Tell us about your new book.
Thirty years ago I wrote a book called The Soul of a New Machine
, about a team of engineers building the hardware of a new computer. A Truck Full of Money
represents for me a return to that sphere. It is a portrait of a figure of the computer age, named Paul English. I began my research on his life and times in 2012, just at the moment of his greatest success. At bottom, I think of this book as the story of a brilliant and troubled man attempting to recover from an enviable problem.
Paul grew up in working-class Boston in the 1970s, a boy who rebelled against authority but discovered a world that called out to his talents the first time he saw a computer. It became clear early in his life that Paul belonged to what one of the world’s greatest living computer scientists, Donald Knuth, calls “the 2 percent”: people with a special talent for programming, a talent that had lain dormant for millennia in a fraction of humanity, waiting for its very instrument — the computer — to be invented.
But Paul was more than a brilliant programmer. Despite suffering from what was eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder, he discovered in himself a genius for building teams and conceiving the enterprises that could employ them. He became, as one observer put it, “a Pied Piper of geeks,” his optimism and kindness, and his innate sense of fair play as well as his native genius, inspiring intense loyalty among his followers.
My book follows him through the technological revolution of the past 30 years – a pilgrimage of sorts, it seemed to me. As a young man touched by what he called “the fire,” he invented software companies, and while not all succeeded, he kept bouncing back. Early on, one colleague who left a good job to follow him to a start-up remarked, “Someday this boy’s going to get hit by a truck full of money, and I’m going to be standing beside him.” When Paul did indeed make a fortune as co-founder of the travel website Kayak.com — it sold for almost two billion dollars – the first thing he thought about was how to give the money away: “What else would you do with it?” And then he asked himself: “What’s next?”
I hope that my book opens a window on the paradoxical world of software engineering and Internet commerce, on the way new ideas and new money are reshaping our culture and the world, a way that is often frivolous and yet vital to the functioning of virtually every aspect of modern society. I started out looking for a representative figure from this world of computers and money and geeks, and I believe I found one. But in the end – this has happened many times – the most interesting thing to me was the window, not the world: a singular man, a talented man of generous and modest impulses who, like all good characters, stands in the end most emphatically for himself.
What was your favorite book as a child?
My mother would read aloud to my brothers and me when we were children. I remember the books she chose with great fondness, no doubt in part because their titles are infused with the sound of her voice: Winnie the Pooh
, The Wind in the Willows
, Oliver Twist
. I also remember fondly the skein of books that I devoured in the years when I was first crazy over baseball, books that were like elaborations of baseball cards, with titles such as The Center Fielder
But what I remember best is my least favorite book – a 19th century German children’s book, called Der Struwwelpeter
. My paternal grandmother – who was, quite frankly, nuts – gave it to me when I was about 8 years old. It contains ten little rhymed stories, complete with vivid illustrations, that describe what happens to children who misbehave. In my memory, I managed to read just one of these tales. A mother leaving home to do an errand warns her little boy not to suck his thumb while she is gone. When he disobeys – of course he disobeys – the scissors man appears with a pair of tailor’s shears and cuts off the kid’s thumbs. The action, including the blood dripping from the stumps of the boy’s thumbs, is beautifully illustrated in a panel of four drawings.
The book is said to have been immensely popular in its day. Astonishing! I think all copies should be collected in some locked room, entry restricted to students of aberrant psychology and scholars of the Nazi holocaust. I made a small but largely unsuccesful start on that project 62 years ago. I deliberately dropped the book in the narrow space behind the old-fashioned radiator in my bedroom. This ensured that it would be hard for me to look at it again, either by accident or out of perverse curiosity. But for some months at least, the book went on invading my sleep, as if it had itself become a functioning part of the radiator.
When did you know you were a writer?
said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” I prefer John Updike
’s notion: that “a writer who writes only for money” is “a vulgarity.” Long before I had published anything, I called myself a writer. But I don’t think I began to believe it until I got paid for something I wrote.
What does your writing work space look like?
I have two, one in Massachusetts, one in Maine. Both are clean and littered only with paper. No other devices except for a computer and, alas, a phone, but with caller ID. The offices are both situated in such a way that no one can easily look in on me through a window.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I have two:
Stuart Dybek is a wonderfully inventive writer – mainly of poetry and short stories. Many of his stories are set in Chicago. Many have the quality of myth. I like all of his books. I guess I would start with The Coast of Chicago
, or maybe I Sailed With Magellan
The other writer is a young man from the small east African country of Burundi, named Pacifique Irankunda. He has so far published only a single essay (“Playing With Violence,” in The American Scholar
). The essay won a Pushcart Prize, a distinguished debut. He is at work on a book of mingled personal and Burundian history, tentatively titled A Country Near Rwanda
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Some years ago I found myself in Key West with time on my hands and went to see Hemingway
’s villa. It took me back to the days when I ardently tried to imitate him. Solipsistic of me of course, but the place felt redolent of my own adolescence. And I loved the cats that prowled the grounds. Though I have long since found it hard to read a lot of Hemingway’s work, I believe that his short stories stand among the treasures of American literature.
What scares you the most as a writer?
The reader’s loss of faith. For instance, committing errors of tone that are likely to leave readers thinking they understand something I don’t – about the story I’m telling or, even worse, about me.
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
I like grammar. It’s the engine room of language. Of course, parts of the machinery are always being changed. What I don’t like is the substitution or addition of parts that don’t fit – alterations that make for a loss of precision. One of my least favorite examples is the confusion of tenses in the conditional – often heard from sportscasters, as in, “If he had hit the ball harder, he may have had a home run.”
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
Dan Wakefield was helping me to place a piece of writing with The Atlantic Monthly
. He suggested that I try to work with a young editor there named Richard Todd
. He’s still my editor now, 40 years and a great deal of good advice later.
Top Five Books
This is an arbitrary and eclectic list, which leaves out dozens of books I love.
Ossi di Seppia
by Eugenio Montale
, a great 20th-century Italian poet
by Herman Melville
by Edmund Wilson
by William Shakespeare
The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson
÷ ÷ ÷
graduated from Harvard and studied at the University of Iowa. He has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Award, and many other literary prizes. The author of Strength in What Remains
, My Detachment
, Mountains Beyond Mountains
, Home Town
, Old Friends
, Among Schoolchildren
, and The Soul of a New Machine
, Kidder lives in Massachusetts and Maine. His new book, A Truck Full of Money
, will be published in September 2016.