Just the other day I was telling our editorial staff at the office that one of the great benefits I have enjoyed at every job I have had in journalism over the past 50-plus years — from summer sports intern at the Binghamton Evening Press to Time magazine correspondent to freelance writer for Town Topics newspaper in Princeton to the one that has me tied to this keyboard at this moment — was some opportunity to develop my professional skills.
Sometimes it came from an editor, pointing out flaws in my work either before it went to press or after. Sometimes it was from colleagues or peers, sharing ideas for how best to approach a story idea. Sometimes it was just internally generated, in cases where the job gave me the opportunity to dig a little deeper into the craft. While everyone makes their own bargain with the workplace, for me any job that doesn’t offer these non-financial forms of remuneration wouldn’t be worth keeping.
The next day after that little pep talk I took advantage of just such an opportunity. Bestselling author Richard Preston was giving a lecture at Princeton University’s Aaron Burr Hall, the building that most of us never pay attention to at the corner it shares with the Garden theater, the Methodist Church, and Firestone Library.
Before a standing room only audience Preston held forth on “The Hidden Worlds of Narrative Nonfiction.” Preston, who is teaching a course called “The Art of Narrative Nonfiction” at the university this fall, is the author nine books, including “The Hot Zone,” the bestselling account of the discovery of the deadly Ebola virus, and “The Wild Trees,” a first-hand account of the ecosystem that exists 300 feet above ground in the tree canopies of redwood forests.
Preston’s penchant for scientific subjects notwithstanding, he is first and foremost a reporter and storyteller. Dirk Hartog, director of Princeton’s program in American studies, introduced Preston. To prepare for his remarks, Hartog noted, he decided to read some of Preston’s writing about deadly viruses. He read and read and read, until the wee hours of the morning. “He makes horror sing,” said Hartog of Preston.
During his presentation Preston read a sampling from “The Wild Trees,” an account of a tree climber’s fall from a height of about 100 feet, twice the height of the “red line of death” that marks the point where a fall is almost always fatal. While the fall Preston chronicled took no more than two or three seconds, Preston’s account, he advised the audience, would take seven minutes or so to read. As Preston read, I became so absorbed I put down my pen, stopped taking notes, and just focused on the author and his words.
I didn’t rest my pen for long because Preston promised to unveil one of his reportorial tricks of the trade at the lecture. I didn’t want to miss that. The trick, it turned out, came from one of the people in the audience: John McPhee, the New Yorker writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and the man who was teaching Princeton’s course in creative nonfiction when Preston showed up as a PhD candidate in the Princeton English department.
Preston deployed the McPhee trick during an interview with a married couple, Jerry and Nancy Jaax, both Army researchers studying monkeys infected with the Ebola virus. Preston had authorization to interview Jerry Jaax, but when his wife casually walked into the room Preston seized on the opportunity. Did Nancy ever have any close calls working with the deadly virus? Preston asked.
Did she ever. In fact, the answer was so riveting that Preston quickly employed the McPhee strategy for allowing the source to have their say, without the process of recording it affecting the dynamic of the exchange or possibly curtailing it all together. I won’t reveal the tactic here exactly (because I have been known to resort to a similar tactic on occasion), but I will say it involves Preston’s choice of reporter’s notebook.
That choice turned out to be another matter of special interest to me. As I was scribbling down mostly illegible notes in my standard size 4 by 8 1/4 inch reporter’s notebook, Preston was telling the audience that he had begun his career using tiny pocket-sized notebooks, 3 inches wide by 5 inches high, that you can still buy today at CVS for about 39 cents apiece. And, Preston added, he has continued to use them to this day.
The size of the notebook might enable Preston to be minimally intrusive when observing his subjects. And when he put the notebook away, it would be totally out of sight. For the purpose of blending into the background as much as possible, I suspected that Preston avoids the use of tape recorders.
Preston also told the crowd at Aaron Burr Hall that he makes his entries in these tiny notebooks not with a pen but rather a pencil.
Interesting choice, I thought. Preston did not say why he uses pencil, but I could think of several ways in which a pencil outperforms a pen. You can takes notes when the notepad is above you; the pencil works in cold weather — or zero gravity — when a ball point does not; and when you grab a pencil you know exactly how much lead is left in it. The same cannot be said about the ink in most pens.
Beyond the tips and tricks for reporters, Preston had some more substantial thoughts on his craft —call it creative nonfiction — and how it relates to the novel.
“Most writers are not very interesting,” Preston told his rapt listeners, most of whom probably would have identified Preston as an exception to that rule. But, he added, “the people I write about are incredibly interesting.” Preston’s goal, he said, is to dig into the lives of his real-life characters “as deep as I can. I explore the inner world of their emotions,” he said. “It requires an intense connection.”
“Nonfiction can explore the spaces that fiction can’t easily access. It can explore with as much authority as fiction, sometimes with more authority.”
When Preston caught Nancy Jaax in her unguarded moment relating the details of her close encounter with the deadly Ebola virus, she related how her mind raced through a litany of mundane thoughts: She had forgotten to go to the bank that day, the kids were alone with a babysitter, and she worried that about who would pay the babysitter if she ended up quarantined in a hospital. If he had been a novelist, Preston theorized, his fictional character in that same position might have ended up pondering the meaning of life and death.
Preston, possibly reaching back to his graduate school days, quoted the 19th century British novelist Wilkie Collins, who writes about describing “the working of the hidden life within us which we may experience but cannot explain.”
Those hidden lives are the ones Preston carefully shines his light upon.
To explore that inner world, that hidden life, Preston goes to lengths and means that the average workaday journalist never could. But the ink-stained wretch working on an impossible deadline with only a limited amount of space available can take comfort in the fact that even a big leaguer like Preston has to accept some limitations.
Unlike the novelist, the writer of creative nonfiction can’t control the circumstances of the characters he writes about. “Everyone is in a state of flux and change,” Preston said. “You can only capture them at a point in time.” And, citing the Rashomon Effect, named after the 1950 film by Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese director, “people can see the same thing in different ways.” However, Preston added, “the facts may blur but people remember their emotions with great detail.”
Preston had another observation that should have encouraged journalists of any age seeking to hone their skills: “There is always room for sharply detailed views of lives that would otherwise be lost to history.”