Tag Archives: From the mailbag

Into the Homestretch . . . But Still A Mess

From the Thanks for Asking! Department, we’re still in the process of installing the geothermal system, so we’re not yet basking in the luxury of indoor cooling — but we’re getting there. Two 350-foot wells have been drilled and a loop of black tubing has been run down each, then grouted into place inside each well. The two open ends of each black tube are now sticking out of each well, ready to be tied into the main system. And as you can see, it’s a complete mess:

That gray sludge you see is pulverized bedrock — which, once it mixed with the bit of water that came out of the ground, has now taken on the consistency of putty. At the moment, walking across this section of our yard is like walking on a waterbed. I’ve been assured that all this yucky stuff will be scraped off and buried in the trench that will connect the wells with the house.

Speaking of messes, our HVAC crew is doing yeoman’s work in removing the old boiler-based system from the house. The 80-year-old boiler — which was too heavy for me to remove from the basement myself — has been expertly dismantled and hauled away, and now the 4-year-old replacement boiler has also been disconnected and is waiting to be shipped to the Great Scrap Iron Heap in the Sky:

All that other junk in the background? Also stuff that came out of the boiler room. Yup, it’s gross.

The rest of the work is scheduled to be completed early next week, and the system should be fired up by mid-week. I’ll keep you posted.

First Books: Meet Abraham Lincoln (1965)

From the mailbag, Mark in Chicago writes:

“I’m really enjoying your First Books segment on your blog, and I’m wondering: Since you’re a biographer, what would your ‘first biography’ be?”

Thanks for the question, Mark. When I was in second grade, I was given a collection of hardcover books called “Step-Up Books.” This was a series of about twenty non-fiction books for kids, with titles like Birds Do The Strangest Things (with an owl on the cover, peering at you with an upside-down head) and The Story of Flight, which pretty much sums it up. There were also a number of books about prominent Americans, including John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. But the book I liked the most, and still remember best, is Meet Abraham Lincoln.

Author Barbara Cary does a fine job with the subject matter, and hits all the highs of Lincoln’s life in a style aimed squarely at young readers, even addressing the Civil War in easy-as-pie terms. But I was equally as taken with the artwork, by the brilliant Jack Davis, working in his familiar “bigfoot” style that was perfectly suited for the gawky 16th president. Together, the text and art were in perfect syncopation, neither getting in the way of the other, and I read and re-read this book more times than I can remember, filing away the moments Cary had so carefully chosen to bring Lincoln to life, while matching Davis’ thickly-inked and cross-hatched art with its place in the narrative.

I haven’t read the book in decades — and my original copy of it is long gone — but three moments from the book still stay with me. Here’s young Abe trying to comfort his sister, following the death of their mother, with a raccoon that I was dying to pet:

Next is Lincoln with Union General Ulysses S. Grant, whose cigar you can practically smell:

And finally, the picture that’s stayed with me my entire life — President Lincoln at his desk in the White House, trying to hold the Union together during the darkest hours of the Civil War:

Really, it doesn’t get much better than that.

To me, Meet Abraham Lincoln is a biography doing everything a great biography should do: educating while entertaining. For that reason, Meet Abraham Lincoln holds the high honor not only of being my very First Biography, but also the First Book To Show Me That Non-fiction Could Be Dramatic. And indeed it is.

"Careful, or You’ll Wind Up in My Novel." (But Probably Not).

From the mailbag:

“So, when are you going to try your hand at fiction?”

Thanks for asking. I hate absolute answers to almost anything, so I’ll qualify my response to this particular question by saying, “Probably never.”

Actually, that’s not entirely true (see what I said about absolutes?). The truth is, I tried my hand at fiction years ago, and found out I stunk at it. My problem is similar to Clifford Anderson’s in Ira Levin’s play Deathtrap: dialogue is a snap for me, but I have a hard time with plot. And since there’s no Sidney Bruhl around to serve as my master plotter, I’m better off sticking with non-fiction, which, for the most part, already has the basics plotted out for me in advance.

In fact, it’s the ability to plot that I admire most in fiction writers — that ability to find a story in a casual remark or a twinkling bit of junk embedded in a hillside. I have a good friend, a fiction writer and filmmaker, who practically bleeds plots, scribbling them in notebooks near his bed, hoping he can get them down on paper fast enough. He’s one of those people who’s great at asking “What if? . . .” or “Wouldn’t it be cool if? . . .” and taking it from there. I wish I was that way.

I’ve heard some non-fictionalists say that, all things being equal — meaning, I guess, that if they could write both fiction and non-fiction equally as well — they would always choose to write non-fiction because (wait for it!) . . . “real life is so much more interesting.”


Apart from being an annoying sound bite, I don’t buy the explanation. First of all, I think it’s a backhanded way of setting up non-fiction as somehow superior to or “purer” than fiction, a conceit I find patently elitist and flat out dumb. Second, I always think that anyone who falls back on that kind of a pseudo-intellectual defense is doing so because they’re worried that admitting they can’t plot, or write fiction, is like admitting they can’t operate a knife and fork — as if they’re lacking some basic life skill.

That’s nonsense — fiction and non-fiction are very different creatures. The ability to write one well and not the other is hardly a sign of some intellectual or creative failing. But rather than say “I can’t,” they say, “I can, but I choose not to.”

I can’t — but if I could, I would. Good fiction is fun. It’s fun to read, and while writing is always work, I’m sure a craftily plotted piece of fiction is also fun to write. If I could do it, I wouldn’t deprive myself of such a pleasure in the name of a snooty retort.

But I can’t do it. I’m not a Plotter; I’m more of a Good Explainer. For now, then, I’m sticking with that.