Last week, veteran writer Tracy Kidder offered his reflections on narrative nonfiction a public conversation with current Nieman Fellow Darcy Frey. Part of the Harvard Writers at Work series, the talk took place in a packed campus auditorium and was co-sponsored by the university’s Shorenstein Center, where Kidder is a fellow this fall. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his book “The Soul of a New Machine,” Kidder has more recently written about humanitarian titan Paul Farmer (“Mountains Beyond Mountains”) and the surprising story of Deogratias, a refugee from Burundi (“Strength in What Remains”). Frey, who interviewed Kidder, won a National Magazine Award for his own narrative writing and is also the author of “The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams.” These excerpts from their discussion have been lightly edited for clarity.
Frey: We have all these different terms: The poster says “literary nonfiction.” “Narrative nonfiction.” My workshop is called “creative nonfiction.” Sometimes these classes are called “the literature of fact.” So, I wanted to start out with some definitions about the kind of work that you do.
I ran across a funny quote from John McPhee, the high priest of this genre, in an interview that he gave to the Paris Review a couple months ago, when he was asked what this kind of work is, and he said, “Nonfiction – what the hell? That just says this is nongrapefruit we’re having this morning. That doesn’t mean anything. You’ve had nongrapefruit for breakfast. Think how much you know about that breakfast.”
That’s a negative or a nondefinition of the genre. Maybe we can start by trying to craft a positive definition of it. So my first question to you is, how do you define the kind of writing you do, and how does it differ from both traditional journalism and traditional nonfiction writing?
Kidder: I’m confused by the terms, of course. When I first started thinking about writing nonfiction, the term that was current then was “the new journalism,” which was also inaccurate, because it wasn’t exactly new. I worry about the term “creative nonfiction.” One of the nice things about his kind of writing… when I was first trying my hand at it in the early 1970s was that it didn’t really have a proper name. It wasn’t part of the academy; no one was teaching courses in it. In a way it was kind of nice, because you could sort of make it up as you went along. There was a wildness to it, or at least you could flatter yourself into thinking that.
They all worry me, but literary journalism worries me only because it takes a long time to know for sure what really deserves to be called literature. So it sounds a little pretentious, or at best premature, to slap that term on it. But what I think all these terms are trying to suggest is that the literature of fact, or factual writing, nonfiction, that there can be more to it. To signify a kind of nonfiction writing in which not only the information but the writing is important.
For me the essence of it is really storytelling, and of course, the techniques of storytelling never belonged exclusively to fiction. Surely there is no single means of understanding the world. I have great respect for people who write theoretically. I’ve learned a great deal from them; I steal from them all the time. But maybe because of my deficiency, which is that the moment I start to generalize, all I can think of are the exceptions — and maybe through early training, all the Dickens my mother used to read to me, I understand the world best through stories. So this is just one little piece of writing. I think they’re all invaluable to us, all the forms of nonfiction. I’m not sure that you really want to define them any more narrowly than that. Is that all right?
Frey: That’s fine with me. It’s funny, because the highest praise now for works of nonfiction is to have someone on the back of your book blurb you and say, “Reads like a novel,” which is this nondefinition, although it does give a sense that certain elements of fiction – a dramatic scene-by-scene construction of a story, a sort of breadth of thought and feeling and an attention, as you said, to language and authorial voice — [are] being welcomed into the world of nonfiction.
Kidder: When someone says “reads like a novel,” what you want to know as the author who’s presumably being praised is, which novel? One of the things that Tom Wolfe said, I think his main point was that a lot of modern fiction had abandoned the old role of fiction, the former role, the role that people like Thackeray, Dickens and Balzac and all those people played, which was the role of social commentary, and that this had almost by default fallen into the hands of journalists. I think there’s some truth to that.
Frey: And if we could go off on a huge tangent here about issues of authenticity and accuracy, because when you read “reads like a novel,” you want to know, yes, what novel, but you also want to know if it’s true. One of the things that’s attractive as a practitioner of this kind of writing is that you do take some of the aesthetic elements of fiction, but they are married to the factual authority of journalism, and thereby the genre gains something from that kind of marriage.
Kidder: Yeah, quoting McPhee again, no one makes rules for everybody, but I certainly have my own rules, which is if I call it nonfiction, I can’t make up characters, I can’t make up dialogue, I don’t make up facts. That doesn’t mean you have to tell your stories in the order in which they happen. Or, as the editor whom we have shared across the years likes to say, the worst sin is to tell the stories in the order in which you found them out, which is tempting sometimes.
Frey: Which is I think one of the reasons why, as we were talking before, you open a travel magazine, and every travel narrative begins, “As my plane broke through the ceiling of clouds on the way to X airport,” and then the narrative continues in the order in which the travel writer received the information.
In terms of the stories that you’ve told in your books: You’ve written about public education, you’ve written about carpenters and homebuilders and architects building a home, a nursing home, a doctor in Haiti, a young medical student in Burundi. Subject-wise, you range all over the map. How do your book ideas come to you, or how do you go out into the world looking for them?
Kidder: I don’t have an effective procedure for this. I wish I did. I have no right to complain about anything. I’ve had a wonderful run of luck as a writer. And incidentally, anyone who writes for a living and doesn’t admit to being very lucky is almost certainly insane. But the one thing I do find difficult – and I must say my family has found it even more difficult – is trying to find the next thing to write about. I haven’t done it the same way twice, it seems to me. The idea for “The Soul of a New Machine” came to me from my editor, Richard Todd. The next book was my own idea, to write about the building of a house. And then my editor’s wife suggested that I write about an elementary school teacher – she was one at the time.
What were the other ones? I was looking around for another book and wandered into a nursing home and met these two old guys who interested me. Who else? I wrote a book that’s largely about a small town cop. I met him at the gym. He’s this bald, very loud fellow, very friendly, and at a certain point, he said, “You don’t remember me, do you?” I said, “No.” He said, “I arrested you five years ago.” And then I did remember him, but he had hair back then and now he had none at all.
The reason I remembered him was because he had stopped my wife for speeding later that day, but he didn’t give her a ticket. And then I discovered the reason he didn’t give her a ticket was he really hated to give women tickets because he really sincerely hated to see women cry. Although there were refinements to this, because if a woman was already crying by the time he got to her window, he figured, “Well, she’s already upset, I might as well write her up.” This guy was hilarious, but at a certain point he said to me, “Come out and ride around with me. I’ll show you a town you never thought existed.” This was the very peaceful, very prosperous looking town of Northhampton.
I ran into Paul Farmer completely by accident in Haiti when I was down there doing a story for The New Yorker about American soldiers, and I met Deogratias, my latest victim, on a visit to Paul Farmer. …
Frey: In all your books, though the reader gets the sense that you were able to get enormous reportorial access to your subjects, whether it was a team of computer engineers or Chris Zajac, the teacher in “Among Schoolchildren,” or Paul Farmer of Partners in Health. Do you make it very apparent at the beginning of your projects just how much time you want with your subjects and how ever-present you’re going to be for the next year or two in their lives?
Kidder: I hope – I think – I know I’ve gotten better at this. Maybe I should go back to “I think” I have, but I do try to warn the prospective subject about the things that could happen based on things that have happened in the past. I do explain that this is likely to be a pretty large invasion of privacy. And I do this in part because I now know quite well how much better it is for someone to say, “No, I’d rather not do that” when there’s nothing invested on either side and there’s likely to be no hard feelings, than a year down the road when it might be much more painful – it would be much more painful to have to abandon the project. I have thought of it sometimes as reading people their Miranda warning: “Anything you say may be used against you in my book.”
We used to ask people to sign releases. These releases were a joke. I don’t know any court in the country where they would have stood up, because they essentially said that I can say anything I want about you, including any bad things, and in return I’ll give you a free copy of the book in which I do it.
I don’t do that anymore, but I do try – I really do try as hard as I can to scare people off. Some subjects are sophisticated, and others are not at the beginning.
Frey: One of the things that struck me so much about “Among Schoolchildren” when I read it was the density of detail in this book. So this is an account – a largely chronological account of one year in the life of a single fifth-grade classroom. The teacher, Chris Zajac, and 25 or so 10-year-old students.
Kidder: I think it was 18.
Frey: Eighteen – starting from September and going through to June. I remember I read one passage and I went back to look at it, and wanted to read it out loud, because when I encountered it for the first time as a young reporter/writer, I tried to put myself in your shoes, in the shoes of the reporter, and tried to imagine what you must have done to get this level of factual detail in order to then write this passage. So this is just a quick passage about a young boy named Clarence, who ends up being one of the two or three main student protagonists in the book, and Chris is the teacher. Tracy writes,
Clarence was a small, lithe, brown-skinned boy with large eyes and deep dimples. Chris watched his journeys to the pencil sharpener. They were frequent. Clarence took the longest possible route around the room, walking heel to toe and brushing the back of one leg with the shin of the other at every step – a cheerful little dance across the blue carpet, around the perimeter of desks and along the back wall, passing under the American flag, which didn’t quite brush his head. Reaching the sharpener, Clarence would turn his pencil into a stunt plane, which did several loop-the-loops before plunging into the hole.
It’s just such a wonderfully vivid and visual description. I imagine you probably saw Clarence do that a thousand times in the course of the year, but at some point you saw it the first time you put it in your notebook, or you trained yourself to gather that kind of level of quotidian detail knowing that a year, two years from then, when you were sitting down to write, you were going to need that kind of texture in order to write a fully realized scene.
Kidder: I just remembered something. I often put these things behind me and forget. I spent 178 days in the classroom. There’s 180 days by law of school in Massachusetts. I missed two days – one I played hooky, and the other I was sick. A lot of the time I had a desk, right near the teacher’s. I think after a while, the kids just thought of me as a big fifth-grader. I realized somewhere along the line that the great danger to a writer, a journalist, whatever I was – a reporter – in that situation was generalization. You could summarize a day in a page or two of notes, perhaps, but without the details, it wouldn’t have much importance.
That’s one of the reasons my attempts to read widely on the history of education were sort of – why that seemed such an arduous thing to do. That is all institutional history. The actual history is unknowable, because it’s taken place in these virtually hermetically sealed classrooms for centuries now, or certainly since the 19th century. So I tried to write down everything that I saw. You know, this little community was pretty complicated. Children that age get up to a lot of different things. It was fortunate that I did that, though. I do remember a very important thing that happened in the course of this year that I didn’t realize was unfolding, but when I went back to my notes, I had what I needed. I hadn’t understood what they meant at the time. I just think that’s part of the job. It varies from time to time. Maybe I could talk a little about taking notes.
When I was much younger, I think I was inclined to write notes about what I was thinking or feeling, and I don’t bother with that very often now, although I don’t turn away from anything in note-taking. No one else has to read it, I just write everything down, but what I’m mostly looking for are what people say, what I hear, what I smell, what I feel tactilely. Concrete information seems of the utmost importance, and not the self-reflective stuff, which is – if you have this really terrifically detailed record of, say, a year in the life of a classroom, or something even more complicated, you also have really powerful memory stimuli. You will remember how you felt, and you can always make some notes about that later on in the day. I always go over my notes whenever I can after a day of note-taking.
Frey: Is there a difference between the many kinds of stretches of narrative in your books? One distinction I think is, in some of your books, “Among Schoolchildren, “House” and “The Soul of a New Machine,” you were there and present for the things that you’re describing, the proverbial fly on the wall. In the later books, the last two books, “Mountains Beyond Mountains” and “Strength in What Remains,” there are long stretches in which you need to recreate a subject’s past history. I’m wondering if the reporting project is different when it’s unfolding before your eyes and when you’re hearing someone tell something about their history from five, 10 years ago that you then have to render in scene?
Kidder: I think everything I’ve written has required some recreation of something, but you’re right, some more than others, particularly my last book. I don’t know – yeah, you have to do it in a different way. I guess it was most problematic – if you’re thinking about Paul Farmer’s past, well, I was able to go talk to his mother, all of his siblings. I searched for some old girlfriends and friends, and so on. I also had the wonderful Ophelia Dahl to fill me in. So I had a really wide range.
My last guy, Deogratias … in a way the constraints of that reporting drove the way I wrote that book, to a larger degree than most others. The reason for that is that a lot of what he told me, the most significant things, couldn’t be verified. I could check dates and certain things that were simply facts, but there was no one to talk to. For instance, there’s one moment in his life where he was saved at the border of Burundi and Rwanda border by a woman whose name he never knew. I mean, there was no way in the world I was ever going to find her. but dragging that story out of him – which I’m afraid would be a pretty accurate description of what I did – was arduous, but it was really pretty much his story… In addition to that, I went back to all the stations of his life, both in New York and in Burundi and Rwanda, and I was able to verify everything in New York through the people who had helped him and had taken him in.
Frey: One of the fascinating things about the structure of “Strength in What Remains” is that the second half of the book in a way is an explanation for the way the first half of the book is reported and written. We can talk about that in a moment when we talk about structure, but there are long stretches in “Strength in What Remains” – I’m thinking of the long narrative stretch where Deo is fleeing the civil war in Burundi and finding his way to the Burundi airport and getting on a plane to New York and another stretch where he’s living essentially homeless in Central Park and other places in New York.
There is a moment-by-moment quality to those stretches of writing. We see the park bench that he sleeps under, the actual statue in Central Park that had an effect on him. You are liberal in terms of giving the reader a window into his internal thinking, and I’m just sort of curious what kind of reporting it takes to be able to with confidence assume the internal thoughts of your characters.
Kidder: Well, in that case, because I was going to acknowledge it, as you say, in the second part, ultimately I felt justified in doing that. … I just told that story as he told it to me, although he told it to me in many, many different pieces, my words, but I hope an accurate rendition of the story as he told it to me. Of course when he told me that story, most of what he told me, the most recent stuff he was telling me was 12 years old, a lot was that far back and some was even farther back.
So of course it suffered from the usual additions and deletions of memory, I’m sure – I just don’t know which ones. I came to feel that none were deliberate. There’s a great writer named A.J. Liebling, whom some of you may have read, who used write for the New Yorker. He’s not read enough nowadays, in my opinion. A very funny writer, and he liked to write about small-time con men, and one of his favorite characters was named Colonel Stingo, who called himself “the Honest Rainmaker.” At the end of one of those stories – I may have the words wrong, but I think the sentiment I’m pretty sure of – he had been checking out one of Stingo’s preposterous stories and at the end, he said, “So the story was, in its entrails, true, which is what counts.”
And I felt that way about the first half of that book. Proof is a funny thing, but going back with Deo to these stations of his life, particularly in Burundi and Rwanda, I became absolutely satisfied that this story was in its entrails true. It was kind of a nightmarish journey, not so much for me as for him.
[For more, read part 2 of the conversation between Kidder and Frey, in which Kidder discusses structure, point of view and why he came to embrace writing badly.]