Books & Authors

A conversation with Tracy Kidder

April 22, 1999

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 (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 (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 (1989) he spent a year observing the goings-on in a classroom, and for (1993) he visited a nursing home almost every day for two years. In his new book, 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.

Tracy Kidder   

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.

It sounds similar to the changes in the way Tom O'Connor thought about the town throughout the book.

Maybe so. I was trying to imagine how he saw the world, so I'm not surprised that you say that, though I wasn't exactly aware of it. People always ask me how I affect the people I'm writing about, and I have no answer for that -- I wasn't there when I wasn't there. But no one's ever asked me how I was affected by the people I was following around. My mind is malleable, in a way. O'Connor is a very forceful personality, and he tends to know what he thinks about almost anything at any given moment. He's a guy who usually knows the right thing to do at the spur of the moment. I'm absolutely not. I have to think about things.

You write in Home Town that "If all of the town were transparent ... and you were forced to look down and see in one broad sweep everything that had happened here and was happening ... you'd be overcome before you turned away." Isn't this in a way what you were trying to do with this book? Could you talk about the process of capturing the feeling of a whole town?

What was difficult was that it wasn't clear to me when I was doing my research exactly where I ought to be at any given moment. I spent an awful lot of time with O'Connor in his cruiser, probably more time than I should have -- partly because it was so much fun. I spent a lot of time elsewhere, too, and you could drive yourself mad trying to cover everything. When I was doing research I wasn't trying to sort it out rigorously; I would cover everything that sounded interesting to me. But I did spend a lot of time, I always do, doing research that didn't end up in my book. It's not because the people involved weren't interesting, but finally they didn't fit into the construction, the architecture, that I had created. For me there's always one thing above all others that's particularly difficult about a project. This time it was the book's architecture. Many of the people in the book were only marginally connected, and it took a lot of trial and error to figure out just how to position them. Books really do have architecture. Most of the time you don't want the reader to realize it, but if it weren't there the reader wouldn't be happy.

There's also the question of point of view. I was writing in the third person and felt strongly that I wanted to do that, but there was the question of what third person. And in this book, actually, it shifts. It's not supposed to shift so that you notice it, but the beginning of each section offers a perspective that's a little more distant, that has a wider lens, and then it plunges back into these various stories. Some of them are told almost right over the person's shoulder -- and sometimes closer than that. I tried to get the rhythms of that right and the sound of the narrator's voice right.

You seem to have made a conscious decision to write about others' experiences rather than your own, and to leave yourself out of the books you write. What's behind these decisions?

has a first-person narrator, and all of my fiction does. I don't decide that ahead of time. I don't always make decisions in completely conscious territory about things like point of view. There are infinite varieties among first- and third-person narration. This is actually a subject that I get a little scared of talking about, because I don't want to overanalyze it. I just try to find the place to stand to tell the story where it works, that somehow allows there to be life on the page. It's hard to express this stuff, but you know it when you see it.

Have there been projects that you started but couldn't figure out how to approach?

There have been projects I started that I thought might turn into books, but not recently. I have a book that's partly finished that I abandoned for a while. I don't think I've abandoned it for good; it's just sitting there. It was a memoir, and I suddenly got interested in doing my book about the schoolteacher, and then the memoir craze hit and I thought, Oh, I'll leave it aside for a while. But I haven't gotten far enough in that project to call it a failure yet.

After The Soul of a New Machine I had some problems finding another topic. First I was going to write about wilderness, then I was going to write about atmospheric chemistry. They both interested me, but somehow neither one blossomed. It was my own failure to find a doorway in. I think of myself, for better or worse, as a storyteller, and I don't like to start with general propositions -- what, for lack of a better term, we might call philosophical propositions -- and then go out and work on developing them. I like to start with stories, with people, and have the other stuff come in as it will.

Are there any writers who you especially enjoy reading or have modeled your own writing after?

I have so many favorites; I couldn't pick just one. There was a time when Dick Todd, my editor, forbade me to read John McPhee anymore. I love George Orwell's nonfiction; I'm not real fond of his fiction. Other nonfiction writers I like are A. J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, Thucydides, and Suetonius. I've liked some of Tom Wolfe immensely, and some not so much. I've liked some of Norman Mailer's nonfiction. I love Melville. I'm tempted to name really good writers writing today who haven't gotten all the recognition they should, like Mark Kramer and John O'Brien, a friend from Iowa. There are too many to name. I'm reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire now. I'm only in the middle of the second volume; I don't know if I'm going to live long enough to finish it. And I love Nabokov, particularly three novels of his, Lolita, and Pale Fire, the last of which I just reread. I was laughing so hard I was weeping.

You went to the Iowa Writer's Workshop originally intending to write fiction, but your career has mostly been in writing nonfiction. Could you talk about why you chose to concentrate on nonfiction? Do you still write short stories from time to time?

It's hard to know exactly. It wasn't going so well for me as a fiction writer, but it wasn't just that. I had a friend, a man named Sam Toperoff, a really good writer who's somewhat older than I am, and he made a remark one day that has stuck with me ever since -- something about how if he were a young person now he would go out and report on the world, because the world was so bizarre and so interesting. I thought, Yeah, maybe that's what I should do.

I haven't written very much fiction, but maybe I will try again sometime. I really enjoy it, but I've been busy writing books, and trying to figure out what books to write. Fiction is wonderful, but I do believe that the techniques of storytelling have never belonged exclusively to fiction. I feel pretty strongly about this form of narrative nonfiction -- that it's potentially wonderful. I'm not of the school that believes that you ought to make things up and call it nonfiction. But I am of the school that thinks that a book like Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song is really wonderful. Of course, Mailer's very forthright about what he invented in that book. But I also think that all these categories that we make are kind of academic. There are important differences between fiction and narrative nonfiction -- but they aren't necessarily artistic ones. Now, some people absolutely disagree with what I'm saying, but I think that part of the business of writing is to surprise people and to defy categories. I'm not saying I do that. It's just that I get impatient with pigeonholing.

I think there are people who object to what I'm doing, who feel it's not serious somehow, that if it's about people it's not taking on the weighty issues of the day. But I always thought that terms like social class only have meaning when you apply them to particular situations, like the one I wrote about in House or some of the ones I wrote about in Home Town.

Do you ever think you might write a completely different sort of book, one that tackles some big weighty issue head on?

I don't think I'll sit down and write books that are about general social issues. I think that almost everything I've written touches on big social issues, but in a particular locale, among particular people. I don't know what I'll do next. Right now I'm studying Italian really assiduously, and for my own educational purposes translating Italian poetry. I'd like to write a little more fiction; I'd like to keep messing around with Italian literature; I'd like to keep spreading my interests; and I'd like to find books to write that feel very different for me. It's not that I feel I'm inventing anything, it's just that I don't want to write the same sort of book again and again. Each of mine has been about a very different subject, but you can start to fall into a pattern. I think that's fine for a few books. But I want to keep my interests wide. I often find that the things I do because I really want to do them end up having some salutary effect on me, in my own little world. I believe in doing things like that for their own sake.