Today I’m pleased to present a Q&A with Tim Wendel, who is the author of seven books, including RED RAIN: A NOVEL and HIGH HEAT, which will be published this spring by Da Capo Press. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, USA Weekend, National Geographic Traveler, Washingtonian and Esquire.
Tim teaches fiction and nonfiction at Johns Hopkins University and was nice enough to share some of his expertise with us here.
Q. You have written novels, narrative nonfiction and news articles. How do the skills you’ve learned for one genre compliment the others?
A. Joseph Conrad was once asked his definition of quality writing. His reply was, “If I can make you see.” In other words, can I write the piece with enough details and urgency so the reader can picture a scene similar to what I’ve witnessed or brought together in my mind? In essence, are we sharing the same dream?
Once you consider writing in that way, a good story becomes a good story, regardless if it’s technically fiction or nonfiction. Quality interviewing can result in great sensory details that then can be fully utilized by employing techniques that until a few decades ago were the domain of fiction writers.
When potential readers have so many other ways to spend their time (watching reality TV, serving the Internet, etc.), it’s up to the writer to make a story – fiction or nonfiction – as full and as vibrant as it can be.
Q. Are there any dangers of cross pollination?
A. Sure, looked what happened to James Frey and others. The fields of memoir and even essay can often be a slippery slope. That’s why it’s so important to fact-check your story along the way. Sometimes there just isn’t enough there to call it nonfiction – no matter how much research you’ve done. That’s what happened to me with my first novel, CASTRO’S CURVEBALL (Ballantine/University of Nebraska). On my first trip to Cuba, people there told me how much Fidel Castro loved baseball, how he’d once been a baseball pitcher, how he had perhaps tried out for several U.S. major-league teams. When the research didn’t go as far at that, I turned the book into a novel. That said the descriptions of Havana at night, the infatuation Cubans have for our so-called national pastime, what the lush countryside is like remained rooted in fact. Those come directly from the interviews and observations I did during my three trips to the island.
Q. What techniques can nonfiction writers learn from fiction writers and vice versa?
A. So much of quality writing comes down to scene-setting. In a way, this dovetails back to Conrad. I tell my nonfiction students to read novels and watch film. That can help with everything from dialogue to voice. I tell my fiction students to get out and talk with people, see if you can then mimic their speech patterns or how they act. All of that is necessary if you want to write effective scenes because that can translate into those times when you’re reading and everything around you seems to stand still. You miss your Metro stop or you stay up past your bedtime because you’re so wrapped in the story. That’s when you’re a part of what John Gardner called the “vivid continuous dream.” All of the above and then some is needed to pull it off.
Q. Do you have any books you recommend writers read and, if so, which techniques should we be watching for as we read?
People should read what gets their juices going. Life is too short to do anything different. We should all have writers that we’d walk over broken glass to get a hold of their next work. Richard Ford once said many of us get into this field because we read something that’s so good, so memorable, that we have to give it a try. So, we do and perhaps we get hooked.
If that’s the case, find the connections between writers. Who do they read, even hang out with? Thomas McGuane, for example, is good friends with Jim Harrison. They’ve influenced each other. Richard Ford keeps an eye on what Robert Stone is doing. So, if you enjoyed a McGuane or Harrison work, allow that progression to lead you to a Ford or Stone.
Q. As a reader, I often get caught up in the story and often forget to pay attention to the techniques a writer is using. You are currently teaching two classes–nonfiction techniques and a nonfiction workshop—at Johns Hopkins University. What advice do you give your students on recognizing techniques as they’re reading?
Whether I’m teaching a fiction or nonfiction class, I tell my students to pay attention to the moments when a piece they’re reading really takes off. Certainly you race ahead to finish it. It’s a good story and you can’t help it. But then go back and try to dissect the best passages. Can you determine, at least in part, what the writer was doing? When I read something that blows me away, I become the curious kid who takes apart the washing machine. Maybe I cannot put it all back together again, but I have a better understanding of what went down.
Also, be open about what you read. For example, in the novel class I teach at Johns Hopkins (the powers that be allow me to teach fiction and nonfiction) I often assign Cormac McCarthy’s CITIES OF THE PLAIN. Invariably, some will roll their eyes at this news. At first blush, they consider the assignment a macho novel filled with violence. And it is. But it’s also a compelling love story with characters that are more alive than some people you see every day. In many ways, McCarthy’s novel is Romeo and Juliet set along the mysterious borderland between the U.S. and Mexico. Several students have told me later that they never would have read that book if it wasn’t assigned.
And, finally, seek out people you can learn from. I’ve been lucky during my career to work or study under Alice McDermott, David Granger, Nicholas Delbanco, Alan Cheuse and Oakley Hall. Each one taught me something valuable about writing. But a small part of that was me going out of my way to be in their path.
To read more about Tim or read his stories, go to www.timwendel.com.