Today we offer part 2 of last week’s discussion of narrative nonfiction between Tracy Kidder and Nieman Fellow Darcy Frey. (Check out the first installment, if you haven’t read it yet.) Part of the Harvard Writers at Work series, their talk 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, Kidder has written most recently about humanitarian Paul Farmer, as well as the life story of a refugee from Burundi. 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: You told me some of the figures of how many notebooks you had for “Among Schoolchildren.”
Kidder: For “Among Schoolchildren” I had 150 steno books filled. And I don’t know how many typed pages that would have been. A lot of pages – enough that I used to think, sort of like IBM, when they were sued by the government, they delivered three semi trailer trucks full of documents. You could hide the evidence for about 20 murders in there and never have it discovered.
In those days, the computer was still a pretty new thing, and I made these elaborate indices – I usually had the help of somebody. And it was arduous, and they didn’t work very well, because I could never find the things I wanted. But going through that process, I’d start to get those notes into my head.
Lately, starting with “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” I’d just type all the notes into the computer. I’d just bite the bullet and spend a month or two months, I think it was in that case. Because then I’d do them chronologically, and then I really can find things much more easily, because of the wonderful “find” function – as long as my spelling holds up, you know, that can be an issue.
I don’t know that there’s anything to replace it. You could, I suppose, have someone else do this for you. In the case of my last book, there were written notes, but Deo didn’t want me taking notes openly, particularly in Rwanda and Burundi, so I had to use a recording device, and then I transcribed all that later. But every night, every time I was in a place I was alone, I would write out notes. I don’t like that as much, but in all cases, beginning to get those notes into my head seems really crucial. You get good at your book after a while. And it is amazing. I can get into the car meaning to go to the grocery store, I actually do that once in a while, and halfway there, I forget where I was going. But while I’m working on a book, I can remember enormous amounts of stuff, dialogue and so on. I don’t know why that is, but I can. I used to.
Frey: At some point, though, you have the chronology of the story that you’re telling, and as you were mentioning before, you also have the linear progression of the way in which you receive the information as a reporter. And that’s in your notebooks, and I’m assuming those are numbered –
Frey: One through 178, but there’s a process I would think, because all of your books have a different structure, and you tell stories in many different ways, that while sifting through your notes, a kind of architecture for your stories begins to emerge, some sort of process in which you’re metabolizing this information and something other than chronology or other than the order in which you receive it starts to announce itself as a possible way of telling the story.
Kidder: I wish it were so. For me, it’s very important to find out what the actual chronology is, the absolute chronology of the story. As my editor, Dick Todd, likes to say it’s surprising how often writers that he’s worked with don’t actually know the chronology. He believes, we have a rule, he and I, which is if you’re going to break chronology, you have to have a good reason for doing it. …
But to go back to this step-by-step thing. With one exception, I’m very impatient. I get my notes all done, I sit down, and I write up the merest outline. It really just usually says, “Elements.” But I make up a kind of outline, and then I just start writing. I try to write really fast, and I write often at inordinate length. Dick Todd reminded me that the first draft of “Among Schoolchildren” was about 1,500 pages, and not only that, it started out in a kind of distant third person, then it was written in the first person, then it was written – I forget the other way it ended. The last hundreds of pages ended in something like the form of a play, but it didn’t matter. In part, I think it is sort of true that I write as fast as I can to prevent remorse for having written badly.
I did hear – my beloved editor didn’t say this to my face, but someone said to me, “Todd was talking about you the other day at the University of Massachusetts, and he said, ‘Kidder’s great gift is that he’s not afraid of writing badly.’ ”
I didn’t know what to think about that, but for me, writing is a form of thinking, maybe the only kind of thinking I’m capable of. And often, because I have to be lonely and alone to write, I need a room where I can close the door and no one can see me. But at the same time, I get lonely and sorry for myself, and this guy is so long-suffering, but I give him big chunks of rough draft, and he’ll say – he always says, “It’s fine. Keep going.”
He’ll wait a week or something, but I’ve become pretty sure that he doesn’t actually read them anymore. The reason is because when the time comes to start putting this into something a little more palatable, you wonder what he thought was fine. But for me, and again, nobody does things the same way or ought to, and it doesn’t really matter. What really matters is what comes out at the end. I love to rewrite. I think it’s one of the great gifts that is given to a writer, to be able to rewrite, to take back what you’ve written and write it better before anyone else has to see it, except, in my case, for Dick Todd.
So I don’t think I’ve written a book that didn’t have at least 10 drafts. They are successive approximations, like that foolish game golf that I once tried to learn to play, where you get closer and closer to the hole. So there might be a sentence that survives from the rough draft, or maybe a little more or maybe nothing, but each draft there’s more that survives, and at some point some big problem identifies itself. That’s another matter. …
Frey: One of the interesting things about the structure [of “Strength in What Remains”] is not only does it break up time, but each element of the story kind of has its own form of tension, so we have Deo in Burundi, and the reader is asking him- or herself, “What happened to this young man?”And then we have Deo in New York trying to survive, and the question the reader has is “What’s going to happen to this young man?” With you introducing yourself in the prologue and then going away for a long stretch, there’s a sort of implicit question or tension – “When will the narrator come back, and how does he know all of this?” – which is sort of the second half of the book.
It’s kind of a risky or unusual thing to do to tell a story in a semi-omniscient or third-person voice and then break that strategy halfway through, and in the second half, peel back the curtain and really show the Wizard of Oz, the writer at work, and show the choices you’re actually making. How difficult was it to make that decision?
Kidder: I resisted it to some degree. In theory I don’t like the sound of that all. That doesn’t sound risky, it’s sounds stupid. But I think when I’m working on a book, after a while, I just want something that works. And one is aware that there might be for all practical purposes an infinite number of ways to structure a book, but you’re not going to have lived long enough to find them all. Although I do an awful lot of writing by experiment, this seemed to work, and then it began to suggest something else.
Usually, all the justifications for doing what I’ve done come after everything is done and the book is in print, but in this case, I remember saying, or thinking, “So, we have the first part of the story: We get these memories, these harsh and wild memories. So we hear about what had happened with this guy from his memories, and in the second part we see him in the throes of those memories.” And it seemed to work – I hope it did. I’m sure it didn’t work for everyone.
Frey: It reminded me – it’s done rarely, because it’s so hard to pull off – it reminded me a little of Joseph Mitchell’s wonderful book “Joe Gould’s Secret,” where he tells the story of his character, and then he tells the story of how he told the story of his character and how he did the reporting, but makes it not an act of self-aggrandizement on the part of the writer. It’s intrinsic to the portrait he’s drawing of Joe Gould.
Kidder: I was not trying to be self-revelatory. I mean, that was not the point of it. Should we go on with this, or talk about “Mountains Beyond Mountains” and point of view there?
Kidder: Point of view is crucial. I forget what Henry James said about it, but he basically said it’s the most important thing. It does affect every other piece of a book, and indeed, these wonderful terms we use to talk about narrative are wonderful precisely because they allow strangers to talk about a piece of writing and understand each other, but I don’t think about them while I’m writing, God knows. It’s a little like dissecting the muscles of a back, you can cut away and learn quite a bit about those muscles, but once you’ve done that, they no longer function as muscles. So I don’t think about those things, but I think point of view is a crucial term.
But what often happens when we’re working together – I was about five drafts into “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” and my editor, Todd, said, “There’s a problem here. It’s called the problem of goodness.” I knew, “OK, here we are. He’s speaking in koans again.” I kind of understood what he meant, because I had written a profile of Paul Farmer for the New Yorker before I launched into this book. And one particularly nasty letter had come to the editor full of venom for Farmer, and also I had at least one woman friend, maybe a couple who told me – I remember the line one of them said was, “He sounds like a great guy, but I wouldn’t want to be married to him.” I started thinking, “Well, I wasn’t aware he had proposed,” but then I realized I was feeling defensive, and I had to admit there was probably a problem with tone in this book.
Where a problem surfaces, these things are related. Everything is tied together. Tone as I understand it is the attitude of the author, not necessarily the narrator, to the events and the characters in a story, the perceived attitude. The worst thing that can happen to a writer, I think, is for a reader to think that he or she has discovered something about the characters or the events, or both, that the author hasn’t understood. So, what Todd was actually saying to me, I think, was, “There is a problem of tone here.” It was a funny kind of problem, this problem of goodness, as he called it, because it was several problems, really. I had structural problems in that book, and so on, but I guess the two big problems would have been believability and palatability.
You have a character like this guy, and how do you make the reader know he’s for real? And then, if you can get past that, how do you make your reader – we all tend to push away evidence of a virtuousness that exceeds our own, and that is certainly the case with Paul Farmer. This is a guy who keeps nothing for himself. It’s psychological discomfort that we were really talking about, that you’re almost certain to feel in the presence of someone so gifted and so self-sacrificing and so passionate about a cause. So what we needed and finally decided was – we didn’t say it this way, I just started writing it – acknowledgement of that fact. And that led to the idea that there would be a little sub-narrative told in the first person of my own struggle with Paul’s outsized virtue.
If I did this right, I’d be saying to a reader, in effect, at various times, “Look, I know this guy is beginning to make you feel uncomfortable. He’s making me feel uncomfortable, too.” [I'd] be an everymantaking you along on this journey: “Here’s what I think about my discomfort and its causes.” We looked for places to do this, both openly and in veiled ways. The hope was that in the end, I could free the reader from the kind of irritating self-reflection and so on that I experienced myself, and then you could see him clearly and in the round.
Of course, I tried to deal with some other things, too. Any less than fully virtuous that thing he’d ever done was precious to me. I have to tell you a funny little story: When I was doing my profile for the New Yorker, I was assigned one of their estimable fact-checkers. I love these guys, by the way, because private embarrassment is always better than public embarrassment. I gave her everything I had: all the phone numbers and all the people I talked to. After a couple weeks, I spoke with her on the phone and asked her how her research was going, and she said, “Everybody loves him,” and I thought she sounded a little disappointed, and so that made me feel a little better.
[For more, read part 1 of this conversation, in which Frey asks Kidder to define their art, and Kidder talks about how he finds subjects for his stories.]