Today I want to sing the praises of authors who focus on nonfiction -- but who are able to turn facts into gripping drama that keeps you turning the pages long after you should have turned off the light.
I am currently reading Hot, Flat and Crowded by Thomas Friedman (Version 2.0) and I can barely tear myself away from the book. Okay, the topic is already compelling: our global environmental crisis. (And if you've spent any time in the Midwest and southern Great Plains this summer, you would be witness to evidence that global warming is not a myth: severe drought in many southern areas, extended heat waves, and extremely violent storms and flooding in the north.) So, yes, he's already got me at the topic -- but his way with the written word is compelling as well. His sentences are vivid; his choices of anecdotes and quotes are incisive; and his ability to take a dense concept and slice it into accessible, digestible chunks should be the envy of all writers. And, above all, he writes with passion about his topic.
That's something that we teachers tell our students all the time: choose a topic that you are passionate about and your writing will benefit immensely. It's something that I notice in my book club discussions: the best discussions grow out of books that we either loved or hated. The mushy middle provokes nothing but more mush.
Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, is another writer who breathes both poetry and the tension of the commercial cliffhanger into nonfiction. "Nonfiction that reads like fiction" may be a cliche, but I was there on Mount Everest with the climbers. Krakauer's descriptions of the disastrous 1996 expedition had me checking my own fingers and toes for frostbite; kept me up until 3 a.m. compulsively reading "just one more page" because I couldn't bear the thought of leaving those foolhardy, yet brave men and women clinging to life on the mountain.
I recently re-read The Devil in the White City for my book club and once again fell under the spell of Erik Larson's incredible nonfiction writing. As a Chicago girl, born and bred, I appreciated the extent to which he delved into his topics: the creation of the 1893 World's Fair juxtaposed with the serial killer H.H. Holmes. His details are meticulous -- his prose is compelling, even nail-biting as he swoops from the the broad expanses of the fairgrounds as the exhibition is slowly, agonizing shaped by the hand of architect Daniel Burnham to the claustrophobic confines of the hotel of death that Holmes built and to which he lured his fair-going victims. This is nonfiction writing that sinks it teeth in you and doesn't let go.
Like I said, mistakes and misinformation pull me out of a story faster than I can eat a handful of M&Ms -- and believe me, I can eat them pretty fast. I recently picked up the novel Outside of the Ordinary World by Dori Ostermiller. The opening grabbed me -- but her first flashback is set in 1968, involving a family moving from Chicago to California. They are traveling along I-80 in Nebraska. Whoa! I-80 was not completed across Nebraska until 1974. Yes, there were sections of I-80 open in 1968 -- but a family on the move from Chicago to California would probably not have opted to try to drive an incomplete road through the middle of the Great Plains. The still-preferred choice of travelers headed West in 1968 was the Mother Road, Route 66. My own family tooled along that fabulous highway in 1968 on the standard "Grand Canyon or bust" vacation. We attended a Sunday morning mass in Joplin, Missouri, gorged on Big Boy burgers in Amarillo, Texas, sweated and baked through New Mexico, and ogled the Painted Desert at sunset like the slack-jawed city-slickers we were.
So I guess I just couldn't accept the notion that this family in the novel would have been on some half-completed I-80 in the middle of Nebraska. Just wasn't happening. Again, where's an editor when you need one?!? I stopped reading, put the book back on the shelf and bought a copy of George Orwell's 1984 instead. Seems like a good time to revisit that world.
As a librarian, I pride myself on providing my library patrons with accurate, up-to-date information in all forms -- which recently meant pitching all the nonfiction books that referred to Pluto as a "planet" and purchasing new titles which referenced its new status as a "dwarf planet." That's just one example.
So it pains me when I read fiction that plays fast and loose with facts. I am perfectly willing to hand myself over to the author's universe, but if you are writing realistic fiction, make sure you get it right -- or you risk pulling me out of your story. Case in point: The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. The novel is set in Seattle during both the early 1940s and 1984 as it tells its Romeo and Juliet tale of a Chinese-American boy and Japanese-American girl who experience first love amidst the Japanese internment after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
My problem with this novel? It makes several references to the protagonist's son going "online" in 1984 and finding his father's long-lost love through a short "Internet search." Sorry -- this just wasn't even a remote possibility in 1984. The author, who was questioned about this on his own blog, talks about going online in 1984 with Compuserve for $100 per hour. Yeah, that was a possibility -- but the "online" on 1984 was not the "online" of today -- or even 10 years ago. Where's an editor when you need one? I found myself shaking my head as I was reading the story -- saying "nope, wouldn't happen."
Now, middle school students -- who really seem to be the audience for this novel -- probably wouldn't even think twice about it -- for them, the world has always been online. But for those of us of "a certain age," it just cried out for a re-write and a more plausible situation.
Authorial laziness? Maybe. Editorial laziness? Definitely!
To find out more about me, click on the Not Your Average Jo tab.