More from Tracy Kidder
Published: February 27, 2004
|A challenge of Mountains Beyond Mountains: This last book had what my friend [former Atlantic Monthly executive editor] Richard Todd called the problem of goodness. [Paul Farmer] is a pretty improbable person; he makes people uncomfortable, through no fault of his own in many instances, just because he's a daunting example and some people tend to feel demeaned by it, just because he's done so much.|
I thought from the very beginning that I ought to write this book in the first person; I had written four books before it in the third person. But I didn't know exactly what sort of first person. As this problem became clear, it became obvious that I was going to need to be an "Everyman"--someone standing in for the reader, somebody a lot less virtuous than Farmer to testify to the reader that the guy was for real, and also to acknowledge the discomfort that anyone a lot less virtuous than Farmer is bound to feel sometimes in his company.
A lot of the job of a person trying to write stories that are true is to make what's true believable. It isn't enough to say, well, it actually happened. You have to make it believable on the page; you have to bring people to life and scenes to life.
Getting it all down: Mostly I take copious notes, at the time. If it's evening or [there's] a break in the action, I go over those notes while my memories are really fresh; I put in the words I left out in my own invented shorthand. I do use a tape recorder occasionally--I like to have one with me, one of those that fits in your shirt pocket. And it was really fortunate that I had one [while doing Mountains Beyond Mountains] Sometimes I take photographs, just so I remember scenes.
The tape recorder is a curious instrument; it seems logical that you'd want to use it all the time. But it presents certain problems. For one thing, in my hands tape recorders seem to malfunction quite often. And the other problem is I tend not to take very good notes when I'm using one. The tape recorder runs and I get sort of lazy and I sort of drift off, whereas if I'm having to take the notes, I get faster and faster. It's really quite a wonderful challenge. On the other hand, a tape recorder is really useful if there are a lot of people talking. And for me in this book [Mountains], it was especially important on some of those hikes I took with Farmer into the mountains.
Getting people to open up: Some people simply don't want to talk about themselves. But most people, I think, are quite happy to do it. I try to take the stance of a reporter there with a notebook open; I don't want to sneak up on people. Generally, I want the people I'm interviewing to know what I'm doing. And then I try to spend a lot of time with them, and get them to take my presence as natural. It doesn't always work. Some people never get fully comfortable, or they're comfortable one day and not the next.
Main influences: George Orwell, John McPhee and A.J. Leibling are three people whom I read really carefully, and tried to imitate when I was younger. (By the way, I think that's a good thing to do for young writers, to try to imitate.) But I think equally important is Shakespeare. As a kid, I had to memorize a lot of Shakespeare. I think what a wonderful thing that is to have all that great, astonishing language rattling around in your head.
When I really feel discouraged by the whole idea of writing, I do have some books that I open up that make me want to try my own hand again: Moby Dick, Graham Greene--his The Power and the Glory, The Comedians and The Quiet American.
--Posted Feb. 27, 2004