???first-time author of a work of narrative nonfiction
, and longtime magazine knockabout. I'm honored to be the eleventh guest blogger on Powell's. Who knew this one went to eleven
I've only recently become a blogger, and an infrequent one at that, on the website for The Colony. After several weeks of posting and pasting and pouting I've managed to elicit exactly one reader comment, so perhaps I'm not yet a natural in this medium. We shall see.
I had a similar crisis of confidence about a year into the writing of my book. Many magazine folk migrate into the world of books, and some do it brilliantly. At various times and at various places I've worked with some standout examples: Jonathan Harr, Tracy Kidder, Berry Werth, and Powell's inaugural blogger, Susan Orlean. Thus, simply through osmosis, I knew a little about putting together a non-fiction book. Yet nothing prepared me for that morning, eight months into my reporting, when I awoke in a rented condo in a strange city and found myself surrounded by eight thousand or so pages of source material, which included letters, medical charts, crumbling newspapers, memoirs, passenger manifests, worm-hollowed books, ancient snapshots, government reports, and yellowed architectural drawings. How all of this was going to alchemize into 300 or so pages of nifty prose was, frankly, beyond imagining. So, naturally, I woke up, grabbed a towel, and went to the beach. Did I mention the condo was in Hawaii?
Afterward, I began to call and e-mail anyone I thought could help. Typical conversation:
Me: How do you write a book?
Successful author and/or editor: What do you mean?
Me: Just that. What do I do with all this stuff? How do I turn it into a book?
Successful: Don't worry, you???ll figure it out.
Me: How did you write [insert bestseller here]?
Successful: Well, it just sort of came together. You'll see. It happens like that.
Me [morosely]: Okay. Thanks.
Successful: Have fun!
Apparently I'd stumbled onto a sort of literary omerta, some secret code among successful authors not to divulge their tradecraft. I mean, these were colleagues, confidents, and friends ? and still they wouldn't spill the beans. Luckily, one fellow finally did. Of course, he was already dead, so perhaps the writerly strictures had loosened. Whatever. He gave it up, so I'll give it up. And so I offer to you Mr. E. M. Forster's breathtakingly effective advice for all budding writers: Tell what happened next.
I wrote those three little words on a card, taped it above my computer, stacked my source material in series of towering chronological piles, and then sat down and explained what happened next to a young lawyer who happened to be arrested by government agents on suspicion of having leprosy, in the winter of 1865.
That was three years ago. Today, the book is in the stores and I'm learning to blog. Strictly speaking, that's what happened next. Of course, there's more the story, so tune in tomorrow.