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Curiosity, wonder and finding a narrative thread

April 27, 2010 |  9:53 am

The Sunday afternoon panel of nonfiction writers Pico Iyer, David Grann, Melissa Milgrom and Stephen Elliott promised to reveal how these writers uncover their stories, how they go about creating narrative from collected details. Well, that’s what the panel was supposed to be about -- but halfway through the allotted hour, a unified discussion hadn’t yet emerged.

Each author read five minutes from their most recent project, books about the Dalai Lama (Iyer), real-life Sherlock Holmes characters (Grann), taxidermy (Milgrom) and taking Adderral (Elliott).

The works have many and deep differences, in both subject matter and methodology. Perhaps they started at the same point, with a question. "Curiosity plus enthusiasm equals wonder," Iyer said. The question, “Who is the best giant squid hunter?” sent Grann to New Zealand for an article for the New Yorker. “Curiosity is the driving factor,” he said. And curiosity leads to unexpected discoveries and unlikely characters, like the stereotype-busting gentle, nature-loving taxidermists that became the subject of Milgrom’s book.

Starting points aside, what about narrative? Within a single story, Elliott said, “you have all these details and you start writing away from them, see where they take you. I never know what I’m writing until I’m 80% done with it."

I felt his pain -- 45 minutes into the panel, I still couldn’t find a central tenet, a nugget to take away from these tales of squid hunters and taxidermists. I didn’t yet have a story.

But then an audience member asked a broad, unanswerable question: In this new media landscape of twitter and flash blog posts, what’s the future of journalism? The panelists collectively paused, until moderator Geoff Nicholson joked, “How much time you got?”

Finally David Grann jumped in. Yes, he acknowledged, the business of publishing and writing is changing, and yes, advertisers are advertising less and threatening the viability of publications like the New Yorker. Yet there's something else. “The hunger for stories and the magic of stories isn’t going to go away," he said. "People still want to be moved and you don’t get moved in a tweet and you don’t get moved in a blog post.”

And that, I suppose, is the story of a book festival (as written on a blog).

-- Megan Kimble

Photo: Pico Iyer in 2003. Credit: Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times