is something Gil and I sometimes say when we imagine that an idea we’ve come up with is something probably too esoteric or just ridiculous to interest anyone else. And I have had quite a few of these over the years. Books usually start with this kind of glimmer, and you can expect some ideas to peter out of their own accord, gradually going extinct like the elephant bird.
Occasionally one sticks when thrown against the wall – for example, the notion of writing a biography of the little known I.N. Phelps Stokes, the white-shoe tenement-designer, philanthropist and all-around eccentric who put together the most extensive book about Manhattan ever written, along with his It-girl wife, back in the Gilded Age. A publisher gifted me with an advance to research that effort and it came out under the title Love, Fiercely.
Comparably, at least in terms of ideosyncracy, I have undertaken narratives about she-merchants in New Amsterdam (The Women of the House), heroic American Housewives (Made From Scratch), and female jet jocks in the U.S. Navy (Tailspin). Each book comprised both a commercial undertaking and a labor of love.
Then there was the fictional nineteenth-century girl raised by wolves turned New York City debutante (Savage Girl).
In each case I hoped for a readership but, yes, at bottom, I was essentially amusing myself. At least at the start. Henry James wrote about the beginning of his creative process: “The ‘germ,’ wherever gathered, has ever been for me, ‘the germ of a story,’ and most of the stories strained to shape under my hand have sprung from a single small seed, a seed as remote and windblown as a casual hint.”
I am currently working on a proposal for a nonfiction book tentatively called Heartwood: The Epic Battle Over America’s Forests.
So far, I have done a lot of research, drunk a lot of coffee, and revamped the basic architecture of the idea several times. I plan to present the story of wilderness in the U.S., not so much biologically, though that will be a part of it, but culturally. From pre-European times through the quest for ship-mast pine through the timber barons of the 19th century, as well as the purist forest champions like wilderness champion John Muir.
Up through the wildfires that threaten the great trees of the Pacific Northwest and the million-tree planting movements we see today. As I see it, Heartwood will not be stuffy science or hackneyed history, but the drama of a struggle that helped define this country, one that absorbs American readers more than ever.
I do think that if I can pull it off it will be a lively book. A story that will amuse me, yes, but others as well.