An Afternoon with Tracy Kidder

Sunday, September 28, 2008
SNHU Communications Office

Prior to speaking at SNHU's 2008 Convocation, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder shared his thoughts on a variety of topics. His best-selling book, "Mountains Beyond Mountains," was this year's Common Book. An interview with Kidder will also appear in the fall edition of The Extra Mile.

Southern New Hampshire University: What are some of the great pleasures you take from writing?
Tracy Kidder: It feels really good to make sense of something. I rewrite a lot and I get a lot of help from my editors, and that happens incrementally. There is no greater moment when you feel, oh boy, this is terrific. In fact, when those moments occur, I learn to be wary of them. Often it’s not terrific. By the time I’m really done, I don’t even know I’m done. The editors will tell me that. I am exhausted. By then I’m pretty sick of it.

For some reason the whole thing, with all the hours, I don’t really think I could do anything else. What’s not to like about it? I get to travel the world and follow my nose. More and more I like the writing. I like that quiet time. Some call people call it lonely and I suppose it is once in a while.

There are always daunting moments starting a new project when you’re not getting what you thought you’d get and what you hoped you would get.

SNHU: What would be your first sentence if you were to author your own $700 billion bailout plan?
TK: The first sentence would be one word: "Sorry."

SNHU: Who’s your fantasy interview?
TK: Herman Melville. Mostly dead people or historical figures. Part of the problem for me is that the famous are often not as interesting as you think they are going to be. They are so surrounded and defended. And even if they don’t have defenders in front of them, they have egos to defend themselves.

I would love to be able to have access to see how things actually work. It would be fascinating to see how a president operates day to day. The security clearances alone would be nightmarish.

SNHU: When the Tracy Kidder Story goes Hollywood, who would play you on the big screen?
TK: It’s definitely not going Hollywood. Ed Norton would terrific.

SNHU: What’s the coolest thing about winning a Pulitzer Prize?
TK: What it does? That’s the real issue. I was around 36 years old when I won. This was obviously just excellent judgment by the judges. I’ve served on a few prize committees and I realized how capricious those choices can be. You think Leo Tolstoy could have won one and never did. It’s hard to sustain the illusion that yes, that it proves that I wrote a wonderful book. On the other hand, as for my life as a writer, it’s extremely useful and wonderful.

The part of it that wasn’t so wonderful was that I felt separated from my other struggling writer friends. I do remember thinking in an odd way exposed. It sounds like I’m complaining it about it but I’m not. You sort of half believe that stuff and that’s always dangerous, to believe what other people are saying and you stop listening to yourself.

It also meant that I could keep writing. What it meant at that point was that I could write for a living, because I really hadn’t been writing for a living. If my wife hadn’t brought in cash we’d have been in a bad way.

I also realized after winning the Pulitzer that most any idea I proposed would  be taken seriously.

SNHU: Who would be sitting on either side of you during your last supper?
TK: My daughter and son. My grandson and of course my wife.

SNHU: What’s most attractive, making money or being famous?
TK: Making money. In our society it’s rather important. It does allow me to do some things that I wanted to do. It’s nice.

The nice thing about being a writer is that they are not really famous, except for maybe Stephen King.  I think it would be horrible to be a real public figure. I think it could do horrible things to you internally. But I would be a liar if I said that it wasn’t fun sometimes to see your name in print.

SNHU: What three words best describe Sarah Palin?
TK: Inarticulate. Not really formed. I don’t know if she’s smart enough. The big word would be dangerous for the republic. I just don’t see any evidence that she is up to this job, which just got immensely harder because of the appalling mistakes made by this last group of people.

I’m horrified that someone with so little, at least obvious, ability would be a vice presidential candidate. It’s a question of judiciousness. I’m not sure that the things that I value among my favorite of the current crop of politicians are the ones that Americans value. I want them to be smart and have complicated thoughts and minds. You’ve got to be able to do that.

SNHU: Describe your perfect day.
TK: A day in which I get a lot of writing done and then I go fishing.

SNHU: How do you keep yourself busy during extended layovers at the airport?
TK: There is nothing I hate more than that. I have discovered that the one good thing about all this technology is I can bring my office with me. If I’ve got a project I’m working on I can just plug in and start working.

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