"I don't understand what I've seen until I try to write about it," Tracy Kidder says.
Once he does write about things — from the complex development of a new computer to the harrowing story of a survivor of genocide — legions of readers understand them, too, thanks to Kidder's meticulous reporting and research and his marvelously clear, compelling writing.
His bestselling nonfiction books have earned him a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award and an array of other literary awards. His articles have been published in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Granta and the New York Times.
Kidder, 66, will be in St. Petersburg this week as the first speaker in Eckerd College's Presidential Events Series on Wednesday evening. He will spend several days on campus talking to students, many of whom will have just read one of his books: Eckerd freshmen were assigned to read Strength in What Remains over the summer, while seniors read Mountains Beyond Mountains.
"I've gone to a lot of colleges talking about these books," Kidder says in a phone interview. "The usual thing they say is 'Your book is awesome' and 'Your book changed my life.'
"Of course, if you're 18 years old and you don't have a life-changing experience at least once a week, there's probably something wrong with you."
These two books, though, may truly be life-changing for some readers, young or old. Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, published in 2003, is the inspiring biography of Farmer, who grew up in Brooksville, became a physician and anthropologist, founded a hospital in one of the most poverty-ridden areas of Haiti, and created the global foundation Partners in Health. He is recognized as an expert on and activist for international health and social justice.
Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiving, published in 2009, is the riveting story of a young man named Deogratias. Born in the Central African nation of Burundi, he was a medical student in the mid 1990s when ethnic tensions in his country broke into violence. He fled to nearby Rwanda, where genocide was in full roar; for six months, he was on the run, mostly alone, starving and terrified. Friends finally got him to the United States; he arrived in Manhattan with $200, no English and no contacts. That part of his story is almost as harrowing, as he endures homelessness and despair. But this tale, too, takes an inspirational turn as Deo graduates from college and medical school — and returns to Burundi to found a hospital.
Kidder says he has "no surefire recipe" for finding such compelling subjects. "It's been a matter of chance."
"I met Farmer when I was in Haiti working on something else. I didn't see him again for six years, but he stayed with me." He later met Deo through Farmer, when Deo was working for Partners in Health.
Such serendipity has always been part of his writing career, Kidder says. After graduating from Harvard, he served in Vietnam, then returned to earn an MFA at the University of Iowa. After finishing his first book, The Road to Yuba City, he was at a loss for what to write about next, he says.
"My editor said, 'Why don't you write about computers?' I said, 'What about them?' I didn't know anything about computers; this was the late 1970s.
"But he knew a guy."
The result was The Soul of a New Machine, about an engineering team racing to design a next-generation computer. Published in 1981, it won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
Since then, Kidder has written about a wide range of subjects: nursing home life in Old Friends, elementary education in Among Schoolchildren, the complexities of structures and communities in House and Home Town.
Although all his books are models of clarity, the process can be messy, Kidder says. "I write books in the most haphazard way. I write really fast, usually with no outline. I try to finish an entire draft. They're enormously long; they're chaoses."
Kidder says much of the credit for his success is due to his editor of 40 years, Richard Todd. His next book, to be published in January, will be a collaboration with Todd, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction.
Their unusually long working relationship sometimes approaches a mind meld, Kidder says. Several years ago, they were working on the draft of Strength in What Remains and discussing a couple of problems while sitting on the porch of a cottage in Maine, where Kidder lives part of the time.
"We each had a yellow pad. I made a sort of diagram of the book and I said, 'This is all I've got.'
"He smiled and turned his pad around, and he had an almost identical diagram."
Kidder says that in Good Prose, the two take on the question of what "nonfiction" means.
"I think people approach nonfiction these days, if not with distrust, then with deep suspicion, especially memoirs. Or else they think they're just going to receive information."
The book addresses three kinds of nonfiction writing: essays, memoir and "what some people call long-form journalism, or literary journalism, or creative nonfiction, which is my least favorite term," Kidder says. "I just think of it as narrative nonfiction."
The book's subjects range from "the moral obligations of writing about real people" to an appendix about usage that, Kidder says, "I think is pretty funny."
Good Prose may offer aspiring writers, and avid readers, a glimpse into how Kidder makes the decisions that lead to his powerful nonfiction. Take the story of Deo: "I knew it needed to be more than just the lickety-split book of escape and survival. It couldn't have done without that, but it had to have something more."
He says, "The something more is always there if you're writing about people."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.