Interviews / Novelists

Interview with Alec Nevala-Lee: “I always find something that resonates with whatever I’m doing at the time.”

Alec Nevala-Lee is an American biographer, novelist, and science fiction writer. His works have garnered critical acclaim, with his group biography Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction earning him recognition as a Hugo and Locus Award finalist.

In addition, his most recent book, Inventor of the Future, a biography of Buckminster Fuller, was named one of the fifty best biographies of all time by Esquire.

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Hi Alec, welcome to Famous Writing Routines! It’s great to have you here with us today. First off, congratulations on the success of your recent biography of Buckminster Fuller! Can you tell us a bit about what drew you to his life and work?

I’ve been a Fuller fan since I was in high school, when I discovered him in the pages of the Whole Earth Catalog. His reputation as a generalist who looked for design solutions to important problems made a big impression on me, and it clearly influenced some of my own life decisions—I’ve managed to get through most of my career without specializing in any one field.

After I finished my previous book, Astounding, which was a history of the golden age of science fiction, Fuller seemed like the obvious next step, since he was a public figure who shaped how America saw the future, and he had never been the subject of a comprehensive biography that drew on the best available sources. 

Can you give us a behind-the-scenes look at your research process for this biography? What were some of the most interesting or surprising things you learned about Fuller while writing the book?

Going into this project, I knew that Fuller’s archive—which by some estimates is the largest for any private individual in history—was available to the public at Stanford, so I’d have plenty of material. The first steps were to read all of the previously published books by and about Fuller, set up interviews with his surviving relatives and associates, and arrange to get the files that I needed. (I made two visits to Stanford in person and hired assistants to copy thousands of other documents on my behalf.)

Before long, it was clear that almost nothing that Fuller said about himself could be taken at face value. The authorized accounts of some of his most famous projects, like the Dymaxion Car and the Wichita House, were very different from what I found in his papers, and I was especially surprised to learn how fraught many of his relationships were with his collaborators. 

Fuller’s work encompasses a wide range of fields, from architecture to engineering to philosophy. How did you approach covering such a diverse body of work in a single biography?

Early on, I realized that the best way to structure the book was to follow the chronology of Fuller’s life as closely as possible. It’s a complicated narrative, but it can be enlightening to see how many different projects he was pursuing at the same time, or how one idea led to another.

By sticking to the timeline, I could introduce new concepts as they came up, which gives the reader a sense of how Fuller’s thinking evolved. (One shortcoming of some of the earlier books is that they present his ideas as if they all emerged fully formed at the beginning, which isn’t true at all.) Figuring out how to explain and incorporate some of the more complex topics, like his geometry, was challenging, and it really came down to constant revision and feedback. 

In the book, you delve into Fuller’s personal life, including his relationships and family. How did these personal experiences shape his work and vision for the future?

Fuller’s private life was fascinating, but no one had ever really explored it before, and I learned a lot that shed light on different episodes in his career. He was married to his wife, Anne, for nearly sixty-six years, but it was a complicated marriage—they came close to divorcing at least twice—and Fuller had several affairs with younger women who also served as his creative partners.

It made him seem more human, and it also offered a new angle on how he was able to do so much with such limited resources. He was a hugely charismatic personality, and he leveraged that magnetism in all kinds of ways to achieve his objectives. 

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Inventor of the Future has been named a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and one of Esquire‘s fifty best biographies of all time. What does it mean to you to have received such recognition for your work?

The Esquire ranking obviously came down to luck—there were dozens of other biographies that could have made the cut, and I’m still amazed by how everything lined up to get my book on that list. In some ways, the New York Times review and selection meant even more, because I’d been working toward something like it for a long time.

A positive response is always gratifying, and I need all the encouragement that I can get, but the real test is whether it makes it easier for me to keep writing. I’ve been fortunate enough to make it this far as a freelance writer, which is a hard game to play, and every little bit of recognition helps. 

What does a typical writing day typically look like for you? 

Writing is my only job, and I’m usually at my desk by nine. As far as the specifics are concerned, my favorite piece of writing advice is from David Mamet: “As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, ‘Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.’ And then, the following day to say, ‘Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and all I have to do is be a little bit inventive,’ et cetera, et cetera.”

That’s pretty much my approach, too. For a nonfiction book, the process can be divided into research, outlining, writing, and revision, and every step—which often overlaps with the others—has its own typical routine. At the moment, I’m spending most of my time researching my next book, a biography of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Luis W. Alvarez, and I don’t expect to start writing until the late fall. 

When you’re writing a novel, do you start with a general idea or a specific plot? Can you take us through your writing process and how you develop your story from there?

My novels usually begin with a very general idea, like the notion of writing a thriller set in the New York art world, which was the origin of The Icon Thief. After that, I’ll start researching and reading to fill out the premise and figure out what the plot and characters will be. I’m a strong believer in outlining, but I’ll usually outline only about a third of the book at a time, which leaves room for surprises down the line.

My outlines are usually very detailed—almost like a stealth first draft—which allows me to quickly crank out a rough version of a chapter that I can revise. I’ve also learned from experience to never read what I’ve written until the entire draft is done. In the case of a novel or a nonfiction book, it might be up to a year before I go back to see what I have. 

If you could have a conversation with an author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?

I’ve thought about this question a lot, and I’m not sure I have a great answer—I’ve been inspired by so many different authors. In the end, I’d probably have to go with Jorge Luis Borges, my favorite writer, even though he practiced a kind of writing that is totally different from mine. I revisit Borges’ collection Labyrinths every year or so, and I always find something that resonates with whatever I’m doing at the time. He was such a singular artist that I don’t think I would learn anything practical from that conversation, but I’m sure that it would inspire me to do better work. As Borges once said—through an intermediary—to a translator who felt that it was impossible to render one of his poems into rhyme: “Borges thinks you should try a little harder.”

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite reads?

For the Alvarez biography, I recently went back to read The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, which may be my favorite narrative nonfiction book of all time. (I feel about this book the way other people talk about The Power Broker.) In college, I was assigned to read excerpts from it for a class, and I loved it so much that I ended up reading all eight hundred pages for my own enjoyment, which didn’t happen very often.

Part of the reason that I chose Alvarez as my next subject is the excuse that it gives me to dive into subjects that have fascinated me for as long as I can remember, including the Manhattan Project, the Kennedy assassination, the pyramids, and the dinosaurs, so I’m really looking forward to the reading I’ll be doing for the next couple of years.

What does your current writing workspace look like?

When my wife and I moved into our house in Oak Park, Illinois, we turned one of the bedrooms into my home office, with bookshelves from floor to ceiling along all four walls. Over the years, I’ve filled them to overflowing—most of them are two layers deep—and my desk among all of these books is my favorite place in the world. (The desk itself could stand to be straightened up a bit, but the essentials include a Rubik’s cube, a deck of Tarot cards, and A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse by Ted Hughes, which I use as a source of random quotes when I need to generate ideas.) The monetary rewards for writing aren’t always great, but when I look at my books, I feel rich.

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