Please introduce yourself and your book.
I was born in Edinburgh of Polish parentage, brought up in England and Canada, and for the last 25 years I’ve been living in the United States. My background is architecture—I taught for many years, first at McGill in Montreal, and until recently at Penn—but I’ve written about a variety of subjects: leisure, technology, urbanism, and design, as well as a biography of Frederick Law Olmsted. My writing has appeared in the Atlantic, New Yorker, New York Review of Books, New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Between 2005 and 2011 I was architectural critic for Slate.
My latest book is Charleston Fancy: Little Houses and Big Dreams in the Holy City. This book is set in the old city of Charleston, and it describes how, beginning in the 1980s, a group of builders—a lover of Byzantine, an Air Force pilot, a fledgling architect, and a bluegrass mandolin player—undertook a variety of unusual projects: a domed Orthodox church, a fanciful medieval castle, a restored freedman’s cottage, a miniature Palladian villa, and street based on Porgy and Bess.
My narrative is specific to a time and place but it touches on a number of general questions: the challenges of restoring old urban neighborhoods, the art of creating brand-new places, the craft of building in an industrial age, the pros and cons of historic preservation, and the thorny question of architectural style.
Where do you find inspiration?
My books usually try to answer a question that interests me, and I hope will interest the reader. For example, Where did our idea of comfort come from? (Home), Why aren’t American cities like Paris? (City Life), Where did the screwdriver and the screw come from? (One Good Turn), What makes suburban planned communities turn out they way they do? (Last Harvest), or Why are there so many different styles of architecture today? (How Architecture Works).
How do you deal with writer’s block?
I’ve never had trouble writing, once I find a subject that interests me. Finding the subject—the right question—is not always easy, though. It can come from different places, one needs to be open-minded. The screwdriver book grew out of a New York Times essay on the Best Tool of the Millenium. The Most Beautiful House in the World, a book about building my own house, was written after the house was built and I was looking through my sketchbooks and I thought it would be interesting to try and understand just how my ideas developed. The Biography of a Building was the result of a conversation with my agent, Andrew Wylie. Charleston Fancy started when George Holt was recounting his adventures restoring vacant old houses in a rundown neighborhood, and a friend who was with us said to me “You should write about this.” People often say this to writers; this time it stuck. It took me a couple of years to figure out how to do it, but eventually I did.
What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?
Sometimes I begin a narrative at the end and work backward, or skip around in time. Usually I end up rewriting this and making the narrative chronological. That’s still the best way to tell a story.
It is a mistake to judge the past by contemporary standards. In writing history it’s always important to try and put yourself in people’s shoes, to try and imagine what they know at the time, and to remember that we know things that they couldn’t possibly imagine.
Stacy Schiff, who was my editor on Home, once told me that when you write a biography you need to know everything about your subject, but the reader doesn’t need to know everything that you know. Good advice. I think this is true for nonfiction writing generally.
Nevertheless, in writing nonfiction, there is often a lot of information that needs to be included, and it can swamp the text and bog down the story—every book is, in the end, is a story. The solution is use various means to communicate: footnotes, captions, endnotes, section titles. I especially like footnotes, which tell the reader, “You can skip this if you like, or you can take a break and dive in.”
How do bad reviews affect you?
I’m seventy-six and I’ve written twenty books. I’ve had a book on the NYT bestseller list, books that have won prizes, and books that were all but ignored. Of course, I’d rather have a good review than a bad one, and no one likes to be ignored. But I don’t think that reviews affect my writing at all. After all, the book being reviewed was finished a long time before the review, for me it is old news. And at that point I’m usually involved in my next book.
More important to me than reviews are the reactions I get to book proposals. That does have an immediate effect, since it may encourage me to continue—or vice versa. Lots of proposals are stillborn. Once I wanted to write a book about how people have dealt with their hair at different times in different places, but I couldn’t get anyone interested; Hair Pieces never saw the light of day. The situation with Charleston Fancy was different—I wasn’t sure exactly what I would deal with only that I wanted to write it and see for myself where it would go. That made it hard to explain the book to others, and it took a while to find an editor willing to take that on.
Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?
When you start to write you don’t have any readers, and you have no idea if people will even be interested in what you have to say. Nevertheless, you write. So you are really writing for yourself, or perhaps your editor, also in my case my wife Shirley, who was the first to read what I had written.
I think it’s a mistake to write for a particular reader—you just don’t know who they will be, and the people may be reading your book years from now, or they may be from another country—many of my books have been translated. Some of my best reading experiences were as a boy, wandering around the school library and discovering Edgar Rice Burroughs and G. A. Henty.
Reading a book is a solitary act, just you and the author, and writing is just as solitary, just you and an imaginary reader, not a real person, more like a presence looking over your shoulder. For me the imaginary readers are the nonfiction writers I admire: John Lukacs, V. S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux, John Keegan. Finally, I am trying to please myself. Writing is a craft and one tries to make it as good as possible, which means, edit and rewrite, over and over.
Do you have any editing tricks?
When a book is finished and I’ve polished it as much as I can, my wife reads it aloud and I listen. Hearing the words gives me a fresh perspective (by that point I have read the manuscript silently to myself too often). For example, I can hear when the writing gets boring, or overdone, or repetitive. Or if something is badly explained. A surprising amount gets cut during this process, maybe as much as ten percent.
Title and jackets?
Some books get their titles at the very beginning. I knew that me current book would have Charleston in the title, but otherwise I had various titles before I fixed on Charleston Fancy. Subtitles can be useful in describing nonfiction books, and this one brings together three themes: architecture, real estate development, and urbanism. I’ve written about these subjects before in separate books, but here they are woven together.
In my experience, the jacket either comes right away, or it’s the result of a drawn-out search. When my friend Ralph Muldrow showed me his drawing of a Charleston single house, I knew that it would be prefect for my current book. In my early books I often suggested the cover art and I had a lot of luck using paintings: Emmaneul de Witte (Home), Edward Hopper (The Most Beautiful House in the World), and Georges Seurat (Waiting for the Weekend). I had nothing to do with the beautiful jacket of My Two Polish Grandfathers—it shows two German miniature figures from a toy train set. Now I Sit Me Down, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, gave us a lot of trouble. It’s a history of the chair, and the question was what to illustrate, a variety of chairs, or one chair, and if so which one? Nothing seemed right. The final jacket shows a straightforward chair with a stack of fileboxes that carry the subtitle—From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History. My favorite jacket is Last Harvest: a beautiful drawing made by Peter Sis, a Czech award-winning illustrator of children’s books. It shows a developer carrying a plan walking through a cornfield, his head full of ideas—people, houses, money. I never met Sis but he captured the spirit of the book perfectly.