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My books offer eye-level personal accounts of the social, political, and bureaucratic effects of shifting technologies and ways of business on the lives of those involved. I bring the techniques and voice of fiction writing—save for the invention of facts—to carefully researched nonfiction.
My first book, written when I was in my mid-twenties, was Mother Walter and the Pig Tragedy (Knopf, 1972, paperback from Plume Books, 1973), a series of personal essays derived from my “Living in the Country” columns in the Boston Phoenix. I lived, in those days, far out in the hills of western Massachusetts, and each chapter describes another aspect of life in an enduring Yankee farm and mill town from the perspective of a come-from-away back-to-the-lander.
Three Farms: Making Milk, Meat and Money from the American Soil (Atlantic/Little Brown, 1980; revised edition, updated, Harvard University Press, 1987), follows life, work and economics on a brilliantly managed Massachusetts family dairy, a mostly-rented Iowa corn-hog farm, and a huge and awkward California corporate farm that pumped oil as well as crops from the ground. Sections of the book appeared in the Atlantic Monthly.
In Invasive Procedures: a Year in the World of Two Surgeons (Harper and Row, 1983, revised Penguin edition, 1984), I join the working lives of a general and a peripheral vascular surgeon, and discover their heroism, fearfulness, magnificence, frailty, protective dispassion, billing practices and love of gadgets. A quarter of this book also appeared in the Atlantic Monthly.
Travels with a Hungry Bear: a Journey to the Russian Heartland (Houghton Mifflin, 1996), started in ’89, as an article, “Can Gorbachev Feed Russia?” in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. While researching it, I’d visited vast and clumsy collective farms across 11 time zones of Soviet wheat fields, back when half the grain in a loaf of Moscow bread was imported from the west. I’d grown fascinated with the workers’ thwarted initiative, mandated carelessness on the job and pride in their home gardens, and kept going back for more. Just as I finished a draft, in 1991, the Communist Party fell. It was soon clear that the perestroika enthusiasts I’d naively identified as the hope of the future, needed demoting to last-of-the-faithful. I put the manuscript aside, and revisited the same farms repeatedly through ’94. The old bosses endured, a bit more autonomous, in a quadrant of the Russian economy that still awaits a free market in land and financing. A section of the book was published in Outside Magazine, then in Best American Essays ’94. Another section appeared in Tech Review, the MIT alumni magazine.
I’ve also co-edited two textbooks in English:
Literary Journalism, co-edited by Norman Sims (Ballantine, 1995) remains a standard text for college writing classes. Its fifteen pieces, by writers from Joseph Mitchell to John McPhee are exemplary. The book begins with my essay about the genre, “Breakable Rules for Literary Journalists.”
The book that shares part of its name with this website, Telling True Stories: a Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University (Plume/Penguin, 2006), co-edited with Wendy Call, is a start-to-finish handbook for working writers. Wendy and I sorted through the many talks by fine writers and editors offered over the years at the narrative conference. We chose more than a hundred sections of sixty speakers’ offerings, and sorted them into nine sections that carry readers from topic selection through fieldwork, drafting and revising, working with editors, and publication. It’s now a popular guide for reporters, editors and writers, and has been widely adopted as a class text.
There’s also a textbook in Danish, Virkelighedens Fortaellere: Ny Amerikansk Journalistik (Forlaget Ajour 2002), co-edited with Ole Soennichsen. It gathers five long-form serials by American narrative reporters Rick Bragg, Tom French, Tom Hallman, Anne Hull, and Mitchell Zuckoff, and includes interviews with each, preceded by my initial essay, framing the included work and the newspaper narrative movement.