Interview with author Hank Nuwer

headshotnuwerLHank Nuwer is best known for his four young adult and adult books on the topic of hazing in society-including High School Hazing. He teaches journalism at Franklin College, Indiana but speaks on hazing at schools such as Kenyon College, Maine, Toronto, Cornell, Chico State, Dartmouth, Oregon, Michigan and Stetson. He also teaches on the art of nonfiction storytelling at writer conferences. Nuwer also has written To the Young Writer, a book for young adults on the business of writing as seen through the eyes of well-known authors; it was a New York Public Library 2002 award winner for Best Books for Young Adult readers. Other books for youngsters include a biography of Jesse Owens and books on football, baseball, sports scandals, steroids, and recruiting in sports.  His journalism has appeared in Harper’s, Outside, Fraternal Law, The Nation, Toronto Globe & Mail, Montreal Standard and Boston Magazine.

MWW Social media intern, Madison R Jones interviewed Hank for this week’s E-pistle.

JONES: At MWW you will teach three different nonfiction workshops: two on the art of storytelling in nonfiction and another about writing memoir. What’s the most important rule for a nonfiction writer to follow when trying to balance facts and truth with telling a good story?

NUWER: Oh, man. that is an easy question. Selection of detail. Cultivating the value of ruthlessness with regard to story. Pare to the essentials. Develop the parts too sparsely described. If you were reading this aloud, you’d want the audience leaning in to catch your every word. Nothing left out, nothing superfluous. It isn’t easy, but it can be done, and it must be.

JONES: You have taught at Midwest Writers before. How does it feel to be coming back, and what do you enjoy most about this conference?

NUWER: The energy. From the first step in the door and getting a hug from like five old friends to the class itself and getting to discover new talent, the entire MWW conference is a rush. One of my students (Gary Eller) went on to write a book and get an MFA from the famous writers school at the University of Iowa. Getting together with writers who love and appreciate good writing? It’s better than a love-in or jam session. It’s creativity at work. I won’t sleep for a week after the conference–just write. Seriously. I’m in the middle of a book right now and it’s 2:45 a.m. and what’s better in life than writing at 2:45 a.m.?

JONES: How old were you when you first were published?

NUWER: Age sixteen with two essays-for-pay in the Buffalo News. One was an op-ed, the other a review of a bad baseball game broadcast by Dizzy Dean.

JONES: When did you take your first creative writing class, and where was it?

NUWER: Hamline University in July 2012. I had never had a creative writing class before that. My professor was the poet and essayist Lia Purpura–who was in the New Yorker two issues back with a piece.

JONES: You had never had a writing class before that?

NUWER: Never.

JONES: What do you emphasize in your sessions?

NUWER: Great storytelling. Bringing out the telling details. Knowing what to leave in and what to pare out.

JONES: You said in your 2012 CBS interview with Tracy Smith that you’ve been writing about hazing since 1975. That’s nearly 40 years. What is it about this issue that draws you to write about it?

NUWER: I came to young adulthood in the 1960s when the driving urge for many of us was to make a difference. As a graduate student at the University of Nevada-Reno, I knew many members of a fraternal club of mainly athletes called the Sundowner Club through my own associations as a onetime president of the Graduate Student Association and intramural sports. The Sundowners conducted their bare-chested drinking initiations in public, and I saw two of them (alcohol-fueled hazings), actually imploring one friendly member to walk a student for hours that I had found inert under a pool table and frothing at the mouth. Just before I quit the program to pursue a freelance writing career I had started years earlier, the Sundowners had a third initiation far from campus and killed John Davies and caused a second pledge to have brain damage.

I wrangled an assignment from Human Behavior magazine to write about hazing behaviors and interviewed giants in the field of behavior about such theories as groupthink and our human urge for camaraderie and acceptance. I came to the belief that my interviews with such experts might in time put together all the best science and knowledge to eradicate hazing. With all due humility, I’d like to think my four books and countless articles on hazing have made a difference for the better to try to put an end to the degradation and violence that occurs worldwide in hazing acts.

JONES: What would be your advice for the new/young nonfiction writer when it comes to finding that topic or issue to write about and finding their niche?

NUWER: From my own experience, I say this. 1) Sometimes a topic will find you. An online friend named Sheryl Hill started the ClearCause Foundation to highlight the dangers of too-little-planned school travel tips after her son Tyler perished in a horrific fall. I never would have written about hazing if the Nevada-Reno death hadn’t occurred. I had experienced hazing in Scouts and a fraternity, but not the kind that causes a death–more of  a timewaster and irritation than anything serious. The UNR death was serious. 2) Sometimes you find a topic. Some topics we choose on our own and pursue and through research and exploration and hard work we finally publish. Examples would be my biographies of Olympic legend Jesse Owens and (in-progress) Kurt Vonnegut. I went after those contracts hard before editors assigned them to me. Many hazing contracts are offered me. But outside of hazing, I get assignments through queries and proposals to editors.

JONES: What is the best gift you can give a student?

NUWER: Guarded enthusiasm and paying attention to find that writer’s singular voice.

JONES: Why is it that some people with real writing talent don’t go as far as they can?

NUWER: They have to develop a thick skin. One or a hundred rejections later and they give up. Or they don’t keep a daily writing routine. When you’re not writing it should be because you’re on a vacation to put something back into your mental fuel tank. And even then, keep a notebook handy and jot down ideas for stories or articles as they come to you. Real writers know the importance of developing a writing routine and regimen. And they stick to those.  Make a list of all the things you can cut out that can have an hour or two of daily writing put in its place. Then write instead of doing those other things. Put something, anything, down on a blank page. Don’t wait for inspiration. Just do it, as the commercial says. And sooner than you think, you’ll have done it.

JONES: Is there one quotation every aspiring writer attending MWW should commit to memory?

NUWER: Theodore Roosevelt said this: “Believe you can and you’re halfway there.” Now combine the advice and techniques you acquire at MWW with discipline and courage . . . and you’re ALL the way there–you’re a writer.

Hank’s Part II sessions, Friday and Saturday include:

  • Putting Storytelling into Your Nonfiction (session in two parts)
  • Writing Memoir
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