Thanks to Darcey Steinke for asking me to take part in the MY WRITING PROCESS BLOG TOUR, a path linking writers’ blogs in a discussion about approaches to fiction and nonfiction. Darcey has a new novel, Sister Golden Hair, coming out in the fall, and you can find Darcey’s answers to the four questions here:
At the bottom, find the link to the blogs of the wonderful Elliott Holt and Julia Fierro for their responses next week. Here are my responses to the questions:
1) What are you working on?
I am working on a novella-length nonfiction piece about a turn-of-the-century New York woman. She managed to fight crime, save the innocent from death row, find the hidden corpses of murder victims, write treatises, travel Europe, Syria and Russia alone on a mule, dodge assassination attempts, and combat entrenched government corruption all while relatively young. She makes us so-called liberated women look entrapped and lazy. I am also finishing up a proposal for the next book I would like to write.
2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?
I try to give my historical pieces a strong narrative line because ultimately I enjoy story. Conveying fact in this way, it seems to me, gives a more accurate sense of history, the tension of not knowing whether the crime would be solved or the mammoth statue would be built, or girls would keep disappearing by the hundreds from New York streets.
Hopefully, if people read my new book Liberty’s Torch, they will have the same sense that the creators did of uncertainty: that the statue might never make it out of the French workshop for lack of financing. It might go down in a shipwreck during transport. It might get toppled by a hurricane and live in legend rather than become the icon we know.
I also enjoy finding the magical moments of history, the glimmers of coincidence, or unusual images, the strange motivations.
3) Why do you write what you do?
I don’t have one reporting beat. I write all sorts of pieces, from a book review of a Yiddish epic to a profile of a supermodel, from a biography of a would-be president to sagas from the horse world. I enjoy trying to understand new terrain, to enter the worldview of people with passions and drive very different from my own.
I’ve been writing narrative history lately because I stumbled upon a few stories that intrigue me. I uncovered the tale of the first female detective in U.S. history; she deserves recognition and I enjoyed helping her get it. Then I came upon Bartholdi’s diaries and letters from his first trip to America to pitch the Statue of Liberty. The New York Public Library holds this trove. I was intrigued by how he clearly seemed a lone wolf in this project. He was coming to America, to a land he had never visited, to meet people he never knew before to pitch them on creating the slightly revamped work he had originally designed for Egypt. The surprise that Liberty wasn’t originally designed for America compelled me forward, and Bartholdi’s amusing and dramatic personality kept me going.
4) How does your writing process work?
I tend to come across an intriguing shard of a story while working on a different piece. I make a note of it, and if the idea still tugs at me months later, I go back to it. Inevitably, I find the idea is so much richer than I could ever have dreamed. I research the heck out of it, then work out a fairly solid outline. That helps rein in the nearly irresistible urge to follow every fascinating tangent in the archives. I begin writing. When I realize I need to understand something better, I research again. I spend a huge amount of time trying to nail down details. I then go over the manuscript many, many times, trying to smooth the edges.
Next up, the week of June 12th, check out these two great blogs with answers to those same questions by Elliott Holt and Julia Fierro: Elliott Holt. Elliott Holt’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in the New York Times, Virginia Quarterly Review, Kenyon Review online, The Millions, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and the runner-up of the 2011 Pen Emerging Writers’ Award, and her first novel, You Are One of Them, was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. elliottholt.com
Julia Fierro is the author of Cutting Teeth, A Novel, which was recently included in Library Journal’s “Spring Best Debuts” and on “Most Anticipated Books of 2014″ lists by HuffPost Books, The Millions, Flavorwire, Brooklyn Magazine and Marie Claire. Julia’s work has been published, or is forthcoming, in Guernica, Poets & Writers, Glamour and other publications, and she has been profiled in the L Magazine, The Observer and The Economist.
In 2002, she founded The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, and what started as eight writers meeting in her Brooklyn kitchen has grown into a creative home for over 2,500 writers. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Teaching-Writing Fellow, and currently teaches the Post-MFA workshops at Sackett Street. Julia lives in Brooklyn with her husband, writer Justin Feinstein, and their two children. Her tumblr is juliafierro.tumblr.com, but also visit her website: http://www.juliafierro.com/author/