It’s the birthday of American nonfiction writer Tracy Kidder (1945) (books by this author). He’s written about public education, a nursing home, an American doctor in Haiti, and a young medical student in Burundi. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Soul of a New Machine (1981), about his experiences watching engineers at the Data General Corporation build a new microcomputer. He lived in the basement of the building for eight months, taking notes and observing the work. He called the engineers “knights errant, clad in blue jeans and open collars, seeking with awesome intensity the grail of technological achievement […] They believe that what they do is elegant and important, but they have the feeling that no one else understands or cares.”
Kidder started out as a fiction writer, but figured out early on that he preferred to write about real people. He once said: “In fiction, believability may have nothing to do with reality or even plausibility. It has everything to do with those things in nonfiction. I think that the nonfiction writer’s fundamental job is to make what is true believable.”
He often spends months, and even years, observing his subjects and story, taking detailed notes. For his book Among Schoolchildren (1989), he spent 178 days in the classroom, only missing two days, once because he sick, and the other just to play hooky. He says: “A lot of the time I had a desk, right near the teacher’s. I think after a while, the kids just thought of me as a big fifth-grader.”
Tracy Kidder’s books include The Soul of a New Machine (1981), Home Town (1999), Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003), My Detachment (2005), and Strength in What Remains (2009).
When he was asked about the differences between writing literary nonfiction, nonfiction, and literary journalism, he answered: “I think all these terms are trying to suggest is that the literature of fact, or factual writing, nonfiction, that there can be more of it. To signify a kind of nonfiction writing in which not only the information but the writing is important. For me the essence of it is really storytelling, and of course, the techniques of storytelling never belonged exclusively to fiction. Surely there is no single means of understanding the world.”
And, “The heart of the story is usually a place to arrive at, not a place to begin.”