What are you reading these days? Or, what types of things do you like to read when you have time?
Writing nonfiction meant I got pulled away from my first love, the novel. I went so far out on a limb, so far from anything I was trained to think or write about, with this book, that I had a lot to read. History, horticulture, environmental writing. Now I’m starting a new book, one with roots in Europe and Russia, so at this moment, I’ve begun a European novel, The Radetzy March, by Joseph Roth, who wrote in the thirties, an exiled German Jew living in Paris. It sounds as if he was a great reader of Dostoevsky. It summons the world of the Hapsburgs, the AustroHungarian empire in its late days. The contemporary writer whose work lit a new way for me seems to follow in this tradition—I mean Sebald, the German post-war writer who emigrated to England and wrote astonishing works that hover on the line between fiction and nonfiction, gorgeously written peregrinations through the landscape of European history, all through the eyes of a narrator who seems always to have just recovered from some illness that has rendered him delicate, impressionable. I’m still telling other people’s stories in the next book, so I’m feeding my imagination, listening for the right voice for the next story.
I loved Kurt Vonnegut’s last book of essays. Aahron Appelfeld’s memoir is stunning.
Got tunes? What’s flowing from your headphones or speakers while you write?
Depends on what I’m doing. If I’m deep in writing, it’s silence I want—birds outside the window, wind, rain, the house creaking, the rumble of the furnace coming on to pump out the heat, the ticking of the baseboards in winter—but not music. Most of my music comes to me as a gift from friends and family. Yo Yo Ma playing Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites works for almost anything. I am not a music snob. I love it all and listen to it all, depending on my mood.
How do you start a project? Do you begin with a random idea or an urge to cover a topic, or does research inform your choices? Once you’ve got an idea, do you outline, or just write what comes?
Many years ago while I was working on a big project (when I was still a professor), a sudden insight into a text came to me in a flash—I grabbed a pad and wrote like mad till I got it all down, till the pressure was relieved, then went back to the main task before me. When I reread what I’d written, it was an entirely new, separate essay, and I published it—and never published the big thing I was writing. It happens that way every time—little tributaries of thought interrupt the main flow, and if I don’t pay attention, I lose some of my finest work. It’s like seeing out of the corner of your eye when you have to look straight ahead or you’ll lose your way. You train yourself to notice where your imagination goes, what riches it finds and brings you—if you don’t pay attention, it won’t keep bringing you gifts.
Things come to me. This book came to me after hours of staring at the photograph I talk about in the prologue. There’s another book waiting to be written that also grew out of a photograph. That one is about my father, radar, and World War II.
I never outline unless forced to. And then I hate it. Usually I hear a voice, and when I catch on that I’m hearing a voice, I get to a piece of paper and a writing implement, and try to let it come out clear. Usually normal thinking gets in the way.
Big ideas come in a flash. Then you work like a dog to chart the way to and through what arrived on the wind, whole and beautiful, and elusive.
A childhood memory loaded with power, a tiny moment on the playground in fourth grade, just found relief in a short essay in a volume on encountering genocide, “Eichmann on the Playground.” I know it will become a bigger piece later—but I got the tent stakes in, so it won’t blow away now.