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.
Schumann’s eyes redden and fill with tears.
“Somebody had to do it,” he says.
This is what I see from the back seat.
In the after-war, this is what any of us can see if we take the time.
David Finkel is the author of Thank You for Your Service, to be published in October.
When I was writing David and Goliath, I ran across a remarkable man named Konrad Kellen. His family was friends with Renoir. His cousin was Einstein. He worked for Thomas Mann and Ben Graham and smuggled Marc Chagall’s paintings out of Paris after the war. He grew up in Berlin but left Germany in a hurry when an eccentric little man with a moustache came to power, because he sensed – in 1933 – that nothing good lay ahead.
And that was just the prelude. He then went on to play a remarkable role in the Vietnam War: he was the man who tried to warn the U.S. government – way back in the mid-sixties – that it really wasn’t going to work.
I spent months tracking down people who remembered him. I fell in love with his story. Alas, none of that made it into my book. It just didn’t fit. That happens sometimes.
Malcolm Gladwell is the author of David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, to be published in October.
Adam Leith Gollner
As the book neared completion, I attended an “Elixir of Life” ceremony at a Tibetan Buddhist meditation centre. The V-like collars on the nuns’ saffron vests represented the jaws of death, a reminder that they, like all of us, could die any time.
Buddhists believe in impermanence – that everything is fleeting. The Dalai Lama visualizes his own death daily. The nun spoke of how bodies all grow older every moment. Rather than hide from aging, she suggested we celebrate it. We then meditated on the idea of illness as a companion who follows us everywhere.
“Death is my friend,” explained the handout, “the truest of friends, a true friend that never abandons me. Death is always waiting for me.”
So this was the elixir of life? Sitting there, I could feel it: Life. I was a person now alive who knew, as we all do, even if we try not to, that one day I must die.
Adam Leith Gollner is the author of The Book of Immortality, published in August.
Newspapers from a century ago, now preserved on microfilm, are tiring to read: As I plodded through issues of Toronto’s Evening Telegram for February, 1915, I felt my eyes blurring. I had already spent weeks in the National Library, following the murder trial of Carrie Davies, an 18-year-old who had shot her employer dead.
Then suddenly, I was wide awake. Carrie’s lawyer had called a medical witness: Dr. A.J. Harrington. I, in common with everybody in court that day 98 years ago, expected Dr. Harrington to pronounce on Carrie’s mental, not her physical, condition. There was speculation in the press that she would be declared insane. Instead, Dr. Harrington announced: “She is a virgin.”
Images exploded in my head as I realized what Dr. Harrington’s blunt statement entailed. The physician must have visited Carrie in the Don Jail, the filthy, overcrowded, rat-infested jail in Riverdale, where she was being kept in the hospital wing. He must have told the frightened girl to lie on her back with her knees bent and feet apart. Did he tell her what he was doing? Probably not: Respected Toronto physicians didn’t have to explain themselves to domestic servants back then. Then he had stuck his fingers inside her to check her hymen.
I recoiled from the microfilm machine, imagining this violation of a terrified and helpless girl.
Charlotte Gray is the author of The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial that Shocked a Country, to be published this month.
Some word scholars refer to a place called “the asterisk reality.” I discovered it (in the Christopher Columbus sense of finding something other people already knew about) when I read a book of J.R.R. Tolkien’s notes. He worked at the Oxford English Dictionary for two years, and part of his job was to “asterisk” the histories of words.
Asterisked material is temporary, semi-fictional, extrapolated stuff that fills gaps between what people can know for sure. The dictionary entry for “arse,” for example, suggests that the word “arsoz” existed in northern Germany two thousand years ago. No one has a written example of it, but the speculation helps link the modern “arse” back to an ancient Greek word, orsos, which also meant a bum.
Dictionaries mark their made-up stuff with asterisks, hence the name. I loved the idea of making one symbol mean, “We would like the following fact to be true.”
Tom Howell is the author of The Rude Story of English, to be published in November.
I have spent the past few years living, or so it seems, with Austrian archdukes, Russian generals, French pacifists, American diplomats or British bureaucrats, as well as trying to understand arms races, military plans, and diplomatic tangles. This was my own fault because I gave way to the temptation to add my bit to the endless discussion over who or what started the First World War.
In the course of my research, I have been reminded yet again of the sheer role of chance in human affairs.
The heir to the Austrian throne was assassinated in Sarajevo at the start of Europe’s summer holidays, so many, whether statesmen or citizens, failed to take the resulting crisis seriously until it was too late. And in removing Franz Ferdinand from the scene, the Serbian terrorists ensured that there would be no voice of moderation in Vienna.
The German chancellor had just lost his beloved wife and was not prepared or able to stand up to his own military who urged war.
In Paris, a powerful minister who was a leading advocate of friendship with Germany had been obliged to resign because his wife had shot and killed one of his political enemies.
The British, who might have acted as a brake on the slide to war, were preoccupied with the possibility of a civil war over Irish independence.
In five weeks during a lovely hot summer, Europe went from peace to war.
Margaret MacMillan is the author of The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, to be published in October.
Are you worried that nothing can halt eco-crushing population growth – currently, a million more every 4.2 days – because China’s one-child policy, with forced abortions for anyone wanting more, sounds hideously draconian? Or because, as some shrill white Europeans claim, proliferating Muslim hordes aim to take over the world?
Happily, while travelling to 21 countries to research how many humans our planet can hold without collapsing, I learned that on both counts, you’d be wrong. Belying Islamophobic fear-mongering, it happens that the most successful family planning effort on Earth occurred in Muslim Iran, which once had the world’s highest birth rate, but in the 1990s reversed that faster than China – with a completely voluntary program.
How? They made contraception free to everybody, and encouraged women to study. Want another surprise? To do the same worldwide would cost less annually than the United States once spent monthly in Iraq.
So why don’t we?
Alan Weisman is the author of Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?, to be published this month.
Clarence King, the diminutive and courageous explorer whose pioneering seven-year expedition of the mid-19th-century American West led to his appointment as first-ever director of the US Geological Survey, was an archetypal New England Yankee – but also a man with no time at all for women of his own race.
Following decades of bachelorhood, he met, in a New York City park, the woman of his dreams – a freed slave from Georgia named Ada Copeland. On the spur of the moment, he opted not to tell her his real name or race: He claimed instead to be James Todd, an employee of the Pullman railway company and, despite his lily-white appearance, a pale-skinned black man. The couple married, and raised four children: and he then lived for the rest of his days two entirely separate lives – with Ada Todd learning only her husband was a white Yale-educated geologist as he lay on his deathbed.
King was just one of The Men Who United the States – and by no means the most unusual I uncovered from a cast of long-forgotten visionaries and eccentrics who helped knit America into one.
Simon Winchester is the author of The Men Who United the States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible, to be published in October.
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