Exploring Subcultures

I feel very privileged to be friends with so many talented people, many who are actually renowned in the fields of my two primary interests – jazz and non-fiction writing. The other day I mentioned author/mentor Marita Golden, and today I received news from another guru/writing mentor/friend named Lee Gutkind.

Some years ago, James Wolcott, in one of his writings for Vanity Fair, dubbed Lee “the Godfather behind Creative Nonfiction.” It was not intended to be a compliment, but Lee has made good use of the title ever since, founding the Creative Nonfiction Foundation that publishes a journal of excellent writings, and also directing the Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Summer Writers’ Conference, all while continuing to write amazing books that immerse readers in worlds they are unlikely to encounter otherwise — the world of heart transplantation, veterinary medicine, psychiatric institutions, to name a few, and now the world of robotics. Here’s he promo blurb on his latest book titled “Almost Human: Making Robots Think”:

The high bay at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University is alive and hyper night and day with the likes of Hyperion, which traversed the Antarctic, and Zoe, the world’s first robot scientist, now back home. Robot Segways learn to play soccer, while other robots go on treasure hunts or are destined for hospitals and museums. Dozens of cavorting mechanical creatures, along with tangles of wire, tools, and computer innards are scattered haphazardly. All of these zipping and zooming gizmos are controlled by disheveled young men sitting on the floor, folding chairs, or tool cases, or huddled over laptops squinting into displays with manic intensity. Award-winning author Lee Gutkind immersed himself in this frenzied subculture, following these young roboticists and their bold conceptual machines from Pittsburgh to NASA and to the most barren and arid desert on earth. He makes intelligible their discoveries and stumbling points in this lively behind-the-scenes work.
(For more information on Almost Human: Making Robots Think, visit the official website.)

When I am dreaming up book ideas, usually I am either intrigued by a desire to learn about a world unknown to me, or driven by a desire to show a particular world to others. As a reader, I love books that bring me into a new world, or show me sides of a world I thought I knew, in ways that allow me to identify with the people and or circumstances. I face many challenges in writing the Luther Henderson biography not the least of which wll be how to make the reader understand just what it is that a musical arranger does, where the lines between arranging and composing blur, and why these people are seemingly invisible when their role is so crucial to the success of the people we all recognize as stars.

Lee Gutkind, John McPhee, Tracy Kidder — to name just three — they are all masters of this craft known by many names: creative nonfiction, immersion journalism, narrative nonfiction. Wednesday, March 21 you can hear Lee Gutkind on National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation.” To find the stations nearest you that carry this program, go here.

Lee’s schedule includes a bunch up upcoming live appearances in and around Arizona, far closer to me than the Pittsburgh home of the journal, but I’m up to my eyeballs writing, so rather than travel I’ll have to make do with listening to him on the radio. In my neighborhood “Talk of the Nation” airs from 8-10 PM, but I’m also hoping that NPR will post the show online afterwards as they do with so many of their programs.

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