What Is Your Book Like?


I bumped into a friend who works in publishing yesterday. We started talking about my book project, this thing that keeps me awake at night with nervous creative energy, yet still plods along on its journey, as such projects are wont to do.

I blabbered on a bit about what I've completed so far, and we began chatting about the feel of the book. Certainly creative nonfiction, nowhere near academic, I said. He mentioned Melissa Fay Greene's name, a writer whose book "Praying For Sheetrock" may have been the tipping point in my foolhardy switch from blue-collar carpenter sweat hog to wanna-be writer.

I immediately beamed thinking about her book, as well as another of her titles, "The Temple Bombing." I can still recall an early image about a detective's shoelaces from that Atlanta history classic.

"That's exactly what my book is like," I said. "A chapter out of 'Praying For Sheetrock,' but written by Burkhard Bilger." This was the first time I had this thought about my book.

In the past six months, I think I've read Bilger's 2010 New Yorker story, "Nature's Spoils," at least three times. I missed its original run, but a version turned up in this year's "Cornbread Nation 7." The opening scene in the eco-activist house in Asheville, N.C. reminds me of my wilder youth, and many of my old friends.

I actually know little about Bilger, though I did find a This Land profile from 2013. His writing methods are otherworldly to me, a slapdash, short-deadline web and newspaper reporter. But I'm taking notes:

As a writer, he takes no shortcuts. He noodled with Lee McFarlin. He went squirrel hunting. He ran around with moonshiners. He deeply entrenched himself in the world of cockfighting. He writes character studies of hidden customs and cultures. He wriggles into the tighter, lesser-seen folds of American culture. “There is history there,” Bilger said. “There is philosophy there. There are ideas and obsession there … I think flipping that whole perspective inside out was huge, and Oklahoma really kind of led me to that.” Bilger makes files of quotes from the characters of his stories. He then begins an outline file, dropping his characters slowly but surely into what becomes the story. He jokes that writers are divided into two categories—meticulous first-drafters, and the rest. Thanks to his process, when the first draft is done, it’s “pretty damned close” to being the last. He feels he has to hand in something in that feels done. “Must be that fear of disapproval.” In his 13 years, his New Yorker editors have rejected just one of his stories.