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.
A: Bleak Harbor does not exist in the real world, so far as I know. It’s a small town I created as the setting for my eponymous novel to be published Dec. 1. The town sits on an inland bay with a channel that winds out to Lake Michigan in southwestern Michigan. It is modeled on Saugatuck, Michigan, though it is situated some miles south of Saugatuck. Bleak Harbor was settled in the 1860s by Joseph Estes Bleak, a New Englander who came to Michigan and dug out a swamp where he built a timber mill and, eventually, a shipping port and steel mills. When the book opens, the industrial pieces of the Bleak empire have been sold off and the town is primarily a posh resort for summer visitors from Chicago and Detroit. As with my novels set in the fictional Starvation Lake, I have strived to make Bleak Harbor a character in the story.
My co-writers and I plowed through thousands of pages of documents to assemble this piece, for which almost nobody talked to us. My head hurt when we were done with the fact-checking.