Category Archives: research

Q&A: Lisa Davis on a Mormon tragedy

The Sins of Brother Curtis: A Story of Betrayal, Conviction, and the Mormon Church by Lisa Davis. Scribner, 368 pages.

I met Lisa Davis six years ago, in a creative nonfiction workshop at Goucher College, and I read her recently published The Sins of Brother Curtis first out of loyalty to a friend and then with increasing admiration for her work. Davis, a San Francisco journalist and a teacher at Santa Clara University, has painstakingly crafted a gripping narrative about a serial pedophile within the Mormon church. Publishers Weekly called it an “insightful examination of hard-won justice.”

It’s really two stories: one about what Frank Curtis did, how he got away with it, and what the abuse did to his victims; and a David-and-Goliath story of a plucky legal team that took on a phalanx of legal talent funded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS).

This is a disturbing story. Various LDS leaders knew Curtis was a pedophile but kept giving him access to children—especially to boys, his preferred prey. In Davis’s telling, this is connected to the church’s policy on serious transgressions: excommunication but with opportunity for repentance, re-baptism, and readmission. Curtis was disciplined at least three times and excommunicated twice. Usually he shifted locations, and although he was known as someone with a problem, under church policy and belief he had wiped the slate clean.

Davis, trying to be fair, points out another way a miscreant can take advantage of LDS ecclesiastical idealism since, in the church, bishops come from the ranks of the male laity:

The truth was that most of these men had no idea that one of their brethren had molested children. They were untrained in professional counseling and could barely keep up with their gargantuan responsibilities. They all had full-time jobs and large families of their own, on top of which they’d been called into a volunteer position leading hundreds of people. One day they might be helping someone who faced eviction and the next they faced a dying mother or a child who needed special help. Given the insular nature of the Mormon community, most bishops didn’t know anything about sex crimes, certainly not enough to understand a serial pedophile.

But, frankly, the LDS church as it emerges in The Sins of Brother Curtis seems, as an entity, uncaring—more eager to avoid revealing its considerable assets than in atonement or in helping victims heal. Its tactics were to stall, to pressure, and to buy off people as cheaply as possible.

Lisa Davis, immersion journalist

In researching the book, Davis learned there are about twenty survivors of this one pedophile’s abuse, which stretched over decades and into multiple states. The secrecy began to unravel when two Seattle attorneys took the case of Jeremiah Scott, then eighteen, in 1997. Scott had been abused repeatedly when he was twelve by Curtis, then a Mormon elder in Portland. Curtis had since died. Scott and his mother  decided to sue when they learned that bishops had known about Curtis’s past abuse of boys.

Scott eventually settled for $3 million, at that time the largest individual settlement ever reported in a church sex abuse case. Other lawsuits against the Mormon church followed, including one in which two women, abused as girls by their Mormon stepfather, won $4.5 million; the amount was later reduced on appeal, but still included the first penalty for inflicting “intentional emotional distress” against a church in the U.S. And Scott’s lead attorney, Tim Kosnoff, having become an expert in this area, in 2006 helped win $46 million from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Spokane for many victims of abuse by priests.

More recently, Davis told me, Kosnoff helped represent native American survivors in Alaska, Washington, and Montana in an historic $166 million settlement, reached in March, with the Pacific Northwest chapter of the Roman Catholic Church’s Jesuit order. A Reuters story reported, “The victims, most of them Native Americans from remote Alaska Native villages or Indian reservations in the Pacific Northwest, were sexually or psychologically abused as children by Jesuit missionaries in those states in the 1940s through the 1990s, the plaintiffs’ attorneys said.”

Lisa Davis answered some questions about the book and her working method.

Q. Did you gain any insight into why churches seem vulnerable to perpetuating or concealing abuse?

Certainly, sex abuse is not a problem exclusive to the LDS Church, the Catholic Church or any other. That said, there are some things that were unique about the case I wrote about. The Mormon faith places a great deal of emphasis on the idea of personal worthiness. Essentially, members have agreed to live by a certain moral code. It’s what binds the community together, this idea of a shared belief that everyone lives by. Unfortunately, it also can create a sense of false trust. People within the ward regard one another in a trusting way that they don’t view the outside world. That made the community more vulnerable to a serial manipulator like Frank Curtis.

Q. You didn’t appear to have had any cooperation from the LDS church or its attorneys. Is that accurate, and how did it affect your reporting and writing?

I contacted the defense lawyers and key church leaders involved in the Scott case, and sought to to interview them. I also spoke several times with the LDS Church’s public information office.  In the end, the Church offered only to speak about the case in a way that was unacceptable to me.  I wanted to keep my interviews on the record.

Q. You created, through skillful interviewing, a sequence of events—a story—from events you didn’t witness. I was struck by how vulnerable such a project must be, how contingent. Your relationship with attorney Kosnoff seemed crucial. But then, so did your ability to get some of the victims to open up. How and when did you know this could be a book, that you had enough to build a story even if some sources fell through?

In all, I worked on the book for about eight years. Mostly that was because I wasn’t able to work on it full time until near the end. I saw that it could be a book fairly early, after my first trip to Portland, because there were just so many layers.  But I didn’t fully commit to the idea of writing the book until I was in the MFA program at Goucher College.

The long time span was problematic because there were often many months between my interviews with Tim Kosnoff, Joel Salmi and some others involved in the case.  So, I had to re-establish a rhythm and get them back into thinking about the Scott case every time we met.  Everyone’s life had moved forward and the lawyers were involved with other cases. I learned early on that it all worked much better if I met them somewhere outside the office.

I also benefitted tremendously from my time with the survivors, and I am extremely grateful for their bravery. Stanley Saban walked through his old neighborhood with me and we went to some of the places where Frank Curtis lived.  He was able to point at this or that and tell me stories about what happened there when he was growing up.  I interviewed other of the survivors in prison.  And while that brought logistical challenges, the men were tremendously helpful in piecing together the puzzle. Jim Goodall was older and had a pretty clear memory of neighborhood details. Bob Goodall was amazingly reflective and willing to share what he’d experienced.

Mothers, sisters and other family members were able to put things in time and context, and provide some background to various events.

Other folks who had known Frank Curtis drove me around Grand Rapids, Michigan and shared with me what they remembered. The court clerks in Racine, Wisconsin led me around the court building where that part of the story unfolded. Really, a lot of people were willing to help me tell this story.

And eventually, you get used to asking things like “what color was the car?” I learned that people tend to have a soundtrack to certain memories. So, it helped if they could remember what songs they were listening to during a certain time.

Q. While working, did you focus your reading on immersion journalism as you worked? What books or authors were models for you and why?

I’m very fortunate to have learned the power of the details in storytelling from two masters: Jon Franklin and Tom French. I studied Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action because he did such a great job of structuring the tale of a lawsuit. Also, Tulia, by Nate Blakeslee, because it grew out of his reporting on the court cases in Texas. I’m a big fan of Dennis Lehane, so I looked a lot at how he keeps up the pacing in his stories.

Q. You were an experienced journalist when you began your MFA in creative nonfiction. What did you learn that helped you in bringing your book to fruition?

A lot. I could find out pretty much anything, but I had to learn how to write a book. I’m still working on developing the patience to let a story unfold in front of the reader.  I love playing with language and finding which detail is going to make a scene pop.  But, quite honestly, my inner-journalist still wants to cut to the chase.


Filed under Author Interview, craft, technique, immersion, journalism, MFA, NOTED, research, REVIEW, scene, working method

Stylist nabs National Book Award

I was glad to see a dark-horse novel, Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon, win the National Book Award recently for fiction. I hadn’t heard of the sixty-six-year-old author, and neither had a lot of folks. But I ordered her winning book, set in the 1970s at a horse-racing track in West Virginia, after reading excerpts from some of her other novels on Amazon.

Lord of Misrule is about a reckless young woman and two “lonely and childless old men deeply tired of the daily work they do, facing their last years without the protections of family,” she tells Bret Anthony Johnston on the National Book Award web site. Having worked herself as a groom at half-mile racetracks from 1967 until 1970, she says, she did some reading for Lord of Misrule (the name of a horse), then field research at Pimlico, and talked to a trainer and to an elderly black groom.

“I don’t know much of the story before I start,” she told Johnston. “I’ve got the characters and their rich interiorities, which always share, unbeknownst to them, certain patterns of preoccupation and language. I twist them together into some kind of plot, and I do believe deeply in plot, or rather in whatever attribute it is of novels that makes a reader need to know what happens in the end. Stuart Dybek, who blurbed Lord of Misrule for me, called my style ‘profligate.’ In Lord of Misrule I stuff linguistic extravagance into a fairly tight formal corset. I use a shape for the novel that I have always liked, a narrative design that moves the characters forward, from early on in the book, towards some planned but morally neutral future event that all of them, carrying their baggage with them, are bound to attend.”

Gordon heads the MFA program at Western Michigan University and has published essays, novels, novellas, a narrative poem, and a masque, which Wikipedia tells me is “a form of festive courtly entertainment which flourished in sixteenth and early 17th century Europe.” She’s said that she’d become discouraged with her career. She was known and admired by a circle of discerning writers, but her books hadn’t sold well or been championed. She started writing Lord of Misrule in 1997, and an advanced draft of it lay around her office for ten years. A persistent publisher at a small trade house dragged her into reworking the novel.

In a circa 1983 interview with Gretchen Johnsen and Richard Peabody for Gargoyle Magazine, Gordon discussed her literary apprenticeship, including master’s and doctoral work at Brown University where, she says, she was rather a loner, not very workshoppy. She confesses a “preoccupation with exceptional and beautiful style.” Some excerpts from the Gargoyle interview:

When Michael Brondoli, Tom Ahern, and I were all living in Providence at the same time and writing elaborate fictions, people began to speak of a “Providence Baroque.” We all cheered on each other’s work, different from each other though we were, and we found a receptive audience there, not only in the Waldrops [proprietors of Burning Deck press]. Tom Ahern is the most truly avant garde, I am the most genuinely baroque in the stylistic and historical sense of the word, and Michael Brondoli is the most likely to write a great American novel as that artifact is traditionally understood—though it may be set in Turkey.

[T]rade publishers are resistant to certain qualities of prose: the dense, the opaquely inward, the flamboyantly learned. Either the editors are unable to read these themselves, or they can’t believe their clientele will read them, and they advance statistics, some highly suspect, to prove it. Of course an independent-minded or powerful literary editor will from time to time see such a book to publication, and in fact the literary establishment traditionally keeps a small kennel of difficult prose stylists behind, or rather in front of, its main house, piously praised though unread. (How long the conglomerates will continue to keep up genteel appearances in this fashion is another question.)

Trade publishing, overall, to borrow a trope from William O’Rourke, reacts to the complete spectrum of prose style no better than a dog’s eye to the color spectrum. They see only the middle range, which has sufficient clarity or, more correctly, openness about it. Openness means access: they are concerned with how many readers will troop into the clearing.

I haven’t jettisoned my rhetorical fireworks for The Adventuress [likely the working title for her third novel, The Bogeywoman]. I would even wager that I will pass my whole literary life without once being praised by critics for writing in a “deceptively simple style.” I have been able, however, to add to my repertory over the years certain conventional accomplishments of what is nowadays commonly regarded as a novel. I never disapproved of these conventions, I just ignored them (ignore as in ignorant) and used what gifts I had in abundance at the outset, which were all rhetorical.

George Meredith, a novelist whom I much admire and feel in some respects closely akin to in the evolutionary scheme, says in An Essay on Comedy that “any intellectual pleading of a doubtful cause contains germs of an idea of comedy.” All my characters have doubtful causes to plead or crank theories to propound, and that is why I am a comic writer, no less so when I try to use some part of myself as a subject. Intellectual absurdities interest me. The mediating element is always rhetoric.

At nineteen, in 1963, I began writing fiction I still consider to be part of my mature oeuvre (though I may suppress it from public viewing), unguided, and unharassed, by the program of contemporary feminism, but with complete confidence in my rhetorical powers, which as I’ve already mentioned is not quite the same thing as complete confidence in my ability to write a novel as that genre is commonly understood. But about my prose style, about my ability to create and sustain an original narrative voice, to make a beautiful, thoughtful, subtle object every time I constructed a sentence or paragraph–about these, I never had the slightest question I could, as they say, compete with the field, male or female. My extraordinary facility there, in fact, was one of the imbalances in my nature that made me feel like too much of a freak ever to put myself, in female form, at the center of my own fiction.

I write in longhand first and often rearrange and amplify a sentence or a paragraph even as it comes to me. Like the baroque prose stylists I mentioned earlier, I try to imitate the athletic movements of the mind in its complex irregular race from thought to thought. I also try to imitate, and occasionally to plagiarize outright, antique prose stylists I admire. My notebooks are full of minutely written inserts and numbered parts all over the pages. I have to follow the numbers when I finally get to the typewriter. I can do it in my head if I must, and often do, when I’m driving, walking, or lying in bed; but soon I have to get to a notebook. I also have a bad habit of composing on the fly-leaves of other people’s books. It must be my unconscious urge to take over.

As you can see, I think the freshmen I teach need a political education and might actually accept one. A direct literary education they would not accept and so I try to let it steal upon them. As for my creative writing students, I don’t impose my literary specialties on them. I try to guide them to the best examples of whatever traditions I perceive they are writing in, however well or ineptly, and whether they know it themselves or not. I think that’s the proper function of a teacher of creative writing.

She names a number of contemporary and past writers whose style she admires. The long Gargoyle Magazine interview is worth reading in its entirety.

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Filed under audience, fiction, immersion, narrative, research, style, teaching, education, working method, workshopping

Interview: Dinty W. Moore on essays, essaying & earning self-knowledge

Dinty W. Moore’s books include a popular spiritual inquiry, The Accidental Buddhist, and an award-winning, nontraditional “generational memoir,” Between Panic and Desire. His new book—his sixth—is Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction (Writers Digest Books, 262 pages).

“The personal essay is a gentle art,” he writes, “an idiosyncratic combination of the author’s discrete sensibilities and the endless possibilities of meaning and connection. The essay is graceful, wise, and always surprising. The essay invites extreme playfulness and almost endless flexibility.”

Indeed, Moore, head of creative writing at Ohio University, discusses many types of essays, including: contemplative, memoir, nature, lyric, spiritual, gastronomical, humorous, and travel. To show how they work, he dissects some, inserting commentary in places; this includes some of his own work, and throughout the book he includes parts of an essay he’s currently writing to show his thinking and decisions as he tries to practice what he’s preaching. The essay-in-progress is about walking, specifically Moore’s quixotic attempt to walk to a campus in Boca Raton, Florida, where he was a visiting writer, only to find himself almost getting squashed like a bug on six lanes of concrete. While poking fun at himself, Moore exposes the unfriendliness of much of suburban America to walking and to human-scale, neighborly life. His enjoyable essay is printed in full at the book’s end.

Crafting the Personal Essay also propelled me belatedly after two great essays I hadn’t read, Virginia Woolf’s famous “The Death of the Moth” and Richard Rodriguez’s poignant study of cultural assimilation “Mr. Secrets,” both available online through google searches.

The second part of Moore’s book deals with practical writing issues, such as forging a regular routine, blogging, overcoming writer’s block, getting useful feedback from other writers, effective revising, and persevering through life’s vagaries. “Well first, you have to love the work itself,” Moore writes. “If you don’t truly enjoy moving words and sentences around on the page—similar to the way you delighted in moving wooden blocks and plastic trucks around on the living room carpet when you were five—then you are going to have a hard time persevering through the ups and downs and inevitable setbacks. . . . The rewards of publication are fleeting, while the rewards of a regular writing practice are countless.”

Crafting the Personal Essay will make a terrific textbook for students of all levels; I’m a fiftysomething writer and found

Dinty W. Moore

it interesting and inspiring. It makes me want to try writing different types of essays than I’ve attempted and to develop new skills, to grow. Like all of Moore’s work, it is characterized by a light touch, good ideas, a wry sensibility, and a deft concision.

He answered some questions for Narrative.

RSG: What did you learn writing this book?

DWM: I was forced to learn much more about the personal essay tradition than I knew going into the book. My introduction to creative nonfiction, like that of many people who discovered the genre fifteen years ago, was focused more on memoir and literary journalism than it was on the British essay tradition or on Montaigne.  But I’m not too old to learn new tricks, it turns out.

RSG: I realized in reading Crafting the Personal Essay how narrow my definition of the essay can become. But you discuss many approaches within the genre, ways to tell stories and entertain that rely on humor, observations of common experiences and foibles, clever insights, fleeting feelings, research and reporting. How does a writer remain open to the possibilities of the form without getting overwhelmed by them?

DWM: I’d advise that a writer examine the familiar patterns he or she finds in her writing—I am always funny, I am always ruminative, I am always logical, whatever—and gradually try to introduce new modes into works in progress. You don’t need to juggle the whole set of fifteen balls at once, but you won’t grow as a juggler if you stick to the same three balls every time you take the stage. Eventually, putting research or reporting into your nonfiction—even if you haven’t been doing it up to now—will become a common move in your repertoire, one that you can call on whenever needed.

RSG: Much of your own work is characterized by pursuing something you notice that interests you, such as the explosion of the internet or the growing practice of Buddhism in America. You’ve leaped into the unknown with only an idea, and you’ve participated, interviewed, and traveled. Do you have any advice for writers who want to attempt such a fusion of the personal essay and old-fashioned reporting?

DWM: Left to my own mental devices, I only have one or two interesting thoughts a year, and that’s not nearly enough to sustain a writing career, but I find that I can increase the number of interesting thoughts that I have by trying new things, learning new facts, visiting new places, attending lectures, getting lost in a zendo for five days.  Sometimes the reporting, or observing, ends up in my writing, but at other times it just leads to a fresh thought – fresh for me, at least – and suddenly I have an idea. This has, as you pointed out, led me to a few book ideas, but it also leads sometimes to a 500-word essay. Keep the mind nimble by constantly throwing new experiences in its direction, in other words.  I’m not the first writer or artist to note this, of course, but it sure works for me.

RSG: There seems currently to be a surge of interest and enthusiasm for the personal essay. Great talents are experimenting, playing around, melding influences such as lyric poetry and the classical contemplative essay pioneered by Montaigne. Is this upwelling real from where you sit, or is this simply the effect of those with passion for personal nonfiction seeing what they’re looking for?

DWM: I think you are noticing an actual phenomenon. This goes back to my earlier answer.  New Journalists like Didion, Wolfe, Talese helped to create an explosion of fact-based literary writing in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and a few years later Lee Gutkind helped to popularize “true-story as literary narrative told cinematically” with his journal Creative Nonfiction, and suddenly there were dozens of graduate programs and hundreds of undergraduates classes springing up in creative nonfiction. Much of that activity focused on memoir until certain people started to say, “Wait, the genre is older than that, and there is more flexibility that that.” So in academia, at least, and in literary journals (but actually I think the phenomenon goes beyond that to commercial magazines and book presses), the field is in an opening-up phase, which is good, good, good, I think, for writers and for writing.

RSG: You write, “Self knowledge is the true prize for the writer.” Could you elaborate a bit?

DWM: Why do so many people devote themselves to writing, or to the arts in general?  It is not the monetary rewards, certainly, or the support and praise one gets from one’s family when we announce our love for poetry or dance.  No, we are drawn to art because it makes us feel more alive, makes us feel that we are experiencing and engaging life, makes us feel that we are looking at our lives and making choices based on our hunger and passion for understanding, rather than merely being dragged along by circumstances beyond our control. That’s what I believe, anyway.


Filed under Author Interview, creative nonfiction, essay-classical, essay-collage, essay-concise, essay-expository, essay-lyric, essay-narrative, essay-personal, humor, immersion, journalism, memoir, research, REVIEW

The glory of nonfiction

from Verlyn Klinkenborg’s interview with James Norton for Flak Magazine

“I believe in the glory of nonfiction. I don’t believe in the hierarchy of genres that seems to prevail in the United States. Is the novel the higher calling, or is poetry the higher calling? Frankly I think nonfiction is equally great and equally profound—and often gloriously better. I’m a convert to my own genre, is the way I’d say it. You meet a lot of nonfiction writers who feel their next step ought to be to write a novel, and for a lot of them, it’s just not a good idea. The number who have actually pulled it off is actually very small.”

“My influences as a writer come out of a lifetime as a reader. It draws from all over the map. It comes from the real training I got as a Ph.D. scholar, reading 18th-century and 17th-century prose in depth. It comes really out of a love of all sorts of writers—at the moment, John McPhee and Joan Didion, essays by Richard Rodriguez, some by Annie Dillard . . . It’s a very eclectic range of influences, and they have more to do with what I hear in my ear than what I see in nature.”


Filed under creative nonfiction, Dillard—Saint Annie, fiction, journalism, NOTED, poetry, research

Magical discovery, mundane craft

Writers who admit to having more than a hunch as they launch a new essay, story, or book nevertheless are often paradoxical in their advice about initial composition: they may have a plan before writing, a sketchy outline and a destination—even the exact ending, word for word—but say their powerful material is discovered en route as they veer into the intuitive realm of the brain.

Perhaps it is simply that, as the late Donald M. Murray observed, writing creates thought as well as captures it. Some of the exciting surprises, the stuff you didn’t know you knew, may exist buried from conscious knowledge. And some of the magic may arise from writing itself: one sentence sparks another. Wherever it originates, discovery in writing is itself an addictive mystery.

In an interview with Diana Hume George in Chautuaqua, Dinty W. Moore, whose most recent book is the memoir ChautauquaBetween Panic and Desire, says, “If you want to write anything worth the effort, the cognitive part of your brain is the enemy—you have to trust the inexplicable, the instinctual, the impulsive—you always want to get back there—it’s where all art comes from.”

Moore continues, “Really, anything I’ve ever written that endures beyond the month or so after it comes out of the printer is from that place, from finding secrets inside of myself that are as much a surprise to the writer as they might be to the reader. . . . To me, craft is structuring and making sense of primal insight without destroying what is so alive there.”

In Conversations with E. L. Doctorow, the novelist says his beginnings are uncalculated, searching: “Then I find a voice or an image or some idea or feeling—and the true work begins. . . . The act of composition is a series of discoveries. You find things just as you turn the corner. Eventually you reach the stage where it becomes an editorial, cerebral act as much as an intuitive thing. The further along you go, the more inevitable the course of the book.”

Outlining after writing an essay has worked well for me. A jot outline to begin, then a simple grocery list of what’s there, to see patterns and connections, holes and repetitions. Again, Don Murray, who wrote Pulitzer-winning newspaper editorials, magazine articles, poetry, and fiction, advocated post-writing outlines in his useful books, which include: A Writer Teaches Writing; Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, Poem; and The Craft of Revision.

I would not think of writing a whole book without a preliminary structure, though; who knows what Doctorow actually does after he hits his sweet spot and gets more “cerebral.” In her superb book on craft, Write Away, novelist Elizabeth George says she’s by temperament very organized and needs an extensive plan on paper so that she feels free to create. She makes her exciting discoveries (regarding plot, theme, and what she needs to research) in early analyses she writes on each of her characters. As she writes her first draft, more inspiration strikes: unforeseen material “will emerge.”

To me, discovery implies even more than tapping unforeseen springs: it suggests content that cannot be explained. Not because the writer is withholding answers, but because she doesn’t have them. After all, the things we think about our whole lives are things we cannot explain. The secrets and mysteries. Or we learn that our understanding was partial and temporary, that the insights change as we do. Look at the lively art children make—paintings, poetry, vignettes—and what does a child “know” compared to an adult? Maybe enough for art. Adult writers add craft and endurance and experience, but I wonder if in essence they’re merely rediscovering childhood’s experience of wonder and mystery.

In my next post I’ll explore the link between discovery and craft, specifically narrative structure, and how conscious craft might foster intuitive art instead of seeming to be in tension with it. Craft’s highest role may be in helping writers find their true subjects, those areas they can’t neatly explain but can explore.


Filed under craft, technique, creative nonfiction, discovery, fiction, research, structure, theme

Review: ‘The Inner Circle’

The Inner Circle, a novel by T.C. Boyle. Penguin. 432 pages.

T.C. Boyle has a gift for bringing to life historical figures in his fiction. He did it to John Harvey Kellogg in his comedic novel The Road to Wellville, made into a movie by the same name, and he does it more movingly in The Inner Circle, also turned into a film, about Alfred Kinsey, whose sex research at Indiana University transformed scientific inquiry and helped change Americans’ sexual knowledge and attitudes.Kinsey

Boyle captures key events, factual content, and setting. More importantly, and yet stemming in large part from real exterior details—the weather, Kinsey’s dressing and bathing habits, the town’s bars and streets—the emotional texture of Kinsey’s world felt right. And it is probably the latter reason that some stories are more doable in fiction: it’s difficult to find a narrator open enough and patient enough and trustworthy enough to limn his and others’ inner lives to the extent that we—voyeuristically, yes—desire. In The Inner Circle readers experience how it felt to be pinned like an insect by Kinsey’s blue eyes, how he smelled in an embrace.

The senior members of Kinsey’s team depicted in The Inner Circle bear some resemblance to actual men, but Boyle appears to have created his narrator from whole cloth. With a name as bland, neutral, and wholesome as his Hoosier hometown, John Milk is the perfect acolyte to tell us his and Kinsey’s tale, which he dictates as a memoir into a tape recorder. Kinsey is literally the father he didn’t have, and Milk swallows Kinsey’s scientific view of sex completely. Boyle shows Milk, as an undergraduate English major, encounter Kinsey’s magnetic pull in the professor’s popular and controversial “marriage” class. Soon he’s working side-by-side with the distinguished zoologist, who shifts his focus from gall wasps to human sexuality and brilliantly hones a questionnaire for taking individual sexual histories. The Inner Circle proceeds chronologically, as Kinsey’s work and office grow to meet his ambition. The freakishly energetic researcher works his staff like dogs and is utterly dominating. Milk forgives all because he knows beyond doubt that the courageous Kinsey is one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century.

But Milk’s wife, Iris—as her name implies—sees: she sees the bigger picture. Though Kinsey is clearly a genius, Iris resists, judges him a monster, rapacious and manipulative and ethically blinkered. In his rage to sever sex from love, from monogamy, from marriage, and especially from religion—to see it purely as a biological necessity and a physical outlet—Kinsey dishonors his role as a mentor. Iris, a virgin when she married Milk, learns her husband has regular sex with Kinsey and that he lost his heterosexual virginity to Kinsey’s wife. In spite, but also acting on genuine attraction in the Kinsey group’s spirit, she has an affair. Kinsey approves, but neither she nor Milk can live with her infidelity. Later, when Milk excitedly packs for a long trip with Kinsey to take the history of a sexual athlete, Iris points out in cold fury that the man is not just an epic satyr but also a pedophile, a serial child rapist. These events, and the book’s dramatic clash among Milk, Iris, and Kinsey at a mate-swapping party Kinsey arranges for his bewitched staff, reflect information about Kinsey that has filtered out from the remnants of the inner circle in the past decade.

Somehow he escaped personal scandal in his lifetime, an era of unbelievable sexual repression, ignorance, and censorship. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male made him rich and famous with its publication in 1948. Five years later, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female made him infamous and finished off his overworked body. He died in 1956 at the age of 62. Americans just couldn’t accept that women were as sexual as men, and they were outraged to be informed differently; also, a growing cadre of critics and enemies attacked Kinsey’s methodology and his nonjudgmental, informational stance toward all sexual expression (his research with active pedophiles would be illegal today). The Inner Circle illuminates the layers of tragedy in the Kinsey story.

Boyle makes us care about his characters, or at least gets us interested in them, which gives his book great narrative drive. I inhaled this novel, losing myself in it to a degree rare in adulthood. Its depth causes it to linger in the mind: Kinsey was a freak of nature and a great scientist. But his certainty (flowing from his own history and sexual needs as much as from his study of zoology) that human sexual restraint is purely negative and conditioned, instead of also being part of our evolutionary and social gestalt, limited his scientific grasp of our species. His critics were largely low and mean, but something indeed was wrong, at least according to the book’s moral touchstone, the all-seeing Iris, she whose name in Greek mythology describes a messenger between the gods and humans, she the wife of Kinsey’s most focused pupil.

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Filed under fiction, narrative, research, REVIEW, structure

Lee Gutkind on immersion journalism

From an interview with nonfiction guru Gutkind conducted by Eric Parker for Fresno Famous—

“[I]mmersions are so wonderful in that you walk into an immersion havinggutkind an idea, idea A, but by the time you’ve spent three months or six months, you have a new idea, or a different formulation of your idea. Then, if you spend another year or two, your idea sophisticates and focuses even more. So, it’s a constant balancing challenge to make sure that you are giving the subject the proper attention.”

“Sometimes learning about a subject through the eyes of the writer can work. But more often than not, the most successful immersions are done with writers who are not egocentric. John McPhee, who’s someone I really admire, did this book called The Curve of Binding Energy, and it’s 65,000 words—my book is about 75,000 words [referring to his most recent book, Almost Human: Making Robots Think]—but McPhee always brags that he wrote this 65,000-word book and it took him until his 35,000th word before he used the word ‘I’ in relation to himself. It took that long for him to be important in the story.”

“[G]reatness takes great, massive, continuous failure in order to succeed. So, writing a book for six years is nothing. And even though it’s filled with five and a half years of frustration, you need to continue to apply yourself. I’m not sure I’m an incredibly talented human being, but I think that one of the reasons I’ve been successful is because I just decided to never give up and to always go onward.”

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Truth and beauty

I’ve touched before on the issue of truth in nonfiction, but the latest scandal, involving a fictionalized Holocaust memoir, impels me to return. (Oprah keeps falling for these stories that are too good to be true. Truth often is stranger than fiction but it’s seldom as shapely.)

I tell students these are three reasons for honesty:hill

Practical: A nonfiction writer will destroy his credibility and career by lying. This is an embarrassing reason, as it’s so utilitarian, but perhaps compelling to sociopaths.

Moral: You made an implicit promise that details, scenes, characters, and dialogue wouldn’t be invented or embellished. Recreated, yes, and clearly selected and filtered through a particular consciousness, but not conveniently made up.

Aesthetic: Nonfiction’s art often flows out of the rough places where writers don’t have what they need. They must explore that on the page or conduct more research. Immerse. Writer and writing theorist Robert Root made an interesting point about this in his essay “This is What the Spaces Say”:

“The issue of truth, which seldom surfaces in other literary genres, perplexes nonfictionists. We begin in reality, in the hope of achieving some better understanding of the actual through writing. The inventions and manipulations of character and plot that are the hallmark of the novelist’s creativity are the barriers of the nonfictionist’s psychology; the willingness to settle for the fictionist’s ‘higher truth through fabrication’ negates the nonfictionist’s chances of even visiting the vicinity of the kind of earthbound and actual truth that is nonfiction’s special province. The truth is hard to know, and it’s hard, ultimately, to explain, perhaps especially about our own lives, what we experience as participants, what we observe as spectators.”

My three rules are simple statements about this slippery issue. Do such rules—any rules—diminish nonfiction’s claim to art?

I know a painter, a man who’s spent his long life blessedly staring at southern Ohio’s hills, who told me he doesn’t invent details. No flowers by the gate if there weren’t. And that picturesque old wooden gate was truly that, not a shiny modern metal one. I should have asked him why, though I thought I knew: a representational painter who invents might insert iris blooming when the rest of the painting says High Summer. Sure, a crafty dauber could add daylilies. But soon there’d be no end to it and he’d lose the essence of what he was trying to capture. Inauthenticity would creep in.

My friend’s aesthetic, based in honoring objective details subjectively seen, gropes toward and honors a larger truth or feeling—something he’s sensed and which he’d violate at some unknown peril to his art. We understand more than we know. His creative acts include choosing the scene and deciding where he stands—the point of view. And the painting itself is literally and metaphorically impressionistic, what he sees.

Nonfiction’s (few) rules similarly do not interfere with artistry—there’s more to art than that; consider the edicts that result in sonnets. Although my visual friend has made himself a strict rule akin to nonfiction’s imperatives, his landscapes are glowing art.

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Noted: Annie Proulx

from an interview in The Missouri Review, Vol. XXII, No. 2

“The research is ongoing and my great pleasure. Since geography and  climate are intensely interesting to me, much time goes into the close examination of specific regions—natural features of the landscape, human marks on it, earlier and prevailing economics based on raw materials, ethnic background of settlers. I read manuals of work and repair, books of manners, dictionaries of slang, city directories, lists of occupational titles, geology, regional weather, botanists’ plant guides, local histories, newspapers. I visit graveyards, collapsing cotton gins, photograph barns and houses, roadways. I listen to ordinary people speaking with one another in bars and stores, in laundromats. I read bulletin boards, scraps of paper I pick up from the ground. I paint landscapes because staring very hard at a place for twenty to thirty minutes and putting it on paper burns detail into the mind as no amount of scribbling can do.”

“The use of running metaphors in a piece—all related in some way to indigestion or water or loneliness or roller skates, or with a surrealistic or violent cast—will guide the reader in a particular direction as surely as stock can be herded.”

“For the sake of architecture, of balance, I write the ending first and then go to the beginning. . . . In working endings for stories and novels I try simply for a natural cessation of story. . . . I try to understand place and time through the events in one character’s life, and the end is the end. The person, the character, is one speck of life among many, many. The ending, then, should reflect for the reader some element of value or importance in the telling of this ending among the possible myriad of stories that might have been told.”

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