Creative Non-Fiction for Rainy Days


A month’s rain in 24 hours – that’s a British summer for you. I have been asked what the first year of a creative/critical writing PhD (Creative Non-Fiction) at the UEA is like but, due to the faculty’s policy of omerta, I don’t think I’m allowed to answer. I’m not sure I can either since I seem to be the only student doing creative non-fiction and there are no dedicated classes or workshops. Instead I have been attending – and enjoying – the fiction workshops, and working my way through non-fiction pieces that have been recommended to me by lecturers and former student chums. Here (for those who asked) are my favourite creative non-fiction books and longform reads for these rainy days.

BOOKS Cold Blood by Truman Capote. He didn’t invent the non-fiction novel – nor did he claim to have done – but this is still the best. I read Capote’s non-fiction over and over. He’s the first name on my dream dinner party list.

The Cuckoo’s Egg by Clifford Stoll – a geek classic. A computer nerd tries to figure out why the Berkeley central computer accounts are out by 75 cents, and realises that a hacker is selling military secrets to the KGB. The Guardian calls this a ‘gripping techno-thriller’ but Stoll also takes time out to do silk screen printing and stitch a quilt.

I also enjoyed Ghost in the Wires by Kevin Mitnick whose ‘work’ I have been following for years. I was surprised that many of his ‘escapades’ were so low tech. For example, he gained access to a lot of companies simply by hanging around outside with the smokers who held the door open for him when they all went back inside. During my temping years, I worked for an electronics company which made guidance system for missiles. On hot days, the building’s outer doors were thrown wide open. Once I was standing by the closed entrance to the Top Secret section (I had passes for the regular section but not the Top Secret section.) holding a tray of coffees and waiting for a colleague. Someone from the Top Secret section came out and, thinking I was waiting to go in, held the door open for me. I went in. National security foiled by good manners.

The Studio by John Gregory Dunne. A year in the fortunes of Twentieth Century Fox – 1967 – the year they released Dr Doolittle, Planet of the Apes, and the Boston Strangler. Dunne had complete access to the studio and he writes a full account of the business of Hollywood.

Another ‘business’ book I would recommend is Boohoo by Ernest Malmsten, Erik Portanger and Charles Drazin , an account of an early shopping venture that nearly made it.

Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan. These are his collected articles originally published in magazines like GQ and the New York Times. My favourite is Upon this Rock in which he visits a Christian rock festival in order to snear at it and instead enjoys himself.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris – or anything else by David Sedaris. Ever. I’d sit him next to Truman.

Into Thin Air by John Krakauer. I have no interest in Nepal, mountain-climbing or the cold, and I already knew what happened in the end. Yet I stayed up all night to finish this book. I see it’s a movie now too.

Thought not a fan of sporty books, I will also give a special mention to Angry White Pyjamas by Robert Twigger because it’s about Japan and it’s a fun read. Twigger took up Aikido and trained with the Tokyo riot police.

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal – again because I wanted to include something Japanese. De Waal inherits some netsuke (small carved ornaments which hung from the men’s purses in 17th century Japan) and traces his family tree to find out how they travelled  from Japan to him. (My friend Christopher Robin – see blog, March 2011 – collects netsuke. Really expensive netsuke. Sometimes he unlocks his vitrine and I’m allowed to hold them.)

Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss and then The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcom. When he got himself included on the defence team, did McGinniss really believe that Dr Jeffrey MacDonald was innocent of the murder of his wife and two children? Janet Malcolm thinks he knew the doctor was guilty all along.

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. Or A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I sometimes have trouble enjoying DFW. He’s very wordy while I prefer a cleaner style. But he’s entertaining on whatever topic he’s writing about. My favourite DFW piece however is his syllabus and notes for the creative non-fiction course (183D) he taught at Pomona College in 2008. You can find it online.

Special Mention: Jon Ronson. He’s a journo who writes for the Guardian but I’d classify many of his pieces as CNF. As a social historian, my favourite piece is Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes. He also wrote The Men Who Stare at Goats.

LONGFORM  (most of these are available online)

The Muses are Heard by Truman Capote for The New Yorker. Several other journalists accompanied the Porgy and Bess company behind the Iron Curtain but they failed to produce anything as observant as this piece.

The Duke in his Domain by Truman Capote for The New Yorker. You can’t read enough Truman Capote. This is his profile of Marlon Brando. Brando tried to get it spiked. Capote never took notes and claimed to have an eidetic memory. I doubt that but Brando admitted that Capote had caught every word he said.

Underwear Power by Andy Warhol from The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. He writes in an easy-going, chatty style. (He recorded his thoughts – and his accounts – on tape so he may well have done this with some of his non-fiction too. Sounds like it.) If you like this, try his diaries – also recorded and later transcribed. I keep them by my bed and dip in at night before I write my own. He spent a lot of time at Studio 54. I spend a lot of time at Sainsburys. Warhol is another definite for my dream dinner party even though he probably wouldn’t say much. I’d sit him next to Jon Ronson.

How Do You Like It now, Gentlemen? by Lillian Ross for The New Yorker – her profile of Ernest Hemingway. I hear her book ‘The Picture’ is a classic read too. I didn’t think I’d enjoy reading Hemingway but I do because of his short, spare writing style. ‘The Sun also Rises’ is my favourite of his novels.

Ghosting Julian Assange by Andrew O’Hagan in the London Review of Books. How O’Hagan tried to write Julian Assange’s biography and how Assange never wanted him to in the first place. So observant I felt like I was there. I wish I HAD been there.

At the Dam by Joan Didion – or anything by Joan Didion. Although I probably won’t be reading the Year of Magical Thinking again. Been there, done that.

Frank Sinatra has a Cold by Gay Talese for Esquire magazine. A pioneering New Journalism article from the Sixties. Talese cut out pieces of card and slipped them into his jacket pocket to write notes on as he worked. He said he never recorded anything because he didn’t want to be limited by his subjects’ actual quotes which I think is a dangerous thing to say. Of course these days I can slip a recording device into a top pocket. I don’t like to misquote people. But I do always tell them that I am recording. If they object, then I too have to write fast. Many years ago, I took Pitman shorthand classes but I passed the exams only because I have a good echoic memory. I can remember film dialogue forever but ‘He will be a big boy by now’ is the only Pitman shorthand practice sentence that I can still write. Not sure when that’s going to come in handy. (A page of Talese’s notes for ‘Frank Sinatra has a Cold’ are below.)

Covering the Cops by Calvin Trillin for The New Yorker. A profile of Edna Buchanan, Miami Crime Reporter.

Shipping Out by David Foster Wallace for Harpers Magazine in which he cruises the Caribbean for seven nights. Read it before Jon Ronson’s Lost at Sea (in his book ‘Lost at Sea: the Jon Ronson mysteries’) on passenger disappearances off ships. Not sure I’d invite DFW to my dinner party but, if I did, I’d sit him next to Joan Didion. And well away from Truman.

Books for the train: The New Journalism edited by Tom Wolfe and E W Johnson – longform from the Sixties and early Seventies when the New Journalism was new. Includes pieces by Joan Didion, Hunter S Thompson, Terry Southern and Barbara L Goldsmith. The New New Journalism by Robert S Boynton – interviews with CNF writers including Gay Talese, John Krakauer, William Langewiesche and Calvin Trillin.

That’s enough to be going on with. After all, it may brighten up.

*Yes, I have noticed that my favourite authors are overwhelmingly north American. They seem to be forging ahead while the Brits are stuck writing stodgy biographies of the Bloomsbury set. If anyone has any suggestions for exciting non-class-based CNF pieces (NOT about royals, 19th century writers or doing up a chateau in the Dordogne) please send me your suggestions.



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