Writing About Real People

Who Are You People? is about ordinary folks in America and the charming oddball things they do in pursuit of happiness.

I studied pigeon racers in the Bronx and learned how to motivate a pigeon, which is too involved to get into here but let’s just say it involves sex.

I went stormchasing in Kansas and learned about Supercell Deprivation Syndrome, a malady that affects storm chasers in the winter months when tornadoes are not present. The condition gets so bad some chasers will watch the water draining down the toilet just to see a cyclone.

I hung out with a group of Grobanites in Texas and learned… what’s that? You don’t know what a Grobanite is? A Grobanite is a die-hard fan of the singer Josh Groban who follows him from concert to concert. Think Deadheads, but more menopausal. I learned that Grobanites are prone Grobanian slips, suffer from Joshmares, become scatterjoshed, and are seized by Joshfright when they finally get a chance to meet their idol. Older fans take Joshtrogen, and younger fans believe he is drop-dead gor-josh.

The Grobanites and stormchasers and pigeon racers and everyone else I wrote about were real in that quirky, honest, human way people have when they are not trying to impress others. Which also meant that they weren’t used to dealing with journalists or reading about themselves in print.

For this reason, I felt a responsibility to let the major characters in the book know ahead of time what I was going to write about them. Not so they could edit it, but so they could be prepared. (Also, I wanted to fact-check myself.) Most people in the book were extremely gracious and thankful that I’d thought to call them.

With one exception.

I wrote about a boardgamer who created a game called A World at War that takes five days to play. (I’m not kidding.) The rule book for the game is 196 pages, 8.5 point type, single-spaced. The developer is a lawyer who prosecutes tax offenses.

So what we’ve got is someone who: a) understands the minutiae of the tax code; b) writes a 200-page book of rules; and, c) obviously cares about details.

In writing about him, I talked about how meticulously he ate his hamburger. (Bite. Chew. Swallow. Napkin dab.) It seemed a good way to show how methodical he was – an assessment I made based on the fact that, well, he’d written a 200-page rule book… for a game! I thought his mannerly way of eating to be a flattering detail. He disagreed, and ended a flaming e-mail exchange with me with the statement: “It’s your book, and maybe no one will read it.”

Did I take the chewing reference out? No. It still think it’s a revealing character detail. But the exchange with him did remind me of a famous quote by Joan Didion in which she said: “A writer is always selling someone out.” What she was referring to was the fact that the best material often comes at the expense of another person’s trust.

Nonfiction writers use the stories of other people to educate and entertain, and those stories – I believe – come with a great deal of responsibility to be fair to your subjects. Recognizing this, I worked hard to be fair in the writing of Who Are You People? My goal was not to make fun of passionate fanatics, but to portray them honestly and with a touch of warmth so that we might learn something from them.

But as I learned, not everyone will agree with the writer’s idea of fairness. And because we often perceive ourselves differently than others do, there’s always a risk that the people we write about will not agree or like what we’ve written. But I believe it’s a risk worth taking because it’s the only way truthful stories can be told.

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