Nonfiction Page Turners
NICK TAYLOR: I’m going to start with Dava. In the acknowledgments for Longitude, you thank various people for introducing you to the lure of longitude. Not many of us would have thought that longitude had a lure. Can you describe how the lure coalesced into your story?
DAVA SOBEL: When I first heard that there was going to be a longitude symposium with all the world’s experts in attendance, I thought there’d be maybe five people. I didn’t understand what there could be about that subject that would occasion the gathering of about 500 individuals. But I went to cover the symposium and learned that the boring lines on maps and globes were actually a matter of life or death for centuries. And that for a long time it was impossible to determine one’s longitude, especially at sea. The entire Age of Exploration had been carried out without anyone ever knowing where he was, which is a sobering thought.
At the heart of this issue was a scientific problem that had engaged the world’s greatest scientists, including Galileo and Newton, over a period of several centuries, without success. Then a self-educated clock maker from the north of England crawled out of the woodwork and did what no one else could do. So there was also a human-interest story at the heart of it. One doesn’t often find something quite that appealing in science, a real underdog who manages to upset the establishment without ever compromising his own integrity. It was a great story before I wrote the first word.
TAYLOR: At what point in your research did you figure out that it was going to be not just a magazine story, which you originally wrote, but a book.
SOBEL: I didn’t know that until the magazine article was published. It took me over a year and many rejections from editors who said they couldn’t think of anything more boring than a story about longitude. Every magazine I was writing for turned me down, including Harvard Magazine, where I was a contributing editor, and the symposium was taking place at Harvard. I gave up on it. Two days before the start of the meeting, the editor called to tell me that there were 500 people on the campus and that he’d convinced the rest of the magazine board that I could make it interesting somehow. So would I please drop everything and come up after all?
I broke the cardinal rule of science writing, and went up there without knowing anything about the subject. I couldn’t have asked an intelligent question if my life depended on it. Fortunately for me, the symposium was excellent and I learned a great deal. I had my chin on the floor for three days. That made it very easy to write. In fact, I was so excited I was actually writing notes on the steering wheel of my car as I drove home. I didn’t think of turning it into a book, but Harvard Magazine goes to a lot of interesting people, including my current editor at Walker, George Gibson, who read the article and told me the next day he thought this could be a book. That was the first extraordinary thing that happened.
TAYLOR: And now it’s in its 27th hardcover printing, correct?
SOBEL: Yes. And we’re about to have a 10th anniversary edition with a foreword by Neil Armstrong.
TAYLOR: For all of us who have walls papered with rejection slips, that’s another story to give us heart. Let me turn now to Sebastian Junger. Sebastian, you write about going into the Crow’s Nest bar in Gloucester, Massachusetts for the first time after the storm. And you wrote, “I was just a guy with pen and paper and an idea for a book.” That idea had formed during the storm itself when you watched these 30-foot swells and you read the next day of a fishing boat being lost. That was all it took, you wrote. How did the idea move from that first day watching the swells and then reading about the Andrea Gail to the moment you walked into the bar ready to ask questions.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: I went through my twenties unable to make anything close to a living as a writer, so I did a lot of different jobs. I waited a lot of tables, but I eventually moved on to a great profession, which was as a climber for tree companies. It was very, very lucrative, and I could work just a day or two a week. It was work I really loved. I’d work 80 feet in the air with a chainsaw on a rope taking trees down. Rigging them over houses and taking them down in pieces. It was tremendous work. But I hurt myself. I whacked my left leg with a chainsaw. It didn’t do permanent damage but I was limping for a while and I was about to turn 30. I was living in Gloucester, and I just realized my life wasn’t taking off the way we all imagine our lives will. While I was having these gloomy thoughts, limping around Gloucester thinking I better get out of the tree business, this huge storm hit. I watched these seas come in and destroy the fancy houses with the view that always get destroyed in ocean storms. I guess it was the next day that I found out that a Gloucester boat had gone down. I thought maybe I’ll write a book about dangerous jobs. The idea was sort of a way to combine my injury with what I learned about the tragedy of this boat. So commercial fishing was going to be one chapter. I was going to do a chapter on logging, another on drilling for oil. I felt there were a lot of industries that the nation depended on that killed people or maimed them regularly and that none of these people were being honored in any way or even acknowledged.
So initially I was going to write a collection on dangerous work, but the chapter on commercial fishing turned into a book proposal. It was probably a year before I went into the Crow’s Nest, something like that.
TAYLOR: You describe a little bit of difficulty in asking the questions, in feeling comfortable with the people, because of their insularity.
JUNGER: It’s a feeling I think everyone probably knows, whether you’re going in to ask difficult questions or not. You go into a neighborhood bar in a tough neighborhood, which is what the Crow’s Nest looked like, and all the heads turn when you step in the door. On top of it, I was going in there to ask the woman bartender, whose son had died on the Andrea Gail, about the death of her son. I’m not a fisherman, and I’m not from Gloucester, and I imagined a very, very cold reception at best.
TAYLOR: You didn’t know these people whose lives you then told about.
JUNGER: No, I didn’t know them personally. I knew I wanted to find out about this boat, and that the mother of one of these guys worked at the Crow’s Nest. I thought that was a good starting point and it was. But it was very hard to go in there and order a beer and say, Listen, I’m here to ask about your dead son. That was terribly, terribly hard. One thing that worked for me, other than that I think I’m basically a respectful and polite person, is that I was always in working clothes. I was living on Cape Cod, and going into Boston to do a day’s worth of tree work because I had an arrangement with several different tree companies in Boston. I’d go in, do a day’s worth of tree work, be covered in sawdust, and then go back to Gloucester and spend the night. It wasn’t intentional but I would go into that bar really looking like one of them. And my line to Ethel Shatford was, Look, I do a dangerous job. I know your son did. I know he died. I’ve been injured doing it. I want to write about dangerous work. Can you help me find out about commercial fishing because I don’t know anything about it?
I feel that if you go to someone saying, You have a very special knowledge about something and I want to know what you know, I want to learn from you, they are really flattered, and particularly if you are sincere. Someone like Ethel Shadford was not used to thinking that her experience was something of value, something a writer might want to set to paper. In a way it’s a very honoring idea. You have to be genuine about it, but it really does get people to open up.
TAYLOR: Melissa, your work focuses on issues, primarily racism and injustice, and how people respond to them. You say you witnessed the events that led to Praying for Sheetrock while you were working for Savannah Legal Services in Savannah, Georgia. Could you describe those events briefly and tell us what prompted you to believe there was a book.
MELISSA FAY GREENE: I’m from Macon, Georgia, originally; spent the accent-forming years of my childhood in Ohio; graduated from Oberlin College; and returned to Georgia in the summer of 1975. I started work with the Savannah Legal Aid office just as things were heating up in a coastal county south of us: McIntosh County. The majority-black population was stirring for the first time against the power-holding white minority. People suspected the all-white county school board of diverting public funds from the all-black public schools to the all-white private schools. I was 22 and wearing pantyhose every day for the first time in my life. I had studied the civil rights movement in college and assumed it was over. It was in the American history textbooks already; I’d taken exams on the subject and had done nicely. But I began to accompany our circuit-riding lawyers south to McIntosh and discovered people packed into hot little wooden churches, singing gospel songs, signing petitions, organizing boycotts, and bringing lawsuits.
In those years, Sheriff Tom Poppell controlled everything that breathed in McIntosh County; had done so since his daddy, the first Sheriff Poppell, had died in 1948; and even though he was the chief law officer in the county, had been labeled by the FBI and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, “armed and dangerous.” The only way to travel through McIntosh County was on old State Route 17, because Sheriff Poppell was blocking the completion of Interstate 95. Yankees trying to cross Georgia for their Florida vacations were obliged to travel through McIntosh, where the truck stop was really a house of prostitution and the fruit-stands were really gambling joints. Vacationing Yank¬ees were the main source of income in McIntosh County.
The famous speed trap of Ludowici was in Long County, next door. For 30 years, it had the honor of being named the worst speed trap in the United States by the AAA. Yankees who detoured around McIntosh drove through Ludowici, where the speed limit dropped from 60 to about 15 in the blink of an eye. They soon made the acquaintance of the Long County sheriff’s department instead.
The first thing I heard about McIntosh County in the summer of ’75 was the wreck of the Snickers candy truck. The S&S truck stop in McIntosh lured truckers from across the United States. They used to say that truckers traveling from Detroit to New York would manage to detour through McIntosh County and stop at the S&S. While a trucker was being entertained in a trailer out back, locals could pry open his truck, help themselves, then seal it up again. A semi-trailer carrying a load of Snickers wrecked on its way through the county. Someone from the state Department of Agriculture condemned the truckload as inedible and that was the end of it—until Snickers started surfacing up and down the coast. There was a period of a few weeks during which the only snack you could get anywhere was a Snickers, illegally sold, with kickbacks to the sheriff’s office. The Legal Aid staff all circuit-rode to clients’ houses; formerly a client would offer you a glass of sweet iced tea and a slice of cake. For a few weeks there, all anyone would give you was Snickers, sometimes unappetizingly displayed on a plate with the wrapper already folded down. I later learned that an effective line of questioning for subjects I interviewed was: “Loot any trucks in your childhood?”
TAYLOR: We’re going to talk about The Temple Bombing in a little bit, but I want to turn now to Hampton Sides. You wrote in Ghost Soldiers about the Bataan Death March, about which most people who know anything about World War II and the Pacific have heard. But hardly anybody, I think, stopped to ask what became of the survivors and even fewer knew that those survivors had been rescued by a commando raid of Army Rangers. Did you go looking for a story like this or did it somehow come to you?
HAMPTON SIDES: I think the best stories often start very close to home, and that was certainly the case with Ghost Soldiers. I live in Santa Fe, and I was at the time working as an editor for Outside magazine. We cover all kinds of stuff having to do with the outdoor world. But we also tend to cover, maybe with a slightly jaundiced eye, a phenomenon that I came to call synthetic suffering. The idea of people crossing deserts, and crossing oceans in bathtubs, and pogo-sticking up mountains, just so they could be first. We got wind of an event that was happening in New Mexico called the Bataan Memorial Death March. I thought, what? Were they going to try to re-create the original and have bayonetings and beheadings? Luckily, that was not the case. I did not realize that more people from New Mexico than any other state had been killed in the Bataan Death March because they had taken an entire National Guard unit from the state and sent it to the Philippines just before the war started. So all over the state of New Mexico, which is tiny in terms of population, there are memorials, highways, museums and libraries named after Bataan. They have this event every year on the anniversary of the surrender of Bataan. Bataan was the largest surrender in American military history after Appomattox.
I went down there to cover the event. It turns out there are no beheadings but it is a 26-mile military marathon in the sand. You have to wear a 35-pound pack on your back and you have to cross the finish line as a team of five. But they also allow what they call memorial walkers. And there was a guy who was at the time 79 or 80 years old who had been at Bataan, and he wanted to walk in memory of his comrades. So I joined him and started hearing what happened at Bataan. As you said, Nick, everyone knows about the Bataan Death March, but few people know where they were marched to, or what happened to them after that. Their ordeal really began after the march. They were in prison camp for nearly three years, where most of them died. Only a very lucky few were rescued. The gentleman I walked with, Winston Shillito, told me about the rescue. He told it to me like, Oh yeah, you know about the rescue. Everyone knows about that. But I’d never heard about it. By the time the walk was over, and we crossed the finish line together, I knew that I had a book. It was a proposal written over 26 miles of desert. We have this idea that you have to search high and low, cross the world to find the right book idea. But often it is right in your backyard. Once you get the idea it may take you around the world. It may take you to the Philippines and Japan and everywhere else. But start locally if at all possible.
TAYLOR: What all of you have said is, if you follow your curiosity you’re likely to uncover something that’s going to lead to a wonderful story and therefore to a wonderful book. But what all these books have in common is that they contain more than one story. I want to ask Dava if Longitude is not only about the man who invented the marine chronometer, but also the story of the most challenging problem of the time.
SOBEL: One of the problems in structuring Longitude was setting up the background. I had to deal with about 300 years of background, which is a very awkward problem for a book. I finally decided to start with an opening chapter that would tell the whole story in brief so that people could decide whether it was of interest to them. Some of my early readers were very troubled by the fact that the main character didn’t really appear until chapter six. Structuring a book is really the hardest part, I think. Usually you get to do that in the proposal, but because Longitude started as a magazine article and I didn’t have to write a proposal to sell it as a book, I was suddenly writing a book without a proposal. So I wrote one for myself. I thought about it a long time, but I really didn’t see any way around that odd structure. I think the terms of your story actually govern the way the book is structured. You can’t fit every story into this or that formula.
TAYLOR: Sebastian, you also told two stories at least: Bobbie Shatford and the crew of the Andrea Gail, and the storm itself. There was also the equally dramatic story of the downed rescue helicopter that flew out of Montauk and the para-rescue jumper whose life was lost. That seems to be a lot of balls to keep in the air. How did you do it?
JUNGER: It took a while for me to figure out how to structure it. I had this idea for the Andrea Gail chapter of showing the narrowing of their options. Then I would have a chapter on their life in Gloucester, how they were getting ready to go out on this trip and who they were and their girlfriends, etc. The last month would be chapter two, and I’d talk about fishing. It’s a one-month trip, there’s plenty of opportunity for them to sort of avoid their fate. I saw their story as a sort of funnel heading toward an inevitable end. Then there was the last week. In that part I thought, I could talk about the weather, because the storm was gathering force over the course of the week they died. Then there’s the last day, when the storm hits them. Then the last hour, where I talk about the 100-foot seas they were in. Then the last minute, how they died: The boat sank and they drowned.
I thought it was kind of an interesting concept except the book should end at the last minute and it doesn’t. I had this whole rescue to go through. And later an Air National Guard helicopter dropped into the sea because it ran out of fuel and all but one of the crew were saved. Very, very dramatic. But I wasn’t quite sure how to weld those together. There was also a rescue on a sailboat, so actually there were about three stories. I thought all right, I’m just going to go completely chronologically. So halfway into the story of the Andrea Gail, somewhere in the chapter that would be the last week, I’m going to mention the sailboat that left Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and then I’m going to drop them. I had an idea of the time line that progressed day by day and hour by hour, and as the different threads of three different stories popped up, I would introduce them and then I would drop them again and they would pop up again more fully formed. By the end, I was juggling three stories at once because they were all happening simultaneously. That was the only solution I could think of.
TAYLOR: At what point did The Perfect Storm become the title of the book?
JUNGER: The storm was also sort of a character in the book. I’d read a great book by Alec Wilkinson called A Violent Act, about a serial killer who careened through the Midwest and killed a number of people. I thought, that’s the book I’m writing except my serial killer’s a storm. The storm was what unified everyone. It sucked these people in and spat some of them out alive and it killed others and then it moved on. So I felt that the title had to focus on the one element common to all of these people’s experiences, which was the storm. Luckily a meteorologist who I was sort of harassing for an explanation of the storm that I could actually understand, was very patient with me, explaining why this was such a bad storm. I didn’t get it and I didn’t get it, and finally, in frustration, he said, Look, it was a perfect storm, it had this, this, this, this, and this. It was a while yet before I fully understood the meteorology of it, if I ever did completely, but that phrase obviously lodged itself in my mind and I thought, That’s a great title for the book.
SOBEL: I have a question for Sebastian. When I read your book I was very impressed with the way you handled the things you didn’t know. No one knew what the crew’s final hours were like, what actually happened to the ship, and I felt that you managed to tell it anyway. How did you approach writing that?
JUNGER: The terrifying part of writing this book was that the boat left port and then very little information came in over the next month about what actually happened. There were a few radio contacts, but almost no real information, and zero information the last 24 hours. If I were a novelist, I would have novelized all that, but then it wouldn’t be journalism. Just because it’s narrative nonfiction doesn’t mean you can bend the rules any more than you would in a newspaper or magazine. It’s just a question of what you do with these facts that you come up with. You have these building blocks of facts, and you can pile them up in a way that says newspaper article or you can pile them up in a way that has a narrative structure and a rise of tension and a falling of tension. That’s what I wanted to do but how? How do you handle these holes in the story?
Right before I wrote the book I read a book called The Hot Zone, and the author had a similar problem. There were things he couldn’t have known. One of his characters had died of the marburg virus, I think. At the very beginning of the book, he writes something like, “One could imagine Mr. So-and-so walking down this path on his plantation looking up to the west at the sunset, lighting the mountains behind.” Because he wrote “One can imagine,” he’s not stating fact. He’s saying to the reader, Look, none of us here knows what he was doing that afternoon but we can entertain ourselves with imagining that he might have done this, and that’s true. There’s no violation of journalistic rules.
The other solution to the hole in the story is to find other people with a similar experience. I found a guy whose fishing boat sank in 70-foot seas and he survived and I interviewed him. In the book I basically say to the reader, Look, we’ll never know what happened on the Andrea Gail, but we can get a pretty good idea by talking to this guy, Ernie Hazard, who sank in almost identical circumstances, but lived. So we can ask him, What were you thinking when you were underwater in a capsized boat a hundred miles out at sea at night in 70-foot breaking seas, absolutely sure you were going to drown? What was going through your mind? His answer is probably very close to what was going through the minds of the men on the Andrea Gail. And as long as you say to the reader what you’re doing, as long as there’s full transparency, you’re fine.
TAYLOR: Because the imagination works so well, and the reader can substitute a little bit of his or her imagination as well.
JUNGER: Yes. If one person had survived, you would have their story and that’s it. I would never have had to interview Ernie Hazard. I probably wouldn’t have found out that much about the meteorology. Those other things probably ended up being more interesting than if I could have somehow interviewed someone on that boat. That’s my guess, anyway.
TAYLOR: Let me skip over to Hampton for a minute. Did you ever have to imagine anything that went on during the rescue?
SIDES: There was not much left to the imagination because everybody remembered that night so vividly that when I began to interview people the details poured out. And although there were conflicts and seeming contradictions, everyone basically remembered the same thing. The biggest problem I had with Ghost Soldiers was that, chronologically, the major part of the experience was a prison camp situation. But then I began to wonder, how is the reader going to stick with me through three years of dysentery, three years of beriberi, three years of malaria? I was casting around for ways to ventilate that material, and I kept thinking, Well, we’ll cut to Washington, we’ll cut to the hometowns of these men and find out what their families knew and what they were thinking. Or maybe we’ll cut to Tokyo and try to get inside the heads of the Imperial Army, why they were treating American prisoners of war so badly. When I started writing the book, I was most excited about the rescue, which chronologically belongs at the very end of the book. I knew that I had strong material. I knew that the rescue was the light at the end of the tunnel, and for that reason I began to write the ending first. The one or two chapters became three, became four, became five, because one of the things about narrative is that pages start piling up very quickly. The pages about those three years in prison camp were piling up very slowly, because their memories weren’t that good about individual days. But everybody remembered every detail of the rescue night, hour by hour, minute by minute. Suddenly I realized I had six or seven chapters just about the rescue and that that was what I would use to ventilate the prison camp experience, cutting back and forth between the two stories, with essentially two narratives and two time lines: one of three years, one of three days. Near the end of the book they finally intersect and the two narratives become one.
But the biggest issue I had was finding the story within the story. I think a big narrative often has to have a central core narrative that is simple to understand, that has a drive to it, a compelling arc, and that’s what I discovered this rescue was. It allowed me to tell the horrible story of the dysentery, of the brutality, of the beheadings, without fear that the readers were going to give up on me. I think the two stories almost depend on each other.
TAYLOR: Back to you, Melissa. By contrast with Praying for Sheetrock, which takes place in the seventies and tells the story of the growing empowerment of the black community in McIntosh County, The Temple Bombing and Last Men Out go back into the fifties, to perhaps harsher times of racism. In a way those stories seem obvious, but the bombing of the temple in Atlanta seems to have awakened that city to a larger danger outside its gates almost in a way that 9/11 awakened the United States to the danger from Islamic terrorism. I wondered if that was the story you felt you had going in to the temple bombing.
GREENE: I love hearing these authors talk about wrestling with the structures of their books. The older I get, and with every book I write, I find that the most important thing is what the bones of the book are going to be, what the structure is.
TAYLOR: Talk about that.
GREENE: I didn’t know much about structure with Praying for Sheetrock. An amazing, classically structured story just fell into my lap. I didn’t read Aristotle’s Poetics until many years later and realized that in my late twenties, early thirties, I had lucked into a subject—Thurnell Alston, leader of the McIntosh County black community—who was a perfect Aristotelian hero, which is to say that he was a good man but not a perfect man. He did wrong things, but he wasn’t an evil man; he was human. Unfortunately, I hadn’t read Aristotle by the time I looked into the story of the bombing of the Temple on Peachtree Street in Atlanta in October 1948 (part of the massive white resistance to desegregation). In my second book, The Temple Bombing, my two main characters would not have been smiled upon by Aristotle. I had a righteous, justice-seeking rabbi, Jacob Rothschild. And I had this kind of smarmy, sneaky, small-eyed neo-Nazi named George Bright, who lived in a house with all the doors boarded up. The two of them started on these separate paths of goodness and evil and, by the end of the book, they were still on their separate parallel paths of good and evil. I think the book worked to whatever extent it did because of the ups and downs of the various communities within Atlanta—the German Jews, the Russian Jews, the labor union Jews, the black intelligentsia, the black clergy, the white clergy, the white country club class, and so on.
TAYLOR: Including the way it responded to the bombing?
GREENE: White Atlanta tried to behave decently. It was poised on the verge not of universal social equality, but of “maybe we’ll let the Jews in.” “Maybe Jews are white.” “Not as white as Episcopalians.” “But kind of white.” And it brought city leaders and city thinkers to the dangerous edge of the cliff of: “If we let the Jews in, can the Negroes be far behind?”
It was a fascinating time. I accidentally wrote two books in a row about the same month. Both The Temple Bombing and Last Man Out (about a famous coal mine disaster in Springhill, Nova Scotia) are set in October, 1958. I spent almost a decade of my life on October 1958. My husband guarantees that eventually I’ll be a question on the SAT test. What late 20th century author . . .?
TAYLOR: Any structural problems from those two books that you care to talk about?
GREENE: Yes! Last Man Out had the worst aesthetic problem I ever hope to see, although Dava’s 300 years of history sounds tough, as does Hampton’s three years in a prison camp. I had 18 men trapped in a sealed-up coal mine a vertical mile underground. The removal of so many tons of coal over so many years left a hollowed-out underground maze in Springhill; on this day, October 12, 1958, the thinned walls of the mine finally yielded to the explosive pressure from the core of the earth; the walls collapsed, allowing the stone floors to rise one by one and smash into the stone ceilings. It was like a skyscraper falling in reverse—the fifth floor rising to smash into the sixth floor—and men worked on all of those floors. Most of the miners were killed, but there were two groups of men who were trapped separately for a week.
Because we’re in New York City, I’ll mention that I started the book before 9/11, and afterwards my editor and I realized there were elements that seemed to be universal about disasters. For example, in both the mine disaster and the attack of 9/11, there was a moment when the hospitals were cleared to make way for survivors and everybody came running to help and people gave blood and ambulances waited, and everybody was ready to help the survivors . . . and then there weren’t survivors. People either escaped right away or they died there. So there was this terrible time lag when everything was in readiness, and nobody came out.
The aesthetic problem was that after three days underground, the miners’ head-lamps ran out of batteries. They sat in complete darkness, without food, without water. So I’ve got two groups of men deep underground, seven trapped in one hole, 12 in another. They’re all coal miners, they all grew up in this town, their accents are the same, and there’s no light. I realized I should have written this as a radio play. You’ve got nothing but voices. And the voices sound alike.
“It’s really dark down here.”
“Yeah, it’s dark.”
It was a difficult problem. I had to find out what the men were talking about. I spent most of my time on that book reading the transcripts of the interviews over and over and over. I wanted to know the men so well that if someone was crying about his wife, saying that he missed his wife, then it had to be this guy. If it was another guy saying, I bet she’s got someone else in her bed already, well, you know it was this guy.
TAYLOR: Dava, with regard to Galileo’s Daughter, at what point in reading Sister Maria Celeste’s letters to her father did you realize there was a book?
SOBEL: I first found out about the letters while I was writing Longitude because Galileo was one the people who tried to solve the longitude problem. There was a scholarly treatise written on all his work on time-keeping and longitude—the things that never got him into trouble with the church. The author of the book was Silvio Bedini, who as an Italian-American had translated one of the daughter’s letters for that book. The letter was about how the clock in the convent was broken and now they didn’t have a way to be awakened during the night to start the new round of prayers. I was dumbstruck by this. First of all, I never knew Galileo had children. And the daughters were nuns. I went to school in New York City, and we were always taught that Galileo was the great enemy of the Catholic Church, that he put all that religion and superstitious stuff behind him to become the first scientist. But he had two daughters in a convent. If he did all the things he did as a good Catholic, it’s even more interesting. I was raised Jewish in the Bronx, but the story absolutely fascinated me. Then I found out that the rest of the letters were still in Italian. At that moment I realized there had been a reason for my taking Italian in college 30 years before, besides the fact that my roommate wanted me to wake up at the same time as she did. So I thought it would be worth trying to revive my Italian, translate these letters and try to look at Galileo’s story again through the lens of his religious faith. So it was a book in that first moment. I thought, if there’s any way to get at this material this is the best thing I’ve ever heard. Then I went to some Galileo scholars because I knew this was going to be a lot of work, years maybe, and I needed some encouragement. I also didn’t want to bumble into their turf. So I asked a few people and got very positive responses, such as, Oh, I’ve always wanted to do that, I’ve always wanted to translate the daughter’s letters. And someone said to me, If all you do is translate them and make them available to students and history of science, that’s time well spent. Then he said, When you read those letters, they’ll break your heart. So I knew it was good.
TAYLOR: How hard was the translation given your college Italian?
SOBEL: Well, I had to go back to school and I took all the courses offered at the local adult education center, and then I got the teacher, who was a retired Italian professor who actually had a Catholic girlhood in Italy, to become a consultant.
TAYLOR: Did it surprise you that they’d never been translated before?
SOBEL: It surprised me very much. There had been an English book written in the 1800s about Galileo’s private life that was based on these letters and it quoted large chunks of them, but they had never been published in their entirety in any other language. I think that’s just a question of the times. She was just a girl, she was not a scientist, but she was a magnificent writer, and that alone made it interesting. Of course her relationship with that father made them extremely interesting. People often think it must have been some kind of weird, medieval Italian, but it wasn’t. It was just a different time, a time of very great writing. The sentences were so long. And to think, it’s all first draft, and she was constantly interrupted while she was writing, and yet every single sentence came down on its feet. I was mighty impressed by that. I think I absorbed some of her complications. I’ve never tested this, but I would bet that the sentences in Galileo’s Daughter are twice as long as the sentences in Longitude.
TAYLOR: I’m sure somebody has a computer program that can figure that out. Sebastian, Fire includes two stories of forest fires in the American West and reports from the war zones in the Balkans, Africa and Afghanistan. Surely some of these were written under deadline. I wonder if you felt more pressure to find the story in these circumstances than when you were writing A Perfect Storm, and if you feel you were successful?
JUNGER: It depends on the story. I have a contract with Vanity Fair to go overseas and report on a political situation, usually in an unstable country. I started doing that in Bosnia in ’93. I was then determined to write the book on dangerous jobs, and one of the chapters was going to be on war correspondents. I bought a ticket to Zagreb and I had a backpack, a sleeping bag, a notebook and some pens. I thought I’m just going to hang out with war reporters and I’ll either write a chapter about them or if I don’t manage to sell this book maybe I can learn how to become one of them. That really hooked me on foreign reporting, so I started doing these assignments. Basically, if you go into a country at war, like Sierra Leone or Kosovo, the story is, Why is the country at war and how can it be stopped? Of course things happen while you’re there, which might produce a different sort of narrative, but that’s the basic premise.
When I went to Afghanistan, it was to profile Ahmed Shah Massoud of the Northern Alliance, a year before 9/11. That was the only real profile I ever did. He was this brilliant guy, a very compassionate human, a mystic, an educated person who devoted his whole life to fighting war. I asked him why. He said, because war is so bad that I’m fighting to end this war.
TAYLOR: I want to ask all of you about self-editing. Hampton, you’re an editor. How hard is it to edit your own work? What you can tell us about self-editing?
SIDES: I think having been an editor is great for writing. People who know me say that I have no problem ripping up 20, 30, 40, 50 pages of my stuff at a time. I don’t get wedded to my material the way I did when I was a kid or when I was in college. It’s important because there’s not a whole lot of editing going on in the publishing world these days. Editors are very, very busy and they’re strapped for time, as we all know. I’m lucky that I have a very good editor now, but in previous projects there just wasn’t time. So you either hire someone to do it or you do it yourself. I actually enjoy taking a chainsaw to a manuscript and cutting it down. It’s not as bloody as that, actually. If you know what you’re doing, you don’t see the cuts at all, and you don’t miss them. In fact, the piece is better because of it.
Questions from the audience
Q: Can you tell us something about marketing once you have a good manuscript?
JUNGER: I think serious marketing typically comes on the heels of an initial success. When Clinton writes his autobiography, of course they plan a big marketing campaign. But certainly my publisher had no expectations that my book would do well at all, and, frankly, neither did I. There started to be some rumbling, and then the sales force at Norton read the book and thought, Oh we think we can sell this pretty hard. It slowly built from there, but the marketing followed the success rather than the other way around.
TAYLOR: Dava, you also said you were surprised by the success of Longitude.
SOBEL: I was very surprised, but only because I thought it was such a weird story, the kind of thing my mother would read and maybe a few friends. While I was writing it, people would say, What are you working on? I’d say I’m writing a book about longitude, and they’d look down. Nobody knew what to say to me. But although there was no budget for promotion, my publisher talked about the book to everybody, and that made a huge difference. He published it beautifully, and there was a lot of editing, I must say. I definitely agree with Hampton that there is precious little editing going on, and if you’re lucky enough to have an editor who will rip your book apart and tell you why, that’s a very good thing. I was told when I turned in the manuscript of Galileo’s Daughter that it just didn’t work and I had to rewrite it.
TAYLOR: Did you?
SOBEL: I did. And he was right.
Q: How do each of you sustain the passion of the story you are telling?
SIDES: In my case it was easy because there was kind of an internal deadline; the men I was interviewing were dying in the course of the research. I felt a sense of urgency that mirrored the sense of urgency that the rangers felt—that they had to rescue these men because they feared that the Japanese were going to massacre them. I also think it helps a lot to have an editor who’s really not kidding about the deadline. It gets harder when you’re writing about things that are really old. My next book is about the Indian Wars of the Southwest and the Navajos and Kit Carson. I’m getting in deep and I’m thinking what’s the rush? This happened 150 years ago, everyone is not only dead but good and dead. I think that’s a problem with history; when you get beyond the twilight of history into true history, sustaining the sense of urgency is harder, and urgency is key to completing the thing.
TAYLOR: But the passion for the material remains. Does anybody else want to respond to that question?
GREENE: I reached a point with Last Man Out during which I would line up my pens, coffee and notebook; open the notebook; glance over what I wrote the day before; then get up and go do the laundry. That lasted for a couple of years. It was awful. I wrote the first draft of Praying for Sheetrock in about nine months. The book I’m just finishing I will have written in a little over a year. With Temple Bombing I got in so deep that the manuscript grew gigantic. It kept taking on more scenes and characters. I had a recurring nightmare that I was in charge of an enormous ship like the Queen Elizabeth; I was the only person on the ship and I was also the only person in the harbor and I was trying to get this tremendous vessel into harbor by myself and I couldn’t bring it in.
The Temple Bombing manuscript was due the winter of ’95 because, just after I signed the contract with the publisher, the City of Atlanta snared the 1996 Olympics. The editors suddenly realized they were sitting on an Atlanta book.
Naturally, if millions of people are coming to Atlanta for international sporting events, they are going to want to read about a 40-year-old hate crime!
Atlanta was insane with boosterism. Everyone was promoting Atlanta; we were mowing our lawns, painting our fences, entering slogan competitions. (“Atlanta: Better than Birmingham” was a slogan that didn’t win. Another was: “Come to Atlanta. Maybe You Won’t Get Robbed.” And another: “Atlanta: We got the Olympics and You Didn’t.”)
Meanwhile there was a PR meeting in Boston about the marketing plan for The Temple Bombing and they unfolded this huge poster—so happily—which read: “Hate. Violence. Racism. Atlanta.”
“Oh no!” I cried. “They’re going to shoot me back in Atlanta! You can’t imagine how obsessed we are at home with positive images.” I tried to convince them to edit the PR campaign to read: “Hate. Racism. Synchronized Swimming. Atlanta.”
Q: I’d like advice on how you deal with too much material. I am just finishing a book and for parts of it I have too much archival material, which itself disagrees.
TAYLOR: Hampton might want to respond to that with an answer having to do with his chainsaw.
SIDES: Don’t be afraid to cut, and if you can’t do it yourself, hire somebody to do it for you.
Q: A number of the memoirs contradict one another. How would you handle it?
GREENE: I think it’s very hard for us to know, writing in 2005, what will make sense to readers in the future. It’s very risky to cut elements of the story when they don’t correspond to the way you perceive the big picture. I think you must embrace those contradictions and preserve them. Sometimes those unwieldy pieces are the ones that lead you to new insight.
But I know the feeling! You’ve got the whole thing laid out—you’ve got the beginning, the middle, and the end—and then here’s this piece sitting off the main line and it doesn’t work. Do you delete it?
In the Springhill mine disaster, there was one black miner in the group. After the rescue, reporters looking for stories of heroism gleaned that the “Afro-Canadian” miner, Maurice Ruddick, had led hymns in the darkness underground. It became their lead story—“the singing miner” who’d kept up the spirits of the rest. He became Canada’s Man of the Year and the subject of a TV documentary. Maurice Ruddick, the singing miner, is a household name in Canada. On his gravestone it reads, The Singing Miner. My editor wanted the book to be called The Singing Miner.
I am a year or two into the research and have begun writing the book when I get access for the first time to an old survivor. I spend hours and hours with him—he’s poor, he’s illiterate, he’s got no teeth, and he’s chain-smoking. I’ve asked him everything under the sun. I’m done. I’m closing up, I’ve turned off the tape recorder, I’ve zipped up the briefcase, I’m leaving, and suddenly he says: “I didn’t hear no singing.”
I’m halfway out the door already. I turn and say, “I beg your pardon?”
“I didn’t hear no singing.”
“You didn’t hear any singing?”
“You didn’t hear Maurice Ruddick leading everyone in song?”
“Maybe I was somewhere else,” he says.
“Where else would you have been?” I cry. They were walled into a cave about the size of this table.
The temptation is strong to pretend I didn’t just hear this. My rental car is waiting in the driveway; the keys are in my hand; in an hour I can be at the airport. I pause, then I step back inside. I unzip the briefcase. I haul out the tape recorder.
And it led me down a completely different path of understanding of what had happened underground. Maurice Ruddick had been a leader underground, but it hadn’t been by singing. He’d been calm, he’d been reasonable, he’d been an intellectual and spiritual leader. But the story got told, by his mates and by the reporters—this is 1958, you’ll recall—as if he’d been Al Jolson. How could a black man lead a group of white men in 1958? Well, he must have been entertaining them, right? So don’t be afraid of those contradictions; face them, even if it completely throws off your schedule.
SIDES: Just be honest. Say there are these contradictions and acknowledge them. I think if there were violent contradictions that might be a problem, but otherwise I think it’s fair game as long as you’re honest about it.
TAYLOR: With the phrase, on the one hand and on the other.
Q: You must have had an enormous amount of contradictions in your interviews, right? One guy saying it happened at twelve-thirty, the next guy says it was five-thirty. How did you handle those?
SIDES: If we were to have an accident out front here, a car accident or something, everyone of us would have a slightly different version of the event. In Ghost Soldiers, especially when they were describing that night, everybody had a different vantage point. It was dark outside. There was a lot of gunfire. There were mortars going off. There were grenades going off. There was a major firefight a mile away that was extremely loud and very confusing. So naturally, everybody concerned had a slightly different way of remembering it. I think there are two ways to handle it. One is, if someone remembered something radically different, which happened, it ended up on the cutting room floor because I couldn’t reconcile it. If it seemed to fit with the preponderance of the information I was getting from other interviews, I kept it. If it was an interesting contradiction, and sometimes a contradiction is quite interesting, especially a memory that is 50 years old, then it was a part of the story. As long as you can quote people, and say, This is the way this source remembered it, then I think you’re on firm ground and you can use memory to your advantage. I also think that if it’s interesting, you should put it in the narrative and if it’s really dull put it in footnotes.
Q: It seems to me that anecdotes are the motor of many books. I’ll ask all of you, but in particular Dava Sobel, who probably had more difficulty with that, where do you get the anecdotes, how do you find them and how do you get started?
SOBEL: Anecdotes about the long dead, is that your question?
Q: In Longitude. How do you get anecdotes about a man who not only left no diary but—
SOBEL: Right. No diaries, no letters. Well, I had to say that there was very little known about him. And it was only what other people thought of him and said about his methods. And then there were the machines themselves, which said a lot about him.
Q: I’m interested in your thoughts on how to structure a narrative with many different voices. When are too many voices involved in narrative?
GREENE: I have two authors upon whom I have leaned when in desperate narrative shape. One is Aristotle; the other is a Hungarian writer, Lajos Egri, who wrote books about dramatic structure.
Egri helps me think of my story in its simplest outline. He makes me realize that, if you’re watching a play, you really don’t want to see 30 main characters on stage at once, unless it’s a kindergarten musical and your son is one of the sharks. You want someone to care about. You want someone in opposition. You want a story-line which can be simply told.
If I find myself, unhappily, at a crowded cocktail party or reception, and scores of people are milling about with drinks, and waiters circulate with platters of hors d’oeuvres, and some group by the windows is laughing uproariously, and a band is tuning up, someone inevitably will sidle up to me and shout over the noise: “What are you working on now?”
So I think, OK, here we go again. But it’s a fair challenge: How can I tell the story of my book project (which is absorbing years of my life) in a sound bite shouted between bites of a wild mushroom phyllo triangle?
A writer had better be able to do it. Because if you don’t have a story line that can be told—even shouted —in under 30 seconds; if you don’t have a story line that will cause distracted listeners to stop chewing for a moment and lean forward to hear you, then you may not have a book. If cocktail party listeners aren’t transfixed by your tale for a minute or two, your 300-page opus is going nowhere.
JUNGER: I would put it even more strongly. I don’t think there should be debate about it. There’s journalism, there’s nonfiction, and there’s fiction. As soon as you fictionalize something in a piece of journalism, it becomes fiction. That’s fine as long as you say, I’m writing fiction. My opinion is, one part per million makes it fiction. You can make mistakes, all kinds of things can happen as a journalist and obviously do, but as soon as you intentionally create something that you can’t get as a reporter, you’re writing fiction. And the only way around that that I can possibly think of is to say, We don’t know what these people said in the locker room, in the submarine as it sank, but it may have been something like this. Some substitution might work that way, but it only works journalistically because you’re telling the reader, I’m not passing a lie off as truth, I’m just trying to make this gripping for you, but every step of the way I’m advertising the fact that we don’t know.
Q: Sebastian, you mentioned that when you first walked into that bar you had a different idea for your book, and I’m wondering, once you recalibrated, whether you felt the need to revise your explanation to the people who became narrators? What kind of responsibility do you have if your story changes but your cast of characters doesn’t?
JUNGER: Originally my idea was a book on dangerous jobs. Then one chapter became “The Perfect Storm.” So it didn’t require much explanation with the people I knew in Gloucester, in that bar, to say, I’ve narrowed my focus. That was fine. As for the concept of The Perfect Storm once I started working on it, it never changed that much. I was a journalist. I had this idea that basically as a journalist you go out and you gather as much information as you possibly can on the topic and you go home and write about it.
SIDES: And if you had known about those things in advance, you probably wouldn’t have written the book. Ignorance of a subject matter is really what drives us to do this stuff, I think. Don’t be afraid to embrace your own ignorance. In my book there were some gigantic subjects. I didn’t know the first thing about the Bataan Death March or the Japanese Imperial Army when I started. I think ignorance is a good thing. A gigantic subject to throw yourself into—it’s OK as long as we fill the hole.
TAYLOR: Melissa has dissuaded me from asking what each of you is working on. But as readers, we all want to be watching for the names of Sebastian Junger, Melissa Fay Greene, Hampton Sides and Dava Sobel in the new nonfiction shelves of our local bookstores. Thank them, and thank you all for being here. Goodnight.