The best writers immerse themselves in their work, and in Steve Kemper’s case, this included following in the actual footsteps of Heinrich Barth, the subject of Kemper’s newest book, A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa. Previously, Kemper had authored Code Name Ginger: the Story Behind Segway and Dean Kamen’s Quest to Invent a New World.
A freelance journalist for more than 30 years, Kemper has earned several awards for his work as well as a grant from the W. Alton Jones Foundation for an environmental investigation in Bolivia. He has written for Smithsonian, National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, National Geographic Traveler, Outside, Wall Street Journal, Yankee, National Wildlife, The Ecologist, Plenty, BBC Wildlife, and many other magazines and newspapers. He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut, with his wife Judith Kaufman, a fine-art jeweler. (For more information, visit his website and blog.)
Tell me a little about yourself. What type of writing do you do? If you do more than one kind or prefer one genre over another, what type is your favorite? Do you have trouble switching “writing gears”?
I’m a freelance journalist. I do the usual mixture of work, from profiles and features to
topical stories, but my favorite genre is narrative. I like to tell compelling nonfiction stories. After doing this for more than 30 years, I don’t need to think much about changing gears; it’s automatic.
How long have you been writing? When did you start? What was your “writer dream”—your goal— when you began to write? Has it changed over the years?
I began writing for the local alternative weekly newspaper and regional magazines while I was in graduate school, about 35 years ago, expecting to become an English professor. But I got the itch to write nonacademic stories that permitted a looser style and more freedom of focus. That’s how I tiptoed into journalism, and I immediately liked it. Academic jobs were scarce when I finished grad school, so I was lucky enough not to get one. I love literature and teaching, but I’m so relieved that I escaped academia, which was becoming airless. As for dreams back then, even in college I had subscriptions to many of the fine magazines of the ‘70s and ‘80s, such as Harper’s, Esquire, and the New Yorker. I suppose my dream was to write for them someday.
What is your “writer dream” now?
To do work that interests me and that lasts. That requires several things: a great story with great characters, strong writing, and a book contract. Things are changing, of course, but a good book from a reputable publisher still has a much longer life than a magazine story or an e-story.
When did you first know that you were a writer?
Probably when I saw my first byline.
What does the act of writing bring into your life? Why do you want to write?
Writing forces me to think clearly, precisely, and organizationally. It’s hard to hide flaws on the page. If you’re lazy enough to use clichés, or haven’t done enough research, or haven’t thought through the subject, or haven’t bothered to find a strong structure to convey your story, that’s always apparent. Research and writing force me to notice, to really pay attention, and that is tremendously rewarding.
Courtesy of James Lipton, host of “Inside the Actor’s Studio”: what profession other than that of a writer would you like to attempt?
Where do you do most of your writing?
In my home office.
Where is the strangest place you’ve written? Where was the most inspirational?
I’ve written on planes and in hotel rooms, but I don’t do any serious writing in strange places. If the place is really strange, I’m more interested in looking around than in writing. Most inspirational? I don’t get inspiration from the place where I’m writing, but from the story I’m telling.
What stimulates your creativity or serves as a writing inspiration? Conversely, what creates a major writer’s block for you?
I keep coming back to the same thing—I look for passionate characters who are striving for something significant or are undergoing something difficult. I don’t believe in writer’s block, which strikes me as an excuse or a rationalization. When I’m having a hard time writing, there are two possible reasons: either I’m bored with the story and don’t really want to write it, or I haven’t done enough research to write with confidence. In each case the solution is clear. When bored, I force myself to focus and plow through. When inadequately prepared, I do more research.
Do you have any writing totems? Superstitions? Routines? Things you do or have to have around you when you begin your writing process?
No totems or superstitions. If I’m writing a book, I may put a photo of my subject on the bulletin board above my computer so we can keep an eye on each other. My writing routine is to plant my rear end in the chair for at least eight hours. Period.
What part of the writing process do you enjoy the most? The least?
I love some of the research—being on location somewhere that’s strange or fascinating, or shadowing interesting people as they go about their passions, or reading good background information. I dislike some of the research, too—the tedious stuff, like combing through documents, double-checking facts or claims, trying to get elusive people to return calls or emails, dealing with unresponsive or tin-eared editors.
Your most recent book, A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, is about an unknown German explorer set in the 1850s — quite a contrast to your first book, Code Name Ginger, about modern-day technology: “the world’s first self-balancing human transporter,” according to its inventor Dean Kamen. Why this subject and time period? Do you have a particular interest in covering historical topics?
I’ve always been intrigued by explorers and have read about many of them on all the continents. They took such huge risks and plunged into unknown places with little more than courage and curiosity. I never expected to write about explorers, though, or to write history. I expected to keep writing about people who are breathing. Barth snagged me and changed my direction.
How long did it take from when you first learned about Barth and you received your contract from W. W. Norton?
Hard to say, since Barth marinated in my imagination for a while after I saw a brief reference to him in a book about Africa. I was working on another book proposal at the time, so my little excursions into Barth were side trips. But when I discovered how little was known about him and how little had been written, he took over and became my destination. When that happened I got serious about researching him and writing a proposal. It was probably three or four months from then to the contract.
How long did it take you to write A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa? Was it easier or harder than you expected? Were there times when you doubted your ability to do the subject justice or had difficulty finding enough material, given the fact that Heinrich Barth was a relatively obscure German explorer?
I did some articles in between, for income, but the research probably took eight months and the writing another eight. On the stories that interest me most, I always have doubts about myself because I suspect I’ve taken on something beyond my capabilities. That’s partly the appeal for me. If I’m not nervous, the story probably isn’t big enough to hold my attention for long. I want to learn new things, push myself, surprise myself. And no, I had no worries about lack of material, since I had so much to learn about Africa, Islam, 19th century European politics and science, and on and on.
I understand that, as part of your research, you traveled to Timbuktu and across northern Nigeria to Lake Chad. What was it like to follow in the footsteps of your subject? How did it help you bring his experiences and the man himself alive for you? Did you face any challenges or have any unusual experiences during your travels?
I didn’t strictly need to go. I could have drawn on descriptions from other writers, and I did find other explorers’ accounts very helpful. But I think the travel to Africa gave me sensory information that enriched the book. It helped the book that I woke up to the call of muezzins in Timbuktu. It helped to see the marshy channels of Lake Chad and to ask my guides questions about the cultural differences between Fulanis and Kanuris. It helped to ride a camel into the Sahara during the harmattan. I’m sure that the things I saw, smelled, tasted, and heard in Africa influenced the writing.
As for challenges, of course there were some, which is normal in Africa. At one point I was suspected as a CIA agent. At another I had to spend time at any army barracks explaining my presence. The head man of a town where I needed to spend time told me that I couldn’t look around; I did anyway. An airport official required a hefty “registration fee” to get on a flight. There was “dash” to pay to all sorts of people in Nigeria, and pesky merchants trailing at my elbow in Timbuktu. In other words, just typical stuff, nothing bad.
What did you learn — either in terms of writing or from a more personal standpoint — as a result of doing this book? Barth’s refusal to give up and his commitment to his exploration — looking back, did you find that in some ways, this was similar to what you had experienced in your “exploration” of his life and work? Did you feel any kinship with Barth by the time you finished the book?
I learned that I can write historical narrative, and that it’s not terribly different from writing narrative about living people. You need the same basic ingredients (here they come again)—passionate characters and a strong narrative arc.
The second set of questions are perceptive. Yes, I did realize that part of my admiration for Barth stemmed from qualities in him that I try to cultivate in myself, such as precision, accuracy, wide-ranging curiosity, open-mindedness, self-discipline, and persistence in pursuit of a goal.
What marketing strategies have you used to promote your book? Was it difficult to attract the public’s attention since Barth was hardly a “known name”?
It’s too soon to say whether the public will respond to the book. You’re right that Barth is unknown, which is why his name isn’t in the title and why the hot-button word “Islamic” is. I don’t think his obscurity is a strong barrier, because people like adventure stories and I wrote this as an historical adventure. The main characters of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken and David Grann’s The Lost City of Z are obscure, which didn’t keep them from becoming bestsellers.
As for marketing strategies, the Norton publicist sent galleys and/or review copies to the major outlets. We don’t yet know how many will do something, but all the advance review outlets ran pieces and so have several large newspapers.
On my own I studied dozens of book blogs to find about two dozen (including yours) that seemed promising for this book. I also researched radio shows about books and sent emails and press releases to about two dozen of them. I found blogs or sites about exploration or north-central Africa, and contacted them. Because I studied all these markets before sending anything, the response rate has been good, just under 50 percent.
I understand that your next project, again for W. W. Norton, is about another unknown explorer. What draws you to write about people that no one has heard of?
It’s true that I’m attracted to obscurities, living and dead, but they have also been door-openers for me. Much of my career has been built on stories from the fringes, subjects that editors hadn’t heard of. Editors are jaded. If you send them something fresh and surprising, they are more apt to respond.
What type of books do you prefer: non-fiction, fiction, essays, poetry?
I read fiction and nonfiction in roughly equal proportion, but also keep favorite poets in rotation on my bedstand.
Where do you do most of your reading? What book are you reading now?
My office, my backyard patio, libraries. I’m reading two nonfiction books, Barbara Tuchman’s wonderful The Proud Tower, as background for my next book, and The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, to study his technique.
Which three authors would you love to have a “One on One” with?
Since you didn’t specify living or dead, and since I’m now writing history: Melville, Bellow, Twain.
What are some unusual (or irritating!) questions, comments or theories you’ve heard from non-writers when they find out you’re a writer?
The classics: “I have a great story to tell—you’d only have to write it.” “I could write a book if I just had the time.”
How do you blend your writing life with your “real life”—do you find it challenging to make time for both sides? If so, what are some of the difficulties and how do you resolve them?
My wife has also been self-employed for decades—she’s a studio goldsmith—so we understand the rhythms of immersion in work, sputtering confidence, financial ups and downs, and so on. We raised two great sons while doing what we love.
What do you find the hardest part about the “writing business”?
Getting assignments and contracts.
How do you define success as a writer? What makes you feel successful as a writer?
Doing interesting work that pays the bills.
Conversely, what makes you feel like a failure, and how do you combat that?
When assignments dry up and editors don’t return emails and calls, and the sky appears poised to fall. I only know one way to combat these things: keep working, harder.
What is your idea of a perfect writing day?
1500 words that are keepers.
What advice do you have for other writers who are contemplating pursuing a writing career?
Read writers you admire and figure out how they did it. Then try to do it. Accept that rejections will far outnumber acceptances, and keep writing anyway.
What do you want your writer’s epitaph to be?
Probably one of my two mantras: No risk, no gain. The only way out is through.
My thanks to Steve Kemper for being part of One on One: Insights Into the Writer’s Life!