Erik Larson on Narrative Nonfiction

In recent years I’ve been a student of narrative nonfiction, with a focus on history. It’s what I love to read and what I’ve learned to write. In fact, while my two books published by St. Martin’s Press are in the sports/golf category, I also think of them as historical narrative nonfiction.

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Erik Larson.

Now I’m happily working on another nonfiction book that has nothing to do with golf or sports.

Bestselling author Erik Larson (Isaac’s Storm, The Devil in the White City, Dead Wake and other titles) is a master of historical narrative nonfiction, as are Laura Hillenbrand, Daniel James Brown and others.

Larson has shared a lot about his craft in interviews. This is my opportunity to preserve some of his wisdom where I can find it and hopefully guide others with similar interests.

On Story

In an interview with Creative Nonfiction, Larson said, “If the story doesn’t come alive for you, it’s not going to come alive for the readers.”

Larson’s agent David Black challenged the author to keep refining his proposal  for The Devil in the White City (eight drafts, to be exact) and “concentrate on what makes a powerful story.” A few of those nuggets, according to the author:

“Where is the conflict? Where is the suspense? We’re not talking about making things up; we’re talking about where the story is in real life. Who are your characters? Find the right characters and you’ll have your story.”

The characters don’t usually just show up. You have to look hard and, if you’re Larson, you dig deep in the archives, in places like the Library of Congress.

Chronology

Chronology is simple and powerful in nonfiction storytelling.

“The detailed chronology is my secret weapon,” Larson said. “Because chronological order is the key to any story. If you simply relate a historical event in chronological order, you have done much more than most historians do.”

Choose and organize your material well and also add some foreshadowing when possible.

‘A Viable Book Idea’

In an interview with The Rumpus, Larson discussed his criteria for settling on a book project. The following is paraphrased.

One, he has to be interested.

Two, it has to have a built-in, organic narrative engine, or arc. (Beginning, middle, end.)

Three: You can have a great narrative, but it also needs enough fine-grained personal detail to tell the story. For Larson, this means a deep, rich reservoir of primary materials–letters, diaries, artifacts and more, because that’s what makes the story come alive.

Lastly, find an idea that has barriers to entry, an approach Larson said he learned when he worked at the Wall Street Journal. In other words, an idea complex enough that no one will do the same book.

The Primary Goal

Larson wrapped up his Rumpus interview with a gem for anyone who writes about history.

“I always try to get across that my primary goal as a writer is not to inform, necessarily,” he said.

“My primary goal is to produce as rich a historical experience as I possibly can. So readers can sink into the past and feel like they’ve spent some time there. That they’ve lived another life, however briefly.”

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Face The Nation (VIDEO): Laura Hillenbrand, the Amazing Stay-at-Home Author

Bob Schieffer, host of “Face The Nation,” recently interviewed author Laura Hillenbrand about her unusual working methods due to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Hillenbrand has written two books, Seabiscuit and Unbroken, both of them bestsellers.

Not only is Hillenbrand talented and dedicated, she is incredibly courageous. She shows us that it’s possible to find, research, write and publish compelling stories from the confines of home.

Celebrating ‘Factory Man’ By Beth Macy

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Buy at Barnes & Noble.

It’s July 15, publication day for FACTORY MAN: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – and Helped Save an American Town by Beth Macy, an award-winning journalist and former reporter for the Roanoke Times. Anyone who lives in my region and has been even a casual reader of the Roanoke Times through the years is surely familiar with Macy’s excellent work as a reporter and storyteller who, as her bio says, gives voice to outsiders and underdogs.

That’s certainly the case in her authorial debut. FACTORY MAN is the story of John Bassett III and his quest to save his furniture company, his employees (and their jobs) and his town (Galax, Virginia) against the fierce Asian competition that was decimating a once-strong and proud American industry.

This factory man is a gritty, determined David against a cunning, overseas Goliath. Unfair or not, Bassett chose to fight.

By intricately telling us about wooden furniture, hard-working men and women, a fiercely stubborn company owner and a small Virginia town, Macy, through FACTORY MAN, has delivered a large American story. There’s much more to the Bassett tale, including a family feud. I can’t do it justice.

What I can tell you is that outstanding reviews have been spilling out of the literary world like finely crafted cabinets rolling off the Bassett assembly line.

The New York Times’ Janet Maslin compares Macy’s debut to Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit. Publisher Weekly and Kirkus offered starred reviews. Jonathan Alter wrote, “Beth Macy has done a masterful job in personalizing the biggest American economic story of our time….”

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Beth Macy.

An admirer of her work from afar, I’ve had the pleasure of getting acquainted with Beth Macy the last few years as our paths have crossed at writing events.

Last Saturday at the Radford Reads Literary Festival, she lamented a missed anecdote that she would have weaved into FACTORY MAN. Despite countless interviews, she couldn’t have known about these particular details because they didn’t surface until well after her copious research and writing were complete.

Nonetheless, it bothered this reporter who, I’m guessing, is every bit as tenacious about telling human stories as John Bassett III is about making quality furniture. FACTORY MAN is a finely constructed and polished American story you don’t want to miss.

My Q&A with ‘Contemporary Authors’

It’s nice when I’m reminded in small but important (to me) ways that I’m a published author.

Not long ago I was contacted by Contemporary Authors, an annual directory (print and online) that lists information about 120,000 writers in all genres. I was informed that I’ll be listed in a future edition.

In addition to checking my listing, they asked me a few questions.

Q. What first got you interested in writing?

A. I liked books growing up. I admired writers and authors, and wanted to be one from a young age but spent a lot of years thinking it was not a viable career option.

Q. Who or what particularly influences your work?

A. As an author, I like nonfiction, history, biography, a good sports story. A few of my favorite authors are Laura Hillenbrand, Rick Bragg and Roland Lazenby.

Q. Describe your writing process.

A. I do my best writing in the morning, spending a half day or so making progress on a manuscript. I try to write a clean, high-quality first draft to cut down on rewriting. My editing process is largely focused on trimming.

Q. What is the most surprising thing you have learned as a writer?

A. That I was able to navigate all the steps needed to be published by a major publisher.

Q. Which of your books is your favorite and why?

A. Only one is published–THE LONGEST SHOT–but another one is on the way, due out from St. Martin’s Press in September 2014 to coincide with the Ryder Cup. Like children, I love them equally.

Q. What kind of effect do you hope your books will have?

A. I’m more than satisfied when readers say it was a good story that was well told.