People clutched dog-eared copies of paperbacks and worn-looking hardcovers as they filed into Page Hall on the University at Albany Downtown Campus Tuesday evening.
The books they toted - with titles such as Into The Wild, Into Thin Air, Where Men Win Glory, and Three Cups of Deceit - were as diverse as the people carrying them. Students mixed with retirees, young professionals sat alongside seasoned veterans of the white- and blue-collar workforces.
The crowd, yours truly included, came to hear Jon Krakauer, one of the country's biggest-selling authors of outdoor adventure non-fiction who rarely makes public appearances. Known for the above-mentioned and a few other bestsellers, Krakauer was in upstate New York to participate in the New York State Writers Institute's Spring 2016 Visiting Writer Series.
Earlier in the day he sat on a three-person panel hosted by Albany's Office of the Title IX Coordinator to talk about the problem of sexual assault on college campuses, the topic of his latest bestseller Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town. He didn't discuss writing, other than the book itself, except to say "writing is really hard for me ... I hate it."
During the evening session Krakauer was asked about equating writing to misery, which any writer worth his or her salt can relate to at least a little. He touched on many other topics before staying on stage to sign copies of his books, new and old.
About the key individuals, how he relates to them and subject matter in his books:
"I think I identify with many of the people I've written about. ... Even some of the unsavory people, like Ron Lafferty from Under the Banner of Heaven. Certainly with Christopher McCandless (from Into The Wild). When I wrote that book I felt like I was learning about myself. I think that's why I've been drawn to stuff. It's not that it's always been healthy and it certainly has been hard to make a living. ... It doesn't make sense. I was always a reader, I was never a writer, I'm self taught. It didn't occur to me that I could make a living as a writer until I was in my late 20s and was talked into it. I was a carpenter. But I always loved to read and one of my favorite authors, who is sort of out of fashion now is Doris Lessing. I can't remember the name, one of her later books which was very popular, she had this line in it, one of her characters said something like, and this is to paraphrase, 'happiness, I don't care about happiness, give me meaning, give me purpose.' That resonated with me. I've never been a real happy person; I never cared about being happy, I just wanted to have something, I wanted purpose. And I think that's like the people I write about.
"I felt a duty to graduate. It was inculcated into me. I had to graduate college or I would shame my family. I went to Hampshire College, no grades ... or a major. I told people I majored in mountain climbing and they laughed. I swear to god my senior thesis was making the first ascent of a very difficult (climb) in Alaska. ... Hampshire was even pretty out there in the '70s but my thesis adviser ... the dean refused to accept it. He had to argue and say college is all about experiential education and there's nothing more experiential than this. Son of a bit--, they gave me my degree. Since I graduated college I've had many jobs - working in a psychiatric hospital, carpenter, fisherman, factory, forklift driver, no one has even asked me if I had a degree let alone something that I was majoring in. So my college education has nothing directly to do with my career except that I would have never become a writer except the guy who convinced me to be a writer was the (adviser of) my thesis, I rented a room from him, David Roberts, he's a very good writer himself."
What does it take to be good writer of non-fiction?
"Curiosity is right up there. And obsessiveness. And a certain 'f--- you fearlessness,' where everyone tells you you're going to fail. They're probably right, you do fail a lot but you just have to be willing to say 'I'm going to do this.' I also think that I'm one of these people that thinks there's an aspect of writing that can't be taught. You're going to do what you're going to do and if you're lucky that will coincide with what people want to read at the time. Luck has a lot to do with whether you can pay the bills or not. I know writers who are much better than me, and this is not false modesty, who are still struggling to pay the bills. It's not something you would wish on your child, to become a writer. ... The way I learned to write was reading the writing itself and stories, interviews about the writers. I read passages that move me and I didn't know why. I just kept reading and re-reading them until something clicked. I'm not real quick, but I persevere and that's served me well in a lot of ways and that's one of them."
About turning in the manuscript to the book Under the Banner of Heaven and the editor asking: 'Where are the mountains?'
"I was really offended. I sent it somewhere else. Growing up I grew up in a family of atheists. My mom's a Unitarian which is pretty close to being an atheist. I grew up in Oregon in a small town where a lot of my friends were Mormons and I was fascinated by their faith and certainty, so I always wanted to write about religion. I figured after Into Thin Air, which was a bestseller, this was my chance. You're only as good as your last book, if I'm going to write this book I should write it now. (The editor), brilliant editor, she was like, 'wait a minute, we aren't paying you to write about religion, where are the mountains?' I didn't see Under the Banner as any different. It was about these Mormon, fundamentalist, extremists. They're not that much different than climbers. It's kind of the same thing. I'm not kidding. ... This focus, exclusion of all else and sort of an insanity, these are my people. So for me it wasn't something that different."
Becoming a writer of books
"Into The Wild was based on a magazine article. That was my first real book. I sent in the magazine article and an editor bought it for a very small advance. I luckily just landed a job writing a monthly column for Playboy that paid $3,000 a month. That was more money than I ever had. I could write that column one week a month and write Into The Wild the other three weeks and for three years that's what I did. It was miserable. It was dreck. One day, right when I turned in the book, the editor at Playboy called and said, 'Jon I have terrible news, are you sitting down? We're going to kill your column.' I just went 'yes.' ... But this is a cautionary tale for anyone who's considering being a writer, the book had been accepted. My editor who bought it left to go work at Vanity Fair and the new regime that came in killed all 60 books they bought, including mine. For over a year my agent said, 'oh, we can sell this.' No one would buy it. A very famous editor at Pantheon read the manuscript and said 'this is un-publishable.' I was pretty depressed. Luckily a senior editor who worked under the publisher read it and said, 'you know what, we didn't pay much for this, it's kind of weird, let's just throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks.' It almost didn't get published and I'm not exaggerating. People said, 'oh you wrote this to make money,' and stuff like that. No, I almost couldn't get it published. Serendipity plays a huge role in all of our lives, especially as a writer. You need some breaks and that was a big break for me."
The misery of writing
"I'm curious about a lot of stuff so I've written six or seven books, but I've researched, considered writing 20 books, 30 books, 40 books. I do the research, I always enjoy it, I'm curious, and at some point I sit down and say, 'oh my God I've got to write a book.' After you've written one you realize, 'this is insane. ... I can't do it. I can't write a book about this.' I try hard not to write books. This is not an exaggeration. I look for reasons not to write it. When I decide not to write it I celebrate. Sometimes you don't get to do that. Missoula was like that. I was so angry by what I had learned, and thought, 'this is such an outrage, why is this happening? Why did I not know about this' that you're compelled. It's not always that sort of grim. With Under the Banner of Heaven, that book started out as going to be a weird, boring book about an exploration of faith, belief and something or another, it was somewhat of an academic, bad thesis. But I started researching that and by sheer chance I blundered upon the largest community of polygamists in North America.
"I have this intuition and maybe it's wrong sometimes, but I rely on intuition a lot on who to, among hundreds of potential people, interview for a book, and sometimes you're wrong. But with this book I just had a sense of, all my books, you never know what you're going to find. You have had this sense that, 'there's something interesting there.' I also know that I'm an obsessive person, which is invaluable. When you dig you find stuff. When you dig, you think you're sick of it, and dig like six more inches, you almost always find a lot more. There's stuff out there, subjects that have been picked over by hundreds, if you are just a little more anal and obsessive, you're going to find stuff that's interesting."
About showing up in your own story and about coming to know what you didn't know.
"I started writing as a freelancer. I'd have to write 60 articles a year to make not even $15,000. My wife and I, we were struggling. Magazine editors always want you to put yourself in the story. 'Show us what you smell, hear.' That's good, you can draw in your own life, it makes it easier, but I got tired of that. I like writing as a fly on the wall. Missoula began, I wasn't even going to write a book. It was a young woman with whom my wife and I were and are very close with. We were there when she was born. She was on the fast track. The world was her oyster. She was doing really well in life, in her early 20s and all of a sudden I heard she was in rehab, had crashed and burned. It turned out she'd been sexually assaulted. I was devastated personally. That is the genesis of Missoula. I felt, and I wait until the last few pages of the book to reveal about it but I felt it was very important to reveal, it explains. Also, I was so ashamed. This is a huge problem, the problem of sexual assault in this country. No one is paying attention to it. ... I was so ashamed that I was ignorant, not only about the general problem, but this young woman, who is like a daughter to me, and I was so angry at myself that I set out to learn about the subject and that's why I wrote the book."