Dad, Where Do Books Come From?

And other thoughts on how I get (some) of my ideas


Happy Monday and Happy Memorial Day! I’m writing to you from JFK International, on the way to France for a month after a quick stopover in London. I’ll do my best to write some quick essays on here about what it is I’m finding. If you have any suggestions on the frequency, length, etc., feel free to get in touch.

The Source of All This

The accretion of ideas—for stories, essays, reporting, books, etc.—has always been difficult for me. I spend months building up connections between gestures my mind makes and small bits of outside research, not having enough to pitch a story or begin writing an essay, not sure whether the next day will be the one when I give up on the half-formed thing, before eventually finding myself with three or four timely items that need to be fleshed out and sent along to editors while still malleable.

The specific points when these story hints make themselves known is easy enough to mark. They’re the moments that cause me to stop for an extra second or two, curious. Sometimes I’ve created the conditions for them to arise, oftentimes with the help of Wikipedia. Other times it’s a happy coincidence; my mind finding the proper physical outlet for something that has been tugging at it or the world bringing something new into focus. The average person goes along with their day; the writer jots them down. That’s the only difference. Of course curiosity runs deeper: there’s a reason you stopped in that moment to look at the thing while perhaps dozens of others didn’t, but the source of that is far more difficult to trace.

As I mentioned in the last edition of this newsletter, I’m heading off to France for a month to conduct research for a narrative nonfiction book I’m in the process of writing about the 1919 Tour de France. As I sit here in the airport, I thought this first little essay, before I have had the chance to include pictures or stories from the trip, should be how this whole thing came into being.

It won’t be much of a surprise to many that the idea for this book came through an exploration of World War I, not through a newfound cycling fascination. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the kernel of this book came from a work of fiction I was writing. I won’t go too far into details, as it’s still likely to be written some day, but a town was the thing that this all into motion: a small Provencal town I’ve loved since the moment I saw it: L’Isle sur la Sorgue.

While researching the setting of the novel, I looked into which events might’ve occurred throughout the year that would’ve taken the characters out of the town and into the surrounding countryside in southern France. I mostly found festivals with long roots tied to religious events. Eventually, however, I stumbled upon the passing of the Tour de France to the south of L’Isle sur la Sorgue in July, starting with the first edition of the Tour in 1903. I looked at the basic data about the 1919 Tour, the year the book was set: its winner, the legs and their lengths, and other basic statistics about how the race progressed. The first thing I noticed was how quickly the race started after the end of World War I, just seven months after Armistice had been declared. Then I noticed how few of the racers who started the race finished. I saw the route and how it passed through what had just been the Western Front. Finally, and probably most importantly, I noticed how no one had written about it at any great length before (at least in English). Within the day I put the novel down and picked up something new: a book proposal, my main task last summer, which resulted in selling the book a few months later, that fall.

It’s too much to expect that future books will have such a happy course of events. They’ll likely require months of research, thinking about what’s the right next story that deserves a book-length treatment. But, on occasion, those nice coincidences do exist, like

What I’ve Been Reading

As part of some unrelated-to-the-book story research, I dug into one of the few James Salter books I hadn’t yet read, his memoir, Burning the Days. I’m not sure whether I’m surprised or not that I enjoyed it as much as I did. Salter is one of the writers I find myself turning to more than almost anyone else, on account of his sentences, if not his stories. As someone who came to writing through my work with national security and military folks, I’ve always been interested in Salter’s story which began as a pilot in the Korean War. He seems to occupy the bridge between two generations of military writers, one of whom has been utterly defined by that part of their lives, and those for whom military service was common enough that they’re not considered military writers at all. I have a lot more to say on him, too much for this format.

Cloudbursts, Thomas McGuane’s collected stories, share some similarities to Salter as far as the cut glass writing. The places McGuane chooses to write about, however, instead often take place on the outer edges of society, both in terms of the location and the subjects. It gives them a diversity and reach that Salter’s stories lack. It’s a meaty collection that you can turn to over the course of months or a year, depending on how compelled you feel to breeze through them.

Almost annually, I re-read Chris Jones’s “The Things That Carried Him”. If you haven’t read it, you probably should.

Until next time,