2012 Bison Books paperback edition

Sunday, December 5, 2010

On Tour: What Am I Asked Most Often?

Jim Thorpe at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, c. 1907

The usual book tour FAQs: Why did you write this book? What specifically led you to this subject? Did you like him? Was it true Thorpe couldn't hit a curve ball? How long did the book take to write?

I answer that it took me, give or take, about 7 years to write NATIVE AMERICAN SON. After some gasps and raised eyebrows I get this question: HOW DID YOU KEEP GOING FOR SO LONG?

On the subject of the writers -- and process -- of narrative nonfiction, Garrison Keillor said in early May 2007: "They are at work at computers, with books stacked on the floor, around them and on tables, and notes, legal pads, scribbles, index cards and Post-it notes and a whole great, beautiful chaos of material, and they are just trying to get the job done."

Amen. I kept that quote stuck on the cork board above my desk during the last couple of years of work on Thorpe. Next to it was the May 21, 2007 cover of The New Yorker, which shows a mathematician in a studio apartment, his back to an intricately messy blackboard, paper-littered floor, and desk, as he boils an egg for his breakfast (I only now realize, as I sequence these May 2007 dates, that the cover artist SempĂ© may have been inspired by Keillor's comment. Chronology rules). 

But that doesn't answer the question of how (and, implicitly, why) I -- or anybody -- could keep sitting down at that desk day after day. The answer is the subject himself: Jim Thorpe. Several authors had covered his glory years from 1907 - 1920, but no one had finished the life, told the whole story, right up to the current burial controversy. "The mother lode of subjects," said Ben Cheever of Thorpe. And the excavation of his life indeed felt like digging for something precious to our culture. Enough and more to keep me going.

The young man in the photograph above shaped modern sports. A century later, sports are the common, global passion of our time for boys and girls, men and women, young and old. How we got there is, in large part, the story of Jim Thorpe.