While author Tracy Kidder has written a Vietnam memoir, My Detachment -- he calls the genre "the fad that doesn't seem to end" -- most of his books are nonfiction about other people, processes and places. His best-sellers have included books about computer design (1981's The Soul of a New Machine) and house-building (1985's House).
In his latest, the bestselling Strength in What Remains, the people and the places are often distant. But they're hardly detached.
So perhaps it's no surprise that, at the Drue Heinz Lecture series on Mon., Feb. 21, rather than directly address his own writing life, Kidder will discuss someone else: Richard Todd, his longtime editor.
"It will of course to some degree be about the books we've worked on together," Kidder adds, by phone from his home in Massachusetts. Kidder met Todd at The Atlantic Monthly in the 1970s, and when Todd moved to Houghton Mifflin, he took Kidder with him. They still collaborate, currently on a book about writing, with the working title Good Prose.
Kidder's recent books illustrate some of the challenges a writer and editor might face. Both Mountains Beyond Mountains and 2010's Strength in What Remains brought him very close to his subjects -- respectively, Paul Farmer of Partners in Health and Deo, who escaped both the Burundian and Rwandan genocides.
"I find it very hard to write in a general way," Kidder says. "To the extent that I think clearly about anything, I think clearly through stories."
But Deo's memories of genocide and homelessness in New York City were painful. Kidder in fact tried to stop the book a couple of times, when he saw how hard it was on Deo to return to these scenes.
When the book came out, says Kidder, "he didn't want to hear it -- I'm not even sure he's read it."
By getting close enough to a person to tell his story in depth and detail, doesn't a writer risk his relationships with his subjects, his readers, even his work?
"My first obligation is to potential readers, and to the truth as I see it -- that is, what I have justified belief in," says Kidder. "On the other hand, there's no need to do unnecessary harm that doesn't serve the purposes of the book. I rely a lot on Richard Todd to guide me on this."
Kidder also feels "certain obligations to be a good guest in the lives of the people I'm writing about," Kidder says. "I almost try to talk people out of letting me do this. It's so much better if at the beginning someone says, 'No, I don't want to do that.' Then there's no hard feelings."
The problem is that, once the book is written, there's still a person out there, evolving, changing, and becoming less like the person you wrote about. Kidder jokes, "I've had the strong feeling of 'Get back into my book!'"
Also developed in collaboration with Todd was the unusual structure of Strength in What Remains, with its major shift in point of view midway through. That's when Kidder himself enters the story, and readers observe how he comes to know and develop this story and the characters. Kidder says developing this structure helped him realize what the book is really about.
"The first part is telling Deo's story -- his memories, my words. The second part is watching him in the throes of those memories. It's really a book about memory, I think."
The Burundi word gusimbura plays an important role in the book. Translated as "naming the dead," gusimbura is a Burundian taboo. It calls into question Western ideas about psychotherapy and the value of retaining certain memories (and perhaps Kidder's role in all of this). In Burundian culture, difficult memories, particularly of those lost to us, should be allowed to die.
Kidder looks at things differently. "I think we all have memories that assail us," he says. "I used to have a bunch of them from Vietnam, and these weren't traumatic or horrible, but they really bugged me!" He laughs. "And once I'd written them out, they couldn't ambush me any more, they really just amused me. Particularly publishing them.
"I believe in the power of art to take the experience of suffering and evil, and even embarrassment," Kidder says, "and turn it into something much better, maybe something beautiful."
Tracy Kidder at The Drue Heinz Lectures 7:30 p.m. Mon., Feb. 21. Carnegie Music Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. $15-25. 412-622-8866 www.pittsburghlectures.org