One of the best books I’ve ever read was introduced to me in a college class titled Creative Nonfiction. The book is The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Since falling in love with that book I have gained a love of nonfiction books, particularly memoirs and biographies. But whenever I read them I wonder, how does the author know that happened that way? Even when the author is writing an autobiography it still makes me wonder, how do you remember exactly how that happened twenty years ago? When I read (actually I listened to) Devil in the White City I was with my dad driving cross country. I would pause the book & look at him in the car and say, how does he KNOW that? Where are the footnotes saying where this information came from? Who did he talk to? I was baffled. An article I read today answered some of these questions. The article is an interview with Erik Larson, the author of Devil in the White City & Garden of Beasts both of which are historical creative nonfiction books that possess situations and conversations that Erik Larson would have personally known nothing about. This is what he says about where he finds his information.
“The way it starts, for me, is you read the broad stuff, the big survey histories and so forth. You kind of circle in, getting closer and closer to the nub of things by going into what I call the intimate histories—the published diaries, documents, letters—and all the while you’re looking for the right characters. Then you have an idea of who these characters might be; you come down to a half-dozen characters, one of whom could be central to the story. Then it’s time to go to the archives. The Library of Congress is stop one. The manuscript division… So then you go to the archives. I love it. I love going through boxes filled with files that are full of stuff. You never know what you’re going to find in the next folder. The problem with online research is you always know what’s coming. Somebody else has selected what’s online. The serendipity effect is crucial, finding things that are potentially really valuable to you. Say, an envelope with nothing in it, nothing associated with it, could be valuable because it might have so-and-so’s return address on it. Or it might confirm a contact. Little detective-like things. I just love those…”
This is what he says about how he writes dialogue.
“I get a kick out of people saying to me, ‘You must have made this up. Because this is dialogue. How could you know this?’ I put this note in every one of my books, and everyone ignores it: ‘Anything between quotation marks is from a written document. All dialogue that appears in this book is taken verbatim from the sources in which it initially appeared.’ So what I’m getting at is that it is the reader who brings the magic, I am convinced. I’m trying to lay out all those little vivid details that might spark the imagination. The reader comes to this with his or her vast experience of reading novels and everything else, and puts those dots together.”