AWM was lucky enough to speak to author Simon Winchester this month about his recent book Pacific. In this interview, Simon generously answered questions about content, research, and structure in non-fiction writing. He offered advice about creating compelling historical reads by seeking out human stories. Simon told AWM how he learned of horrific tales about radiation poisoning during his research for Pacific and how that detail lent a vividly human element to an historical account. Simon also talked about his love for writing and freeing his inner nerd.
Simon is the New York Times best-selling author of The Surgeon of Crowthorne. His recent titles include Atlantic and The Men Who United the States. Winchester was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his services to journalism and literature. He lives in Massachusetts and New York City. You can read more about Simon Winchester on his website: http://www.simonwinchester.com/
You have written an array of non-fiction books about historical and geographical events that one might read about in a textbook or encyclopedia, and you have an exceptional ability to write about history eloquently and interestingly. What advice would you offer writers looking to create intriguing narrative non-fiction?
Keep your eyes and ears open to the small but telling detail that might make an otherwise dry-as-dust story somehow more human. For instance, in Pacific, when I was researching and reading accounts of the islanders who were irradiated by the big Castle Bravo thermonuclear weapon test on Bikini Atoll in 1954 I came across the tiny detail – that when the small flakes of coral thrown up by the bomb came floating down from the sky, the islanders imagined they were the snowflakes that they had heard about and read about but had never seen. And so they reached up and caught these featherlight falling particles in their hands, smelled them, tasted them, tried to clump them together to make snowballs. But though the flakes looked white and light and innocent they were in fact wildly radioactive, emitting gamma radiation in near-lethal amounts, and within moments the islanders fell sick – victims of a cruel and unintended joke. That is the sort of thing you look for, as you try to lift the stark realities of history into a very different narrative realm.
You started your writing career as a journalist and worked as a correspondent, feature writer, freelance writer and editor for many years. In 1998, after having written ten other books, you published the highly successful The Surgeon of Crowthorne. As an experienced journalist, how did you find the transition to researching and writing as an author of non-fiction?
The difference came as a consequence of the Surgeon’s entirely unexpected success. No one thought it would do well – I certainly didn’t. Who, after all, would want to read a book about an obscure 19th century lexicographer? And all my previous books had been, though nicely reviewed, commercial duds. But now, and at last, a book of mine actually made money – and it enabled me to imagine that I might be able to make a career as a full-time writer, without having to work in journalism to quite the degree I had been. I would be able to spend months, years on a project, instead of days. I think that, deep down, this is what I had always wanted, even though I was outwardly content to live the life of a globe-trotting journalist, with all the glamour and excitement of the job. Now I could exercise my inner nerd, and spend time in archives and libraries, and talk to people at great length, really get stuck in. And this is what I’ve done ever since.
Your books Atlantic and Pacific contain a wealth of detail about topics as vast as seafaring in traditional Hawaiian sailing canoes, raising sheep atop cliffs in the Faroe Islands and nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands. What process do you use to organise your research?
I try to travel to the important places (all of those you mention, for example are places I visited) so that I can set the book research into context, can frame it and give the reader a better and more atmospheric picture. Before I leave for any of these sites I read up, as much as I can. I spend a fortune on second-hand books before I begin a new project; and when I get properly involved I use the internet to track down all the relevant academic papers, PhD theses, that sort of thing. The trouble is – the research could, in theory, never stop. There is no end to what it is possible to find out – which makes the process trying, and you have to impose a discipline and say to yourself – okay, now I have found out enough, and stop before you become a total bore.
In the prologue of Pacific you write about how you came to structure this book. You tell readers how you were inspired by Austrian author Stefan Zweig’s book Decisive Moments in History, which sets out events that Zweig found historically significant. How do you typically approach the task of structuring a non-fiction book about a broad topic?
It is always tricky, a serious challenge. My view is that the three components of a good non-fiction book are, in order, The Idea; the Structure; the Writing. The structure is so critically important – and in the three most recent books I went out on a bit of a limb with each – using Shakespeare for Atlantic, the five Chinese elements for the US book and now Stefan Zweig for Pacific. In hindsight I’m happy, though I was quite nervous at the time, taking a risk. It made the process very enjoyable, though, and for so vast a topic as the Pacific, having a formal structure in my head eased matters, made it all less bewildering.
I loved the prologue of Pacific, which launched me into this watery vastness, drew my attention to the effects of colonisation, and offered a glimpse of the chapters to follow. In the epilogue, you describe traditional Polynesian seafaring, contrast western conquests with the calmer voyages of island peoples, and convey the importance of treating this ocean gently. Could you provide some advice about crafting prologues and epilogues that effectively frame a book?
It is rather like giving a speech – you tell the audience what you are going to talk about, you talk about it, and then you tell them what you just talked about! The Prologue can help you with your own thoughts, can help guide you – so long as you don’t make the mistake of filling it with what I call ‘throat clearing’, and using it purely as a device to clarify your own mind. Rather it should act as a map – you shine the flashlight on it and tell your companions this is where we are going to go, and this is how we will try to get there. The Epilogue is rather simpler – in that this is where you draw the conclusions from what you have written, and where you try to tie everything up with ribbon and present it with a flourish. I love writing both. But then in truth I love writing the whole thing.
Zoe Biddlestone is currently studying a Master of Arts in Writing, Editing and Publishing at The University of Queensland. She also has Bachelor degrees in Arts and Law. Zoe works full-time and enjoys freelance editing and proofreading after hours. She loves reading travel writing, the classics and translated fiction.