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Writerland, Chapter 14: Robert Kolker on Finding Joy in the Face of Sadness
Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.
I hesitated before beginning Robert Kolker’s new book, Hidden Valley Road, because I was sure it was going to make me sad, and the world was providing me with all the sad I needed. My wife told me I had to read it, and so did all those readers who had made it an instant best seller, Oprah among them.
This was not Bob’s first foray into a subject that might well make readers wince or recoil, nor is it his first best seller. There is nothing dark about Bob; he is sunny and gentle and for the life of me, I wonder how he can return, time and again, to subjects that involve so much sorrow and suffering.
Years ago, after I’d written a book on the child welfare system, a writer friend said, “now do a happy.” I wrote about baseball. After Lost Girls, his book about the unsolved murders by a serial killer or killers, Bob’s next book would be the story of a family in which six of twelve children were schizophrenic.
The choices we make about the stories we need to tell are always intentional, and often revealing. There are stories that veer precariously from tragedy into agony, and once that happens, the experience, unless you are a glutton for literary punishment, can be unbearable. Bob makes you want to turn the pages, to stay with him on his journey. Which suggests that something far more important is at play than merely despair.
“Sometimes you don’t know what you’re good at — or even what you find joy in — until you do it,” Bob wrote when I asked about the stories he chooses to tell. “I didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a narrative nonfiction writer (I had movie criticism in mind, vaguely), and once I started in journalism, I didn’t go out of my way to write about tragic subjects. I found out pretty quickly that I never could tell which stories I was going to end up glad I wrote and which ones I wasn’t.
“The ability to write about tougher subjects came up later. I interviewed politicians and wrote about the art world and the movie business and real estate and law and science and business – and whatever came my way. But over time, I started to notice what my editors were bringing me and what they were bringing other people.”
Bob spent years as a magazine writer, and by the time he began work on Lost Girls he had written enough words to have a better understanding of himself as a writer. “Among my little cohort at New York Magazine, I was not the absolute best person to interview a mayor or a movie star or a billionaire. Instead, I was the one they turned to to interview someone toiling in obscurity over something very complex — like a lawyer or a scientist. And I definitely was someone they turned to to talk to a grieving family, or anyone going through something difficult or emotionally painful.
“When I look back on this, I think it’s because I did not have an attack-dog style. I was more about getting to know the people so I would write something that didn’t feel hokey or canned. I started getting assigned more and more crime stories and tragedy stories. Lots of them. And when a particularly bleak one would come my way, my impulse was to shout out NO WAY and run in the other direction. Certainly, that was the case with the story that I ended up expanding to become Lost Girls. I said no to writing about the Long Island serial killer case for four months before noticing a way into it that seemed novel to me — original, and not exploitative. And that got me going.”
He continued. “And I did the same thing when I was introduced to the Galvin family, who are the subjects of Hidden Valley Road. I told myself this is all too tragic and tried to move on. But then once I thought about it for a few weeks I found a way into the subject that seemed more hopeful or at least less like a parade of misery. I thought about this family as a way of explaining the science of schizophrenia and the advances that have happened, often because of their help.
“If at first, I flinch or run, I end up coming back if I see a broader story to tell that seems worthwhile. If it’s all just about rubbernecking, then forget it. But if it’s a chance to learn something new, I’m in.
“One final thought: When I think about joy in the middle of a project, it usually is to prop myself up and keep myself going. Specifically, I ask myself: What if this were fun? It kind of knocks me off-balance if I’m tied up in knots about something. Just a little reminder that it doesn’t have to hurt all the time, that this kind of work can be pleasurable, that the point of writing is to create something that other people might actually enjoy reading, that this is not jail and that it can, sometimes, be fun.”
Nothing good ever came from writers punishing themselves. We know writing is hard. We’re here to show that it doesn’t have to be torture. The Delacorte Review Newsletter comes out every other week. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website. Never miss an update.