Here it is, as promised: My second Good Friday post. This one relates to the question of selecting a topic for a book.
I was recently on a panel for adults about nonfiction at 826 Valencia, the writing center for kids in San Francisco, established by Dave Eggers. One of the issues that came up was how to select a topic for a book.
One of the other panelists noted that you must find a subject that you can live with for years, that you shouldn't try to write about what you think will be commercially successful. I agree, but with a few nuances.
First, what can sometimes seem like commercialization might actually be a way of taking your initial topic, and going bigger—escalating the scale of your project, in an ambitious and exciting way. This happened with my book Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. I initially thought of writing about Adelbert Ames, a Union "boy general" in the Civil War (he was made a brigadier general when still in his 20s) who was stationed in Mississippi during Reconstruction, championed the cause of racial equality, and left the army to pursue a political career. He was an admirable man in an age noted for violence, crookedness, and racism.
But no one had heard of him. When I discovered that he had been the target of the failed bank robbery by the James-Younger gang in Northfield, Minnesota, in 1876, I realized that I could write about the same period, and the same issues, on a larger scale, as well as for a larger audience. Jesse James is iconic; he lives in American culture and memory, as Ames does not. Therefore, in writing about James rather than Ames I would be taking on a much more ambitious project, with larger repercussions.
Did that decision make it more commercial? Well, yes. But it was more commercial because Jesse James is a more resonant subject, one who plays a vastly larger role in America's self-identity.
But I also believe that you must be true to yourself in picking a subject. You can't escape yourself; many writers end up writing about the same subjects or themes in book after book. In most writers, there are elemental issues and questions that provide the forward thrust. The issues of race, justice, violence, and the making of modern America defined both James and Ames's lives, so switching from one to the other was still entirely in keeping with my core interests. It never occurred to me that I was selling out.
So my advice is not to pursue commercial subjects for their own sake, but to think about how you can go bigger—how you can make your project even more ambitious. If you can do that, there almost certainly will be a commercial benefit; but if you are inauthentic in picking a subject, and simply force yourself to write about something that will sell, then the work will suffer. It won't be a book that you'll be proud of.