Christine Kenneally shares her influences
The Invisible History of the Human Race reveals how both historical artifacts and DNA tell us where we come from and where we may be going. Here, Christine Kenneally shares the authors and books that influence her work.
Great writing can be a beacon in the fog for a writer in the middle of their own book, even if the subjects are very different. As I wrote The Invisible History, I would sometimes stumble on a great idea or canny manoeuvre in a newspaper article. Sometimes writers influenced me because I already knew of their work and I knew them to be good at what they do. Others, I intentionally sought out – I wanted to see how they solved the kinds of problems I was facing. How do you move from the fine-grain of a story to the coarse and back again – from the description of a single document to the arc of history? How do you write a book that includes enough technical detail to keep the science-lovers fed, but that also satisfies readers who are more interested in its implications? How do you remember why you started the damn book in the first place so you can still hear its beating heart?
Lawrence Wright is a superb practitioner of narrative non-fiction, and I read Going Clear, his book on Scientology, with a great pleasure and interest. The book’s achievements are many but I was particularly fascinated by the way Wright created a seamless story out of hundreds of sources of information of many different kinds – original documents, secondary sources, first-person and on-the-record interviews, off-the-record conversations, emails and other digital documents.
Michael Lewis, likewise, is widely regarded as one of the best non-fiction writers out there. I read and re-read him to discover how he solved many small problems. I once spent days fretting about including a quote from a source but feeling that my book couldn’t take the weight of a whole other person. When I looked through Lewis, I realized he was happy to just bring someone in without name or identifier – like this: ‘Someone I met at a conference told me…’ Simple, right? But it only works if you have built trust. If there’s no trust, your reader will think: ‘Who? Why should I believe this?’ As long as they trust you, there’s no problem.
Neither Wright nor Lewis write about science but they face the same problems I do, how to clearly convey complicated information, while at the same time showing why people should care about it. Susan Cain’s wonderful book Quiet does this, and is a great model of a book that includes lots of diverse studies along with great human stories. My structure is much more like hers than the longer narratives of Wright and Lewis. I have great admiration for her ability to move from study to story, with a light touch.
Of course nobody in Australia is writing non-fiction without half an eye on what Helen Garner is up to, and if they are not, they should be. Garner is a model of courage, a quality all non-fictions writers should strive for. She pursues the questions that literally no one else does, and with technical brilliance, but no bravado or trickery, she drives straight at the noir heart of everyday real life.