Non-fiction demands something in the middle, not a information dump nor the author doing cartwheels but something that does the story justice through clear prose and content.
Two books I have read of late fit this bill. Nathanial Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea probes costs of survival at sea while Don Starkell’s remarkable Paddle to the Amazon documents the remarkable story of a 12,000 mile canoe trip, both taking the reader on a journey they will not soon forget.
I can’t read fiction when I’m writing. I can’t read novels or short stories. I can barely watch a film. I can’t buy into any of it because it isn’t real. I know that someone made all of this stuff up, and so it isn’t interesting. More to the point, the fact that I know it is made up makes it irrelevant because it is untrue. My suspension of disbelief has been annihilated. Instead of the world being offered, I can only picture the writer plodding along, trying desperately to con me with turns of phrase and magic imagery but ultimately failing. I only see the artifice.
Even if I were to accept the falsity of the fiction, I obsess over the writer’s style. I focus solely on the literary devices and consider how I might employ the same tools myself. Whatever the reasoning, reading fiction is too distracting when I’m writing. And so I don’t do it. Read fiction that is.
Non-fiction is the only option, literally the only thing I can enjoy when I’m writing. The non-fiction author still has to be able to write, but this is more a craft than an art. Its primarily about the material, which is always interesting because it is real. This stuff actually happened. These people and places existed, simple as that. The content can be almost anything for me, anything from Krakatoa’s infamous 1883 eruption or the tragic history of the caviar industry to the life of Bobby Orr or the making of The Wizard of Oz. Whatever the story, they are filled with gems.
For a sense of theme, the big picture, as it were, I am reading Sue Prideaux’s description of Friedrich Nietzsche’s writing of Also Sprach Zarathustra in her book, I Am Dynamite: A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche: At some moment in prehistory, Nietzsche conjectures, there arose some specific practice that was bad for the community. It led to the imposition of punishment. This was the moment of the construction of morality. Burdened with bad conscience, we turned against ourselves in misery and self-loathing. Man ‘is like an animal who batters himself raw on the bars of his cage.’ The antidote to this slave morality is the Ubermensch, the free, affirmative, independent spirit. The moral quality of this higher man is driven by his life force, his will to power. (273-4)
For a sense of place, I found a clear portrait in Margaret Horsfield’s Cougar Annie’s Garden: The chill of winter can be piercing here, for cold air flows down from the mountains at night, settles damp and low in the garden, trapped by the forest all around. Even on clear winter evenings, a bank of mist flowing over the mountains is a common sight, cold air streaming down to hover low in the garden where ground frost can be sharp and boardwalks icy. (80-1)
Characters are everywhere – at work, on the subway in the pharmacy – but it is always interesting to see them rendered in non-fiction, what details are developed, what action highlighted. In Natalie McLennan’s auto-biography, The Price: My Rise and Fall of Natalia as New York’s #1 Escort, the details she offers are all the better because they are matter-of-fact: As the weeks went on, days and nights got more and more frenetic. I’d fly to Florida for a four-day appointment, come back and immediately do a ten-hour appointment, followed by another two-hour job. I’d then sleep five hours and start all over again. I spent about $100 per day on cabs. There’s nothing sexy about arriving to an appointment smelling like the Canal Street Subway station. Oh, and those fuck-me shows are definitely not made for walking. My body was all lean muscle from copious sex and lack of food. (60-1)
For my latest work, Mina, set on a distant undiscovered planet, I am looking out for tales from the edge, where creatures beyond our imagination roam. Nathaniel Philbrick offers his well-researched version of the white whale attacking the ship in In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.The whale began snapping its jaws and thrashing the water with its tail, as if distracted with rage and fury. With its huge scarred head halfway out of the water and its tail beating the ocean into a white-water wake more than forty feet across, the whale struck the ship just beneath the port bow. No longer going backward, the Essex was now going down. (82-3)
Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea details the tragedy of the Whaleship Essex in 1819, a journey that ended in cannibalism. And he describes the procedure fully:
He, like most sailors forced to resort to cannibalism, began by removing the most obvious signs of the corpse’s humanity – the head, the feet, feet, skin – and cosigned them to the sea. They next had to remove the heart, liver, and kidneys from the bloody basket of the ribs. Then they began to hack the meat from the backbone, ribs and pelvis. After the lighting the fire at the bottom of the boat, they roasted the organs and meat and began to eat. (166)