News & Events
A: I wish I knew.
It was spring of 2012 and I was nearing publication of THE SKELETON BOX, the third book in the Starvation Lake trilogy. A major editor at a big publishing house was talking to me about writing “your Mystic River.” Right. But, of course, I was seduced, and listening.
I gave her a summary of an idea involving an uncaptured serial killer who resurfaces years after his original murders. Serial killers are passe, the editor said. I tried again, this time with a totally different idea about the kidnapping of an autistic boy. I’m not positive why I chose to make Danny Peters autistic, but I have an inkling that I can’t share without crossing into spoiler territory. The editor liked the idea, but ultimately passed on publishing the manuscript. I could literally use parts of her rejection as a blurb.
I have clear recollections of the things that inspired my first three novels, from a nightmare about a snowmobile washing up on a beach (STARVATION LAKE); to a tree filled with shoes (THE HANGING TREE); to the early 20th century murder of a nun in northern Michigan (THE SKELETON BOX). I have no such clarity about the beginnings of BLEAK HARBOR, alas.
It really came to life on the page. Danny himself, his mother Carey, and his stepfather Pete all took turns inspiring story twists by making me curious about who they were and how they would behave under pressure. I can more clearly explain how I came up with the ideas for many particular things that happen in the book, but not where the story itself initially sprang from.
Mostly my ideas, big and small, sprout from the process of writing itself. As John Hiatt, one of my favorite songwriters, recently told an interviewer, “You know how writing goes for me. I get a couple of lines going, and then I just tag along as the songs start to reveal themselves. You’ve just gotta jump inside and take the ride.”
Ophelia, a character in the new novel I’m working on, likes The Book of Tobit from the Old Testament. I chose Tobit partly because, like Tobit, Ophelia is blind, and partly because Tobit’s story is beautiful and inspiring, even funny, unlike much of the Old Testament.
A: Yes. Harder. Definitely.
Non-fiction is supposedly less free than fiction because you, the writer, are limited by facts. You build a mound of facts, like a mound of clay, from interviews, observations, documents, readings, whatever else you can gather. The size of the mound depends upon how much skill, time and luck you have. When the mound is ready, you sculpt away whatever is unnecessary. What remains is your story. You are limited by the materials you can collect. Which can be a blessing.
Fiction allows you to create whatever facts you need to tell the story you want to tell, and change them as you go. The mound from which you sculpt is infinitely large, containing anything you can imagine and everything you’ve seen, heard, overheard, smelled, tasted, and felt in your life. Because your storytelling materials are unlimited, every sentence you write involves a choice that will have implications for sentences to follow–which can be a paralyzing curse.
So non-fiction and fiction are different forms that seek the same end: keeping the reader reading. The trick to this often has as much to do with what you choose to leave out as what you choose to leave in. For me, that’s what makes writing both fiction and non-fiction so invigorating and fun.
John McCain was a source when I was covering the FCC in the late 1990s and he was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. I showed up one day for a 2:45 interview. His assistant asked if I didn’t mind waiting, as he was in a meeting. Not at all, I said. Then, about two minutes later, she came back to me and said, “John would like you in this meeting.”
She ushered me into his office. McCain introduced me to Jim Barksdale, the founder of the then-dominant Internet browser, Netscape. Barksdale was sitting in a hard-backed chair facing McCain in another such chair out in front of the senator’s desk. Two or three Netscape lobbyists were sitting on a sofa behind them. You could almost hear their buttholes pucker when McCain told them a Wall Street Journal reporter would now be taking notes on their lobbying meeting.
McCain and Barksdale resumed their argument over some proposed encryption legislation. It was clear that they were not going to agree. At one point one of the lobbyists piped up with a point he obviously thought was clever. McCain about ripped his head off. It was all I could do not to laugh.
After they left, I asked McCain why he had invited me in. He told me Barksdale had been trying to see him for quite some time, and McCain had put him off because he knew they weren’t going to agree so any meeting would be a waste of time. “Then,” McCain told me, “they just showed up today and put me on the spot.” He grinned. “Then you showed up, and I thought, ‘We’ll see who puts who on the spot.'” I probably didn’t talk with him more than ten times, but he was a fun guy to cover, I’ll say that. RIP.