A question I'm asked often by perspective writers is, "When you're writing books, how do you select the people you choose to profile?" Well, with "Why Being Happy Matters", it was as uncomplicated as discovering individuals who simply seem joyful when so many others don't, and then trying to make contact. My newest book, "Pushing The Boundaries: How to Live a Fearless Life" has demanded a different perseverance.
I explain to aspiring writers that in creating non-fiction books such as mine, 80% of the energy you expend goes into research and logistics, not creative writing. This usually engenders groans. Fair enough: but that's what truly eats up the time and the effort. You have to be prepared to devote significant spans to investigating who might be a potential candidate to feature... analyze their current public profile... establish if they meet your acceptance test (e.g. do they truly push boundaries?)... determine if their story will be sufficiently interesting to readers... and so on.
Now, once you're through with all of that (no simple or quick task, let me assure you), you're only scratching the surface of the work remaining to be done. All you have is a researched list of individuals whom you believe might make for compelling stories. The real undertaking is about to begin: figuring out how to get through to these folks. Some of them are fairly straightforward. My modus operandi is to send an email that explains my book's focus and then request a meeting or phone call. (I have a writer friend who prefers the immediacy of phoning candidates and pleading his case in person. Maybe I'm just not good on the phone but in reality, my feeling is this approach is too in-your-face. I'd rather send a compact email, sufficiently laying out why I think the recipient may be interested in participating, and give them a bit of time to investigate who I am while judging my record.)
OK, so that's my approach for the people whose email addresses you can discover. Others require more detective work. Like the group I call "the big shots": the public personages who have layers of handlers around them. Getting through the managers is tough: do so and you may score. But clawing through their net is no easy feat, requiring what I call PPM: Patience, Persistence and Moxie.
Here's an example. I am amazed at the continuing shrewdness of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. Talk about pushing boundaries! Amazon claims on their website that you can actually send an email directly to him at email@example.com. (Now, if you believe that, as the saying goes, I've got some swampland in Florida you may just want to swim through!) Still, Mr. Bezos does not leave a trail of contact information around him and I don't know anyone who knows Jeff on a personal basis. So, faced with that reality, I have to go with what I've got, right?
Date: May 22, 2017
To: Jeff Bezos, Founder, Chairman and CEO, Amazon.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
From: Peter Jennings
Mr. Bezos: I am a published author currently writing my newest book, "Pushing The Boundaries". The book features portraits of well-known people who think outside the box, color outside the lines, push the boundaries. People like Jeff Bezos.
As a "serial innovator" who's dramatically altered retail... who is enhancing media with the Washington Post... who is helping storytellers produce bold new work with Amazon Studios... who is about to transform the future of civilization with Blue Origin... you are at the forefront of change. Pushing the boundaries hardly suffices as a descriptor of your flair, and yet, this is what you do daily.
Jeff, will you agree to being interviewed for a chapter in "Pushing The Boundaries"?
Now, the chances of hearing back from someone as lofty as Jeff Bezos are pretty slim. But hey: ya don't ask, ya don't get.
In this case, I got... but didn't get:
To: Peter Jennings
From: Rogers, Ty
Hi Peter, I manage corporate communications at Amazon and your email was passed along to me – thank you for reaching out. I’m afraid Jeff’s schedule is busy enough these days that he’s unable to do many interviews and I’ll have to decline, but I really appreciate you thinking of him and wish you the best with your book.
Oh well, that's Jeff's loss as far as I'm concerned. At least he can order "Pushing The Boundaries" on Amazon.com to see what he's missed.
You get the idea. PPM: Patience, Persistence and Moxie. Day in, day out.
Occasionally you hit the mother lode and manage to get through to the "big shot". And if he/she agrees, it's joyous.
That being said, you have to know when to abandon the mission. I was really keen to get Mikhail Gorbachev for a profile. Just think: the father of perestroika and glasnost in Russia: pushing the boundaries in spades! The good news was, I had an inside track: McDonald's executive and friend George Cohon had dealt with Gorbachev in bringing the restaurant chain to Moscow and the former premier had even written the foreword to George's book, "To Russia With Fries". George offered to help by introducing me and sent an email to Mr. Gorbachev. No response. "It's been many years since we've been in contact," George told me. "I guess that email address is no longer working. Sorry."
OK... PPM... I found a website that appeared to be the Gorbachev Foundation and made contact through there. Nothing. I had my request translated into Russian and re-sent it. Nyet. I even put in a request through Mr. Gorbachev's publisher but that turned up only a "We don't provide that information" response. So, I had to accept that, like all good strategies, PPM has its finite limits. I relinquished my efforts and moved on.
But, back to scoring. The good news comes when you bag an interview! The bad news: you're still nowhere close to writing your book. What's next is getting deeper, more serious into the individual who's agreed to be interviewed. What are the questions that will help define this person and reflect your subject matter. What do you already know about this person? And, more importantly, what arcane fact can you discover that will set your questions apart from the norm?
Research. Heavy duty, time-taking research.
Oh, and then there's the matter of how and where the interview will take place. Obviously, I prefer to conduct each of my research meetings in person. And if I was independently wealthy and enjoyed traversing the globe, that's what I'd do. But that's not always possible, so I take my list of candidates who have agreed to my request (or those whom I think are likely to agree), figure out their whereabouts and determine just how much cash, time and effort I'm prepared to devote to this exercise. In assembling "Pushing the Boundaries", I elected to travel to Florida to conduct three interviews over two days. The candidates were sufficiently "big" enough that I was content to make the effort and spend the cash. And it was worthwhile: resulted in three new contacts.
I ended up talking with three people from the UK, one at a time, on the phone. Had I known then that there would be three of them, I'd likely have gone there.
But travelling to Belgium or Qtar – as alluring as this might be – doesn't offer enough reward to me for the effort, time and cash outlays necessary.
So Plan B is the telephone interview. However, where international time zones and other logistics make that impractical, it's Plan C: submitting written questions via email and getting written responses.
In live exchanges and those on the phone, I record the meetings. This allows me to keep a conversation going rather than focusing on making notes. But this results in yet another layer of workload; downloading the digital recordings to my desktop back at the home office, and then listening to the interchanges, stopping as I go to transcribe segments I think may make for interesting inclusions in the final story. This can be painstaking, yet necessary work with attendant long hours.
Finally... you reach the point where the actual creative writing kicks in. And if you're still keen enough to complete the journey (and believe me, there are days when you question whether there's an end in sight!), this is the fun part. The reason you decided to become a writer. An author. The assembly of words and thoughts that dance off the page and into the readers' minds, electrifying them with excitement, allowing them to be a "fly on the wall" of someone else's uniqueness.
And that, my friends, is what being a non-fiction writer is all about.
Aren't ya glad ya asked?