More Than They Appear: Andrew Vietze on Writing Non-Fiction

A sentence, says Andrew Vietze , should “communicate what you’re trying to say–in a way that engages.”  It sounds simple enough.  Nice and straightforward.  The real trick, of course, is pulling it off.  And Vietze does so masterfully.

Vietze’s fifth book, Becoming Teddy Roosevelt: How a Maine Guide Inspired America’s 26th President, is an extraordinary book about an ordinary man, a very human friendship, and a sickly future president.  The book focuses more on William Wingate Sewall than on Roosevelt.  If you go into the book expecting lots of Teddy Roosevelt, you won’t be disappointed—you get the formative years, the growing and maturing.  But the real magic, here, is Sewall.  You will be captivated by the man who helped shape Roosevelt’s word-view.

Below, Vietze and I pick up where we left off and talk a little bit more about the nuts and bolts of writing non-fiction.

What is it about Maine–coastal or backwoods–that inspires you?

Andrew Vietze: I find the North Woods endlessly inspiring. The raw grandeur, the inhabitants, and the history all intrigue me. And I love the quietude. At the park where I work as a seasonal ranger there is no power and there are no phones, and the absence of the internet, email, and ring-tones lends itself to both creativity and butt-in-the-chair work.

In what ways does your seasonal job as a park ranger feed your writing life?

Andrew Vietze: The park provides a structure to my life that is greatly beneficial to writing. I don’t have to worry about getting paid, I have health care, and I have hours in the day where it’s peaceful and there are few distractions (unless an emergency is going on, which happens). The nature of the work–often solitary, more physical than mental–allows me a lot of time in my own head, which is great for roughing out stories or solving writing problems. I also find I read a lot more than I do when I’m at home, and every writer should read a lot more.

Your style seems…  effortless.  Layered, beautifully efficient.

Andrew Vietze: I used to play in rock bands and a lesson I took from the world of music is that simpler is almost always better. When you’re new you tend to throw 700 adjectives in a sentence and try to impress people with your clever turns of phrase. A decade in the magazine business cured me of that and taught me how to be very efficient. The primary job of a writer is to communicate, and long, convoluted sentences are not nearly as effective at that and tend to get in their own way. It should flow like a mountain stream. I like good similes and analogies and metaphors as much as the next guy–probably more–but even the best of those tend to be simple.

You’ve worked as a magazine writer and a magazine editor.  Looking at it from both sides of the editorial desk, what goes into a a great magazine article?

Andrew Vietze: A great magazine article starts with a great idea, something that the readership wants to know about (whether they know it or not). When you have that, it’s all about keeping the audience’s attention, compelling them along. Telling the story in as captivating a manner as possible. That usually comes down to good pacing and a good structure.

And what’s the secret to good pacing and good structure?

Andrew Vietze: Structure should simply tell a story in a way that makes the reader want to keep going. I try to find the intro that hooks them and then parcel out information in a way that makes the reader always interested in discovering what happens next. Tantalize. But it has to be logical and in the service of the story.

What is it about Sewall that you admired enough to write a book about him?

Andrew Vietze: I find people who are much more than they appear fascinating. I like depth and nuance and to be surprised by people. And Bill Sewall was a very multidimensional character. Most of the other lumbermen he worked with, according to Sewall, could read rivers and read the woods but they couldn’t read or write their own names. Sewall was an avid reader–he especially loved poetry. Epic adventure poetry. I don’t imagine many of his peers were spouting Longfellow as they paddled their canoes through whitewater or felled trees. He was also a very open, curious person–always interested in meeting new people and finding out what was going on in the wider world–in a place where people had a reputation for being insular. And, probably what I found most appealing, he was a life liver. He got up every morning excited to meet the day head on. I’ve always found people like that very charismatic.

How do you go about transforming the magazine article Sewall into a book?

Andrew Vietze: The book was more inspired by the article than anything else. In a way, the magazine piece was almost an outline for the book because it contained most of the themes and ideas I would expand later. It was a very natural evolution for me. The only thing I really regret at this point was the time constraint. I feel it would have been a great book, rather than a good book, if I had six more months to play with some of the ideas I was discovering and refine it a little further. But it’s been extraordinarily well received so maybe it was fine as it was.

How’s the novel coming?  What’s the coolest thing about it?

Andrew Vietze: Ah, the novel. It’s very much a work in progress. Fiction is a whole different language and I’m still learning to speak it. Most of the time the book sits in a gigantic stack of papers. The coolest thing about it is simply the story itself – the characters and the world I’ve created – but I don’t know that I’ve done it justice yet.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.  He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.