Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Changing the world with books and tea

I changed majors five times. Now, if my parents had paid for my tuition, I might have felt guilty about not staying on track, but since I paid my own way, and figured college was all about learning, well, despite the fact that I ended up with way more hours than I would've needed to graduate, it only made sense that the more majors I experienced, the more I'd learn. Plus -- and this is what's made me difficult to brand over my 25 year career -- I have an extremely low tolerance for boredom.

(For those who might be wondering, I began pre-law, switched to business, then education, then literature, then right before the final semester of my senior year, I jumped to urban geography, and no, that's not all about states and capitals, but how we use our public and institutional spaces.)

My checkered educational history may seem be irrelevant on a day we're supposed to be talking about what we read, but actually, it's what I love about writing and why this is the only job in my life I've stuck with for more than three years. (Did I mention I'm easily bored?)

Every time I begin a book it's like beginning a new major. Would it be easier to simply keep writing about stuff I know? Sure. But rather than take that old advice to write what you know, I believe writers are much better off writing about something they want to know. Because that way, their excitement for the subject will translate to the page, which will hopefully excite readers, as well.

I read 25 non-fiction books on firefighting before and while writing Blaze. Not only did the work fascinate me (and make me consider, only briefly, switching careers again), I received a lot of letters from firefighters and arson investigators after the book came out, telling me that I'd nailed the forensics and experience of fighting a fire. The best letter came just a few weeks ago from a former FBI agent who established the first (and still best) fire forensic major in the country. The same school I'd sent my heroine to. Had I not read a book about the course at University of Kentucky, I wouldn't have been able to give my heroine that history.

Writing No Safe Place was more of a challenge. I knew the city of New Orleans and its people well, had written about it a lot before, so mainly the new things I was learning about were voodoo and -- oops -- hurricanes. I was somewhere between one-half and two-thirds done when Katrina hit, so I put the book on the shelf and, not wanting to lose my publication slot, quickly began an entirely new story. During the time I was writing Impulse, I read whatever books I could find on Katrina as they came out, the Times Picayune every day, but for the everyday details of life, I relied on blogs from New Orleans residents, which was, more often than not, a depressing way to begin my day, because these gave me a window into a city that did not in any way resemble the Mardi Gras and Jazzfest pictures I kept seeing on the television newscasts.

I know writers who come up with their plot, then research what they need to know whenever they get stuck in the writing. I'm just the opposite. My characters have, with all 90+ books I've written, always come first. Once I know them fairly well (they always surprise me, even sometimes on the last page), I begin looking around for a concept/premise/plot that will fit their personalities, their conflicts, and the theme of my story, which, as we discussed here the other day, is usually redemption. It's only out of my research that my plot begins to take shape.

The book I'm writing now for NAL, which is tentatively titled Shattered, features a former SEAL whose helicopter crashes in Afghanistan at the beginning of the book and a heroine who's worked her way up the hospitality ladder and has just been named manager of a 5-star hotel in Florence, Italy when, ten minutes after her promotion, her hotel is blown up underneath her by a terrorist. Oh, and did I mention the serial killer back on Swann Island, South Carolina? (Unfortunately, although I tried my best, there wasn't any room for the kitchen sink in this story. But hey, I'm not finished writing it yet. LOL)

Along with the usual bibliography of serial killer books written by former FBI profilers, I've spent the past eight months reading every book on Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Special Forces I could find. Which, at last count, is 28 books. (Yes, I could have stopped reading after a dozen or so, but the recent ones were both horrible and fascinating at the same time, sort of the reading version of watching a train wreck.) Out of all those dark and depressing books, one stands out for its uplifting message.

Three Cups of Tea
is, as the cover blurb says, one man's mission to fight terrorism and build nations. . . one school at a time. After nearly dying while climbing K2, Greg Mortenson was wandering lost and broken in both spirit and body when a determined sherpa found him, and took him back to his impoverished Pakistan village, where the people nursed him back to health. Moved by this, as anyone would be, he made an impulsive promise to return one day and build them a school. He did even better. Three Cups of Tea is the story of his decade long odyssey to build schools, especially schools for girls, throughout the region that gave birth to the Taliban and sanctuary to Al Qaeda. While he wages war with the root causes of terrorism -- poverty and ignorance -- by providing both girls and boys with a balanced, non-extremist education, Mortenson must survive a kidnapping (by a warlord who wanted a school for his girls!), fatwas issued by enraged mullahs, death threats from Americans who consider him a traitor, and wrenching separations from his family.

At the time the book was published last year, with little fanfare and without publicity, he's quietly -- and doggedly -- built fifty-five schools serving Pakistan and Afghanistan's poorest communities. And as this real-life Indiana Jones from Montana crisscrosses the Himalaya and the Hindu Kush fighting to keep these schools functioning, he provides not only hope to tens of thousands of children, but living proof that one passionately dedicated person truly can change the world. I couldn't agree more with what U.S. Representative Mary Bono said in her back cover quote: "Greg Mortenson represents the best of America. He's my hero. And after you read Three Cups of Tea, he'll be your hero, too."

Maybe writers can't change the world by building schools. But we've all received letters from people who, for one reason or another, hadn't read until stumbling across one of our stories. Which was when they discovered how entire worlds open up between the pages of a book. And bringing the world to people who might never have opened their minds to the amazing, "what if" possibilities our stories present, is, imo, something we can all feel good about.


Nancy Morse said...

Great post, JoAnn. Being able to read is, in my view, perhaps the most important thing a person can accomplish, because if you can read, the whole world opens up to you. As a writer, I'm proud of whatever small part I may play in broadening someone's world.

Ellen said...

Beautifully said, JoAnn. I know that books have changed my life in so many ways.

Greg Mortenson's story is amazing and very inspirational. He is definitely a hero.

I can't wait for No Safe Place!

Alexis Morgan said...

I can't imagine a greater compliment from a reader than being told you got it right! That's wonderful, JoAnn.

I've been reading books about the highly trained military specialists, too--very compelling reading, eye opening and our country is blessed to have them.

BTW, I can't wait to see how you fit the kitchen sink in!

Anonymous said...

Great post as usual, JoAnn!

I think being a writer is the greatest job in the world, too. Within the pages of a book, you can become anyone at anytime...and all without ever changing out of your jammies. lol.


Anonymous said...

Ok, I'm ordering that tea-book today! Thanks for sharing (and I'm awed by 90+ books).

Christie Craig said...


I totally agree, if I get bored at being a writer, I’m doing something wrong. I have gotten fed up with the business end, but when I lose myself in my characters and their lives, I’m always feeling the buzz of doing something I love, and the buzz of creating something new.

It is also another reason I love freelance and the reason I sometimes don't enjoy writing my columns. Before writing about a subject, I have to research it. I'm learning something new. Sometimes I'm not always interested in the subject,i.e. skin cancer or new weight regulations for Texas Highway Patrolmen, but there is always a little high about learning. However, when I write columns, I find myself having to cover the same subjects – i.e. window treatments. And when there isn't anything new to report since I wrote the last piece six months ago, and I'm just having to say things in a different way, I grow bored really quickly.

meardaba said...

Do you often put a little bibliography at the end of your books, or in your website? I would find that fascinating, seeing which books led the author down a particular pathway.

JoAnn Ross said...

Thanks for all who waded through it and commented. I didn't realize until after it posted, how LONG it was. Even for me!

I've thought about a bibliography before, but never done it. Probably because you don't tend to see those in contemps as much as historicals. Which may be partly why people mistakenly believe contemporary writers don't do research.

Kalen, you'll love the book. (I hope, now that I've talked you into it, lol)

Faye, the jammies are the best part of this job, imo.

Alexis, Black Hawk Down, even if you know the story from the news and movie is the most compelling of the special ops books because it's written like a fabuouls novel. Not all those military book authors are such good writers, as, no doubt, you've discovered.

Nancy, growing up in remote ranching country, books opened fabulous worlds to me. I don't know what I would've done without the bookmobile showing up at the end of our road every other week.

And CC -- Window treatments? We have to talk. lol I've been going nuts for years trying to figure out what to put over plantation shutters that'll allow me to open them every morning. I finally broke down and ordered some valances the other day, but my sweetie warns me that I'll have to keep them closed. We'll see about that. :)