Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Robert Kurson In Person

Robert Kurson and his son Nate visit Madison's book club for the homeless. From the left: Tim, Linda, Suzanne, Darren, Pastor Laura, Rob and Nate Kurson, Deb, Mark, Jack and Jeremy. (Appearing to stand between Suzanne and Linda is a bust of an unknown but brave and persistent lover who once wrought peace in Afghanistan, according to Pastor Laura.)

This was not an ordinary book club meeting.

Best-selling author Robert Kurson and his eleven year old son Nate drove up from the Chicago area to visit with our homeless friends. Mr. Kurson regaled us for over an hour with stories of his writing career and, in particular, stories about the writing of Shadow Divers, a New York Times Bestseller.

You could surf the internet and all your cable channels, even the entire collection at your local library, or pay a visit to your local comedy club or your favorite theater or even Broadway, and still you would not find a more entertaining and inspiring way to spend an hour.


Having just read Shadow Divers, we knew already that Kurson was an exceptional story teller. What we  hadn't fully expected, but quickly came to appreciate, was that Kurson is also an extremely entertaining and dynamic speaker.

With his son sitting at his side, Kurson fielded our questions with ease and grace, and somehow turned the answer to our questions into mini-stories themselves. He seems to have a remarkable knack for taking what could be mundane facts and constructing of them stories on the spot, stories laced with heart and understated humor. His timing is impeccable. Admittedly, book club members took a bit to warm up--it's not every day we get to chat with a writer of such renown--but soon the questions flowed.

We did not make an audio recording of our conversation with Kurson, a fact I deeply regret (book club members moan collectively whenever any of us uses the word 'deep' in our conversations about this book, which Kurson did just once). What follows is a summary of what for me were highlights of the event, or, in other words, what I am able to recall after talking about it nonstop last evening, followed by a good night of sleep and two shots of espresso this morning.

It started like this. Bethel's parking manager Lois alerted Darren as soon as the car with Illinois plates pulled into the lot. (Nothing unsual slips past Lois.) Darren alerted me and the two of us huddled at the door, waiting anxiously to greet them. In came Robert and Nate Kurson, and that's when I committed a faux pas, a forehead slapping social blunder. I introduced Darren as Jeremy! How could I?

After that awkward moment, we led Robert and Nate Kurson into the crowded Library Media Room and they quickly took their seats. Gathered around them were Captain Jack, Dean, Shelby, Mike, Tim, Pastor Laura, Rich, Rod, Randy, Linda, Jeremy, Ray, Darren, Mark, Deb and Hope.

Time in Madison:

Kurson thanked us for inviting him here and said the trip to Madison is easy and enjoyable since this is the home of his alma mater. He loves it here. He grew up in the Chicago area and came to Madison for college. He started his undergraduate studies intending to become a physician but quickly realized that was not the path for him. He recoiled from premedical studies and, not sure where else to turn, ended up with a degree in philosophy. Many questioned the wisdom of obtaining an undergraduate degree in philosophy, posing practical questions. "What can you do with a degree in philosophy?" In answer, initially, Kurson just shrugged.

Harvard Law School:

As Kurson graduated from UW, he realized that his studies in philosophy had prepared him well to pose an argument, a skill well-suited to the practice of law. A few years later he graduated from Harvard Law School and began practicing real estate law. Despite first rate salary and benefits, Kurson was miserable. He spent his evenings writing and soon realized that hours spent crafting stories would pass in a flash. He was, as they say, in the zone, that highly coveted place where productivity and creativity flow. He'd look up and wonder where all the time had gone. That was a good sign, Kurson said, that he'd stumbled upon his passion. 

In reflecting upon his educational and career track thus far, Kurson saw not a series of mistakes but rather a path unfolding. His study of philosophy and law had prepared him for his true calling, something he couldn't see until he arrived at this point: Kurson was meant to write. 

Now he had to make a difficult decision: Should he remain in the safe, respectable, highly paid confines of his legal practice or should he risk it all to do what he really wanted to do? Could he live with himself if he didn't make this change?

Lucky for us, he made the leap. 

As fate would have it, it was this experience of Kurson's that likely prepared him to see beyond the wrecked boat and the deceased crew to the living, breathing men who discovered and identified the remains. That story, the story of John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, is the story Kurson set out to tell.

Kurson's approach to the U-boat discovery instantly set his book apart from all the others ever written about U-boats. And it's what will someday make the movie version of Shadow Divers different from every Nova special and documentary ever done on the subject.

Kurson took the plunge. Kurson knew what he had to do. He quit his respectable high-paying law practice, picked up a screw gun and began hanging draperies for a living. Meanwhile, he kept on writing. Unlike practicing law, hanging draperies allowed Kurson to write in his head while he worked. 

Starting at the newspaper and moving up. Kurson eventually took an entry level job at the Chicago Sun-Times as a data entry clerk. He took the job hoping that what he'd heard was true: sometimes sports writers will miss a column or a day of work, and when that happened, Kurson could seize the opportunity, fill in and thus make his talent known. Kurson says he loved his time there, all those guys sitting around cussing and talking sports. "It was fantastic! I would have done it for no pay at all." 

And then his opportunity came, just as he'd hoped. Someone missed a column. Kurson filled in. He impressed his colleagues and soon had a full-time features writing job, a dream come true for the onetime drapery hanger.

Kurson loved his work at the paper. However, there was a downside. He describes seeing his name in print beside his column as a thrilling and satisfying experience--until later when you see it blowing down the street. That's when he realized the life expectancy of a newspaper article was twenty-four hours.

Magazine writing: 

By then Kurson had experienced some success with writing magazine stories and moved on to Chicago magazine, which is much like our Madison magazine. The advantage to writing for magazines is that the life expectancy was a month, much longer than the twenty-four hours of newspaper articles. He then became a contributing editor to Esquire magazine. According to his bio, his stories have also appeared in Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, and other publications.

But even as he wrote for magazines, another goal was forming on the horizon. Kurson wanted to write a book. A book can outlive newspaper and magazine stories--it can live years, decades or longer. And he began to sift ideas.

The right idea: 

In a short author's note at the beginning of Shadow Divers, Kurson explains much of how he came upon the idea of writing about John Chatterton and Richie Kohler.  However, what came through exceptionally well in conversation is that upon meeting these two men Kurson was instantly drawn in by a sense of kinship mixed with curiosity and respect.

That kinship and respect, however, did not hinder Kurson's ability to paint their portraits as real men, men with strengths and weaknesses. He took a few questions along those lines.

Do you think that, given the media interest, John Chatterton and Richie Kohler ever became actors in their own movie of their lives? Kurson understood why this question comes up, acknowledging that media attention has potential to turn people into 'actors', meaning less-than-genuine versions of themselves. But Kurson is certain that didn't happen to Chatterton or Kohler. They both continued to make decisions and to act in keeping with the transformational arc occurring in their respective lives. (In racing terms, they held their line.)

Was there any temptation on your part as a writer to soften their rough edges or somehow make them bigger than life? It was important to Kurson from the start that he be able to write the whole story, and that included exposing aspects of both men's characters that were less than flattering or less than parentally-correct. But Kurson wasn't cruel. He was honest and yet selective in writing about their flaws, including only those that were important to unfolding events or to the reader's grasp of character.

When finished with the manuscript, Kurson gave copies to Chatterton and Kohler. Both men were like, Hey, great job! There's just one thing. Do you have to include such-n-such? You make me look like a jerk; or, you're messing with the image my kids have of me. But here Kurson's ability to pose an argument came in handy. He explained why these facts were important to impart. Kurson didn't back down. Once the book was a best-seller, both guys were cool with it. Hey, well done!

While writing Shadow Divers, what was the best advice your editor gave you? About three months into researching U-boats and WWII strategy, Kurson received a friendly call from his editor who wanted an update. Kurson told him about everything he was learning, figuring it could take a bit longer to become the expert he imagined he needed to be to write this book. His editor cut him off and said, "Just write the book!"  

That brought Kurson's focus back to the story of the two men, Chatterton and Kohler, the story he wanted to tell from the start, the story of two men who were once mortal enemies but became life-lines for one another.

John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, once fierce enemies. 

Will the movie version of Shadow Divers be different from the novel?  Movie rights to Shadow Divers were bought early on, but, as often happens, there has been a series of starts and stops in the actual production process. Kurson has done some work on the script and acknowledges that while the movie will be different from the novel, the story itself will be unchanged.

As part of your research for writing Shadow Divers, did you do any scuba diving? After listening for hundreds of hours to all that Chatterton and Kohler had to say about deep wreck diving and the U-boat, Kurson decided he needed to dive the wreck. "It's the only way I'll be able to convey this experience to the readers."

"Great," Chatterton said. "Get your diving certificate and we'll bring you aboard the Seeker. Richie and I will rent equipment for you." 

Kurson gulped. "Only one problem," he said. "I don't know how to swim."

"No problem," came the reply. "We'll take you down ourselves. We'll be right at your side, even hold your hand if necessary."

Still doubtful, Chatterton and Kohler proceeded to show Kurson a bunch of diving tapes. In these tapes, Kurson realized, divers don't swim--they are neutrally bouyant and basically move around by crawling with their fingers, like crabs.

You're right, Kurson thought. I can do this!

Kurson enrolled in diving class and quickly realized he knew more about diving than the instructor did, could even finish the instructor's sentences and expound on his ideas, not that the instructor appreciated this. Chatterton and Kohler had taught him well. Kurson was psyched. U-boat, here I come!

The instructor closed the session by telling the group they'd meet the following week in the high school pool. Kurson had not expected this. He thought he'd have had his certificate by now.

Though Kurson feared entering the pool, Chatterton and Kohler again reassured their protege. "No big deal. You go down. You come up. You got your certificate."So reluctantly Kurson went to the class and like the rest of the students lined up along the pool's edge.

When the instructor ordered everyone to jump in and swim a lap, Kurson froze. Everyone else obeyed.  Eventually, not wanting the instructor to notice him, Kurson eased himself into the water and let go the pool's edge. He pushed himself gently off the side and immediately started to sink, saving himself by dog-paddling. His instructor began to yell and command him back to the pool's edge. Kurson says it took everything he had to turn around and make it back, all of three feet. Then, with water dripping off his face, he looked up at his instructor. 

"What's the problem?" the instructor demanded.

"I can't swim," Kurson said. He rapidly explained that even though he could not swim it would not matter because he was only going to dive once and he was going to be accompanied by two world class deep sea wreck divers who would hold his hands if necessary. "So, could I please still get my certificate?"

The instructor ordered Kurson out of the pool and onto the bleachers, where Kurson awaited the verdict.

After finishing with the other students, the instructor came over and sat on the bleacher next to Kurson. He wanted the details, so Kurson told him everything. When Kurson was done, the instructor summarized: "So you want me to give you a certificate even though you can't swim, just so you can dive a ship wreck located sixty miles off the coast of New Jersey at a depth of two-hundred-thirty feet with two world class experts?" he asked.

Kurson nodded, suddenly hopeful. 

"Well," the instructor said. "I don't care who the heck these divers are--they're nuts!"

Kurson did not get his certificate that day. Or any other.

When Kurson called Chatterton to break the news, Chatterton couldn't stop laughing. "Let's get Richie on the phone!" Turns out, Chatterton and Kohler were toying with him. They knew all along Kurson wouldn't get the certificate. More importantly, they believed Kurson could tell the story without diving the wreck. 

And you know what? They were right.

Robert Kurson is seated next to his son Nate. Nate is chatting with Mark. 
Kurson was kind enough to stick around and sign copies of his book and then, along with his son, to pose for a group photo. Kurson and son then walked a few short blocks with Darren to Mad Dog's Chicago Style Eatery on Henry Street, where they grabbed a dog for the road. The Kurson's aimed to be back in Chicagoland in time for Nate's Little League Playoffs. Go, Nate!

Now, for our weekly homeless person quote of the week:

Pastor Laura said: 

"I had a good week though it was very busy with all that preaching and a couple of funerals on top of everything else. Really exhausting."

Our homeless friend replied:

"Now you know how Jesus felt. Only you have better footwear."

See you next week!



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm best friends with Nate!

The average age of a homeless person in Madison is 9 years old.