Writers at Work: Entering Someone Else’s Life

By Jack Limpert

One of the books I reread every few years is Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. It’s the story of a young boy, Christopher Boone, who goes out to his backyard late one night and discovers that his neighbor’s dog has been killed with a garden fork . It quickly becomes clear that Christopher sees the world in unusual ways, the ways a child with Asperger’s syndrome, a kind of autism, might see it. The story follows Christopher’s attempt to play detective and find out who killed the dog. For the reader, it’s a chance to see the world through the eyes of an autistic boy.

Haddon won the Whitbread book prize for the novel and it sold more than two million copies. In 2004 he talked about it, saying, “The book has simple language, a carefully shaped plot and invites you to enter someone else’s life.” He then gives this advice to writers: “It’s not about you….Readers don’t want an insight into your mind, thrilling as it might be. They want an insight into their own…a book that will put them in touch with a part of themselves they didn’t even know existed.”

Interesting goals for a writer: Do stories that invite the reader to enter someone else’s life. Write stories that will put the reader in touch with a part of themselves they didn’t know existed.

One of the Washingtonian stories that I think did that was “Like Something the Lord Made,” by Katie McCabe. It told the story of a young African-American man, Vivien Thomas, who wanted to go to college in the 1930s but couldn’t. This is how the story begins:

Say his name, and the busiest heart surgeon in the world will stop and talk for an hour. Of course they have time, they say, these men who count times in seconds, who race against the clock. This is about Vivien Thomas. For Vivien they’ll make time.

Dr. Denton Cooley has just come out of surgery, and he has 47 minutes between operations. “No, you don’t need an appointment,” his secretary is saying. “Dr. Cooley’s right here. He wants to talk to you now.”

Cooley suddenly is on the line from his Texas Heart Institute in Houston. In a slow Texas drawl he says he just loves being bothered about Vivien. And then, in 47 minutes—just about the time he takes to do a triple bypass—he tells you about the man who taught him that kind of speed.

No, Vivien Thomas wasn’t a doctor, says Cooley. He wasn’t even a college graduate. He was just so smart, and so skilled, and so much his own man, that it didn’t matter.

Katie’s story won the 1990  National Magazine Award for Feature Writing and then was made into the Emmy-winning HBO movie, “Something the Lord Made.” Stories like this do let us enter someone else’s life and do put us, as Haddon says,  in touch with a part of ourselves we didn’t know existed.

I’ve often told other editors: If a story makes you cry, publish it. Often these are stories of courage, of overcoming tough odds, tough breaks.  The autistic boy in Haddon’s novel was trying to overcome what he was born with, a kind of autism. Vivien was trying to overcome racial and economic barriers. I asked Katie if what Haddon said about his book resonated with her own writing, especially the Vivien Thomas story. Here’s her answer

Katie McCabe on What Makes a Story Great

I’ve given some thought to your questions and also have talked with
a colleague who has read The Curious Incident, which I haven’t yet read.
I’m just not sure how much common ground there is among these two stories,
except that they pack a big emotional wallop and open up worlds for readers
in ways that are very intimate—or that are made to feel intimate because
they’re so heavily textured.  But Curious Incident is fiction, and it’s
written in the first person, which seems to make it a different animal than
my story, which was non-fiction and written in the third person.
I’m wondering whether it’s just too much of a reach to try to find
commonalities given the significant differences in
voice.

That said, I feel that all great stories give readers access to worlds they
couldn’t otherwise inhabit or imagine—some with more emotional impact
than others, depending upon the inherent emotionalism of the body of facts
and the author’s skill in conveying the emotions. There are
obviously many techniques for making a world so real for readers that they
feel they are actually present in the story and are totally unaware of the
presence of the author.  In the case of the Vivien Thomas story, I was
writing about someone who’d died before I started the story, and as you well
remember, when I learned about Vivien’s death I nearly gave up because I
felt that there was no way to get inside his mind and have any understanding
at all of the human being.  Even when I discovered and read his
autobiography, I felt the task was hopeless because the autobiography was so
highly technical, and so opaque as to Vivien’s thoughts and feelings, that
it seemed useless as a foundation upon which to build a story anybody would
want to read.  The turning point for me was discovering a long taped
interview of Vivien and once I heard his voice and felt his humanity, I
returned to the autobiography with a new eye and was, after several
re-readings, able to understand that Vivien was actually
revealing quite a lot more about himself and his feelings toward his work and
about race than I had initially thought.  I then interviewed everybody I
could find who knew Vivien in any capacity, and slowly began to form a real
sense of the man.  These are all pretty standard research techniques for
biographers, I’d say.  I kept going and going until I was saturated with the
information and had a feeling for Vivien that was very vivid and sharp and
real.

As for the emotional element in “Like Something the Lord Made”:  I think the
emotional impact of that story comes from the shape that I
gave to the body of facts I amassed.  I also felt very strong emotions about
Vivien and my emotions are in that story, between the lines—my admiration
for his nobility, my sense that he’d been wronged, my sadness that he and
Blalock were “so close but so far away.”  That haunting feeling in the story
came from me, and apparently I was able to get that across without seeming
to be present in the story.

I hope this may have some usefulness for you.  Craft is so hard to talk
about in the short space of a blog, or even a long space.  But there are
definitely some down to earth tools that writers use to get to know their
subjects, and that can be talked about.

A Katie McCabe author’s note:
I’m a former high school English teacher who began writing for The Washingtonian in 1985.  I discovered Vivien Thomas while interviewing Dr. Judson Randolph, then chief surgeon at Children’s Hospital in Washington, for a 1986 article on the use of animals in biomedical research.  The story he told me about a black man with no formal medical training who’d helped to pioneer modern heart surgery completely captured my imagination.  I found it impossible to turn away from the story, even after I learned that Vivien Thomas had died—on the same day that Dr. Randolph told me about him.  I ignored the advice of writing colleagues who told me “You’ll never sell a magazine story about a dead man nobody’s ever heard of” and spent the better part of two years digging out everything I could about Vivien.  I wrote the opening of the article in 1987 on a brown paper lunch bag while watching my then five-year-old son’s soccer game.  In 2009, I published my first book, Justice Older than the Law, which I co-authored with DC legal legend Dovey Roundtree.  Writing narrative non-fiction made me hunger to write fiction, and I’m now at work on a novel, based in part on my family’s involvement in the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921.  I live in Bethesda, Maryland, with my husband Jack and our basset hound Quintus Fabius Maximus.

A P.S. from Jack Limpert: What Katie doesn’t mention is that when she brought her Vivien Thomas story to The Washingtonian, I told her it was a wonderful story but not much of it was Washington—most of it was set at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore—and it was awfully long and why don’t you try the New Yorker or the Atlantic. She did and they turned her down—one editor told her if she’d cut it from its 18,000 word length to 4,000 words he’d consider it. She came back to The Washingtonian, I again read the story, finished it wiping away the tears, and said okay, we’ll publish it. Two of our editors, Ken DeCell and Bill O’Sullivan, worked with Katie to cut the story to 13,000 words and it went on to win both a National Magazine Award and an Emmy for the magazine.

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