NAME: Robert Kurson
CLAIM TO FAME: Robert Kurson is an American author, best known for his New York Times bestselling books, Shadow Divers and Pirate Hunters. Kurson’s professional writing career began at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a sports agate clerk and soon gained a full-time features writing job. His stories have appeared in Rolling Stone, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and other publications. His next book, Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon, is available for preorder now.
WHERE TO FIND HIM: On Amazon, Twitter, and his website.
WHY WE’D PICK HIM IN 10 WORDS: Robert is one of the best storytellers writing today.
Let’s start with the basics: What time of day do you start writing? Is it easier for you to write early in the morning? Late at night?
My dad, the best storyteller I’ve ever known, was a traveling salesman for his own motorcycle paints and lubricants company. He was on the road a lot, but when he was home he would wake me before sunrise and take me for drives, not to see sights or to arrive anywhere, but to tell stories, back and forth, just the two of us, until the rest of the world woke up. All this started when I was just a few years old and continued, in some form or another, until he died at age 65. It doesn’t surprise me, all these years later, that I arise before dawn to start writing. It doesn’t surprise me that on some of those mornings, I wake up my own two sons and take them out driving for stories of our own.
What’s your preferred tool for writing—a word processor like Microsoft Word, Google Docs, etc.? A pen and paper?
For the actual writing I use Microsoft Word, including a few macros that serve as time-saving shortcuts. For outlining and structuring a book or even a chapter, I often use a giant pad of paper, the kind that sits on an easel. They’re not cheap (about $30 for 100 sheets) but they allow a view of an entire storyboard or outline at a single glance, and have room for all kinds of arrows, exclamation points, and other notes. I got this idea from a film producer I know who keeps storyboards of his projects on the wall of his office. The ability to see a story represented as a whole – without needing to advance screens or flip pages—has been a revelation to me.
Do you listen to music when you write, or do you prefer silence, or something else in the background?
For most of my career I could write only in silence. As a lifelong rock and roll fan, my addled brain was conditioned to jump aboard any available backbeat and to groove and sing along. That made it impossible to write (bopping around in my seat didn’t help, either). In the last few years, however, I have discovered jazz, and especially the work of two of its greatest artists: Bill Evans and Chet Baker. For some reason, the beauty (and maybe even melancholy) of their sounds soothes me and seems perfect for writing. Also, I’ve made another discovery. When there are construction or lawn mowing or other loud sounds outside my home office window, I play YouTube videos of passenger train sounds. Some of these videos last for several hours—they change only when the train pulls into a station or needs to sound its horn or when rain begins to fall on the cars. These videos serve as white noise against distracting sounds, and are wonderfully hypnotic for writing; I now find myself hoping for a noisy lawn mower outside my window in order to board the express.
Do you have any pre-writing rituals or habits?
I think about how my brother and I worked summers on a factory assembly line, then about how lucky I am to be able to write for a living. Then I gulp a bottle of extra-strength energy drink from Costco. Oh, and I check box scores from last night’s games.
How many words a day do you produce, or try to produce? How much of that ever sees the light of day?
I’m lucky if I get 500 or 1,000 good words out in a day. If it’s much more than that, I begin to suspect that I’ve taken shortcuts or made compromises. I’m not sure how much sees the light of day; it’s a decent amount, but that might be because I write more slowly than many writers I know.
When you first sit down to write, how do you start? What goes through your mind when fingers are first meeting keys (or pen hits paper)?
By the time I’m ready to write I’ve thoroughly contemplated the story I’m about to tell, so I don’t need to further consider structure or chronology. What I think about—and I prefer it to be only at a semiconscious level in order to allow room for instinct—is, “How would I best tell this to friends if we were driving from my home in Chicago to my favorite Indian restaurant in Milwaukee?” That’s about an hour-long trip, perfect for storytelling. I try to “hear” myself telling the chapter on the drive—how I’d hook my friends, keep them interested, make them want to hear more. And then, as I’m listening to myself in this imaginary conversation, I let my fingers start typing.
Your books are very thoroughly researched. How do you split the balance of writing and research? Do you collect all the material you need and then set out to turn it into a narrative? Or are you researching and writing simultaneously?
I probably spend more time on the research than the writing. Part of that is due to the intensive information gathering required for the kind of narrative nonfiction books I write, and part of it is that, during the research, I’m also constructing the story’s architecture in my mind. By the time I get to writing, a lot of the foundational work has been done. That said, I’m constantly adding to my research during my writing—making more calls, reading more books and papers, consulting more experts—because no matter how carefully I plan, the actual writing of a story provokes new questions that need to be answered. In fact, at the end of most every interview I conduct, I tell the subject, “I’m going to be calling with follow-up questions down the road—I just don’t know what they’ll be until I start writing.”
Are you editing as you’re writing or do you prefer to keep the two tasks separate?
I almost always keep editing and writing separate. Sometimes, at least for me, good writing comes from a state of flow, and I don’t want the anal retentive taskmasters who live inside me to be scolding me while I’m on a roll; they have plenty of time to work their magic a few days later, when I go back and read what I’ve written and realize it’s not nearly as good as I thought it was.
Do you have an author whose voice or style you’re trying to emulate when you’re writing?
On the contrary. My will is so weak that my writing voice starts to sound like whomever I’m reading at the moment. To prevent that, I try not to read much while involved in a writing project.
Do you struggle at all with that dreaded enemy of writing: writer’s block? Do you think such a thing exists?
I think it exists, but I wonder if it’s not something a bit different than what I’ve always presumed it to be—a sort of dark curtain that descends over the writer and prevents him or her from creating. There are times when I struggle for hours—even a full day—over a single sentence, but I don’t believe it’s because I’m “blocked.” Rather, it’s because I’m trying to solve a problem that doesn’t (at least for me) have an easy solution. I think much of the challenge in writing is finding elegant ways to solve problems. When I hear that someone is stuck from writer’s block, I wonder if they’re not really trying, at whatever level of awareness, to solve a problem of attack or structure or argument or even prose that’s troubling them.
Do you have any favorite books about writing and the creative process?
No. I think the best way to get better at writing is to go out and observe the world.
When did your aspirations to become a writer begin?
During my first week at Harvard Law School I realized I’d made a grave mistake by attending. I had no interest in legal theory or in practicing law. I couldn’t make myself care about anything being discussed in class. Worst of all, the students who seemed to enjoy it most were the people I disliked the most. Still, I thought I owed it to myself to graduate and then to practice; surely the real world of law couldn’t be as stultifying as the academic world of law.
For me, practicing law was even worse than I’d imagined. I just couldn’t give a damn about the interests of corporation X vs. the interests of corporation Y. Plus, I was terrible at the job! Not a recipe for a good life.
Only then, suffering deep into the nights and dreading the next fifty years, did I do something I hadn’t done since I was a kid: I started telling stories. This time, it was to myself, on paper, just memories I had of happier times, of things I’d done when I still had hope, of how hard I used to play on the swings at the playground near my grade school. And I realized two things after writing these stories: first, they were decent, at least as good as some of the articles in the local Chicago newspapers; second, that I’d lost track of time while I was writing them, which meant that I’d been happy while writing them.
And that’s when I thought, “I have no training in writing, never took a class, never kept a journal, never wrote anything. And I’ll probably starve trying to do it. But I gotta take a shot at writing because it’s the one thing I might be good at that I think I’ll enjoy.” I quit my job as an attorney a few days later.
You’ve done what a lot of lawyers wish to do: move from the law to full-time life as a writer. When and how did you make the transition?
After I decided to make this Kierkegaardian leap of faith (see above) I had a realization: I had no idea how to become a writer. But I was certain about one thing: I was willing to starve in order to leave a career I hated in order to break into one I might love. That gave me a huge advantage.
I started by sending resumes to every newspaper within a 100-mile radius of Chicago announcing my expertise on Chicago sports and asking for a job (oh, the naiveté!). I received only one response—from Bill Adee, the sports editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, who told me he didn’t have anything but admired my willingness to leave behind a sure-thing kind of career. Then, I did one of the smartest thing I’ve ever done—I begged Bill to allow me come in and do anything—answer the phones, deliver mail, take out the garbage. A few nights later, I was in the sports department, surrounded by the legends I’d read since boyhood, taking high school football scores by phone and tossing a Nerf football in between. To me, the idea that one could go to work without wearing wingtip shoes—and talk about sports and swear—was the closest thing I’ve had to a religious revelation.
Bill soon told me—and I’ll be grateful to him forever for this—that he’d give me a chance to write if I kept showing up to answer the phones, and he was true to his word. That led to longer pieces, then to a job writing features for the Sun-Times. After a couple years, I had enough clips to convince two magazines—Chicago and Esquire—to give me a shot. I was extremely fortunate to work with three of the best magazine editors in the business—Dick Babcock (Chicago) and David Granger and Mark Warren (Esquire), who believed in me and gave me the kinds of opportunities new writers only dream about. I got very lucky when my first piece for Esquire became a finalist for the National Magazine Award. At that point, I was able to find a literary agent and take a shot at the holy grail—books. Shadow Divers was published by Random House in 2004, and I’ve been a book writer ever since. Every once in a while these days I’ll take an early morning drive by my father’s old paint factory, look at the old smoke stack, and think, “Wow, Dad, have I got a story for you.”
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