Writing a non-fiction book is not merely a matter of reporting; it’s a seemingly endless immersion in another era or another world. It’s a feeling that, no matter how much research you do, there’s always something you’ve missed – and that, despite this, you simply don’t have enough room to include everything you’ve learned. Still, our intrepid fact-spelunkers prevail, and every fall, a new batch of non-fiction books brings hidden glories to light, and shapes dialogue for the year to come. We asked this season’s non-fiction authors what experience stood out for them most in the course of writing their books. From secret lives revealed to mortality made real, this is what they told us.
For some time, I have been working with scientists who believe that our abuse, over-extraction and displacement of water is a major cause of climate chaos. It became startlingly clear to me while writing this book that this is the case. When we remove water from the soil or the vegetation that holds it in place, the actual amount of water in the local hydrologic cycle decreases, creating deserts and heating the air.
We all know that the Dust Bowl was caused by rapid clearance of prairie grasslands, leaving dried up topsoil to blow away. But we think the drought was an unfortunate and untimely act of God. Not so. I found studies that show the removal of water from the soil amplified a natural drop in rainfall and turned an ordinary dry cycle into a disaster.
This has profound ramifications for the climate crisis. Protecting and restoring watersheds becomes as important as cutting greenhouse-gas emissions.
Maude Barlow is the author of Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever, to be published this month.
I’d envisaged that I’d write of lone Chinese families who ran cafés in small-town Canada as a way of exploring the emotional terrain of immigrant life. I set the stories in the 1950s when the tumult of war and politics in China and the repeal of a Canadian law barring Chinese entry brought wives, sons and daughters, and “cash on delivery” brides among the newest immigrants to this country.
As I expected, lives could be upended by the unpredictable, both joyful and tragic: a boy whose grandmother sold his baby sister for a sack of rice finds out decades later, that like him, she is now living in Canada; a driverless, rolling car crosses a sidewalk and crushes the leg of a man, and soon, his widow is left to run the café.
What surprised were memories of longing that surfaced: for the caress of a father’s hand on a daughter’s head; for any chance to wear high-heeled shoes brought from Hong Kong – regretfully ill-suited to a young bride’s new rural life.
Denise Chong is the author of Lives of the Family: Stories of Fate and Circumstance, to be published in October.
Adam Schumann is driving, trying not to speed. Michael Emory is in the passenger seat, trying to keep his balance. I’m in the back seat, watching.
Three years before, in the war, Emory had been shot in the head by a sniper, and Schumann had carried him on his back down three flights of stairs. Emory should have been dead. But here he is. He shouldn’t be able to talk. He talks. He shouldn’t be able to walk. He walks. Not that it’s been easy. There was the day, for instance, that he tried to kill himself by biting through one of his wrists.
It hasn’t been easy for Schumann, either, who three years and several suicide attempts later is still tasting Emory’s blood.
But they are both still alive, and seeing each other for the first time since that day.
Emory holds out his right hand, the one he bit, toward Schumann. He wishes he could have tried it on his left hand, he says, the one that remains paralyzed and without feeling, because he wouldn’t have felt his teeth and might have been able to finish. But the right one was the one he could lift to his mouth.
Schumann takes Emory’s hand.
“I appreciate it,” Emory says.