Thursday, August 27, 2009

Integration

One of the most satisfying things about working on single-title nonfiction is that you can encounter its components in real life. I had this experience quite literally when I heard Archaeologist Doug Owsley interview on public radio:

Doug and his work play a critical role in the story Sally Walker tells in her Written in Bone. Coming across a character from a book in real life is not an experience you get to have when you only work on novels.

On the other hand, working on single-title nonfiction like Sally’s engages the same part of my brain that novels do. These books feel like a window into a world, but instead of being a world of the imagination, it’s a world of carefully assembled facts. And just as a novelist can’t be a specialist when it comes to imagining her world, so too the nonfiction author must concern herself with every detail of the world she’s portraying.

Here’s what I mean: In the last few months, I’ve had the pleasure of watching Written in Bone succeed beautifully with readers and reviewers, while at the same time working with Sally on the manuscript and photos for her next book. It’s been a treat. Written in Bone literally and figuratively digs into colonial Jamestown, and between its covers you’ll find archaeology, anthropology, history, politics, sociology,crime, technology, and, of course, storytelling—all coming together to create a vivid picture of this world. It’s storytelling, not information transmittal.

Sally’s next book trades Maryland for Antarctica. It’s quite a shift in subject and scope, but Sally’s approach remains the same: finding all the facts she can, no matter where they might be, to give the most memorable impression of the place. And what a place. Antarctica is huge by every measure, and it would be easy to get bogged down in a single subject. For instance, a couple weeks ago, I got absolutely transfixed for a morning reading the final journals of Robert Falcon Scott, the British explorer who died on the way back from the South Pole almost a century ago (read these and you’ll never smirk at the British notion of keeping a stiff upper lip again). I’ve also spent a good deal of time in the last few weeks trying to get my head around  stratigraphy—the study of layers of material in geology—and the very idea of “ice that flows like honey.” The challenge for Sally is pulling all of these strands together—integrating those disparate facts—to tell the story of Antarctica. Let me tell you, so far, so good.

Integration. This is, I believe, the true pleasure of bookmaking and ultimately of book reading.