, written with her husband, turned out to be a delightful piece of background reading. It's a page-turner, too -- we all are fascinated by death, and every body she takes apart has a story she is trying to tell. Medical examiners get all the good stuff ...

Boys in The Boat vs. Citizen Soldiers

Two books that involve World War II. Two books about young American men. So which is a better book?

I am a fan of Stephen Ambrose, particularly of Undaunted. He is an admirable historian, and he can bring place, character and adversity to life. Ambrose doesn't need me to be his fan, of course. He's a bigfoot. Pretty much anything he writes is likely to sell big. Therein, perhaps, lies the problem. 

 Daniel James Brown, on the other hand, has had a breakout hit from obscurity. Why? 

The differences between the two books are stark, and they point toward a recipe for a well-told piece of nonfiction, especially historical nonfiction. Brown hits all the notes: His book is about underdogs; it's built around a few characters and one principal character; he is masterful at recreating the era in which those characters lived; and he tells his story so powerfully that the reader is riveted, even though we all know how it ended.

Ambrose, on the other hand, fails to hit these notes. Rather than being a book per se, Citizen Soldiers is a compendium of stories from many, many characters. We follow none of them through the course of the war to Berlin's surrender. He has created a pastiche rather than an arc. He does give a good sense, through this process, of the life of the front-lines grunt and the realities of European combat. But there is no compelling storyline to draw the reader forward -- just more of the same. Plenty of people want to read "more of the same," because there is an endless hunger for WWII books. By the end I felt that Ambrose did his readers a disservice by publishing substandard fare. My cynical side has to wonder if his publisher pleaded for "one more book," since his books sell so well. If that's the case, it's a shame he gave in to the entreaties.

 

Missing Chuck Bowden

Richard Grant recently wrote a lovely essay in Aeon about the late writer Charles Bowden. I had the pleasure of meeting Bowden one evening in New York, when I was an editor at Orion magazine. Bowden had come to receive the Orion Book Award, and I was head of the committee that had determined he should have it (the other members were far more illustrious than I, and included the authors Karen Russell and Ted Genoways). Bowden was gruff and charming and didn't speak nearly long enough in the Chelsea art gallery where we staged the event. He was more interested in going to get a drink, which we did beforehand and after. The prize committee read a lot of good books before we decided to give Bowden the nod, but there was no doubt in our collective mind that he deserved it. Bowden was fearless as a journalist, often putting his life at risk as he dove into the dangers of the Mexican - U.S. borderlands. But he was fearless as a writer, too, fearless in his love of things he loved and his expression of it. The results can take your breath away. Bowden died last year, too soon by my reckoning. He remains worth reading if you want to see what whole-hearted commitment to reporting and telling a story looks like on the page.

Deep Food

I've enjoyed Michael Pollan even since he was writing about gardening for Harper's, back in the 1990s. I even wrote him a fan letter (one of the very few I've ever written) about his 1998 book "A Place of My Own," and got a very nice note back. In that text he exhibited the approach that has served him so well since he turned his attention to food: find experts, spend time with them, and try to do what they do. This modus operandus is an evolution of John McPhee's path-breaking approach of finding and profiling experts on various subjects to tell a compelling story about that subject. Pollan goes farther in being willing and eager to get his hands dirty. 

"Cooked" is the apotheosis of this approach. Pollan dives into whole-hog barbecue, sourdough bread creation, braising and fermented foods (that is, Fire, Air, Water and Earth -- the four principle means by which we tranform foods). I learn a lot when I read Pollan -- he's very good at making science accessible -- but sometimes he gets too cute by half. I grew quite irritated by his parenthetical asides and wink-wink at the reader. That's a mild complaint, though, compared to the the pleasure I took in, say, the sourdough section. He takes about 40 pages to get through creating a sourdough starter and a great loaf, and the writing was good enough that I found myself reading bits aloud to my wife, a gluten-free eater who said he has convinced her to try bread again. At times like this Pollan gets close to the level of Adam Gopnik, who remains the smartest food writer I know. 

When You Actually Act Out A Fiction—Is There a Name for That?

A while ago I was reading Olen Steinhauer's thriller The Tourist. I happened to be in New York City at the time. Most of the book takes place in Venice and elsewhere, but late in the narrative there's a scene in which a character returns to his pre-war apartment on West 86th Street, then ventures out for some take-out Thai food from a restaurant a half-block away on Amsterdam. None of this would be unusual except for the following: when I read this passage I was sitting in a pre-war apartment, in a building on West 86th street, a half-block from a Thai restaurant where we had just picked up some take-out food.

So maybe this is a hundred-monkeys kind of event (attributable to random chance, like winning the lottery), but it seems there should be a term for this kind of experience. It's not deja vu, but it's in the same family. Seeking my own neologism, I came up with "livre vivre," or "live book." I welcome suggestions for improvement, and am eager to hear if you've had a similar experience. 

Who's The Last Person to Read 'Wild'?

That person may be me. (I know, I know—and I’ve got 'Unbroken' waiting for me on my night stand). I picked it up because I've been editing a memoir that contains similar elements. Good memoir is a variant on an aphorism attributed to Yvonn Chouinard: “The worse the experience the better the story.” Strayed certainly had good material to work with in that regard.

Strayed’s work also is a good illustration of wisdom I recently read from novelist and memoirist Hilary Mantel: “Memoir’s not an easy form. It’s not for beginners, which is unfortunate, as it is where many people do begin. It’s hard for beginners to accept that unmediated truth often sounds unlikely and unconvincing. If other people are to care about your life, art must intervene. The writer has to negotiate with her memories, and with her reader, and find a way, without interrupting the flow, to caution that this cannot be a true record: this is a version, seen from a single viewpoint. But she has to make it as true as she can. Writing a memoir is a process of facing yourself, so you must do it when you are ready.” [from Pamela Paul, By The Book, pg. 171]

I haven’t seen the movie (point of principle), but in the book Strayed masterfully walks a fine line. She parses and experience that is simultaneously horrible and sublime, leavening what actually happened with, as Mantel says, art. She is able to lead the reader to understanding without telling them what they should understand.

If you want to write a good memoir, understand this book.

Perhaps the best measure of the Strayed’s success for me is that I, who live in the Rockies not far from the 486-mile Colorado Trail, have been considering tackling at least part of that long path myself. I’d be a better person for it.

Nonfiction Treasure: The Unsung Thing

I read Kevin Fedarko's The Emerald Mile not long after it came out. I knew Kevin's work from his days at Outside Magazine, and have admired his work. Coincidentally, at about the same time I picked up Mark Bowden's The Finish, about killing Osama bin Laden. The contrast was extraordinary. I'm sure Bowden will sell many more copies because he wrote about a major event. But Fedarko's book is so much better. Bowden rehashed what we already knew. Fedarko found an unreported, magical story and unfolded a beautiful tale. When you're a nonfiction writer, this is the treasure you can only hope for: the unsung thing, ready for you. I have to admit, I was a little envious as I realized what he had done.

You do not need to be a river runner, an environmentalist, or a westerner to love this book, which chronicles an audacious, outrageous effort of the human spirit. Out of almost 500 reviews on Amazon, it got a 4.8 out of five rating. It's well deserved.

God, I Love Elmore Leonard

Leonard, who wrote 45 novels in his career, sometimes reminds me of Hemingway in that he makes writing look so damn simple when what he does is so damn hard.

The other day I read Out of Sight (and yes, I read it in a day) because it just feels so effortless. As I am in the throes of writing my own murder mystery, I took the occasion to remind myself of Leonard's rules of writing. I always appreciate these sorts of lists from writers, but Leonard's have particular resonance for me:

1. Never open with the weather.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than 'said.'

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb 'said.'

5. Keep you exclamation points under control.

6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "al hell broke loose."

7. Use regional dialect sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.

10. Try to leave out the parts readers skip.

Finally, the sine qua non of writing rules: If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.

Amen.

You Will Buy More Books

Pamela Paul's delightful compilation of The New York Times Book Review's greatest hits, By The Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life, came to me as a Christmas gift. Unexpectedly, I found it filled a need for me as both a writer and a reader.

As a writer and editor, I'm careful about how I devote my attention. I take projects on judiciously because I know I need to reserve brain space for my own creative work. Ironically, a great novel, nonfiction work (or even House of Cards) can overwhelm my inchoate creative impulses. When I'm trying to plot a novel or flesh out a character, having the characters of Downton Abbey (or the genius of David Foster Wallace) crowding my brain does not help. As a result, I often leave books that I know will be all-absorbing unread for extended periods of time (thus does "Unbroken" gather dust on my bedside table).

One alternative is to read dreck, but who wants to do that? Life's too short to drink cheap wine or read crap books. This is where "By The Book" makes me happy. The compiled interviews with authors give me 15 minutes of wisdom, humor and insight into the writing world before I go to sleep -- but don't fill my dreams.

By reading between the lines I get a sense of how small the community of great contemporary writers is. And when the same names come up again and again in conversation (ahem, Hilary Mantel), I make a note about what I might want to read next -- whenever my own creative endeavors will allow. My reading persona must take a back seat to my writing persona, but it's going to try to drive all the same.

Books, someone once said, are like friends I haven't met yet. I'll be happy to pile a few more on the table.

What Happens When You Make Writing A Priority

I was particularly inspired by this recent profile of James Patterson in Vanity Fair. Patterson may not get an enormous amount of respect from the critics, but he certainly does from his publisher, his audience and his bankers. According article author Todd S. Purdum, Patterson brought in an astounding $90 million last year. No, that's not a typo. Ninety million dollars.

Think what you want of Patterson's focus on plotting over characters, his reliance on co-authors, his atelier-style approach to his work. To me the most important insight in Purdum's article is not what he writes or how he writes but how he thinks about his writing. It is not something he squeezes in after he's done the laundry or walked the dog, before he goes out to his lunch meeting. It is his absolute priority, every single day of the year. Christmas morning? Too bad, we'll open gifts after lunch. Got a plane to catch? Reschedule it for a different time. Kids have a parent-teacher conference. Plan it for the afternoon. Sure, you can argue he can afford to do that now, what with the household staff and professional help. I look at it a different way: He has household staff and professional help precisely because he made his writing his number one priority and organized his life around that priority. He had the discipline, and the faith in himself, to know that his craft deserved to be first. And that made almost everything else in his life possible.

A lesson for us all, methinks.

Elif Shafak on the Politics of Fiction

The French-born, Turkish fiction writer Elif Shafak gave a great TED talk a while back. She made a compelling series of points about the role of the fiction writer, especially the "foreign" or "other" fiction writer. Those of us who are readers and critics, she said, can be complicit in pigeonholing such writers with our expectations. We want them to write -- in Shafak's case -- of, or as, a Turkish woman. But her argument is that this expectation is unfair both to the writer and the reader. Fiction is fiction -- it is stories and imagination. It is, Shafak says, the chance for a "transcendental journay into other lives and other possibilities."

As such, fiction can be a way for us to experience other lives and other communities that we otherwise could not, and through that experience to develop empathy. Yes, Shafak could write from the perspective of a Turkish woman. But, she says, she could also write compellingly as a Norwegian man. What matters is that the story, and the character, come from her heart. The risk we face today is that "writers are not seen as creative individuals on their own but as representatives of their own culture." And that is a disservice to writers and readers. Fiction, of course, can be an incredibly powerful tool for making connections -- if we let it be. "The problem of today's cultural ghettos," Shafak says, describing the like-minded echo chambers toward which we often gravitate, "is [they produce] knowledge that takes us not beyond ourselves."

How To Report When You Can't

Wyl S. Hilton's New York Times profile of Laura Hillenbrand is illuminating in a particularly unexpected way.  It sheds light not only on the way Hillenbrand works, but also suggests an approach for other authors.

Hillenbrand's long struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome is widely known -- she is functionally housebound. Hilton focuses on how she turned that disadvantage into an advantage as a reporter. She cannot travel to battlefields or interview her subjects face-to-face. It's extraordinary to learn that she only ever spoke to the subject of Unbroken, Louis Zamperini, by telephone, interviewing him scores of times. But she notes that being removed, having to rely only on tone of voice and phrasing, allowed her to focus more closely on asking hard questions and listening deeply to the answers. In other words, she believes she was a better interviewer because she actually received less, rather than more, information from her interviews. She finds support from Teri Gross, the Fresh Air host, who interviews most of her subjects remotely and says that working only with the spoken word helps make her radio broadcasts better for listeners.

Even more interesting was how Hillenbrand conducts historical research. Unable to travel to a library or tolerate reading microfilm, she simply doesn't. Instead, she purchases vintage newspapers on eBay and literally flips through them to find the articles she wants. In so doing she enjoys a particular serendipity familiar to anyone who has handled a newspaper in hard copy. These days I do most of my reading online, but I know I am missing something by doing so, just as I knew we were losing something when we did away with actual card catalogs in libraries. Flipping through a card catalog you ran a good chance of discovering a related book you hadn't known about, or some marginalia on the card itself that would be useful or at least entertaining.

In the same way, Hillenbrand finds that the advertisements, announcements and news articles that fill the pages of the historical newspapers she reads allow her a sense of the gestalt of the era that she might otherwise fail to capture. That understanding, in turn, infuses and informs her writing.

As a nonfiction author and former newspaperman, I am intrigued and gratified by Hillenbrand's approach. I have informally used it in the past. As I gear up to research a nonfiction book about the 1980s, I intend to use it much more consciously.

Anthony Doerr's Tour de Force

All The Light Image.jpeg

I had the great pleasure of getting to know Tony Doerr about a decade ago. He was freshly back from a year in Rome, and we were introduced by a mutual acquaintance. I convinced him to write several essays for me—at the time I was the executive editor at Orion magazine. He submitted jewels, gorgeously crafted pieces of writing about space and time that were so far beyond most of the material I worked with. His essay on what the Hubble telescope was revealing about deep space still haunts me.

I devoured what he had written: his stories in "The Shell Collector" (more jewels), and "Four Seasons in Rome," a love letter to that city that I read to myself and then read aloud to my then-pregnant wife, in its entirety, over a course of Sunday mornings.

Occasionally I pestered him for another essay, but he put me off, saying we was working on a novel "about World War II." I didn't think much of it. When the novel made its debut this year I bought a copy out of loyalty (hard cover, no less -- I like to go old-school), and saved it for the perfect time. I found that time on a transatlantic flight, and ended up staying awake all the way to Africa, completely bewitched not only by his ability to craft language like a jeweler (serendipitously, a jewel features centrally in the plot) but also by the intricacy, delicacy, and power of his plot and characters. "All The Light We Cannot See" is the sort of book every author desires and dreads. It is the greatest thing he's ever written. And that's exactly the problem, for inevitably Tony will be faced -- certainly already is faced -- with the terrifying question of "what next?"

So many writers fail to answer that question well, even very good writers. Tony is young and he has a long road ahead of him. Given the extraordinary mileposts he has placed along it so far, I expect he will produce yet more work worth waiting for.