by Tony Horwitz, May 1, 2009 11:34 AM
Yesterday we left off on the subject of 16th-century swine, which just goes to show the relevance of history. So click on the book cover to your right, add to cart, and proceed immediately to checkout!
I feel compelled to say this, because the book tour I'm not blogging about is beginning to look like a CDC watch list. My next stop is Virginia, home of ham, and I'm also headed for Chicago, Hog Butcher for the World, St. Louis, famed for its brats and pork steak, and Buffalo, where I'm staying at the home of a sausage magnate.
Yes, I've heard: eating pork has nothing to do with the flu formerly known as swine. Tell that to the Egyptians, who know from plagues and yesterday started slaughtering their 300,000 pigs. Meanwhile, next door in Israel, where pork is made kosher by calling it "white steak," there's already been a swine-flu case.
So I'll be laying off the bacon, though a pig will appear later in this blog post. I've decided to close out the week by sharing some tips about writing. An earlier guest blogger, Darin Strauss, did this to great effect. The difference is that Darin is not only a talented novelist and screenwriter, but also a writing teacher who cited two writing professors he studied under. I've never written fiction, at least not intentionally; I have almost no writing-class experience as either a teacher or student, apart from a year of journalism school, where I learned the basics of news reporting on a manual typewriter; and I'm queasy about discussing "craft," which brings bad memories for me of making popsicle-stick forts at summer camp.
So most of what I'm offering below comes from a chaotic quarter-century of on-the-job training as a journalist and author, much of it spent on the road. With that warning label affixed, here are eight random tips for wannabe non-fictionists.
1. Reporting and Research Uber Alles
Good writing flows from good material. This may seem obvious, but it can't be said enough. When I'm struggling at the computer, it's not because I'm "blocked." It's because I don't have enough material, or the right material. No amount of cleverly-crafted prose can hide the holes in an under-reported story, unless the writer is one of those very rare stylists who can spin nothing into gold.
2. When You Find Great Material, Milk It
This follows naturally from tip #1. As a cub reporter, I learned to scoop up facts, grab a punchy quote or two, and race back to the office to make my deadline. This is a handy skill (or once was), but it translates very poorly to long-form nonfiction. To carry a scene over many pages, rather than a few paragraphs, you need immense amounts of detail and texture. This means finding a rich subject and then hanging around, and hanging around, until you've noted everything, from drape fabric to room tone. Don't leave until you're forced to. Then come back again. And if you're interviewing someone, ask for a tour of the office, or a drive, or anything that will extend your stay and give you some movement and color to wrap all the quotes around.
3. Start Writing As You Report and Research
This may seem to contradict the previous two points, but writing from the start is how I figure out the quality of what I've got. The writing I'm speaking of here isn't grade-A prose, in fact it's usually dreck: typically, whatever I spit out late at night in my motel room after looking over that day's research. Often, while doing this, I'll spot a character or setting that strikes me as a possible opening or connective thread for an article or chapter. Except that I don't have the depth of material I need to make it sing. So I know I need to go back for more. Alternatively, in this spit-up phase, I may find that material I thought was crucial to my story simply doesn't work on the page. I have the goods, but they're no good. Which leads to the next tip.
4. The Recycle Bin Is a Writer's Best Friend
All writers know to discard, discard, discard. But it's the injunction we most often violate. Why? Because we all fall in love with our own material, and it's hard to kill the thing you love. Particularly if you've spent immense amounts of time or labor or money to get it.
The best reporting and research requires a wide-open mind and spirit. You need to be game for whatever or whoever comes your way, and vacuum up every dust pile and hairball in your path, just in case. Writing requires the opposite. You need to be absolutely ruthless. If some part of your material doesn't move the story along, if it doesn't serve the reader, it's got to go, no matter how many mountains you climbed to get it, no matter how many officials you bribed, no matter how much torment and dysentery you endured. Nothing is sacred.
Annie Dillard captures this in her lovely book The Writing Life, in which she likens book-writing to building a sound house.
You tap the walls, lightly, everywhere. Some of the walls are bearing walls; they have to stay, or everything will fall down. Other walls can go with impunity; you can hear the difference. Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go. It cannot be helped....The part you must jettison is not only the best written part; it is also, oddly, that part which was to have been the very point. It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang; and from which you yourself drew the courage to begin....There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it out.
5. Begin with a General Idea, Not a Fixed Plan
I learned this as a foreign correspondent in war-torn or chaotic lands. I'd fly off to a city like Khartoum, carrying a careful list of people to meet and places to go. Then, within hours of arriving, my itinerary would be in tatters, due to downed telephone lines or martial law or the bogus nature of the information I'd gathered in advance. I was forced to improvise, which usually meant wandering around aimlessly, and more often than not I'd stumble into a story much better than the one I'd set out to report.
This m.o., or lack of one, became instinctive and carried over to my book-writing. With each new project, and each chapter of it, I try to know just enough to get started and then dive in. That way, I'm not locked into an approach or outline. I follow my nose, sniffing for intriguing leads and characters. Also, the terror of arriving in a new place, without a plan, forces me to chat up strangers and explore avenues I might otherwise not. By the second or third day, I've usually found a promising angl
by Tony Horwitz, April 30, 2009 11:08 AM
A few posts ago, I pointed out a problem with blogging about books. Namely, I could be using this time to write an actual book. Such as the one I just contracted to write, and that's sitting neglected while I squander the first tranche of my book advance.
My point was theoretical, of course. Like most authors, I welcome any excuse to take a break from the coal-face of my computer screen, by which I mean the Word document icons on my desktop that look like miniature pages turned down at the corner and covered in actual text. Mine bear labels like "Book" and "Book Notes" and, most optimistically, "Book Chapters." Hackers alert: if you crack my PC, you can have those files. They're blank. Just please don't take the family photos or mess with my fantasy baseball team. I'm currently in second place.
Anyway, heeding the need in these troubled times to conserve our resources, I'll continue the mission of my last post, which was to recycle research from the book I've just published rather than expending energy on the next one.
First, in response to the comment by one of the five unique readers of Powells.com (joking!), I didn't invent the bit about Columbus saying of iguana, "tastes like chicken." It's documented, in his journal (written in Spanish, though Columbus was Italian-born. That's another story). Call me old-fashioned, but I believe a book billed as nonfiction should be true in every detail, as best the writer can determine.
While we're on the subject of food, I'll serve up a few more recipes from early America. Now that Bush is out and Carla Bruni is in, is it okay to like the French again? I hope so, because, unsurprisingly, they're the finest critics of New World cuisine. My favorite is Gabriel Sagard, a priest who lived among the Huron in the early 1600s and seems to have spent most of his time cataloguing the horrors of American cooking. In particular, he loathed a Huron staple called sagamite, a broth of raw cornmeal boiled in water, which, he wrote, "is the soup, meat and dessert of every day."
Prepared without salt or spice, sagamite, to Sagard, was intolerably bland, except when the Huron flavored the broth with meat or fish, which made it worse. The fish was thrown into the pot, un-scaled, "and when they had some portion of meat to cut up they used their feet to hold it in place and their hands to cut it." The Huron also thickened sagamite by chewing un-ripened corn and spitting it into the pot. And sometimes they added leindohy, "which is corn put to rot in mud or stagnant and marshy water for three or four months." After digging up this "stinking corn," Sagard writes, the Huron would lick their fingers, as if the ears were sugar-cane, "although the taste and smell are very strong, worse even than sewers."
Sagard tried to make sagamite bearable by adding wild chive, marjoram, and onion to the corn gruel, but if his hosts "perceived that these were in it, they would not even taste it, saying that it smelt bad." He also didn't share their passion for tobacco, which he believed the Huron smoked "to warm the stomach in default of wine and spices, so as to break up in some measure so much indigestible matter that comes from their bad food."
Lest one think Sagard an insufferable snob, he was otherwise an admirer of the Huron, describing them as hospitable, courageous, and handsome, with perfect teeth and lean physiques. He also liked their jolly greeting, "'Ho, ho, ho,' which is a salutation of joy," that could not be uttered without laughing. And, as a priest, Sagard approved of the Huron's sexual continence, at least compared to the promiscuous French. "This may be attributed," he wrote, "partly to the absence of spices and wine, and partly to their habitual use of tobacco, the smoke of which deadens the senses."
The English who visited North America in this period weren't so critical of native cooking, perhaps because theirs was so insipid. Also, unlike Sagard, they extolled tobacco. Thomas Hariot, who was sent by Sir Walter Raleigh in the 1580s as a science officer to the New World, believed that Indians' habitual smoking was what kept them healthy. Hariot thought "drinking" tobacco, as Elizabethans called smoking, purged phlegm and "other gross humors, and openeth all the pores and passages of the body." Returning to England, Hariot conducted "many rare and wonderful experiments" demonstrating the weed's medicinal virtues. He later died of cancer.
The early Spanish, for their part, made a major and little-known contribution to this country's cuisine. No, not gazpacho, but a creature the conquistador Hernando de Soto brought with him as a reserve food supply for the army he landed in Florida in 1539. Trotting ashore with his soldiers were thirteen pigs, at that time a species unknown on this continent (as were horses, which another conquistador, Francisco Coronado, introduced to foot-bound Plains Indians a year later.)
As De Soto marched from Florida to the Mississippi, his pig herd swelled to several hundred and some ran off or were traded to Indians, seeding the vast swine population that roams the South to this day. De Soto's men also held America's first recorded pig feast, in Georgia, when all their other food ran out. The conquistador had a number of the pigs slaughtered and issued each soldier a pound of pork. "We ate it," a Spaniard wrote, "boiled in water without salt or anything else."
The French gastronome, Monsieur Sagard, would no doubt have been appalled
by Tony Horwitz, April 29, 2009 12:38 PM
This blog is off to a roaring start. My first post, Attention Must Be Paid
, took its title from a famous line in Death of a Salesman
. Yet no attention was paid me whatsoever. I really am the Willy Loman of book salesmanship.
Then, on day two, I told of a conversation with a librarian friend, whom I consider witty and winsome. This time I did provoke a strong reaction ? from my friend. She accused me of portraying her as a waspish crone who drinks dandelion wine and disapproves of James Joyce and any other example of modernity. The sole reader comment on yesterday's post suggests as much. I have therefore appended a correction/amplification* below.
Since I as yet show no signs of swine flu, which would allow me to malinger and die in order to escape further embarrassment on this blog, I'll move today to safer ground: the distant past. That's the principal subject of my book, A Voyage Long and Strange. It opens with a visit to Plymouth Rock, where I learn that most Americans, including myself, know almost nothing about the pre-Mayflower history of this continent. So I set off to rediscover early America, in the archives and on the road, following the trail of Vikings, conquistadors, and other adventurers who encountered this land and its native people long before the Pilgrims landed.
Most of the history in the book is taken from the accounts of early explorers, who describe the wonders of a world utterly new to them. Creatures we regard as commonplace ? fireflies, croaking bullfrogs, opossums ? astonished Europeans who had never encountered them, and struggled even to describe what they saw. (Buffalo, shown below in an early Spanish sketch, were considered hump-backed cows with goat-like beards.)
Newcomers were also mesmerized by Native Americans, who were generally much bigger, barer, and healthier than the underfed, sea-weary, and over-dressed Europeans disembarking from boats along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Indians were likewise astonished by the pale, hairy strangers who washed up on their shores.
"They tooke off our clothes," an English captain wrote of the Algonquians he met in 1584 on Roanoke Island, in today's North Carolina, "for they wondred marvelously at the whitenes of our skinnes, ever coveting to touch our breastes, and to view the same."
A Spaniard who traveled the Colorado River in 1540 described Indians combing his beard and patting flat the wrinkles on his shirt, perhaps thinking it skin. Natives of southern Canada were less impressed by the garlicky Frenchmen canoeing their waters.
"The Huron would not come near us nor bear the odor of our breath, declaring that it smelt too bad," a missionary wrote, adding that his hosts were also appalled by facial hair. "They think it makes people ugly and weakens their intelligence. They judge us to be very stupid by comparison to themselves."
There are dozens of these accounts, which also tell of newcomers and natives ? who usually understood nothing of each others' words ? trying to communicate by playing music, drawing pictures in the sand, exchanging gifts, and even attempting crude show-and-tell.
"With some sticks and paper I had some crosses made," a Spaniard wrote of his encounter with Indians in Arizona. "I made it clear to them that they were the things I esteemed most." One wonders what the natives made of a man who worshipped crossed twigs.
As we now know, the arrival of Europeans quickly led to the dispossession and death of millions of natives. A lot of my book is about that. But it also tells of an astonishing and unrepeatable moment in our history, when two distant branches of humanity came together ? violently colliding at times, curiously engaging in mutual discovery at others ? on the beaches, plains, rivers, and deserts of this continent.
To me, first contact is a fascinating study in human behavior, a test of people's courage, humanity, resourcefulness, and sense of humor. It's also an experience we can't have today, outside of science fiction. That's why I wanted to take the long, strange journey that became this book.
I'll end with a 16th-century illustration of Timucuans in Florida tossing a few gators and other critters on the barbie. The word "barbecue" is one of many that Indians introduced to the European lexicon in this period. They also shared their food with new arrivals, including Columbus, who in 1492 sampled iguana. He wrote, and I quote, "Tastes like chicken."
** For the record, Christina Bevilacqua is not a fusty librarian who wishes gravity had never been discovered. She drinks gin, wears red lipstick every waking hour, is addicted to the Arctic Monkeys, and has a picture of Proust along with Poe's inside the locket I described. Her dance card is full. And, in response to a reader's comment, she venerates 1838 precisely because it represented an end to the era when only the well-bred were well-read. Christina adds: "even the common man of that era would have known to use the conditional tense when constructing a sentence about what might or might not have happened if the subject of his sentence had been alive in another era. I regret that yesterday's commentator on this blog cannot claim similar ability, since perhaps a skillful wielding of the language would have enlivened the reader's knee-jerk
by Tony Horwitz, April 28, 2009 10:18 AM
Having pledged not to blog about my book tour, I should blog about books — specifically, my book
. But this gives me pause. Aren't blogs the enemy of The Book? Instead of reading this right now, couldn't you be reading a book — ideally, one of my
books? And couldn't I be writing one instead of blogging about writing one?
Being an addictive sort, I have another concern. Is blogging a gateway drug? Once I'm hooked on short, evanescent dispatches, can a Twitter habit be far behind?
On the book tour I'm not blogging about, I took a break from the hard work of speaking to adoring readers to attend a friend's birthday party. Christina works at a New England athenaeum — essentially, a fancy old word for library that you don't often hear these days, outside of spelling bees (tip for students: Athena–eum). Christina doesn't just work at the Providence Athenaeum, she lives and breathes its antique air and regards 1838, the year of its opening, as the apex of human history.
A number of others at her birthday party also work at the athenaeum and nearby libraries. Most fear for their jobs because of budget cuts, Madoff-depleted donors, and the culture's current love affair with reading no more than 140 characters at a time. So this seemed the right place to pose the question I'd been chewing on.
Is blogging the enemy of The Book?
"No," Christina said. "It's the enemy of life."
She fingered her oval silver locket, which holds a picture of Edgar Allan Poe (and, I suspect, a lock of his hair). "I hate the meta-ness of everything, the constant reporting, the sense that everyone constantly has something interesting to say. What ever happened to reflection, or editing, or coming to an idea based on the accrual of information over time?"
I don't have any time, I reminded her. My blog post is due in an hour. As for editing, I have a distant "blogmaster" and the guidelines he emailed me, which mention the maximum number of pixels and bytes I should send but say nothing about words or content.
"Exactly," Christina said. As part of her rebellion against life lived online, she hosts salons at the Athenaeum modeled on similar gatherings in the 19th century. Each salon is arranged around a speaker or theme — often to do with 1838, such as a novel from that year where the plot turned on a dropped pocket handkerchief. Christina serves scones and sherry. Recording devices or props like Power-Point are forbidden.
"I want to recreate a space where people are actually together, practicing conversation with actual other people and not with avatars or on-line identities."
"So it's like a chat room," I suggested.
"It's precisely not a chat room," she snapped. "It's where you are not polishing your persona for Facebook. It's where you are who you are and your time is spent not on yourself only, but on other people in the room."
Like the birthday party we were at. Except I was blogging, at least in my head. I asked what she thought all this meant for books.
"We had a salon presenter last night who touched on that, Andrew Losowsky, a young British genius." He'd likened books to horses and sailboats. Once the fastest way to travel, they were superseded by cars and speed boats. But they didn't disappear. A ride on a horse, if speed is not your objective, is a pleasure unavailable to motorists. To sail is to have a calm and sensory pleasure that isn't offered by speed boats. The same would happen to books with the advent of digital reading.
"The things that make books uniquely pleasurable as objects — the heft, the smell of the paper, the beauty of the ink or the type, the pictures — will become emphasized and books will live on, in a different role than what we've been accustomed to," she said.
It was time for Christina to cut cake and open gifts, mostly antique china. "I forgot to mention," she sighed. "We're getting a blog at the Athenaeum. Our tech person is putting it together for the fall."
Until then, you can learn about the Providence Athenaeum and its programs at
by Tony Horwitz, April 27, 2009 9:36 AM
Hello. Like most previous guests in this space, I'm on book tour. But I promise not to blog about that, unless something awful and amusing happens, which it won't. Book tours are the literary version of political campaigns; they're so carefully scripted that a revealing or spontaneous word is rarely heard. Authors and their handlers are on message 24/7.
Also, book touring has the same effect on me as visiting the South. My manners improve, at least temporarily. At home, I may lick my plate, curse my dogs, hide behind a newspaper to avoid my mother-in-law, or threaten to lock my sons in the basement if they don't shut up. But you'd never guess that from meeting me now. On tour, I'm a traveling salesman: the customer is always right, even if he bellows an inane question at my reading, or asks me to inscribe a book to his goldfish. Also, I'm terrified that author "escorts," whom I always pump for gossip about other writers' bad behavior, will gossip about me to the next writer they schlep from airport to hotel to reading. So I'm relentlessly pleasant and polite. In other words, a total bore.
Unlike most writers, however, I actually enjoy book tours. Not because I get to drain hotel mini-bars and watch in-house movies at my publisher's expense, or hear myself bloviate about Writing on Good Morning, South Dakota! What I like about tours is moving product. Signing and selling stacks of books, new and stiff and not yet marked down for clearance, gives me the pleasing illusion that I'm a necessary cog in the great American economy.
This is a sensation I rarely experience at home, except when paying bills. I write in my attic, with a view of Main Street, along which troll truck drivers, shopkeepers, policewomen, men wearing tool belts. If any of them were to drop dead tomorrow, many people apart from their family and friends would be instantly affected. If I had a stroke at my desk from too much caffeine, or choked on a piece of Nicorette gum, who outside my household would notice that I was no longer showing up for work? My publisher doesn't expect a manuscript for another year, and might be relieved if it was never delivered. No disease will go untreated, or road unpaved, if I'm not at my desk come Monday. In the grand scheme of things, I'm expendable, like one of those phaser-wielding crewmen in the Star Trek of my youth, who beamed down to hostile planets with Captain Kirk and got vaporized before the first ad.
It doesn't help that, like many writers, I keep irregular hours and work habits. My daily commute generally involves padding up the attic steps in sweat pants, T-shirt, and mismatched socks. Within minutes I'm usually padding back down to pour more coffee or graze the refrigerator. My computer is always on, and not infrequently in use at 4:00 a.m. Some days, I see the boys off to school and then go straight back to bed. I used to write about people with habits like this when I had a day job as a newspaper reporter. They were the chronically unemployed.
Don't get me wrong. I love what I do and can't imagine another line of work. Which is just as well, since newspaper reporting, my only rather rusty job skill, is about as much in demand these days as Hummer dealerships. But sometimes, gazing past my blank computer screen at the morning bustle along Main Street, I long to be a part of it.
So it's satisfying, on this Monday morning, to wake in a business hotel with a printed schedule that tells me I have a "drop-in Stock Signing" at 10:00 a.m., an Author Luncheon and book signing this afternoon, and a book lecture with Powerpoint to present this evening. Excuse me while I iron my shirt and get on with my day. I'm a busy busy man with books to move. Attention must be