Robert Kurson earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin, then a law degree from Harvard Law School. His award-winning stories have appeared in Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, and Esquire, where he is a contributing editor. Crashing Through is based on Kurson's 2006 National Magazine Award-winning profile in Esquire. He is the author of Shadow Divers, and he lives in Chicago. Visit the author's web site at www.robertkurson.com.
Author biography courtesy of Random House.
Good to Know
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Some fun and fascinating outtakes from our interview with Kurson:
"For about a year after I quit law to pursue a career in writing, I hung drapes and installed window blinds to make a living. It gave me lots of solitary quiet time (other than the sound of my drill) to think about storytelling and story structure and the elements of a good tale well told."
"Some of my other jobs before becoming a writer:
Hot dog vendor at Wrigley Field
Flower delivery man
Traveling salesman for my dad's motorcycle paints and lubricants business
Options trader at the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE)."
"I was inspired to write, I think, by having two parents who were exceptional storytellers and who both had exquisite sensitivities to the world and the people in it. My mom and dad saw things in situations and in human beings that very few others saw, and they talked about it to their children. Both of them instinctively knew how to tell a fantastic story -- they had built-in, DNA-level instincts for character, drama, tension, and story arc. Listening to them talk about their lives, the people they'd known, and the things they saw in the world was more interesting and moving than any film I could imagine. My dad died several years ago. My mom remains the best storyteller I know in the world. She just gets better and better. She could tell you a story about walking down the hall in her condo and would have you riveted, all without ever trying too hard."
"Here's a strange fact about me: I cannot read -- books, magazines, or anything else -- while I'm writing my own books or stories. If I do, I start to vaguely sound like the writers I'm reading. So I just go cold turkey on my own reading while I'm writing -- that way (for better or worse) I sound strictly like myself."
"Here are some things I've loved since boyhood that I can't seem to stop loving as a 44-year-old man:
Watching small airplanes take off and land at the local airport
The Universal Studios classic monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman, et al.)
Taking batting practice at coin-operated pitching machines
Perhaps the single thing I like best in the world is taking long drives along the country's blue highways, those two-lane roads that wind through America. I took many of these drives as a young boy (often for weeks at a time) with my father as I accompanied him on his many business trips, telling stories along the way. The rhythm of the road and the solitary company I find in it speaks to my soul like nothing else. I'm starting to take my own son on these trips and find it to be just about the happiest experience I've ever had in life. Along the way, I think about my writing, and it is during these rides that I often find my best inspiration."
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In the summer of 2007, Robert Kurson took some time to answer some of our questions about his favorite books and authors, and life as a writer.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. This is the single book that truly changed my life. Becker's idea -- that man's inescapable fear of death is at the root of human motivation, psychology, culture, and good and evil -- explains so much about why people do what they do that you'll never look at the world in the same way again. At the same time, he is such a beautiful writer and clear and powerful thinker that one could read this book simply for its artistry. Becker made me believe that written ideas can be beautiful. Finally, this book cannot help but force readers to always look into the motivations and drives of a story's characters, no matter what the story.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Patrimony by Philip Roth -- A brave and loving and beautifully honest farewell by the author to his dying father. It is impossible to read Roth's true account without realizing how we say goodbye to our aging parents every day -- and that we say goodbye to ourselves just as often.
The Napoleon of Crime by Ben Macintyre -- The astonishing true story of 19th-century master thief Adam Worth, whose genius and daring purportedly made him the model for Sherlock Holmes's archnemesis, Professor Moriarty. Author Macintyre is a gorgeous writer -- as good as they come in narrative nonfiction. And he makes Worth's world and obsessions as real as if we'd joined the master on his grandest heist.
The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence S. Ritter -- To my mind, the greatest sports book ever written. On the surface, it's a collection of interviews with turn-of-the-century baseball players, great and ordinary. At its heart, it is the voice of America, with an optimism and toughness and love of the simple that reminds us about why we really love baseball and our country so dearly.
Narcissus Leaves the Pool by Joseph Epstein -- A collection from one of America's great essayists. The language is gorgeous, the thinking stellar, and the humor a gift. Epstein's choice of subjects is as fascinating as the essays themselves. His treatment of napping alone is many times worth the price of admission.
Conversations with Kafka by Gustav Janouch -- A man's remembrances of his boyhood friendship with the great writer and philosopher, Franz Kafka. Janouch's memories open up a part of Kafka that is at once warm and profound, kind and brilliant, and always unforgettable.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky -- Perhaps the greatest journey into the psyche and heart and self-conception of an individual ever written, and a breathtakingly exciting story, too.
The Know-It-All by A. J. Jacobs -- Hilarious and surprisingly beautiful account of Jacobs's year spent reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica. You learn, laugh, and are moved are nearly every page.
Shibumi by Trevanian --The first mystery I ever read, and still one of the best.
Dialogues by Plato -- The Socratic dialogues convinced me by themselves to change my major in college from chemistry to philosophy. They are funny, brilliant, and stay with a person for a lifetime after reading. They are masterpieces of philosophy but also are so beautifully written that they can be enjoyed strictly as literary gems.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Here are my five favorite films:
The Big Lebowski
Stand by Me
These films have a few things in common. First is the beautiful, realistic, nuanced, and highly perceptive dialogue. The language is as powerful and wonderful as in the greatest books, and is so memorable that fans of these films quote the dialogue every day of their lives.
Second, the characters themselves are so keenly observed, so subtly perceived, that the viewer comes to know them as they know old family members. None of the characters in any of these movies is likely to be similar to anyone you know, yet every one of them behaves in ways that are entirely sensible and consistent to you, even within minutes of first viewing the film.
Third, none of these films is absolutely bound to its story. That's not to say the stories aren't fascinating -- they are -- but that one gets the sense that these characters could have been in a film about virtually anything and it still would have been a great film.
Finally, the performances are phenomenal, all inspired and joyful and painfully true.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I start with the Beatles (especially middle to late period) and go from there. I love melodic but powerful pop and rock. Some of my favorites include XTC, the Jam, the Kinks, Queen, and Wilco. Other than Beatles albums, my current favorite record is XTC's Skylarking. I also like blues (B. B. King) and jazz (Tommy Flanagan, Mose Allison, Louis Jordan).
I'm afraid I can't listen to music of any kind when I'm writing; my brain always pays more attention to the music than to the words I'm trying to write, so it turns out I must write in complete silence. Even the sound of a neighbor's lawnmower outside my window distracts me! Needless to say, this makes me a great pain for my family during my writing hours.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Whatever happens to be the latest from Philip Roth, whom I believe to be America's greatest living novelist. One can have a series of 52 book club meetings in a year on a Roth book, each week devoted to a different aspect of his book, and still have things left over to discuss.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like to give and get sports biographies, usually those that are constructed to be beyond the obvious story. Jonathan Eig's Luckiest Man, about Lou Gehrig, is just such an example.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I keep my desk totally clean except for any research materials I might be using at the time. Having things on my desk is like having music playing -- too distracting! I seem to need my writing space (which includes the entire room) to be spare and plain.
What are you working on now?
I'm currently engaged in the very hardest part of my writing career -- searching for a new book topic. Good book ideas are commonplace. Great book ideas are incredibly rare and hard to find. So the search is on.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I began my quest for a writing career after quitting a lucrative practice as an attorney. I hated being a lawyer, so I was willing to do whatever was necessary in order to break into writing, a profession I (rightly) suspected I would love. After an interesting year (see the "Good to Know" section), I took a job in the sports department of the Chicago Sun-Times doing data entry, nights and weekends, for an annual salary of about $23,000. It was the best move I've ever made. It put me in a writing environment, where I slowly but surely got chances to get my work in the paper and to learn excellent reporting and deadline skills.
Things worked out for me pretty nicely after that, as I went on to do magazine work and then books. I think one of the biggest advantages I had in my writing career was that I started it later than most (at age 31); I'd done a lot of thinking about storytelling and structure up to that point without actually testing the waters, which I think was very valuable.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Elliott Harris, a sportswriter for the Chicago Sun-Times, who has a wonderful eye for a good story and a kind and engaging voice.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
The single most important advice I could offer an undiscovered writer is to find the very best story you can tell, and be willing to search for it –- for as long as it takes -- if you haven't yet found it. Story is everything. Story will deliver you.
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