The Millions, July 12, 2011
An Accomplished Author on How to Write Journalistic Nonfiction
By KEVIN HARTNETT
In his introduction to The Best American Essays of 2007 David Foster Wallace described the challenge of writing non-fiction like this: “Writing-wise, fiction is scarier but non-fiction is harder—because non-fiction’s based in reality, and today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex.”
This spring I reviewed a work of non-fiction for The Christian Science Monitor called The Beekeeper’s Lament by Hannah Nordhaus that I thought met Wallace’s challenge better than most books I’ve read. It is about migratory beekeeping (and one curmudgeony migratory beekeeper in particular) and the role that factory farmed bees play in the maintenance of American agribusiness. Over the course of the book Nordhaus uses a somber, lyrical writing style to make bees into just about the most fascinating subject you’ve ever encountered while at the same time crafting an elegiac metaphor for the contingency of modern American life.
After I’d finished writing the review I decided to contact Hannah to ask her how she’d produced such a remarkable book. I was curious about everything: how she’d chosen this esoteric vein to mine; what it had been like spending weeks in the field with oddball beekeepers and their stinging swarms; how, exactly, she’d transformed reams of field notes and a mountain of bee trivia into a graceful volume that feels as effortless as a spring breeze. Still, my abundant curiosity aside, I doubted that she’d write back. A day later, she did.
What follows, then, is a veritable how-to for writing a book of journalistic non-fiction in which Hannah talks about everything from selling her manuscript to courting her sources to settling into the one and only position on her couch in which she can actually get any writing done.
The Millions: As a freelance writer you can write about just about anything and everything, and you pretty much have: bees, dildo-art thieves, nuclear weapons, litigious prostitutes. Choosing a topic is a significant commitment (what sounds like several years of your life in the case of The Beekeeper’s Lament). Given that, out of all the ways you might spend your professional time, how do you decide what to write about?
Hannah Nordhaus: First, the subject has to interest me. I’m not terribly successful at doing things that I find boring, which is, I guess, why I’ve chosen to be a freelance journalist who hops from story to story. That said, I am interested in all manner of subjects, including many that would seem boring to most everyone else. Dildo art thieves and litigious prostitutes are easy; but I’ve also dedicated months of my life to documenting the lives of lawyers who draft bills for Congress. And that subject interested me too: What I find most absorbing to write about are the little hidden corners of the human experience, the people who do weird things or scary things or difficult things by choice, and who persist in doing those things even when it’s clear they’d be much better off choosing another path through life.
So that’s how I have chosen magazine subjects, and it’s a formula that’s worked for me—but often, when I’m done with the article, I’m also done with the topic, and I really don’t want anything else to do with it. I don’t want to read about it; I don’t want to hear about it; I certainly don’t want to write about it. In the case of The Beekeeper’s Lament, though, I found that even after I had published a 4,500-word feature on the crisis in modern beekeeping, I still had more to say. Luckily, so did my protagonist, John Miller, who is a wonderfully eloquent, funny, thoughtful, sometimes petulant but always entertaining subject to follow. John Miller’s life was so rich with narrative possibility, and honey bees, the creatures he tends, are so rich with metaphor, that it never even occurred to me that I might get sick of the subject two or three years down the line. And I never did.
TM: Before we get into the specifics of what went into writing The Beekeeper’s Lament, could you give readers an overview of the stages of the book’s creation from conception to publication?
HN: I first interviewed John Miller in 2004 while researching an article for a natural foods magazine about a honey-based energy gel company in which he is a partner. He told me about his work as a migratory bee guy with thousands of hives, pollinating huge crops all over the West. I was intrigued, so I called him back, and I ended up paying my own way to visit him twice—once in California, once in North Dakota—to learn more about his life and his work. My timing was propitious (for a writer of non-fiction, that is; for a beekeeper, it was not good at all): about a year after I first met John Miller, his outfit suffered a catastrophic collapse, and he lost about 40% of his bees because of diseases vectored by a nasty little parasite called the varroa mite. I sold the story toHigh Country News, a small environmental magazine in Colorado, and just as the article was about to go to press in early 2007, the national bee herd began suffering from a mysterious new problem named “Colony Collapse Disorder,” or CCD.
I was seven months pregnant with my first child when the magazine story ran, and thus in no condition to dash off a quick topical book that would address the CCD mystery. Instead, I took my time, had my kid, got an agent, and took a leisurely year to put together a proposal and write a sample chapter to submit to publishers. In the meantime, a number of other books came out about the honeybee crisis. This didn’t improve my odds for generating a bidding war (there wasn’t one) and netting a big advance (ditto), but I think in the end the more relaxed timeline actually did me a favor. I couldn’t write another newsy, topical book about bees—there were enough of those already. So instead, I pitched a more character-oriented work about humans and bees that would follow one particular human, John Miller, through the seasons and the years of the recent honey bee crisis, and in so doing also explain this weird institution of modern beekeeping.
I sold the book in Dec 2008, took a trip to attend a beekeeping conference with Miller that winter, signed a contract in March; and three days later, while in California doing research on queen breeders, I found out I was pregnant again—with a baby due date that fell about seven months before the book due date. This complicated matters for me majorly, and after running around in circles for a few days wondering how I was going to get it done, I decided that the most important thing was to get something—anything—down on paper while I still had a few powers of concentration left. So I set the goal of writing a terrible draft before the baby came. And that’s what I did. I put my head down and wrote a terrible chapter every three weeks, had the baby, took three months off, and then embarked on the hard but rewarding work of turning a bad draft into a serviceable one. I turned the book in in June 2010. There were a couple of months of relatively painless back-and-forth editing with my excellent editor, Michael Signorelli at Harper Perennial, and then it was off to production.
TM: Of those stages- (i.e. interviewing and field work, research, writing)- what parts do you enjoy the most? Any that you look forward to less than the others?
HN: My favorite part of the writing process is always editing. I love taking this raw mass that is a first draft and then shaping it into something I might actually enjoy reading. I do like the research, though I sometimes dread calling random people on the phone, and I find that research trips can be lonely. And writing a first draft—well, I hate it. The act of corralling information and making it into a cohesive narrative is not a pretty one, and I tend to beat myself up for how bad my writing is. But in the last few years, I have made it a point of pride to write my first draft as quickly and poorly as possible, without consulting my notes or laboring over it. It makes the editing work a little harder, but by writing from memory and not belaboring all the minutiae in my notes, I tend to remember only those facts and points that are most salient to the narrative. And then I can always flesh out the things I missed later, though often I decide the things I forgot in the first draft really weren’t all that important. So now I do much of the heavy-lifting in the editing process, once I have gotten the bones of the story down. That’s when I spend the time agonizing over word choice and rhythm and flow and what information needs to stay or go, over what’s missing and whether it all makes sense. And that is the fun part for me—I love tinkering, and I love finding connections I never saw the first time through.
TM: The main character in your book is a gregarious migratory beekeeper named John Miller. I got the impression that you two spent a lot of time together, and I’m always curious how those types of relationships work- how would you describe the dynamic between the two of you?
HN: John has been an incredibly gracious guide into his life and world. He likes to talk, and to write, and he’s passionate about what he does, which made him a wonderful subject for this book. He’s also very conscious of his failings—as a Mormon, as a husband, and especially as a beekeeper—which adds a sense of poignancy to his story that isn’t always easy for a journalist to find. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner in creating this book.
But of course, he’s still human, and I don’t think any human wants another human, especially one they barely know, following him around for months on end. So I was pretty careful with my visits, trying not to stay too long or hang around too much. I didn’t want to wear out his (quite limited) patience.
Fortunately, John is a prolific emailer—he writes these wonderful, lengthy free-verse odes about his life and his work and anything else that pops into his head. So I asked him, once this project got started, if he could email me regular updates about what he was doing between visits. He did, and if I didn’t hear from him for a while I’d send a quick note asking him what was new or plying him with questions about queens or honey or his new truck, and he always obliged me with a long, detailed, oddball explanation of the current goings-on in the bee industry and the life of John Miller. And those emails formed the backbone of the book, and really helped bring him to life.
After I’d finished a polished second draft but before I turned it in to the publisher, I asked John to read the book. And nothing was scarier—not submitting the proposals to publishers; not giving the draft to my editor; not even showing it to my mother. But he really seemed to love it—though he did take exception to me calling him “peevish” (for a month or so afterwards signed all his emails, “Mr. Peev”). This was my first book, and I’m not sure how other people handle that long-term and intense connection between journalist and subject that book-length projects require.
But I guess in the end I felt that we—like bees and flowers, like beekeepers and farmers—were engaged in a symbiotic relationship that seemed to be beneficial to both of us—I got to write a book about a really cool topic; he had a venue through which to get the word out about the importance of bees and beekeepers in these trying times. Like all symbiotic relationships, ours depended on a delicate balance, which I was very careful to nurture: I gave him veto power on anything he felt was too personal, and I also tried to write the book in such a way that he wouldn’t have to exercise that veto. I wanted the book to explore his nature and his character, but not at the expense of his good name. And that seemed to be okay with him. In the end, he asked that I change nothing.
TM: In his introduction to The Best American Essays of 2007 David Foster Wallace wrote, “Writing-wise, fiction is scarier but non-fiction is harder—because non-fiction’s based in reality, and today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex.” How does his description of the challenge of writing non-fiction strike you?
HN: To write strong, journalistic non-fiction, you have to do a lot of research. You have to make a lot of phone calls, do a lot of reading, visit as many people and locations as you can, and then try to somehow combine all that undigested information into something that a reader can stomach. But honestly, while reporting is hard and requires a lot of effort and elbow grease and legwork and chutzpah, I think the most challenging thing about writing non-fiction is turning that information into a story. Because if the narrative isn’t unfolding the way you want it, you can’t just change the details to make it better, the way you would when writing fiction. You have to represent the truth.
It’s very hard to be both a storyteller and a chronicler of reality. So to tell a true story that readers want to follow to the end, you’ve got to be very conscious of your craft—of your characters, chronology, pacing, setting, foreshadowing, backstory, detail—all those same elements that are so important in fiction writing. And then you’ve got to make double-sure you’re not making anything up.
TM: Continuing on Wallace’s point, The Beekeeper’s Lament covers a lot of ground—almond farming, a history of the Miller family, the international honey trade, bee pests and contagions. How did you keep all that information organized and accessible as you wrote?
HN: This was a tough book to organize, because there wasn’t an easy A to B to C chronological narrative of John Miller’s life as a beekeeper. There was no “man meets bee, man loses bee, man gets bee back” plot to rely on. His life is seasonal, and there are ups and downs, and though there were lots of good stories scattered throughout, there was not one particular thread that drove the story from start to finish. But I knew I needed to have some sense of time moving forward and to pique reader interest in a way that might appeal to those who aren’t bee fanatics as well as those who are. I needed to give those who looked at the first chapter a reason for moving on to the next one.
So as I started thinking about chapter structure and the overall flow of the book, I tried to pose some questions so that readers would keep turning the page, and I returned to them regularly. Why did so many of John Miller’s bees die in 2005? What’s been killing everyone else’s bees in the years since? Is John Miller’s outfit going to survive? Why has he chosen to remain in such a difficult profession? And I used those questions to keep readers interested (I hope) and string them along from chapter to chapter.
I also approached the individual chapters as more independent thematic units, organizing each one by subject. I [also] tried to touch on some larger themes, like migration, and risk, and symbiosis, and persistence—concepts that make people think on another level, and that, when you boil it down, are what make works of non-fiction “literary,” and not glorified long-form encyclopedia entries.
TM: Writers are always interested in other writers’ writing processes. Where do write? When do you write? Any rituals, tics, frustrations, moments of grace that attend the writing process for you?
HN: Let’s see. Hmmm. Well I dally a lot before I get started on a first draft. I check a lot of email. And google myself. Facebook suddenly seems very pressing. Twitter, too. And then when I can’t find any other excuse, I sit down on the couch and just start spewing. I sit at my desk when I’m writing emails or paying bills, but when I’m composing—when I’m really concentrating—I have to sit on a couch with my legs up and my laptop perched on a cushion on my thighs. I must be semi-reclining, apparently, to get any real writing done.
TM: Are there any non-fiction writers whose work has influenced your writing? And if so, what particular things have you taken from their writing?
HN: There are two books that particularly influenced my approach to The Beekeeper’s Lament: The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean and Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. Both have in common their singular focus on one character, who then opens up an entirely new world to the reader. The Orchid Thief isn’t about orchids; it tells the story of one man’s weird obsession with the plants, and in so doing teaches the reader more about orchids, and Seminoles, and Florida, than they ever realized they wanted to know. I love the playfulness of Orlean’s language.
Mountains Beyond Mountains also uses character to open narrative and thematic doors—by examining the life and work of Dr. Paul Farmer, we learn about Haiti, and health care in the developing world, and the medical profession, and the philanthropic world, and human decency. What I particularly love about Kidder’s book is the depth of feeling that he conveys through Farmer’s story. It’s not mawkish at all, but you feel so strongly Farmer’s own depth of feeling—and when all the details of that book have faded away, that feeling still remains. John Miller, like Paul Farmer, carries with him a profound sense of mission, though Miller’s involves bees, not humans, and you would never mistake Miller for a saint as you might Paul Farmer. Both books are so rich in detail, so effortless in their storytelling, so attentive to character, and so smart.
TM: Any particular advice you’d relay to writers beginning to work on an extensive non-fiction project?
HN: I guess my main piece of advice would be to give yourself the time to be deliberate when you craft the book. It’s not enough to organize it chronologically and then go; you need to think about how you’re going to keep readers interested, about the major themes that you want the sprinkle throughout the book, about how you are going to keep it tight. So many books lose their focus, and you’ve got to be really conscious throughout to keep the reader coming back to the reason you’re writing the book, the story you’re telling, and the questions you’re asking and that you plan, in due time, to answer. You’ve got to be ruthless with yourself. People don’t want to read every word that emerges from your brain just because you’re brilliant and you wrote it; there has to be a reason behind every chapter, every paragraph, every sentence. Every word you write should serve your overall narrative and thematic structure. That doesn’t mean you can’t go off on flights of whimsy—I certainly did, and I can’t say that I succeeded uniformly in keeping the book as tight as I am recommending that others do—but you do need to know, ultimately, where you’re going, and not lose sight of that.
And then, at some point, when your deliberation has run its course, you’ve got to stop agonizing, stop doing research, stop aiming for perfection, and just sit down and write the damn thing.