Some of us fall into a debate with a friend over a prickly issue and walk away muttering to ourselves. Fran Hawthorne walked away with a book idea.
A chance discussion over the merits of Whole Foods Market was the genesis of The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting and other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism, released earlier this year by Beacon Press. Hawthorne tackles the surprisingly complex ethical challenges faced by environmentally-aware, socially-concerned American consumers…including herself.
In fact, including herself as something of a main character in her narrative was a departure for Hawthorne, who has worked as a journalist for twenty years, and was comfortable with the third-person voice.
“It had to be a personal book, because I was living it, my friends were living it,’ Hawthorne told an audience at WriterHouse in Charlottesville last week. At the same time, it was “so scary, because you are putting so much of yourself out there.”
The Overloaded Liberal is not primarily a memoir; it’s a fact-filled account that involved conducing dozens of interviews and reading scores of books and articles. How does she get all that information in some usable form? “Oy vey,” she says via email interview, “you’re going to be sorry you asked…”
Using a technique developed over her years as a journalist, after every interview, Hawthorne types up her notes as a narrative outline complete with topics and subheadings. She does the same with articles she’s clipped and books she has read.
“Then, when I’m ready to write, I create sheets of topic pages — all this is longhand, not computer. On each sheet, there will be subheads. For instance, there might be a sheet labeled “Food,” and then then subheads “organic,” “meat,” “local,” “labels,” she says. Larger subheadings might be further broken into categories. “Then I go through all my typed notes, and basically every comment in every interview will fit into one or more of my pages.”
“Yes, doing this outline takes days and days and DAYS. But, believe me, it is a life-saver when I actually start writing.”
With about a year to write and revise a full manuscript, designing a plan of attack is critical — particularly for Hawthorne, a full-time freelance writer for publications like the New York Times, The Scientist, and Newsday.
“You just have to push yourself. No days off. No evenings off,”she says. “For my last book, I actually set a schedule: I would write Chapter 4 from October 14th to the 17th, Chapter 5 from October 18th to the 20th…I’ve never done that before and I hope I never will have to again.”
Her manuscripts go through three major drafts before they ever get to the publisher. After writing the first draft, she goes back through to check her facts and quotes for accuracy. Then, in the third pass, she works on style and language.
Once with the publisher, there are two or three further rounds of edits, ending with the typeset “proof” copy of the manuscript where, she says with a laugh, “they threaten you” if you change more than 10% of the material. So far, she’s always come in under the threshold.
It’s hard work, she says, but highly rewarding. “I’m a craftsperson. I love words. I love language that sounds right, that sings and flows. Bad writing – repetitive sentence structures, paragraphs that begin with the same word over and over – make me physically cringe. So I love playing with my words to make them better, without the burden of fact-checking hovering over me.”
Asked for one piece of advice for aspiring nonfiction writers, Hawthorne notes that “information is the key. So the most important skill is the ability to get that information. And I think the key tactic there is knowing how to talk to people, how to get them to open up to you….and to keep your own mouth shut.”