Thursday, January 11, 2007

Adam Hochschild

I am in the thick of writing my book and am wrestling with all sorts of esoteric stuff, like how to manage the transitions between narrative and exposition and how to tell if a primary document like a letter or diary entry or newspaper account can be trusted.

There are lots of seminars and conferences for writers just starting out, but it is almost impossible to find a place to talk about these kinds of thorny issues. I always thought that the Neiman Conference for Narrative Non-Fiction, given every year in Boston during the darkest days of winter, would provide that kind of in-depth discussion. But three people from my writers’ group, North 24thAllison Hoover Bartlett, Julie Flynn, and Katherine Neilan – attended last year and said the organizers presume everyone is writing for a daily newspaper. So the lectures are geared towards getting going on a book, not how to wrestle the demons that attack in the middle.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that the discussion I attended Wednesday at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto was nothing short of wonderful. The Grotto, a collective in the south of market area of San Francisco, is made up of about 40 writers, most of whom have published books, magazine articles, and poetry. The Grotto members also read one another’s work and bring in well-know authors to talk about craft. You can see who has come by examining the autographs on the red walls of the conference room: Gay Talese’s signature is one that stands out.

Yesterday, Adam Hochschild, the author of numerous non-fiction books, including Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in a Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, which was a finalist for a National Book Award, gave a talk at lunch. I was lucky enough to be invited because the level of discussion about non-fiction narrative was the best I have every experienced.

First of all the room was filled with published authors – Jason Roberts, who wrote the biography, A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler, Todd Oppenheimer, who wrote The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved, and Gerard Jones, who wrote Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, among other books. There were many fiction and memoir writers as well: Victor Martinez, Caroline Paul, Rachel Howard, who wrote The Lost Night, Melanie Gideon, the author of Pucker, Julia Scheeres, Marianna Cherry, and others. Neil MacFarquhar, a reporter for the New York Times and the author of The Sand CafĂ©, also dropped by.

Hochschild said it takes him at least four years to complete a book. He usually spends six months reading books on a topic and taking notes. He then makes a detailed outline which involves taping multiple pieces of paper together so he can “draw” a map of the narrative. He puts in rising and falling lines for suspense points in the narrative and the lines cross if he is braiding together different characters. He often takes another piece of paper to outline each chapter and uses even more paper to create a list of characters and their personal timelines.

“Making that outline is possibly the only thing harder than writing a first draft,” said Hochschild.

But once he has completed the outline, he has a good sense of the structure of the book, which is critical to any narrative. “The main thing about structure is to have it,” said Hochschild. “If you don’t have one, (the book) is shapeless and it’s the difference between a mammal and an amoeba.”

Hochschild then spends a year writing a first draft, trying to figure out the ways he can increase the story’s drama and tension. (Don’t give away the end of the story at the beginning, for example). He often thinks of his books like the three acts of a movie: the first part lays out the problem, the second part introduces complications, and the third part leads to resolution. After he finished his draft, he can see the holes in his story and he spends the next two years doing more research and rewriting.

Hochschild has written about many different topics: apartheid in South Africa, King Leopold’s brutal regime in the Congo, the movement to end the international slave trade. He is now working on a book about World War I that weaves the story of the 16,000 conscientious objectors in Britain with that of the generals and commanders who promoted the disastrous practice of trench warfare.

Hochschild’s books are filled with characters whose lives reflect great moral dilemmas. Finding someone to personify an issue is one of the more difficult tasks of journalism. An author sometimes needs to interview dozens of people before finding the one who can bring an issue to life.

Hochschild said he often reads academic texts to finds figures to focus on. Historians often mention people in passing, but the nature of their writing doesn’t lend itself to drawing vivid characters. For example, he was reading an academic text when he came across a reference to a Lord Gardenstone, a Scottish abolitionist with “an unfortunate interest in pigs.” The author noted him briefly, but the mention caught Hochschild’s interest. He soon found out that Gardenstone was obsessed with pigs and he turned into a character in Bury the Chains.

As for my question on how to weave narrative and exposition? Hochschild recommended using as many suspense points as possible to hook the reader. Then he suggested I step back and provide the historical context. The reader will want to know how the story finishes so he will keep on going until the drama plays out.

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