William Nothdurft (Will North), B.A.’70

A Writer’s Life

By Carol Olechowski

William Northdurft (Will North), B.A.'70

William Nothdurft – a.k.a. novelist Will North – has crafted a career almost as colorful as the settings of his books and the characters who inhabit them.  

Coupled with his University at Albany degree in English literature, Nothdurft’s ability to adapt his writing style to both fiction and non-fiction has brought him acclaim in both genres. At SUNYA, as UAlbany was then known, he belonged to Myskania; served as vice president of his fraternity, Sigma Tau Beta; and founded the literary magazine The Word. A member of the Class of 1969, Nothdurft lost a semester because of illness and graduated cum laude in 1970.

He went on to earn an M.A. in journalism at Penn State but never worked in that field. “The environmental movement was emerging, and I initially worked as a writer and analyst in environmental planning and management, a career that culminated in a senior political appointment in the Carter Administration,” Nothdurft remembered. “Promptly shown the door” after the election of Ronald Reagan, he was approached by some Washington, D.C., think tanks “to write books about various public-policy issues,” he explained. “Sounds dull, right? But my skills as a writer, thanks in part to SUNYA, were such that people loved reading my books, and decision-makers acted upon them.” 

Nothdurft’s career evolved again when then-Vice President Al Gore called to ask him to write a book on reinventing the federal government to make it more consumer oriented. “Suddenly, I was a ghostwriter,” said Nothdurft. “After I finished Common Sense Government (Random House) for the vice president, President Bill Clinton called. (No, I am not making this up.) In three months, we completed Between Hope and History (Times Books), a book about the president’s vision for the country’s future at the turn of the millennium. 

At the September 1995 White House launch of Common Sense Government, Will North, left, talks with then-Vice President Al Gore, right, who asked him to ghostwrite the book. Also pictured are lawyer and author Phillip K. Howard, standing next to North, and then-President Bill Clinton, at Gore’s right.  North later “ghosted” Between Hope and History for Clinton. 

“But at some point,” he continued, “I began to believe that my work on these subjects, while successful, wasn’t really making a significant difference to real people in need. So I just walked away from that career.” Nothdurft relocated to Washington State, where the editor-in-chief of Seattle-based Mountaineers Books approached him. “A team of climbers had set off to find out what had happened to the first Everest explorer, the Englishman George Mallory, who disappeared in 1924 after being last seen tantalizingly close to the summit, decades before Sir Edmund Hillary. Astonishingly, the team found Mallory, frozen solid, on the Tibetan side of the peak. Ghosts of Everest, the book I wrote for the team, was an international sensation and won awards in the United Kingdom and Italy. Publishers Weekly called it ‘a book of historic importance that reads like a detective thriller.’ The ‘ghost’ who wrote Ghosts then went on to write books for a team of dinosaur hunters, a famous heart doctor, a ‘green-living’ proponent, and others.” 

Later, Nothdurft turned from non-fiction to fiction, completing his first novel, The Long Walk Home, in 90 days. “Two weeks later, there was a bidding war for the book between three major New York publishers. My agent said it was virtually unheard of, for a debut novelist,” noted the author, who writes “using the friendlier name ‘Will North.’ I’ve been writing fiction ever since.” 

North’s subsequent novels, Water, Stone, Heart and Seasons’ End, have also garnered acclaim. Switching genres again, he published the first in his “Davies & West” British mystery series, Harm None, this past summer. The second book in that series, Too Clever By Half, will be published later this fall.