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A LIFE OF OBSERVATION
Lee Gutkind, who is known in writing circles as "The Godfather of Creative Nonfiction," loves to place himself into situations he has never quite experienced before.
Gutkind is an influential author and journalist, and the founder of the groundbreaking literary magazine Creative Nonfiction. His immersion journalism projects have led Gutkind to perform as a clown for Ringling Brothers, scrub with heart and liver transplant surgeons, wander the country on a motorcycle, and experience psychotherapy with a distressed family--all as research for dozens of books, profiles, essays and anthologies.
His most recent book is Almost Human: Making Robots Think, a behind-the-scenes look at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute. Gutkind will visit the Fresno State campus on Friday, May 4, as part of the Visiting Writer Series, sponsored by the students of the San Joaquin Literary Association, the MFA program in creative writing, and the Fresno Bee.
In a phone interview, community journalist Eric Parker talked with Gutkind about the ups and downs of immersion journalism, the things that make robots tick, and the joys of coming to fatherhood later in life.
You've written about such diverse subjects as motorcycles, baseball umpires, organ transplants, mental illnesses, veterinarians -- and now, robots. How do you choose your immersion subjects?
Well, they have to be subjects, first and foremost, that interest me, and subjects that I know I can capture really good narratives through, that there's always a terrific story. And, of course, they have to be subjects that others haven't written about in great detail, so that I have a chance to be the first person out with a good, solid narrative.
Over and above all that, these books take a long time. Off and on, Almost Human took me six years to write as a kind of a fly-on-the-wall person. And in order to do that, you have to make sure that you're not what we call "parachuting" into a place. That is to say, I may find something interesting in Fresno but I don't live in Fresno. So if I want to write about it, I have to fly in there, spend a day or two, and then leave.
What you want to do, and this is what I always say, "You want to think globally and act locally." So, you want to find a subject that is close to where you are so that you can go in and out of it at any time. Secondarily, you want to find a subject that may well be local but means something to people all across the world. So, organ transplantation, robots, children with mental health problems, these are subjects that effect people from Chile to Charleston; but in my case, they were subjects where the epicenter was right where I lived.
Have you ever abandoned an immersion project? Got started and realized it wasn't going to work or you lost interest in the subject?
I've never abandoned and immersion project, because there's always been a way [to finish it]. ... Certainly there are subjects I lose interest in; my interest waned from time to time with robots. But I've never abandoned one. I have abandoned books that I lost interest in, but not a [writing] project involving immersion.
Almost Human is essentially about the attempt to make robots autonomous, but several very human narratives arise throughout. Was it difficult to maintain a balance? Were you tempted to let a strong human character, such as Red Whitaker, take over the story of the robots?
Red Whitaker was an incredibly strong character, and I fought real hard to give him secondary status in the book because I know that if I would have spent all my time with him he would have absolutely dominated the entire narrative, and I didn't want that to happen. So, I made it an absolute, positive point to spend less time with him than I did with some of the other people who I thought were equally important but not as colorful. You do think about that.
This wasn't going to be a biography of Red Whitaker. It was a book about robots. So I gave that a lot of thought and made this clear determination to avoid a lot of my time with him.
Was it difficult to maintain this balance, since the book's subject is essentially robots, but becomes more and more about the human stories that are evolving as well?
Yes. And that's why immersions are so wonderful in that you walk into an immersion having an idea, idea A, but by the time you've spent three months or six months, you have a new idea, or a different formulation of your idea. Then, if you spend another year or two, your idea sophisticates and focuses even more. So, it's a constant balancing challenge to make sure that you are giving the subject the proper attention.
In the case of robots, yes I wanted to write about robots. But the more I hung out the more I realized that these robots are being created in the shadow of the men and women who created them. I realized I needed to give more attention to the creators than to the objects being created.
You've said that in immersion reporting, a different story often emerges than the one you set out to write. What was an unexpected story from your time with the roboticists?
This time it wasn't an unexpected story but more like a couple of unexpected themes of discovery. There are probably four or five main points of focus in this book, and one of them has to do with the fact that almost all of the cutting-edge research, software writing, and engineering is being done by people, mostly men, and a few women, under twenty-five years of age. I was stunned by that.
I thought I was going to go meet all these people who look like me, with gray hair. You know, Einstein-like characters, thinking they were the geniuses; but they weren't the geniuses, they were the managers and the motivators. That's what Whitaker was, a manager and a motivator, and all these kids are doing all this incredible work. So, that was one great discovery, which changed the narrative to a certain extent.
The other discovery was how incredibly frustrating the entire robotic building and designing and writing experience was for everybody, young and old. You see a robot and you think, wow, they built this robot, but, in fact, every time they built a robot and it worked, it didn't work for a hundred and fifty times afterward.
Those were two incredible discoveries, and it made me see how far away ubiquitous robotics is going to be. It made me think of all those kids who, in your part of the country, in Mountain View, started the computer world. Steve Wozniak was a child when he perfected the Apple computer. It never hit me until I started hanging out with these kids doing robots.
In the book, your presence as the author is often felt but still comes across as non-intrusive, something like what Gay Talese and other literary journalists do so well. Is it difficult to resist the temptation to make the "I" the center of the story since it's "allowed," unlike in everyday journalism?
Actually, it has not been difficult for me, because when you walk into a story like this you usually know nothing. So you're really kind of a stranger, you're an interloper, you're an observer. I don't have a hard time maintaining that status because I'm constantly the student trying to learn. And I realize how much more important and how much more colorful the people I'm writing about are than me.
Sometimes learning about a subject through the eyes of the writer can work. But more often than not, the most successful immersions are done with writers who are not egocentric. John McPhee, who's someone I really admire, did this book called The Curve of Binding Energy, and it's 65,000 words--my book is about 75,000 words--but McPhee always brags that he wrote this 65,000-word book and it took him until his 35,000th word before he used the word "I" in relation to himself. It took that long for him to be important in the story.
On your website, you say that you originally set out to live a life "to more thoroughly understand myself," which lead to a lifestyle in literary journalism. What's the biggest thing you've learned about yourself through your immersion projects?
I've learned that in order to be able to do what I do, I have to share the obsession and the passion of the people who are involved in what I'm writing about. I may not share the obsession and the passion for the same subject; my obsession and passion is for the writing experience itself.
I've also learned--from all the people I've written about, like this guy Red Whitaker and the person I wrote about in the organ transplant world, whose name is Thomas Starzl--that greatness takes great, massive, continuous failure in order to succeed. So, writing a book for six years is nothing. And even though it's filled with five and a half years of frustration, you need to continue to apply yourself.
I'm not sure I'm an incredibly talented human being, but I think that one of the reasons I've been successful is because I just decided to never give up and to always go onward.
Many people are under the impression that if you're an author with a published book that you must be making good money. Is this true or a myth?
[Laughs.] Well, it's not a black and white kind of question or answer. It is true, most books don't make a lot of money. Respectable sales for most books are 10,000 copies. And if you can imagine, even if the book sells for $25 and you make ten percent of the $25, just imagine, you put in six years work or four years work, and you end up by making a few thousand dollars.
So, writing a book, unless you're really, really fortunate, is not how most writers make money. But writing a book opens up other opportunities, like teaching and lecturing, and so forth; and many writers are able to make a living that way.
I read an article in the Fresno Bee recently about "start-over dads," men who have children later in life. I know that among your teaching and lecturing duties, you're working on another book right now about your travels with your teen-age son, Sam. How did that project come about, how do you view being a "start-over dad," and how do you balance fatherhood with your other commitments?
Do you have three hours? [Laughs.] Well, basically, a "start-over dad," as I understand it, is a man who has had a first family, and then gets divorced, and then finds some hot young woman. Unfortunately, quite unfortunately, that hasn't happened to me; although, I'm open to it, you know.
I only have one kid. I'm a "late-in-life father," but there's another term I can't remember for that. I was in my forties when Sam was born. So I'm experiencing all of this for the first time and probably the last time.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have this opportunity, and later in life. My kid goes to school, obviously, and almost all of the fathers of his friends are considerably younger than me, and they're right at the start or in the middle of their careers, and they do not have a ton of time to spend with their kids. I'm in a different situation. If I stopped working tomorrow, I'm old enough that I could afford to send him to school right now. And I have a position--I've been around long enough--with great flexibility. So I can take my summer off, and I can go drive around the country or go to Spain with Sam. I can do that. That's the upside of being a "late-in-life dad."
I wanted to have a kid for a long time, but it never worked out. Suddenly, I became a dad, and it was a great thing, and I vowed that I was going to make every single moment count. And so, that's what I'm doing.
That's great. It encourages me, at least. I worry--I'm only thirty-three and I feel like I'm getting up there--and I haven't really started my career yet.
You've got plenty of time. I was just talking to my agent, who's forty-three, and he's worried about the same thing. But, gee whiz, it has been an unbelievable experience. Look, if you have a kid now, you're going to have to go get a job, you know.
Yes, I know. It would definitely change my life. It frightens me. Right now I'm thinking, I'm thirty-three and I'm still not ready? When the hell am I going to be ready? But it makes a lot of sense to me to be established in your career, like you said, and have that time--I mean, what's the point if you can't spend time with your kid because you're working so much?
Well, that's right. I'm so lucky and so fortunate. It has worked out so well for me. The only thing is, you die faster. I'll probably die before you, and that's too bad. But I'm just trying to give Sam absolutely every bit of knowledge and support and love that I can give him now, so that he'll always have it.
Do you have any other future projects besides the Sam book?
The Sam book is coming along and is pretty much almost done. I think that what has happened is my experiences have been so rich, that I'm already beginning a sequel. So, the first book's called Truckin' With Sam, and I've written more than 50,000 words of that book right now, and I suspect I'll have a part two in the next couple of years.
Lee Gutkind will give a free public reading on Friday, May 4, in the Peters Educational Center, inside the Student Rec Center on the campus of Fresno State. Check the MFA blog or the calendar for details.