On Thursday, March 3rd, Tracy Kidder met with local writers, including past and present Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients. Literary Arts arranged the meeting, which coincided with Kidder’s appearance that evening at Portland Arts and Lectures.
It actually took me a moment to realize I was talking to Tracy Kidder. I’d only seen one picture and didn’t recognize him. This should have been embarrassing, but Kidder’s presence was warm, grounded and unconcerned with notoriety. He steeped a bag of tea and asked me, “What’s that one song about chamomile?” Neither of us knew.
Tracy Kidder is known for authoring up-close, non-fiction profiles – indeed he’s won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for doing so. His subjects range from a team of carpenters building a home to the life of Dr. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health. His journalistic approach matched with his fiction beginnings mean Kidder’s narratives allow readers an unmatched level of intimacy with the figures in his books. For Kidder, nobody is too ordinary and nobody is too extraordinary.
And as he drank his tea and sat before a room of writers, one could see how he’s so successful. Yes, he set the topic for the afternoon– structure and how to choose the right one – but his tone and body language put the room at ease. What started as a talk turned into a conversation; even the youngest students comfortably spoke without needing permission. This, I remember thinking, must be how he does what he does – allowing other people to speak and listening to what they say. At one point someone asked about moral intent. After all, she suggested, a book like Mountains Beyond Mountains has certainly caused positive ripples. To that, Kidder responded: “I don’t try to do good. I just like to tell good stories.” His passion for stories and people and writing just prove that words matter, even if the author didn’t foresee their results.
Kidder had two more cups of tea. “The real shame of these tours,” he said, “is that I do all the talking. I don’t learn very much from other people.” When the conversation needed to be cut short for his busy schedule, Kidder seemed genuinely regretful. “I’d love to do this all afternoon,” he said. And with more than a little irony, it became apparent how much he loved talking with, listening to and getting to know people as he walked out the door.