Short-form journalism is my day job. It is a world in which 2000 words is long, and I am mostly reporting the views of others. So for a hack like me, book-length meta-journalism is both a luxury and a challenge. I cannot hide my own views over 100,000 words, even if I want to. First person comes to the fore, but the obligations to fairness, objectivity and proper attribution don’t change. Nor the need for concision. There is no point in writing long for the sake of it. I am a slow reader myself, so I want to save the reader the slog.
Writing non-fiction can, I admit, be prosaic. Functional even. It is certainly a craft rather than an art, with rules, conventions and an agreed purpose. The nearest most non-fiction writers come to flowing prose is having a stab at Tom Wolfe-style narrative New Journalism. Or Charles Dickens; remember he was a journalist first and filled his fiction with documentary observation. Émile Zola is another favourite.
My books are mostly journeys through particular landscapes, mixed up with environmental science. Fallout, my most recent book, is an exploration of the world’s nuclear legacy – from Nevada to Chernobyl, Fukushima to Semipalatinsk, Russian secrets behind the Urals to America’s seminal atrocity at Hiroshima.
It began when Granta magazine’s publisher Sigrid Rausing saw a short piece I wrote for New Scientist on the Byzantine delays in cleaning up the nuclear cesspit at Sellafield. She asked for a longer, more contemplative piece of reportage. My hike round the shores of West Cumbria reminded me of so many past stories of nuclear scandals that it turned into a planet-wide expedition, turning over the embers of a dying industry, and finding all manner of radioactive debris.
Factual books, especially those that claim to be science-based, require rigorous sourcing. I once just attributed key sources in the text, journalist style. But I found teachers keen to recommend my books – on climate change, the world water crisis, demography and other topics – wanted proper footnoted references that their students could follow up. OK. They get them now.
Whatever the footnotes, good non-fiction writing has to be direct and clear. I hold to journalistic nostrums about avoiding redundant adjectives and adverbs, and rationing abstract nouns and passive verbs. Ambiguity and hyperbole may sometimes light up fiction, but they are lethal when trying to convey literal truth. That said, some lyricism is allowed. And imagery and metaphor can be vital.
I seek inspiration for the task. So, while researching my next book, on the world’s wetlands, I am headed for good travel literature. There is Redmond O’Hanlon’s Congo Journey, as fetid as any swamp. Colin Thubron tramps the frozen peatlands In Siberia. And, though it is historical now after Saddam Hussein’s attempted genocide in the reed marshes, Wilfred Thesiger’s Marsh Arabs will light up my planned visit to Iraq’s Mesopotamian marshes.
I will plunder fiction too. Graham Swift’s Waterland makes eels the defining metaphor for his tale of the Fens: slippery, sexual and strangely sinister. Huck Finn’s adventures in the bayous of the Mississippi ooze with atmosphere. I will go back to Dickens for the great scenes on the Kent marshes in Great Expectations, and might even check out The Hound of the Baskervilles for some waterlogged terror on Dartmoor.
Photograph © Russ McMillan