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Arts & Entertainment
10/12/04

by JACK RIGHTMYER, Staff Writer
Tracy Kidder, a Master of Non-fiction

When Tracy Kidder entered Harvard University as a freshman he had visions of one day becoming a diplomat, but during his sophomore year the idea of becoming a writer seemed much more exciting and romantic. "I had visions of becoming a great writer of fiction, but my three years at the Iowa Writer's Workshop changed all that," said Kidder, in a recent phone interview from his vacation home in Maine.

Upon graduation from Harvard, Kidder spent one year in Vietnam as a lieutenant in Army intelligence. He didn't see any action, but when he returned home he wrote a novel about the experiences he didn't have.

"The novel was dreadful," said Kidder, "and it never got published. That's when I went to Iowa to learn how to write fiction, but when I got there I couldn't come up with any good ideas for fiction."

One of his instructors, Dan Wakefield, a contributing editor at Atlantic Monthly, encouraged him to write non-fiction. "That was during the time when New Journalism was such the rage with authors like Tom Wolfe and John McPhee," said Kidder. "All I kept hearing was that non-fiction was so much more interesting than the novels being written at that time."

Wakefield helped Kidder with his first writing assignment at the Atlantic Monthly, and he has continued to write regularly for that magazine during the past thirty years. Many of his stories for the magazine were expanded into some of the popular books he has written such as "The Soul of a New Machine" (1981) which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, "House" (1985), "Among Schoolchildren" (1989), "Old Friends" (1993), and his most recent book "Mountains Beyond Mountains," which was published in hardcover last September. It has just been released in paperback.

Kidder will read from his work at 8 pm on Tuesday, October 12th, at Page Hall on the downtown campus of the University at Albany. Earlier that day he will present an afternoon seminar at 4:15 in Assembly Hall at the University at Albany's uptown Campus Center.

"What I like about non-fiction is that it covers such a huge territory," said Kidder. "The best non-fiction is also creative. I can't invent stuff, but the techniques fiction writers use to create character and suspense can also be used when writing non-fiction."

Many of his books such as House, Among School Children, Old Friends, and Home Town dealt with ordinary people living in small New England towns, but his latest book Mountains Beyond Mountains is much more vast in its scope.

"The subject of this book, Paul Farmer, came along at a time in my life when I was feeling more and more cynical about such global problems as AIDS," said Kidder, "and then I met this man who seemed to be practicing more than he preached. He seemed to live without any hypocrisy, and he has a true belief that a small group of people really can help change the world."

Paul Farmer has helped to build amazing health care system in one of the poorest areas of Haiti. He founded Partners in Health, which serves the destitute and the sick in many parts of the world from Haiti to Boston and from Russia to Peru.

"I usually write about ordinary people and ordinary things," said Kidder, "but Paul Farmer is the least ordinary person I've ever met, and when you hang around with him for a while you begin to think you can accomplish. He's the leader of a small group of people who hope to cure a sick world, and I hope my book can help in some small way."

Kidder has been trying to help raise some funds and do some publicity for Partners in Health. "I never planned on doing a book about Paul Farmer or his organization," said Kidder. "I met him in Haiti when I was on a magazine assignment. It's almost like his story sort of fell in my lap. But now I don't know what I'm going to write. When I select a topic it's usually a commitment of two to three years of my life."

Next fall Random House will be publishing his memoir about being a soldier in Vietnam. "That's something I've been writing one and off for years now," said Kidder, "but right now I'm really researching for a good noon-fiction story. Maybe it will be something that might come from this election. I doubt that I'll ever find a subject like Paul Farmer ever again.

His advice for beginning writers is to only try this if it's something you really want or have to do. "Being a professional writer is not an easy way to make a living," he said. "There are no rules to follow, but I tell beginning readers to read a lot and write a lot. If you want to write a book find a subject that's really worth the time and effort you'll put in."

Kidder also encourages beginning writers to go to schools and to take writing classes. "You'll hopefully learn a few shortcuts and get some encouragement," he said, "and it's also helpful to get a job that requires writing on a daily basis such as becoming a newspaper reporter."

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