Friday, November 4, 2016

Nonfiction Book Success--The Challenge of Telling Someone Else's True Story

One of my favorite kinds of emails come from past students in my book-structuring classes whose books are being published.  Three such emails came to my inbox this week, and I wanted to share the story behind one of them in this week's blog.


When I first met journalist Ed Orzechowski in one of my classes, his book project fascinated me.  It wasn't an easy task to write a true story about a patient at the infamous Belchertown institution.  But Ed persevered.  You'll Like It Here, the true story of Donald Vitkus, patient #3394, is being released this month from Levellers Press.  I asked Ed to share some of the process of building a book on someone else's true--and horrific--story. 


Abandoned by his unwed mother during World War II, Donald Vitkus became a ward of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was 27 days old.  Six years later as "Patient #3394," he was committed to Belchertown State School, where he was labeled a "moron" with an I.Q. of 41. Like hundreds of other institutions across the country, Belchertown was a de-humanizing environment of barred windows, locked doors, and brutal regimentation.
 
Resistant to authority, Donald refuses mind-numbing medication, smokes contraband cigarettes, joins an escape committee, and learns of the outside world on a black-and-white TV. He later serves in Vietnam, searches for his family, marries, and earns a college degree-all in a lifelong battle to convince others, and himself, that Donald Vitkus is not a moron.  You'll Like It Here is a story of the resiliency of the human spirit.

Interview with author Ed Orzechowski     

What's your background as a writer?
I'm a retired high school English teacher, and moonlighted for several years as a radio news reporter. As a freelancer, I've written many newspaper and magazine pieces, including columns, op-eds, and features.
How did you get interested in this story?
My wife and I are board members of an organization that advocates for individuals with developmental disabilities. My sister-in-law is severely autistic. In 2005 I arranged a book signing at a local community college for the founder of our organization. He had self-published a book about a federal class-action lawsuit he initiated over horrifying conditions at Belchertown State School in western Massachusetts and other institutions. At that signing, a 62-year-old student named Donald Vitkus told me he himself had grown up at Belchertown, and was looking for someone to write his story. That conversation evolved into this book.
How did you begin writing it?  What research did you take on?
Even though this wasn't the story of my own life, I took a couple of memoir writing courses. Our first assignment was to write just one scene, and that's what I did.
Most of the research occurred at my dining room table, interviewing Donald. I recorded our talks (nearly 24 hours in total), transcribed them, and worked from those notes. A major plus was that Donald had acquired detailed records from his years in the institution, many of which are reproduced in the book. I talked to his family, other former residents of the state school, a historian with the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services, visited libraries and museums, read related books, and, of course, searched the web.
Describe your working relationship with Donald.  How often did you correspond?  What did you talk about?  How much artistic license did you take in creating a readable story?
We met intermittently over a few years. In our initial talks, Donald related incidents that occurred while he was living at Belchertown, many of them painful and disturbing memories, some of them humorous. He told me about his Vietnam service, his work, his education, and his family. He shared everything. It was difficult to establish a time line because his memories were scattered. I pursued whatever piqued my interest, and sometimes he cried. Over the course of these conversations, we became close friends.
The challenge was to reconstruct scenes and dialogue without compromising fact. This is a true story, told in first person from Donald's point of view. For lack of a better term, I call it narrative nonfiction. I made every effort to use Donald's voice, to remain accurate and faithful to his account. In the interest of privacy, I changed a few names. But there are no fabricated incidents because we both wanted to convey what actually happened in this community within a community, and how those eleven years locked away from society affected his entire life.
How long did it take? 
I laugh because the title of those initial courses was "Writing the Nine-Month Memoir." It took me eight years.
What were the steps to complete the book?
The interviewing was fascinating, and the transcribing tedious. At the same time, I needed to learn how to write a book. I had never written anything longer than a few thousand words, and knew nothing about structure, flow, dialogue, story arc, etc. I joined writers' groups, attended dozens of workshops and conferences, and took all three parts of your online class, Your Book Starts Here, through The Loft Literary Center. Your guidance and the feedback from other students were invaluable.
Anything else you'd like to share with readers here?
Two things. First of all, what a privilege it has been to be allowed intimate access inside the life of another human being. Second-now that our book is about to launch-the discovery that there's a lot more work involved in marketing a book after you finally hold a finished copy in your hand.

You're invited to meet Ed and Donald at the book launch on Sunday, November 13, at 4:00 p.m. at the Florence Civic Center, 90 Park Street, Florence MA 01062.  You can purchase the book here.