Tracy Kidder won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Soul of a New Machine, and has authored half a dozen other nonfiction works. His newest book, Strength in What Remains, is a profile of a medical student who escaped the genocide in Burundi in the early ’90s. The longtime Massachusetts resident and veteran author was kind enough to talk with me one rainy spring day at the Northampton Hotel about his recent New York Times Bestseller, and share some of his perspectives on writing.
The Bygone Bureau: I’m very interested in your writing process, how you pick stories. I assume it takes a couple years to develop a book—
Tracy Kidder: I would say usually three, sometimes four. As for how I pick them, it’s never the same. I don’t have a procedure, I wish I did. I have an editor I’ve worked with for 30, almost 40 years. Richard Todd is his name — he’s a wonderful editor and writer. He doesn’t work for a publisher now, but he works on a kind of freelance basis. I’ve relied on him for years to help me figure out what to do next. He suggested The Soul of the New Machine idea, with computers, back in the late ‘70s.
Which was wildly successful for you.
Yeah it was. It won prizes. (laughs) And the others, a book called House, was my idea. Nobody liked it, the idea — it worked out pretty well. His wife was an elementary schoolteacher. She suggested that I write about an elementary schoolteacher.
Do you have a book that was your favorite that you’ve written?
It’s hard to say. Usually it’s the one I’ve just finished. Or not, you know? I’ve always been rather fond the book House, partly because it’s so improbable. It’s a pretty good hook. I really enjoyed writing that. But I think, I mean, I’m not ashamed of any of my books. I wouldn’t have published them if I was. I think Mountains Beyond Mountains, that may be the most important thing I’ve written. I like this new book [Strength in What Remains]. As you said it’s quite different, and it should be. It’s a different story.
Actually that brings me to an interesting question, I was looking at your past work and your first book, The Road to Yuba City—
—Ugh! I bought the rights to that book.
I saw that, what…?
It wouldn’t go back in print. It’s not a good book. It’s terrible.
Terrible. Why is it terrible?
Well, I was very young. I was still sort of figuring things out. When The Soul of the New Machine did so well, somebody tried to reprint that one, so that’s when I bought the rights back.
Can you tell me why, with that book, that you decided to — because when you buy the rights, that means — I mean, I’ve tried to find how you would buy it, and the only way you can buy it is used.
So you didn’t like it so much that you didn’t want anyone else to be able to buy it?
Why? What was so awful about it?
I just thought it was… it was written in a way that I later… you know, sometimes you have to do something in a certain way to discover that this is not a good way for you to do things.
And I wrote it in a kind of swashbuckling first person, which I dislike. I think my whole take on that disgusting murder case was wrong in retrospect. The guy was guilty as sin… I mean I just think it’s too heavy handed. Every writer has some of that.
Isn’t it good though to be able to have, you know, early works to be able to reference how you’ve grown since then?
Well, I’ve got the book myself. Just not for other people. (laughs) I don’t usually read things I’ve written once they’re really gone. I mean I can’t do anything about it. Only two things can happen, and neither one is good. Either I’m reading and think how can I possibly have allowed that sentence to go to print, or I think, “Did I used to write that well?”
You know, I do think you ought to learn from your mistakes, but every book asks for something different. And it’s always the kind of writing that I do. You know there’s some interplay that I don’t even really want to examine between who you are at that time and the material, so there is a limit to what I can learn.
What are some of your thoughts on young writers interested in going into MFA programs and the like?
I do think that it is a little bit analogous to music. If you want to learn how to play a musical instrument, you go and get some lessons from someone. I’m not sure if those programs will give you a leg up on trying to get a job. I mean, I think trying to make a living as a writer is always hard in this country. Maybe in every country, I don’t know.
What do you think it was about how you went about it? Was it, obviously was it talent, luck, subject matter, I mean, it’s difficult to say, I know.
Well, I think any writer who makes a living in this country writing and doesn’t admit to being extremely lucky is probably deluded. I know some wonderful writers who never had any real luck, you know. So I think I was mostly really very lucky. I had a great professor in college, a literary person named Robert Fitzgerald who talked about the luck of the conception. I didn’t go out to write about this team of computer engineers because I was interested in computers, it just seemed like something that might be interesting. I didn’t foresee about what was going to happen.
But I think that that was probably a pretty lucky choice for two reasons: one was that it was a really good story that I wandered into — that’s the biggest reason — but also because it was a really good story that happened to coincide with a really interesting subject. Largely because these companies were minting money, I mean, this had become an enormous source of wealth, manufacturing computers.
Anyways, talent… I’ve never understood what that really is. There’s no question that some people have real literary talent. It doesn’t necessarily track with other kinds of intelligence, though. It’s interesting. I think it’s curious.
As a writer?
Yeah. I don’t think that all really good writers are very smart in a sort of academic way. In fact, some seem downright stupid. (laughs)
Hadn’t heard that before.
Actually that’s not my idea, that’s Richard Todd’s. I think it’s true. Not all, mind you, but academic brilliance and writing are not quite the same thing. Given what happens inside the academy these days to writing for scholars, I mean all you have to do is read some of that stuff and you realize that any effort writing in an interesting way gets expunged. Ugh, it’s awful… I’m talking about academic writing. Sociology, history, a lot of things are just dreck.
A lot of authors spend a lot of time arguing with other authors. I was just reading some philosophical writing — incomprehensible, really… I mean I’ve seen kind of a few things. I’ve seen some students who just seem to have some kind of talent. But part of the talent is just the willingness to do it and stick with it and do the work. To learn how to write well, you have to read and you have to write well.
Did you always know that you wanted to write books?
Not always, no. I went to college in the ‘60s and the life of the author at that time still seemed like a rather romantic one. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, I’ve always been into the American novels. But I wasn’t intending to be a writer at all. My mother was an English teacher and taught high school, so that may have had something to do with it. I loved reading, I loved novels. I started in political science in college and then I quit and majored in English. But I did that because I was taking a creative writing course just for fun — seemed like a hobby — and I wrote a lot of stuff that wasn’t self-conscious that the instructor liked.
And the most important thing actually, as I recall — I’ve said this, I’ve written this somewhere else — that there were a lot of young women in the class. It seemed like a good way to meet and impress girls, being a writer. (laughs) I mean that sounds trivial but when you’re 19 years old, 18 or 19 years old, it’s not unimportant at all. 18! Or 17.
Well I have a lot of friends in bands because, partly obviously they love music but obviously…
Right. Makes sense.
I suppose it’s just lucky what separates you and your work from obviously a billion other pipeline dream editors and writers…
A lot of it is luck. The greatest piece of luck I had was this editor, Richard Todd. There’s a difference though, between…. actually, he and I are working on a book that we’re going to go back to, about writing, about what it is that makes… It’s a hard thing to codify, you know? What makes a piece of writing good, what makes it bad. It’s easier to say what makes it bad. But allowing for differences of sort of taste, I think the world of books, particularly contemporary writing does divide itself roughly as good or bad writing. And the bad is, as always, more… more abundant.
You’re a literary journalist? Is that what they call it?
Whatever. The nice thing is that they have different names. But the nice thing about it, this way of writing that I fell into, which I think of as narrative nonfiction, is that at least back then, it wasn’t attached to the academy, it wasn’t attached to universities or colleges. There was a kind of wildness about it. I mean, you were bound by certain conventions, of course. But you could sort of make things up as you went along. I think that magazines that I worked for back then, The Atlantic Monthly, they had rules, basically, accuracy was one of them, but finding ways… I was just reading this dreadful book the other day, it’s this big book we’re writing, it’s a big bestseller about politics. It’s got every single cliché I’ve ever seen. And you can sort of feel the author straining to make their prose colorful and lively. It was just pathetic. (laughs) But, you know, a lot of people like it, so who am I to say, though I’m perfectly willing and have the right to say that it’s trash.
So almost all of your writing is nonfiction.
Yes, though I wrote a few… I wrote a novel that was really bad. It wasn’t published, thank god. Although I did use it in a small book that I wrote called My Detachment. It was a novel about Vietnam. It was all about experiences I didn’t have in Vietnam. It was mostly a… that’s the closest thing I had to a journal of my time as a soldier, and so it’s mostly of psychological interest. I published, I think, three short stories over the years. But I haven’t been writing fiction for quite some time. Although I’d like to write fiction again, I don’t have any fiction I’d like to write at the moment.
I’m just wondering how the different writers operate. Because they’re completely, you know…
Well I don’t think there’s any rules for how you operate, it’s one of the nice things about the job. Nobody makes rules for everybody, as I think John McPhee once said. And that’s true. So I try not to be too judgmental — but I mean as a reader I’m judgmental.
Well I think you have a right to be.
So if you were to give any sort of advice or anything to someone who wanted to get into book writing or the kind of writing you do, what would you say? I mean, it’s obviously a tough road to dedicate your time to an idea and write when you don’t have, say a publisher backing you.
Well not many people start with a publisher backing you.
I’m not real familiar now with the landscape, the territory. The way things used to be done are probably not very open to many people now. Like going to work for a newspaper, which are being limited.
Oh yeah. They are.
Maybe that will change. But it does seem to me that learning to write well, to write clearly, and even with what some call style and a voice to call your own, those are useful things. It is one method of thought that I think is really important. I’m not saying this very well — but that’s how I do my thinking. It’s a really great way to test some ideas of your own, with stories.
So you had sort of a journalism background with The Atlantic Monthly, right?
Well, I had no real journalism background, I just sort of glommed onto this guy at The Atlantic. I’m thankful that I did. After I’d written that book, that bad book that was published, I just hung out with him. But I think the most important things are to write and to read. But if you want to try to do it for a living, you really ought to want to do it. There’s a lot of other things that intelligent people that can write well can do that are probably more useful. I’ve only taught a few semesters here and there, and it’s always what I’ve told students. If you really want to do it though, it’s not impossible. But you have to want to do it enough to make other kinds of sacrifices, I think.
How long between books would you say the average time is?
Again there’s no rule. I’ve sometimes spend as much as a year or so looking around for a subject and I seem to be on track to do that again. But it’s not that I don’t do anything in that time. I’ll maybe write a short story or teach.
How do you feel about books and the lasting impact of your work? I mean obviously your work is important. Do you feel like books are becoming less important?
I’m not sure the online world can replace books. And I’m not sure it can replace newspapers. Certainly… you think about the economics of newspapers. You simply can’t get reliable news, reliable reporting without spending a great deal of money. This whole idiotic notion that everything should be free — everything would be in dreck. With a few tiny exemptions. And completely unreliable. So I’m not a big believer in the online world, I don’t much care for it. I’m maybe too old. I mean I think an awful lot of blogs remind me of teenage diaries that get written by adults.
That’s true, there is a lot of verbal diarrhea online.
And their great virtue is their spontaneity. But the thing about books is they’re not spontaneous. They’re written and rewritten and there are things that are very carefully thought through and researched. And the newspapers are not spontaneous either, it has a filter… though that’s not to say they don’t make lots of mistakes.
But it’s a different animal. I think the importance of books, though I’m not sure how important books have ever been, has to measure their effects on things like politics and the social world people inhabit. I don’t think they make a world of difference. Because I think art… I mean one of the things I think about poetry and fiction and nonfiction and narrative is it has the great power, that all the arts do really, to convert the experience of suffering, evil, and injustice into something beautiful. That there are many other arguments, it seems to me, particularly for storytelling and poetry, one is that it lends an order to life that life doesn’t always seem to have. It’s one of the ways we make sense of the world’s chaos. I think preserving these memories that really ought to be, have to be preserved. I don’t know, the appeal is very strong to me. To print books.