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.