Yesterday Roger Sutton and Martha Paravanno — the key editors at the Horn Book magazine — came to our local bookstore by Skype to talk about their new book A Family of Readers (http://www.hbook.com/familyofreaders/default.asp) This was a new-fangled author appearance where the author “appears” on screen but is not physically there. I asked them questions, as did customers, and the whole hour-long interview was taped and can now be viewed by any parent coming into the store and wanting to buy books for younger readers. One surprise guest was Jim Murphy — the fine non-fiction writer. As our conversation got to non-fiction, Jim said something which captured this moment perfectly: he is feeling the press of competition (Jim was a runner — sprints and middle distance — as a young man, and still has that fire). Every time Susan goes off to a Klan meeting, or Tanya takes on another icon of feminist history, or Betsy finds a new ways into the 60s, or Laban gets a big Times review we all notice, and it puts all of us one our games. We need to see what new ground every other non-fiction writer has broken, what new and interesting step s/he has taken. The bar for non-fiction keeps rising.
I feel the same way as Jim — non-fiction is no safe, cozy backwater where you give parents and librarians a nice, well-illustrated, approachable, standard book. Rather, the race is on — to tackle new subjects, to take new risks, to write in new formats, to think in fresh ways. I suppose the Sibert and the new YA NF award play a part in this (as well as the NBA going to Philip Hoose last year). But I don’t just think it is the brass ring of prizes. There is, as Martha said in the Skype session, a sense of liveliness, freshness, in the genre and we are all in the game. Jim mentioned that he did his book Truce http://www.jimmurphybooks.com/truce.htm even though he knew Russell had his own, sure to be terrific, book on World War I coming http://www.amazon.com/War-End-All-Wars-World/dp/0547026862 I went the other route — knowing that Jim Giblin was working on McCarthy http://www.amazon.com/War-End-All-Wars-World/dp/0547026862 I decided to focus instead on J. Edgar Hoover.
Whether we decide to go mano a mano over the same topic, or divy up the past, we authors are aware of each other, of the competition, and of the buzz in the field. Life has sped up in non-fiction land — and while that can be daunting, it is also, fun.