Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name. Did Dickens invent Christmas? It’s sometimes said he did, recreating the holiday as we know it out of the neglect that had been imposed on it by Puritanism, Utilitarianism, and the Scrooge-like forces of the Industrial Revolution. But Dickens himself would hardly have said he invented the traditions he celebrated: the mission of his Ghost of Christmas Present, after all, is to show the spirit and customs of the holiday are authentic and alive among the people, not just humbug. But A Christmas Carol did appear alongside the arrival in Victorian England of some of the modern traditions of the holiday. It was published in 1843, the same year the first commercial Christmas cards were printed in England, and two years after Prince Albert brought the German custom of the Christmas tree with him to England after his marriage to Queen Victoria. Christmas was undoubtedly Dickens’s favorite holiday, and he made it a tradition of his own. A Christmas Carol was the first of his five almost-annual Christmas books (he regretted skipping a year in 1847 while working on Dombey and Son; he was “very loath to lose the money,” he said. “And still more so to leave any gap at Christmas firesides which I ought to fill”), and then for eighteen more years he published Christmas editions of his magazines Household Words and All the Year Round. And the popular and exhausting activity that nearly took over the last decades of his career, his public reading of his own works, began with his Christmas stories. For years they remained his favorite texts to perform, whether it was December or not. One of the Christmas traditions Dickens most wanted to celebrate is one mostly forgotten now: storytelling. The early Christmas numbers of Household Words were imagined as stories told around the fireplace, often ghost stories like A Christmas Carol. It's an easily forgotten detail that the classic American ghost tale, Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, is also told around the Christmas hearth. James begins his tale with the mention of a story told among friends "round the fire," about which we learn little except that it was "gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be," and that it involved a child. Three nights later that story inspires another, even stranger and more unsettling and involving not one child but two, a ratcheting of dread that gave James the title for his tale. Telling ghost stories around the hearth might have declined since Dickens’s and James’s times, but it’s striking how important the voice of the storyteller remains in more recent Christmas traditions: Dylan Thomas, nostalgic for the winters of his childhood in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”; Jean Shepherd, nostalgic for the Red Ryder air rifles of his own childhood in In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, later adapted, with Shepherd’s own narration, into the cable TV staple A Christmas Story; and David Sedaris, nostalgic for absolutely nothing from his years as an underpaid elf in the “SantaLand Diaries,” the NPR monologue that launched his storytelling career. Gather round the fire with these December tales: Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter (1845) In a Christmas tale of sparkling simplicity, a small brother and sister, heading home from grandmother's house on Christmas Eve across a mountain pass, find their familiar path made strange and spend a wakeful night in an ice cave on a glacier as the Northern Lights--which the girl takes as a visit from the Holy Child--flood the dark skies above them. The Chemical History of a Candle by Michael Faraday (1861) Dickens was not the only Victorian with a taste for public speaking: Faraday created the still-ongoing series of Christmastime scientific lectures for young people at the Royal Institution, the best known of which remains his own, a classic of scientific explanation for readers of any age. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868) If you were one of the March girls, you’d read the copies of The Pilgrim’s Progress you found under your pillow on Christmas morning, but we’ll excuse you if you prefer to read about the Marches themselves instead. Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara (1934) Julian English's three-day spiral to a lonely end, burning every bridge he can in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, from the day before Christmas to the day after, is inexplicable, inevitable, and compelling, the inexplicability of his self-destruction only adding to his isolation. "The Birds" by Daphne du Maurier (1952) Hitchcock transplanted the unsettling idea of mass avian malevolence in du Maurier's story from the blustery December coast of England to the Technicolor brightness of California, but the original, told with the terse modesty of postwar austerity, still carries a greater horror. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951) Holden’s not supposed to be back from Pencey Prep for Christmas vacation until Wednesday, but since he’s been kicked out anyway, he figures he might as well head to the city early and take it easy in some inexpensive hotel before going home all rested up and feeling swell. Instead of a Letter by Diana Athill (1963) The "twenty years of unhappiness" recounted in Athill's memoir, after her fiancé wrote to say he was marrying someone else just before being killed in the war, ended on her forty-first birthday with the news she had won the Observer's Christmas story competition (the same prize that launched Muriel Spark's career seven years before). Tape for the Turn of the Year by A. R. Ammons (1965) The long poem was a form made for Ammons, with its space to wander around, contradict himself, and turn equally to matters quotidian and cosmic, as he does in this lovely experiment that, in a sort of serious joke on Kerouac, he composed on a single piece of adding machine tape from December 1963 to early January 1964. Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie (1976) Want to extend The Catcher in the Rye’s feeling of unrequited holiday ennui well into your twenties? Spend the days before New Year’s with Charles, impatient, blunt, and love-struck over a married woman whom he kept giving Salinger books until she couldn’t bear it anymore. The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth (1979) The brash and eventful fictional life of Nathan Zuckerman, which Roth extended in another eight books, starts quietly in this short novel (one of Roth's best), with his abashed arrival on a December afternoon at the country retreat of his idol, the reclusive novelist E. I. Lonoff. The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (1998) Head south with the snowbirds to the humid swamps of Florida as Orlean investigates the December theft of over two hundred orchids from state swampland and becomes fascinated by its strangely charismatic primary perpetrator, John Laroche. Stalingrad by Antony Beevor (1999) Or perhaps your December isn’t cold enough. Beevor’s authoritative account of the siege of Stalingrad, the wintry graveyard of Hitler’s plans to conquer Russia, captures the nearly incomprehensible human drama that changed the course of the war at a cost of a million lives. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005) Didion's year of grief, recorded in this clear-eyed memoir, began with her husband's sudden death on December 30, 2003, and ended on the last day of 2004, the first day, as she realized to her sorrow, that he hadn't seen the year before. Last Day at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan (2007) Manny DeLeon will be all right—he has a transfer to a nearby Olive Garden set up—but in his last shift as manager of a Connecticut Red Lobster, shutting down for good with a blizzard on the way, he becomes a sort of saint of the corporate service economy in O’Nan’s modest marvel of a novel. December by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter (2012) Two German artists reinvent the calendar book, with Richter’s photographs of snowy, implacable winter and Kluge’s enigmatic anecdotes from Decembers past, drawing from 21,999 b.c. to 2009 a.d. but circling back obsessively to the two empires, Nazi and Soviet, that met at Stalingrad.
“Small Magazines,” Ezra Pound’s 1931 appreciation of literary magazines, contains a confident proclamation: “the history of contemporary letters has, to a very manifest extent, been written in such magazines.” Commercial publications “have been content and are still more than content to take derivative products ten or twenty years after the germ has appeared in the free magazines.” Pound bemoans that larger publications are unable to “deal in experiment.” Instead, these commercial magazines poach from “periodicals of small circulation,” those “cheaply produced” in the same way a “penniless inventor produces in his barn or his attic.” Thus was created a romantic refrain: modern American writing has its foundation in literary magazines. Only one of Pound’s favorite magazines still publishes: Poetry. It might be difficult to call Harriet Monroe’s concern a “little magazine”: in 2002, philanthropist Ruth Lilly gave $100 million to the Modern Poetry Association, the publisher of Poetry. That organization has since become the Poetry Foundation, and, according to The New York Times, Lilly’s gift is “now estimated to be worth $200 million.” The gift has lead to an excellent website, interdisciplinary events and readings, television and radio promotion of poetry, and educational outreach programs. But how many readers outside of the traditional organs of American literature — aspiring and published poets, students in secondary classrooms and college campuses, and critics — know of, or read, Poetry? That might not be a fair question to ask. Literary magazines, by form and function, might require narrow focus. Narrow does not mean niche. Literary magazines have consistently enhanced and reflected larger literary trends without being as noticeable as those wider trends. Experimental publications helped spread Modernist writing and thought. As Travis Kurowski writes in the introduction to Paper Dreams, his comprehensive anthology of literary magazine history and culture, Modernist literary magazines “gave people a tie-in to an imagined community of readers.” Kurowski does not use “imagined” in the pejorative sense. Rather, he speculates that “literary magazines, due to their subject matter and even the smallness of their production, create a somehow more significant and longer lasting community than larger circulation magazines and newspapers.” Note Kurowski’s valorization of community over circulation. I might add further qualification. Literary magazines are uniquely important in observing the ripples, fragments, and failures within trends. They give readers and researchers the ability to see the flash beyond the snapshot, and in doing so, document moments in American literary history with more nuance than what is gained by only cataloging single-author books. Take Granta: 8, Summer 1983: the “Dirty Realism” issue. I once argued at Luna Park that it was the best single-issue ever of a literary magazine. The process was a thankless exercise, but I was attempting to make the point that even an individual issue of a literary magazine offers a complex cultural sample. Editor Bill Buford explains his collection of a strand of American writing marked by concise prose, destructive relationships, and a particular pessimism. The single issue contained writing by Raymond Carver, Jayne Anne Phillips, Richard Ford, Frederick Barthelme, Tobias Wolff, Angela Carter, Carolyn Forché, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Elizabeth Tallent. Not a bad snapshot and flash. But I’m writing these words as a lover of literary magazines, an affection that was instilled in me at Susquehanna University. The Blough-Weis Library subscribed to Poetry and The Missouri Review, but also gems like Beloit Poetry Journal, where I finally read a poem — “Trout Are Moving” by Harry Humes — that connected me to the genre. If I held a collection by Humes, my 19 year-old mind might have lost interest after a few of his Pennsylvania-tinged, domestic elegies. Instead, I bounded to work by Ander Monson and Albert Goldbarth. Literary magazines made writing manageable and approachable. Our workshop professors used those publications as part of the curriculum, and not because they thought we could publish there. At least not yet. The point was that an awareness of contemporary publishing is necessary, particularly for undergraduates who think the only words that matter are the ones that come from their own pens. Now when I receive a review copy of a short story collection or purchase a new book of poetry, I immediately turn to the acknowledgments page. And this might be a personal quirk, but I try to find the original issues in which the pieces appeared, and read the work there tucked between writers both established and obscure. I loved Jamie Quatro’s debut, I Want to Show You More, and it yet it felt more personal to read “Demolition” in The Kenyon Review. Literary magazines are the legend to the map of American letters. Yet I worry that this appreciation reveals me for who I am: a writer who submits to these magazines, who uses them in the classroom. This cycle does speak to the insular world of small magazine publishing. Does anybody outside of our circle care? What is the wider cultural influence of literary magazines? To be certain, I am not sure there needs to be one. An insular economic system will likely fail, as evidenced by the graveyards of defunct magazines, but that does not mean an insular artistic system is inherently bad. Nor should we assume more literary magazines fail than niche publications or commercial releases. Here’s a better question: if for those of us in the circle — writers, readers, editors, teachers, and professors — literary magazines are a mark of credibility and authenticity, what are they to those on the outside? Do these publications carry any particular signification or importance within popular culture? It would be incorrect to simplify popular culture to film and television, but it is a useful place to begin this consideration. I recently wondered if and when literary magazines have been referenced or included in these visual mediums. I began with two examples that stuck in my mind. In the “Christmas Party” episode of The Office, Mindy Kaling’s character, Kelly Kapoor chooses a “book of short stories” during Michael Scott’s ill-advised game of Yankee Swap. At least to my eyes, that book is an issue of The Paris Review. A more direct literary magazine reference is in the 2007 film Juno, when the titular character says jocks really want girls who "play the cello and read McSweeney's and want to be childrens' librarians when they grow up.” The reference was probably lost on many, but on a small but aware crowd, it did its job. Even if that job was simplification. I couldn’t think of any more examples, so I went to that pop culture land of crowdsourcing, Facebook, for help. My literary friends delivered. What follows is a sampling of some of the most interesting occurrences, with original contributor citation in parentheses, plus my own investigations. 1. In Cheers, Diane receives a form rejection from West Coast magazine ZYZZYVA. Sam writes a poem that is later published in the magazine (Martin Ott). This appears in the “Everyone Imitates Art” episode, which originally aired on December 4, 1986, during the show’s fifth season. Diane enters the bar, overly excited about a letter from ZYZZYVA. Sam asks: “Who’s ZYZZYVA?” Diane responds: it’s “not a who. It’s a new literary review. Dedicated to publishing the prose and the poetry that’s right on the cutting edge.” The magazine was founded in 1985 by Howard Junker. Diane has submitted a poem, and received an extremely swift two-week response. Frasier Crane takes a skeptical look at the letter, and concludes that it is a form rejection. Diane disagrees, saying that it is a “soon and inevitably to be accepted later,” reading that “your work is not entirely without promise.” She proudly says they are “almost begging for another submission.” Sam agrees that the response is a form letter, and boasts that he could submit a poem that would receive the same type of response. The episode breaks, and when it returns, Diane asks about Sam’s poem. He points to a magazine on the bar, and tells her to open to page 37 and read “Nocturne”: by Sam Malone. She drops the issue and screeches. Diane thinks Sam has plagiarized the poem. She vaguely recognizes the overwritten lines. Somehow, in the span of three weeks, ZYZZYVA has received Sam’s submission, responded, and published it in an issue. Writers everywhere roll their eyes. Frasier tries to console Diane: “this literary magazine’s circulation must be 600.” Diane delivers the ultimate literary magazine rejection rant: “The original 600 readers drop their copies in buses and taxicabs and doctor’s offices and another 600 people pick them up and take them to the airport where they go all over the country. Then they get taken on international flights: Tierra del Fuego, Sierra Leone. All the remotest parts of the world. Soon, I defy you to find a house, a hut, an igloo, or a wickiup that doesn't have a copy on the coffee table. Then, then, everyone in the world, every living thing will be laughing at me because he got published and I did not!” More sting arrives later, when Woody sends in a poem of his own and receives the same form rejection as Diane. Dejected, Diane vents to Sam, who has created this mess. Sam finally admits that he copied the poem from Diane’s own love letters to him. She considers herself published and validated. In the words of Howard Junker himself, Onward! 2. The Paris Review is mentioned in the 2000 film, Wonder Boys (Neil Serven). Grady, a struggling novelist, talks about one of his students: “Hannah’s had two stories published in The Paris Review. You’d best dust off the ‘A’ material for her.” With no further explanation, the reference is an accepted barometer of literary quality. Yet for a magazine quite aware of its social status, the review’s cultural capital seems localized to the literary community. We might be stretching the parameters a bit too thin here, but co-founder George Plimpton appeared in the “I’m Spelling as Fast as I Can” episode of The Simpsons (Aaron Gilbreath). 3. We could spend years arguing whether The New Yorker should be considered a literary magazine proper, but it does regularly publish fiction and poetry, so it merits mention. The magazine appears in the film 42nd Street (1933). Dorothy Brock, played by Bebe Daniels, holds an issue of the magazine with Eustace Tilley on the cover (Win Bassett). In The Squid and the Whale (2005), Laura Linney’s character, Joan, is published in an unnamed literary magazine, and later appears in The New Yorker (Neil Serven). That more prestigious publication is revealed in a scene at a restaurant. Bernard, Joan’s estranged husband, is surprised to learn that an excerpt from her forthcoming novel appears in the magazine. Another character, Sophie, says the story “was kind of sad, but really good.” Bernard changes the subject. Later, their son Frank’s inappropriate behavior at school prompts a meeting with the principal, who, at the end of the conversation, says that she read and enjoyed Joan’s story in The New Yorker: “it was quite moving.” The magazine also appears often in Adaptation (2002), with the identifying “sprawling, New Yorker shit” (Alex Pruteanu). An early scene occurs at The New Yorker magazine office, where writer Susan Orlean — author of The Orchard Thief, which main character Charlie Kaufman is attempting to make into a film — discusses going to Florida to write an essay for the magazine. Kaufman is having trouble due to the “sprawling” nature of the book, hence the magazine reference as literary code. Kaufman first uses the word “stuff”; later, The New Yorker style is “sprawling...shit.” The magazine, with work by Orlean within, appears open and at a restaurant table in the film. Later, Kaufman watches Orlean, seated alone, reading another magazine. In Kaufman’s voiceover: “Reads Vanity Fair. Funny detail: New Yorker writer reads Vanity Fair. Use!” And the magazine’s cartoons were lampooned in “The Cartoon” episode during the final season of Seinfeld (Tim Horvath). The New Yorker’s Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff had some fun analyzing the episode here and here. 4. In Mad Men, the character Ken Cosgrove has a story published in The Atlantic Monthly (Brenda Shaughnessy). The publication occurs in episode “5G,” the fifth episode overall of the series. The story is titled "Tapping a Maple on a Cold Vermont Morning." His contributor bio is as follows: "A graduate of Columbia University, Kenneth Cosgrove has lived in the New York area for most of his life. Working for the advertising firm of Sterling Cooper puts Mr. Cosgrove in a unique position to observe and study the trends that shape America today. This is his first story to appear in The Atlantic." Pete Campbell, jealous, longs for his own fiction to appear in (you guessed it) The New Yorker, but is disappointed to learn that the piece only makes it into Boy’s Life Magazine (James Chesbro). The Missouri Review’s Managing Editor Michael Nye has a nice reflection on this episode, and the writer archetype in film, here. Can you add to the list in the comments? Image via Nigel Beale/Flickr
In his introduction to The Best American Essays of 2007 David Foster Wallace described the challenge of writing non-fiction like this: "Writing-wise, fiction is scarier but non-fiction is harder—because non-fiction's based in reality, and today's felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex." This spring I reviewed a work of non-fiction for The Christian Science Monitor called The Beekeeper's Lament by Hannah Nordhaus that I thought met Wallace's challenge better than most books I've read. It is about migratory beekeeping (and one curmudgeony migratory beekeeper in particular) and the role that factory farmed bees play in the maintenance of American agribusiness. Over the course of the book Nordhaus uses a somber, lyrical writing style to make bees into just about the most fascinating subject you've ever encountered while at the same time crafting an elegiac metaphor for the contingency of modern American life. After I'd finished writing the review I decided to contact Hannah to ask her how she'd produced such a remarkable book. I was curious about everything: how she'd chosen this esoteric vein to mine; what it had been like spending weeks in the field with oddball beekeepers and their stinging swarms; how, exactly, she'd transformed reams of field notes and a mountain of bee trivia into a graceful volume that feels as effortless as a spring breeze. Still, my abundant curiosity aside, I doubted that she'd write back. A day later, she did. What follows, then, is a veritable how-to for writing a book of journalistic non-fiction in which Hannah talks about everything from selling her manuscript to courting her sources to settling into the one and only position on her couch in which she can actually get any writing done. The Millions: As a freelance writer you can write about just about anything and everything, and you pretty much have: bees, dildo-art thieves, nuclear weapons, litigious prostitutes. Choosing a topic is a significant commitment (what sounds like several years of your life in the case of The Beekeeper's Lament). Given that, out of all the ways you might spend your professional time, how do you decide what to write about? Hannah Nordhaus: First, the subject has to interest me. I’m not terribly successful at doing things that I find boring, which is, I guess, why I’ve chosen to be a freelance journalist who hops from story to story. That said, I am interested in all manner of subjects, including many that would seem boring to most everyone else. Dildo art thieves and litigious prostitutes are easy; but I’ve also dedicated months of my life to documenting the lives of lawyers who draft bills for Congress. And that subject interested me too: What I find most absorbing to write about are the little hidden corners of the human experience, the people who do weird things or scary things or difficult things by choice, and who persist in doing those things even when it’s clear they’d be much better off choosing another path through life. So that’s how I have chosen magazine subjects, and it’s a formula that’s worked for me—but often, when I’m done with the article, I’m also done with the topic, and I really don’t want anything else to do with it. I don’t want to read about it; I don’t want to hear about it; I certainly don’t want to write about it. In the case of The Beekeeper’s Lament, though, I found that even after I had published a 4,500-word feature on the crisis in modern beekeeping, I still had more to say. Luckily, so did my protagonist, John Miller, who is a wonderfully eloquent, funny, thoughtful, sometimes petulant but always entertaining subject to follow. John Miller’s life was so rich with narrative possibility, and honey bees, the creatures he tends, are so rich with metaphor, that it never even occurred to me that I might get sick of the subject two or three years down the line. And I never did. TM: Before we get into the specifics of what went into writing The Beekeeper's Lament, could you give readers an overview of the stages of the book's creation from conception to publication? HN: I first interviewed John Miller in 2004 while researching an article for a natural foods magazine about a honey-based energy gel company in which he is a partner. He told me about his work as a migratory bee guy with thousands of hives, pollinating huge crops all over the West. I was intrigued, so I called him back, and I ended up paying my own way to visit him twice—once in California, once in North Dakota—to learn more about his life and his work. My timing was propitious (for a writer of non-fiction, that is; for a beekeeper, it was not good at all): about a year after I first met John Miller, his outfit suffered a catastrophic collapse, and he lost about 40% of his bees because of diseases vectored by a nasty little parasite called the varroa mite. I sold the story to High Country News, a small environmental magazine in Colorado, and just as the article was about to go to press in early 2007, the national bee herd began suffering from a mysterious new problem named “Colony Collapse Disorder,” or CCD. I was seven months pregnant with my first child when the magazine story ran, and thus in no condition to dash off a quick topical book that would address the CCD mystery. Instead, I took my time, had my kid, got an agent, and took a leisurely year to put together a proposal and write a sample chapter to submit to publishers. In the meantime, a number of other books came out about the honeybee crisis. This didn’t improve my odds for generating a bidding war (there wasn’t one) and netting a big advance (ditto), but I think in the end the more relaxed timeline actually did me a favor. I couldn’t write another newsy, topical book about bees—there were enough of those already. So instead, I pitched a more character-oriented work about humans and bees that would follow one particular human, John Miller, through the seasons and the years of the recent honey bee crisis, and in so doing also explain this weird institution of modern beekeeping. I sold the book in Dec 2008, took a trip to attend a beekeeping conference with Miller that winter, signed a contract in March; and three days later, while in California doing research on queen breeders, I found out I was pregnant again—with a baby due date that fell about seven months before the book due date. This complicated matters for me majorly, and after running around in circles for a few days wondering how I was going to get it done, I decided that the most important thing was to get something—anything—down on paper while I still had a few powers of concentration left. So I set the goal of writing a terrible draft before the baby came. And that’s what I did. I put my head down and wrote a terrible chapter every three weeks, had the baby, took three months off, and then embarked on the hard but rewarding work of turning a bad draft into a serviceable one. I turned the book in in June 2010. There were a couple of months of relatively painless back-and-forth editing with my excellent editor, Michael Signorelli at Harper Perennial, and then it was off to production. TM: Of those stages- (i.e. interviewing and field work, research, writing)- what parts do you enjoy the most? Any that you look forward to less than the others? HN: My favorite part of the writing process is always editing. I love taking this raw mass that is a first draft and then shaping it into something I might actually enjoy reading. I do like the research, though I sometimes dread calling random people on the phone, and I find that research trips can be lonely. And writing a first draft—well, I hate it. The act of corralling information and making it into a cohesive narrative is not a pretty one, and I tend to beat myself up for how bad my writing is. But in the last few years, I have made it a point of pride to write my first draft as quickly and poorly as possible, without consulting my notes or laboring over it. It makes the editing work a little harder, but by writing from memory and not belaboring all the minutiae in my notes, I tend to remember only those facts and points that are most salient to the narrative. And then I can always flesh out the things I missed later, though often I decide the things I forgot in the first draft really weren’t all that important. So now I do much of the heavy-lifting in the editing process, once I have gotten the bones of the story down. That’s when I spend the time agonizing over word choice and rhythm and flow and what information needs to stay or go, over what’s missing and whether it all makes sense. And that is the fun part for me—I love tinkering, and I love finding connections I never saw the first time through. TM: The main character in your book is a gregarious migratory beekeeper named John Miller. I got the impression that you two spent a lot of time together, and I'm always curious how those types of relationships work- how would you describe the dynamic between the two of you? HN: John has been an incredibly gracious guide into his life and world. He likes to talk, and to write, and he’s passionate about what he does, which made him a wonderful subject for this book. He’s also very conscious of his failings—as a Mormon, as a husband, and especially as a beekeeper—which adds a sense of poignancy to his story that isn’t always easy for a journalist to find. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner in creating this book. But of course, he’s still human, and I don’t think any human wants another human, especially one they barely know, following him around for months on end. So I was pretty careful with my visits, trying not to stay too long or hang around too much. I didn’t want to wear out his (quite limited) patience. Fortunately, John is a prolific emailer—he writes these wonderful, lengthy free-verse odes about his life and his work and anything else that pops into his head. So I asked him, once this project got started, if he could email me regular updates about what he was doing between visits. He did, and if I didn’t hear from him for a while I’d send a quick note asking him what was new or plying him with questions about queens or honey or his new truck, and he always obliged me with a long, detailed, oddball explanation of the current goings-on in the bee industry and the life of John Miller. And those emails formed the backbone of the book, and really helped bring him to life. After I’d finished a polished second draft but before I turned it in to the publisher, I asked John to read the book. And nothing was scarier—not submitting the proposals to publishers; not giving the draft to my editor; not even showing it to my mother. But he really seemed to love it—though he did take exception to me calling him “peevish” (for a month or so afterwards signed all his emails, “Mr. Peev”). This was my first book, and I’m not sure how other people handle that long-term and intense connection between journalist and subject that book-length projects require. But I guess in the end I felt that we—like bees and flowers, like beekeepers and farmers—were engaged in a symbiotic relationship that seemed to be beneficial to both of us—I got to write a book about a really cool topic; he had a venue through which to get the word out about the importance of bees and beekeepers in these trying times. Like all symbiotic relationships, ours depended on a delicate balance, which I was very careful to nurture: I gave him veto power on anything he felt was too personal, and I also tried to write the book in such a way that he wouldn’t have to exercise that veto. I wanted the book to explore his nature and his character, but not at the expense of his good name. And that seemed to be okay with him. In the end, he asked that I change nothing. TM: In his introduction to The Best American Essays of 2007 David Foster Wallace wrote, "Writing-wise, fiction is scarier but non-fiction is harder—because non-fiction's based in reality, and today's felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex." How does his description of the challenge of writing non-fiction strike you? HN: To write strong, journalistic non-fiction, you have to do a lot of research. You have to make a lot of phone calls, do a lot of reading, visit as many people and locations as you can, and then try to somehow combine all that undigested information into something that a reader can stomach. But honestly, while reporting is hard and requires a lot of effort and elbow grease and legwork and chutzpah, I think the most challenging thing about writing non-fiction is turning that information into a story. Because if the narrative isn’t unfolding the way you want it, you can’t just change the details to make it better, the way you would when writing fiction. You have to represent the truth. It’s very hard to be both a storyteller and a chronicler of reality. So to tell a true story that readers want to follow to the end, you’ve got to be very conscious of your craft—of your characters, chronology, pacing, setting, foreshadowing, backstory, detail—all those same elements that are so important in fiction writing. And then you’ve got to make double-sure you’re not making anything up. TM: Continuing on Wallace's point, The Beekeeper's Lament covers a lot of ground—almond farming, a history of the Miller family, the international honey trade, bee pests and contagions. How did you keep all that information organized and accessible as you wrote? HN: This was a tough book to organize, because there wasn’t an easy A to B to C chronological narrative of John Miller’s life as a beekeeper. There was no “man meets bee, man loses bee, man gets bee back” plot to rely on. His life is seasonal, and there are ups and downs, and though there were lots of good stories scattered throughout, there was not one particular thread that drove the story from start to finish. But I knew I needed to have some sense of time moving forward and to pique reader interest in a way that might appeal to those who aren’t bee fanatics as well as those who are. I needed to give those who looked at the first chapter a reason for moving on to the next one. So as I started thinking about chapter structure and the overall flow of the book, I tried to pose some questions so that readers would keep turning the page, and I returned to them regularly. Why did so many of John Miller’s bees die in 2005? What’s been killing everyone else’s bees in the years since? Is John Miller’s outfit going to survive? Why has he chosen to remain in such a difficult profession? And I used those questions to keep readers interested (I hope) and string them along from chapter to chapter. I also approached the individual chapters as more independent thematic units, organizing each one by subject. I [also] tried to touch on some larger themes, like migration, and risk, and symbiosis, and persistence—concepts that make people think on another level, and that, when you boil it down, are what make works of non-fiction “literary,” and not glorified long-form encyclopedia entries. TM: Writers are always interested in other writers' writing processes. Where do write? When do you write? Any rituals, tics, frustrations, moments of grace that attend the writing process for you? HN: Let’s see. Hmmm. Well I dally a lot before I get started on a first draft. I check a lot of email. And google myself. Facebook suddenly seems very pressing. Twitter, too. And then when I can’t find any other excuse, I sit down on the couch and just start spewing. I sit at my desk when I’m writing emails or paying bills, but when I’m composing—when I’m really concentrating—I have to sit on a couch with my legs up and my laptop perched on a cushion on my thighs. I must be semi-reclining, apparently, to get any real writing done. TM: Are there any non-fiction writers whose work has influenced your writing? And if so, what particular things have you taken from their writing? HN: There are two books that particularly influenced my approach to The Beekeeper’s Lament: The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean and Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. Both have in common their singular focus on one character, who then opens up an entirely new world to the reader. The Orchid Thief isn’t about orchids; it tells the story of one man’s weird obsession with the plants, and in so doing teaches the reader more about orchids, and Seminoles, and Florida, than they ever realized they wanted to know. I love the playfulness of Orlean’s language. Mountains Beyond Mountains also uses character to open narrative and thematic doors—by examining the life and work of Dr. Paul Farmer, we learn about Haiti, and health care in the developing world, and the medical profession, and the philanthropic world, and human decency. What I particularly love about Kidder’s book is the depth of feeling that he conveys through Farmer’s story. It’s not mawkish at all, but you feel so strongly Farmer’s own depth of feeling—and when all the details of that book have faded away, that feeling still remains. John Miller, like Paul Farmer, carries with him a profound sense of mission, though Miller’s involves bees, not humans, and you would never mistake Miller for a saint as you might Paul Farmer. Both books are so rich in detail, so effortless in their storytelling, so attentive to character, and so smart. TM: Any particular advice you'd relay to writers beginning to work on an extensive non-fiction project? HN: I guess my main piece of advice would be to give yourself the time to be deliberate when you craft the book. It’s not enough to organize it chronologically and then go; you need to think about how you’re going to keep readers interested, about the major themes that you want the sprinkle throughout the book, about how you are going to keep it tight. So many books lose their focus, and you’ve got to be really conscious throughout to keep the reader coming back to the reason you’re writing the book, the story you’re telling, and the questions you’re asking and that you plan, in due time, to answer. You’ve got to be ruthless with yourself. People don’t want to read every word that emerges from your brain just because you’re brilliant and you wrote it; there has to be a reason behind every chapter, every paragraph, every sentence. Every word you write should serve your overall narrative and thematic structure. That doesn’t mean you can’t go off on flights of whimsy—I certainly did, and I can’t say that I succeeded uniformly in keeping the book as tight as I am recommending that others do—but you do need to know, ultimately, where you’re going, and not lose sight of that. And then, at some point, when your deliberation has run its course, you’ve got to stop agonizing, stop doing research, stop aiming for perfection, and just sit down and write the damn thing.
Come the new year, Ben will be joining us as a regular contributor. I'll leave formal introductions until then, but in the meantime, he decided to get a jump on things by sharing the best books he read in 2006:Since reading The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll several years ago in a back alley, flea trap of a hotel in Nadi, Fiji, I've been lending myself to a series of flawed and inherently hopeless business schemes in the hope of not just getting rich quick, but adding to my life even one iota of the melancholic romance the book so neatly distilled. For better or worse, my ventures have amounted to nothing more than a series of lessons in humility, and, in the process, they consumed a large part of my free time. Which is a long way of saying that I didn't have much time to read this year.Of the books I did read, I will unequivocally recommend three, none of which were written in 2006. (Life is short, books are many and often long, so I prefer to wait a few years until a book has received some kind of critical imprimatur before digging in.)My first recommendation is Graham Joyce's The Tooth Fairy. It's a coming of age story that deals with a young boy's relationship with a malevolent, gender ambiguous tooth fairy (the age old story), and the resulting consequences for his family and friends. The tooth fairy's presence is (much to my pleasure) never really explained, but her (?) antics serve as a catalyst for a long and engaging series of seemingly unrelated incidents that come together in the last few chapters with an extremely satisfying snap. The writing and humor are sharp enough to make your eyes bleed, and the characters are so well developed that by the end you won't know if you're crying because of the resolution's poignancy or just because it's time to say goodbye.Book number two, The Orchid Thief, gained some notoriety when Charlie Kauffman "cinematized" it several years ago, ending up with a film not so much based on the book as about the book. His film, Adaptation (IMDb), which dwelled on the Sisyphean process of wringing a screenplay from a story that is, for all intents and purposes, unfilmable (at least by Hollywood standards), piqued my interest in the book, and when I found it on my grandmother's coffee table, I immediately dove in. I am pleased to say that while the word "unfilmable" might be the stuff of screenwriter's nightmares, it's a compliment when used here. Susan Orlean's tale of a man and his orchids spins off into a fascinating and sometimes surreal account of passion - what it is, what it isn't, why some people have it, and why some people (namely Susan herself) don't. On the way she introduces us to alligator wrestlers, Victorian explorers, and real estate scam artists, drawing from these disparate characters' lives the threads of a tapestry that when woven together makes you realize why people still bother to write books in this age of moving pictures.Last but not least, book number three is one that I've read at least once a year every year since I first read it several years ago. Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes was a Christmas present that spent many lonely years on my bookshelf before I finally picked it up and realized what I'd been missing. If any book has so neatly captured the essence of the long malaise that we call life in these United States, I have yet to read it. Exley's book is in turns appalling and laugh out loud funny, but it is always brutally, unflinchingly honest. Billed as fiction, the story follows Exley, as himself, as he wanders across the country, working odd jobs, getting married, going insane, reading Lolita, drinking himself to death, and pursuing an unhealthy obsession with the New York Giants. If suffering has ever created art, then this it. For my money, it's as close as anyone has yet gotten to the "Great American Novel."Thanks Ben!
As many of you no doubt have read in the trades (Wait, you don't read the trades? What town do you live in, anyway?), Stephen Gaghan, the writer of such sprawling, multi-narrative films as Traffic and Syriana, is set to adapt Malcolm Gladwell's latest quasi-scientific non-fiction potboiler, Blink (IMDb). Anyone who's read the book can tell you, it ain't going to be easy. Blink follows no central character, takes place in a multitude of settings, and covers such diverse topics as law enforcement, ancient art, and advertising.On the surface, this seems like pure folly, destined to lead to a Charlie Kaufman-esque exercise in navel gazing and postmodern self-reference. This Variety article seems to support this claim (By the way, check out the gaudy sum of money Gladwell pockets in this deal). According to the article, Leonardo DiCaprio is set to star as a jury selection expert who has a sixth sense about people based on first impressions. If that ends up as the plot of the film, it would be the worst adaptation since The Lawnmower Man (IMDb).But the more I thought about it, the more Gaghan seemed like the right choice, maybe the only choice, to adapt the book; furthermore, the book seemed like the perfect project for him. His last time out, Gaghan took two or three paragraphs from Robert Baer's CIA memoir See No Evil and turned it into a two hour feature film that dealt with practically every aspect of the oil industry. The finished project looked so different from the book that it was nominated for the Academy Award in the best original screenplay category (The official credit says that the book "suggested" the movie, whatever that means). Putting his three major scripts in perspective, it would seem that Stephen Gaghan has hit upon a new and arguably better way to adapt non-fiction to the screen. He doesn't aim to duplicate every twist of plot, every detail of character, but rather to hone in on the theme, the mood, and the message of whatever material he's adapting and to riff on it. The result is a movie that works on the same level as the book, discussing the same subjects with a similar tone, but also functions as a work of art separate from its original source material. While this wouldn't have worked for, say, The Godfather ("What? Why is Sonny's character now combined with Fredo's?"), it seems like the only way to tackle a book like Blink. Maybe if Charlie Kaufman had taken this approach, there might actually have been a film version of The Orchid Thief.
Robert Boynton, a journalism professor at NYU, has taken a look at the journalism landscape and determined that the craft has moved an iteration beyond Thomas Wolfe's anointing of a New Journalism in 1973. Boynton's book, which he has titled The New New Journalism looks at the more recent crop of in depth journalists - well-known for their long pieces in magazines like the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly and for their bestselling books. A review in the New York Times describes the destinction Boynton is making this way: "If literary experimentation and artistic ambition were the New Journalism's calling cards, reportorial depth is the New New Journalism's distinguishing mark, Boynton insists." Though the boundaries of this "new new journalism" may be fuzzy, it's exciting to me that someone is assessing these books critically as group. My feeling is that these days books of in depth journalism tend to be more readable than most new literary fiction, and, perhaps more importantly, this "new new journalism" is able to deliver more of an impact.Boynton's book is a collection of interviews in which he encourages the writers to discuss their methods (The New York Times review likens them to the Paris Review "Art of..." interviews.) Included in the book are interviews with writers like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, William Langewiesche, Eric Schlosser and Michael Lewis. Here's an excerpt of his interview with Ted Conover. The collection is also well-received in the Columbia Journalism Review, which, however, expresses a wish that the book had come with a companion anthology. I agree that this would be nice, but, failing that, I though it might be worthwhile to list some of the books that these journalists have written (if only because I would like to refer back to it myself next time I have a hankering for some of the "new new" stuff.) So, here are the interviewees from The New New Journalism and some of the books they have written:Gay TaleseThe Gay Talese Reader: Portraits & EncountersThe BridgeThy Neighbor's WifeJane KramerLone Patriot: The Short Career of an American MilitiamanHonor to the BrideThe Last CowboyCalvin TrillinThe Tummy TrilogyFeeding a YenToo Soon to TellRichard Ben CramerWhat It Takes: The Way to the White HouseHow Israel Lost: The Four QuestionsTed ConoverNewjack: Guarding Sing SingCoyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of America's Illegal AliensRolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America's HoboesAlex KotlowitzThere Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in The Other AmericaThe Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America's DilemmaNever a City So Real: A Walk in ChicagoRichard PrestonThe Hot ZoneThe Demon in the FreezerFirst Light: The Search for the Edge of the UniverseWilliam LangewiescheThe Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and CrimeAmerican Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade CenterSahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the DesertEric SchlosserFast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American MealReefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black MarketLeon DashRosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban AmericaWhen Children Want Children: The Urban Crisis of Teenage ChildbearingWilliam FinneganCold New World: Growing Up in Harder CountryA Complicated War: The Harrowing of MozambiqueCrossing the Line: A Year in the Land of ApartheidJonathan HarrA Civil ActionThe Lost PaintingJon KrakauerInto Thin AirInto the WildUnder the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent FaithAdrian Nicole LeBlancRandom Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the BronxMichael LewisMoneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair GameThe New New Thing: A Silicon Valley StoryLiar's Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall StreetSusan OrleanThe Orchid ThiefThe Bullfighter Checks Her MakeupMy Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been EverywhereRon RosenbaumThe Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy EnthusiasmsTravels With Dr. Death and Other Unusual InvestigationsExplaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His EvilLawrence WeschlerMr. Wilson's Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic TechnologySeeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert IrwinVermeer in Bosnia: Cultural Comedies and Political TragediesLawrence WrightRemembering SatanTwins: And What They Tell Us About Who We AreIn the New WorldUpdate: Jessa at Bookslut compiles a set of links to articles by the New New Journalists.