Tonight at Folio: The Seattle Atheneum, Seattle Times books columnist Mary Ann Gwinn will be interviewing two Seattle authors about the art and craft of writing nonfiction books. Lynda Mapes this year published a fantastic book that examines climate change through the life of one remarkable tree, and David B. Williams's fascinating Stories in Stone: Travels through Urban Geology has recently been published in paperback. Both Williams and Mapes are remarkable chroniclers of the natural world; they capture the mystery and the science of nature in clever narratives. This should be a great conversation for lovers of literature and aspiring authors alike. We called Williams on the phone to get a little more information about the event. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit about the panel and what people can expect from it.
Basically the panel is centered on nonfiction writing and the process of nonfiction writing — with an emphasis on both Lynda and I working particularly in natural history. What's the process? How do you go from an idea to research to organization to telling your story? How do you know when you're done with the book? Really sort of the whole process, every aspect of it.
Do you have an audience in mind for this?
My guess is with Folio, and with a few of the writers who are hoping to come, I'm guessing we'll probably hit a broad range from more experienced to less experienced. Both of us have been involved with books — working with both national and local publishers — for many years. I think we bring a pretty broad perspective to it.
One of the most common complaints I hear about nonfiction books, and that I've actually levied against several nonfiction books in reviews, is that it would be better served as a magazine article. A lot of nonfiction books feel like they're padded-out articles. I was wondering if that's something that you've encountered as a reader.
I've read a number of books that, as you say, feel like a magazine article on steroids. You ask, "why didn't they just do this in 10,000 words instead of 80,000 words?" And you have this feeling that everything the person ever learned was spit out onto the book. I think that is definitely a truism. I've seen that in many books that I've read.
I think that Lynda and I are more judicious about pruning our books, and trying to tell stories that are more compelling, and not weaving in every fact that we have, though we're both obviously very focused on getting the facts right.
Actually, this has happened to me: I'll write an article and then an agent will get in touch and ask if I could turn the article into a book pitch. A lot of the time, I don't think it's even necessarily the author's fault, it's that the industry always wants more of the same, a known quantity.
My books, for better or worse, have been driven by my particular passion for a subject. I've always been the generator of the idea versus having someone asking me to expand on it.
But you definitely have that feeling. I think Susan Orlean's book about libraries was that way. It would have been better as something much shorter. She's still a brilliant, amazing writer, but I had problems with it.
Yeah. This kind of padding is maybe the worst thing that you can do in the attention economy: it wastes people's time. But I think it's very hard for writers to say no to that kind of attention from an agent or a publisher.
It's the classic problem: you do all this research and you think it's really interesting and you want to put it in the book. You've done all this research. If you're a diligent researcher, you have the possibility of doing too much research and just wanting to get all the facts down. So how do you recognize when to prune? I like to think that I've gotten better at that over the years, at trying to not feel I have to put a brain dump into the book. And Linda certainly does a beautiful job of that.
You traditionally work curiosity-first?
Very much so, yeah. I've been very lucky that every book I have written has come out of something that really fascinated me. Stories in Stone was something I'd been interested in for years and finally decided, 'okay, I either have to give up this idea or try and write a book about it.' And I was fortunate enough to be able to write a book about it. Then the book I did on Seattle's big engineering projects, Too High and Too Steep, was something that interested me, and as I researched it I found it more and more interesting. That drives me as a writer.
Your curiosity is definitely always apparent on the page. Have you done a lot of teaching of this kind of thing?
I have not. I have done very little — almost no — teaching of writing.
So how did the format for this came though — as a conversation, as opposed to, say, a lecture?
Mary Ann is friends with both Lynda and myself, and we have talked about the process of writing together or separately over the years. With Mary Ann so involved in the book world, I think that's something that has always interested her. We wanted to do something a little bit different than just talk about the book, and we wanted to have that interaction with Mary Ann, who's so smart.
Is there anything about about Folio that appeals to you as the venue for this?
I think they're so interested in the culture of the book, and the culture that grows out of conversation of books. It's one of the most literate places around in a place that's so focused on books. It adds another layer to that conversation that's taking place around us.</;p>
I think what Lynda and I bring is that we're both grounded in this place. We're writing from a perspective of Seattle and Puget Sound and trying to connect those stories. It's not to say that any other nonfiction writer who's from outside this area wouldn't have that perspective. But our perspective is so strongly tied to this area that I think we bring something special that outside writers wouldn't necessarily have — not better or worse, but just different.
My next book is about human and natural history on Puget Sound. Lynda and I are sort of on parallel paths, since her next book's on orcas. I'm taking a wider ecosystem perspective than Lynda, but we parallel each other in some ways. It'll be fun to be in conversation with Lynda about that and think about, again, how do you tell the story of a place? She is doing it by focusing specifically on one animal and I'm doing it on the broader perspective of trying to connect the ecosystem to place through a variety of different animals and different stories. So, it should be fun.