Michael Shnayerson told a room of students and community members on Thursday that the research process for nonfiction writing is just like taking a car apart. Both actions involve analyzing each small piece so as to understand the larger framework.
The talk — titled “Total-Immersion Nonfiction Writing” — was sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism and took place in the Leitner House in Pierson College. Shnayerson, a journalist and nonfiction author, has written for Time Magazine, the Conde Nast Traveler and Vanity Fair. He has also authored seven nonfiction books on an array of topics including antibiotic resistance, electric cars, contemporary art dealers and biographies of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and singer-songwriter Harry Belafonte. Shnayerson told the room about each of his works, reminisced his career trajectory and provided writing tips.
“I think that almost any smart writer can take on any subject,” Schnayerson said during the talk.
Shnayerson discussed his beginnings as a writer and recounted his early work at Time Magazine. While writing his first book — a biography on Irwin Shaw — he realized how intricate a person’s life story is, Shnayerson said. He entertained the audience with stories about interviews with his subjects and their friends and family.
Shnayerson fondly recalled receiving 40 book reviews for his first work. He stated that such feedback is rare today.
“The problem with getting fewer and fewer reviews was that, in a sense, I was preaching to the converted,” he said. “Chances are that everyone who picks up the book is already thinking the way you do.”
He also discussed his haphazard methodology for choosing topics and stated that “what often happens in the business of looking for book ideas is that something just jumps out at you.”
He spoke about his immersive writing method for his book about electric vehicles. In the book, Shnayerson detailed the manufacturing process at General Motors in Detroit. According to Schnayerson, he had a similarly engaging experience while writing about the “heroic and interesting saga” of different “heroes and villains” in his book about mountaintop coal removal.
He also spoke briefly about his current project, a biography on crime boss Bugsy Siegel, which will be published by the Yale University Press as part of the “Jewish Lives” series. He said that this book would be shorter than his previous books and called it a “palate cleanser.”
In her opening remarks, English professor Margaret Spillane said that she admires Shnayerson’s ability to break down complex topics.
Spillane commented on the versatility and multidisciplinary nature of Shnayerson’s work. She specifically said that his most recent book, “Boom: Mad Money, Mega Dealers and the Rise of Contemporary Art” could fit well on the syllabus of a history department seminar or a course at the Art, Law or Management Schools.
Victoria Martinez ART ’20, a painting and printmaking student at the Yale School of Art, said she enjoyed the opportunity to hear a writer talk about the contemporary art market, as her art professors focus more on the conceptual aspects of art. She added that she appreciated Shnayerson’s insights on the research process.
Near the end of the talk, Shnayerson asked the audience how many of them were interested in becoming writers. Several attendees raised their hands in response. In turn, he advised students to carefully choose what to write about — a topic that “is compelling to you, your editor, but also your reader … something that hasn’t been done, something that won’t fizzle out.”
“Some of that is just kismet,” he said. “You can’t predict it, you can only make your best guess.”
The event began at 4 p.m.
Neha Middela | firstname.lastname@example.org