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Writer Anne Fadiman ’75 stays open to surprises

Anne Fadiman '75 PHOTO: Joanna Eldredge Morrissey

Anne Fadiman ’75 is a nonfiction writer and the Francis Writer-in-Residence at Yale. Her first book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which tells the story of a cultural clash between a Hmong family and the healthcare system of Merced, Calif., won the National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction. The Harvard Review recently published her article, “The World’s Most Southerly Periodical,” which chronicles a literary magazine established by Antarctic explorers in 1902. I spoke with her by phone about the nonfiction writing process, her future work and the literary exploits of polar voyagers.

I really enjoyed your piece in the Harvard Review. One thing that you brought up was the divide between the process of formulating what will be an interesting subject for nonfiction and how that subject actually turns out. I was wondering if you could comment on how an author can keep an openness and flexibility when researching while also cultivating a sense for where to look.

I’ve been interested in the South Polar Times for decades. I heard about it when I was in college. The idea that a magazine had been published 100 years ago in Antarctica seemed incredible and exciting. But having never seen it and, in fact, knowing absolutely nothing about it, I romanticized it. When I eventually got to see a facsimile edition of the South Polar Times, it was even better than I had imagined and more complicated than I had imagined. More complicated because I began to see its schoolboy humor as a way of dealing with the possibility of death. And, indeed, many of the people who worked on the South Polar Times did end up dying. So that was the darker side, but the lighter side is that the magazine did, in fact, succeed in raising the morale of the men, because it was hilariously funny.

To answer your more general question, I think we all begin with some idea of what we want to write, otherwise we wouldn’t be willing to devote the amount of time necessary to writing an essay or a book. But we do have to remain open to the surprises that come along the way. Otherwise, all we’re doing is filling in details for a sketch that’s already complete. If we had already completed that sketch before we started doing research or reporting, our work would be very narrow, indeed, because research and reporting actually allow us to sketch the full shape of what we’re going to write. I’ve never written a piece that didn’t surprise me along the way.

I’ve noticed that in fiction writing, a lot of what I find to be my best writing is that which comes out of the improvisation of actually sitting down and putting some words on the page, rather than planning out beforehand what elements a story is going to contain. Do you think that there’s something analogous in nonfiction writing?

I think it’s different in fiction, because in fiction, characters take on lives of their own. If you’ve drawn a character well, that character, in some odd way, achieves its own volition, and that’s not true in nonfiction. But I think that nonfiction does contain surprises. Reporting is just one improvisation after another. That is, you may interview somebody and you’ve prepared and have your list of questions, but if you don’t let the conversation move in a variety of directions, you are essentially forcing your subject to fit your rather narrow preconceptions, rather than being open to the surprising places that your subject might lead you. Then, in the second phase, when you are writing, there are often surprises as well.

When I was reporting The Spirit Catches You and You and Fall Down, there was just one surprise after another, because I didn’t know anything when I started. I knew that I wanted to write about a case in which there had been a problematic cultural conflict between a Hmong patient and American doctors, but beyond that, I knew nothing. And one of the greatest surprises was that medicine was also a culture and every bit as exotic and, in some cases, hidebound as Hmong culture. The entire book is based on that discovery, which

Fadiman during her Harvard years. PHOTO: Courtesy Anne Fadiman

many other people have made, but which hadn’t occurred to me when I first went out to Merced.

Of course, you can’t let yourself be like a feather blown by the wind, someone who has absolutely no ideas of your own. You have to have some idea of what you want to write before you begin. But unless you’re willing to modify and enrich your ideas as you proceed, there’s absolutely no reason to write about anything but yourself, because you’re imposing yourself on others. That’s why I like reporting: It’s more of a way of imposing others on myself, of learning from the experiences of people different from myself.

So is there anything that you are working on at the moment?

Yes, I’m currently working on my next essay collection, although one essay in it has come to interest me so much that I’m pondering whether there might be enough there for a very, very short book. I guess it depends on how short a book can be. I always like to squeeze my writing into a shorter compass rather than a longer one; I like that feeling of density.

Currently, my income comes from teaching and doing lectures. I don’t have to make money from writing those essays. So I have the luxury of writing about stuff I’m really interested in, like the South Polar Times. In that case, there was something very sweet about writing a shorter piece in my late middle age about something I had been dreaming about for decades. I’ve realized that the things that you love most will stay with you forever. It’s especially useful if you’re a writer, because you can write about them, but you don’t have to be a writer: You can be a doctor or a lawyer or a businessman, because you’ll continue to read about them. The love for ideas and writers that we develop in college is one that I think may be more intense than at any later time. Never underestimate its value: It will stay with you for the rest of your life.

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