Tracy Kidder's specialty is putting ordinary people's lives and projects under a microscope and finding drama where few others would think to look. He established himself with The Soul of a New Machine (1981), a book detailing the human interactions behind the rush to create a new computer. It won Kidder both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and has since become a touchstone against which other books on the technology industry are measured. About that book Kidder has said, "I realized how tremendously liberating nonfiction was. Suddenly I had all kinds of lives to immerse myself in other than my own." With House (1985) Kidder went on to document the months-long process of building a new home, through the eyes of its owners, the architect, and the builders. For Among Schoolchildren (1989) he spent a year observing the goings-on in a classroom, and for Old Friends (1993) he visited a nursing home almost every day for two years. In his new book, Home Town, which will be released in May, Kidder has stayed true to his philosophy of immersing himself in the lives of ordinary people, but he has also widened his lens to take in a whole town—Northampton, Massachusetts. Kidder follows the intersecting lives of the townspeople, in the process creating a portrait of a place that has a rich civic life and what he terms a "mysterious hold on its residents' affections." At the center of Kidder's book is Tom O'Connor, a policeman born and raised in Northampton who is the best sort of cop—one who through his understanding of human nature, and his love and knowledge of the town where he was raised, is able to help maintain the town's civility. "Small-Town Cop," an excerpt from Home Town, appears as the cover story in the April issue of The Atlantic.
Kidder recently spoke with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bacon.
Why did you choose Northampton for Home Town?
A friend of mine once accused me of practicing the protractor method of choosing my subjects—that is, I don't let the arc of that protractor get very far away from my home. It's all too true. On the other hand I know that there's a good argument for staying fairly close to home. I didn't know the town really well, but I felt it was a town that worked, that was working better than it had for a long time, and I found that beguiling. Before I started working on the book I'd been doing an article for The New Yorker in Haiti, a country where for extraordinarily complicated reasons almost nothing was working. Sometimes one doesn't realize the value of something except in its absence. After leaving Haiti things like good engineering and competent government suddenly seemed like small miracles to me. But it wasn't that I wanted to look at any old town that worked. I was interested in this one town.
There's another reason, too: I met Tommy O'Connor at the gym, and he invited me to go out riding with him. He basically told me that I would see a town that I never had thought existed. I was intrigued. Before I met him I'd been thinking about writing the book, but it was just one of many ideas. I hesitated partly because I thought it was a completely atypical town—college town, upscale, and so on. It turned out to be much more complicated than that. First of all it's not as wealthy a town as it looks. Incomes have long been well below the median income for the state. It certainly compared to many other places in the country that on the surface are so orderly and peaceful, but what I saw with O'Connor was the full range of criminality, though in a small place and not in the volume that you'd see elsewhere. So many dominant features of other towns seem to all have been assembled in this one small place.
Why did you decide to center your story on Tom O'Connor?
I had an awfully hard time with this book trying to get the structure right. His story is not the most exotic one in my book, but it seemed like it could make a spine for it. It seemed like a classic American story: boy grows up in a town, loves it, becomes of use to it, and ends up having to leave it. One of my favorite books is Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson. It's a collection of stories that are all connected by character. There's one character, George Willard, who in the end leaves home. Winesburg doesn't sound as nice as Northampton, but it was rattling around in my mind.
I think I made O'Connor central because his seemed like the best story, and the one that illuminated the town the most. He knew the town as well as anybody; he could take me to all sorts of places. Many of the characters who are in the book I first caught sight of thanks to him. He just seemed like a wonderful vehicle to take me around. He was of the place, born there, raised there. In a town like Northampton that has gone through one of these little renaissances, people tend to look at that alone and forget that there is a backdrop—the townies, as it were.
In general, how do you choose subjects for your books?
Warily. This one took me longer than any other book I've done—about four years. It's years of work, and I hate the thought of getting several years into something and discovering that I don't want to do it or that it just isn't going to work. On the other hand, I've sometimes managed to waste a year or more worrying about wasting a year.
Do you think differently about the community of Northampton now that you've spent so much time examining its inner workings?
One of the things I learned is that I don't like the word "community" very much. I'm not sure what it means. It's one of those words that has been used in so many different ways that it seems to have lost any particular meaning. Some people use it as a synonym for a place where a bunch of people live; others think there's some practically holy connotation to it, some great good that is represented in that word. But certainly my view of the place changed enormously. Most visitors who come to the town see it from vantages that are in one way or another kind of distant. Not necessarily from the summit of Mt. Holyoke, where my book starts, but views sort of like that. That's a very nice way to see the town—a way I hope to see it again. One of the images I have in mind is a Pointillist painting—you get too close and the total image gets hazy and what you're facing is a bunch of dots, though in this case the dots were interesting. In my own mind I went from thinking that Northampton is a pretty neat town to feeling kind of sick of it and feeling like I had heard more nasty rumors about various people than I wanted to hear; then I came back again to thinking this is a pretty good place, but maybe not for the reasons that I had thought initially.