What It Takes to Manage a Complex Book Project
Tuesday, September 16, 2003
Aspiring authors and their editors got a dose of reality at September's BAEF meeting as John Boykin described the process by which he researched, organized and wrote his award-winning book Cursed is the Peacemaker: The American Diplomat Versus The Israeli General, Beirut 1982. Boykin's book about American diplomat Philip Habib won the American Academy of Diplomacy Book Award in 2002. It is reviewed here.
"For a writer, this is the story of a lifetime," said Boykin, who earns a living as an editor and information designer. "It's the kind of story that writers spend their whole career hoping to land." Boykin maintained that his seven years of painstaking research and writing—including 150 hours of interviews and examination of 10,000 pages of declassified State Department documents—were all worthwhile.
However, said Boykin, "writing is not the act of recording what you have to say, but the process of discovering what you have to say," and the subject that he set out to explore—the diplomatic work of Philip Habib—was richly rewarding.
Boykin originally intended to write a biography of Habib's life, but after a year of research he narrowed his subject to events of the summer of 1982, when Ariel Sharon invaded Lebanon in an effort to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization. Because Habib seldom talked about his work, there was little public information available. Therefore, when Boykin set out to research Habib's life he did so through personal interviews and by gaining the confidence of Habib's family. Habib's widow provided him with a letter of reference, as did former Secretary of State George Shultz. Boykin used these letters when requesting interviews with others who knew Habib and his work in Lebanon. It also helped to mention the names of others Boykin had already spoken with. In addition, Mrs. Habib provided Boykin with the letters of condolence she had received after her husband's death in 1992; these were a good source for finding still others to talk to. Finally, Boykin had help from a protege of Habib who provided names of contacts and explained context and background.
Boykin said he always prepared two hours' worth of questions in advance of an interview but was flexible in allowing the conversation to take its course. Generally, he kept asking questions until forced to stop, but not before soliciting the names of others he could talk to. Most of the interviews were done with a telephone that could make recordings, and Boykin transcribed them himself, a slow and tedious process that might now be more easily done with Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice-recognition software.
Unlike journalists who work with time-sensitive deadlines, Boykin was able to thoroughly check the accuracy of what he wrote by sending drafts of finished chapters to his main sources, asking them to read it for accuracy.
Declassified Government Documents
At the beginning of the project Boykin was assured that he would never get access to classified State Department documents, although he went ahead and requested them under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). During the first five years of research, his main source of information was interviews, and he had resigned himself to basing the book on them. Then the documents he had requested began to arrive from the State Department, and Boykin was obliged to read them and revise his book accordingly.
Applying for documents under the Freedom of Information Act proved a somewhat involved process. Boykin's advice:
The declassified documents on which Cursed is the Peacemaker is based have been given to the Stanford University Library, where they are available for others to examine.
The events of 1982 were convoluted, and the amount of information to wade through turned out to be huge. To organize this collection of oral and textual material, Boykin developed a few organizational systems. Interview transcripts were interspersed with underlined, boldfaced headings to indicate the subject of each utterance. These headings, along with the name of the person interviewed and the date, were then listed in an index to the interview. In his Index of Interviews, the headings were re-sorted according to subject and colored blue if used and green if not used in the book. Realizing that a simple chronology was inadequate, Boykin developed a matrix to trace, day by day, who, what, and where Habib, the US government, the PLO, and the Israelis were doing. To keep track of the source of each piece of information, Boykin used a rubber stamp numbering code and a stamp code log. Finally, he made up a glossary of people and terms so he would have less to explain individually to his helpers.
Boykin hired research assistants, some paid out of a small grant he had received and some out of his own pocket. He found most of them at monstertrak.com, since it lets you specify which school student helpers come from, and he always limited the total amount paid to less that $600 to avoid having to file tax forms.
The text of Cursed is the Peacemaker ends on page 338 and is followed by some 125 pages of endnotes, set in 8 point justified type. Some readers have commented that the notes are as informative as the narrative itself, providing not only documentary source citations but also further details, subplots, and secondary stories. Because he wanted the book to be enjoyed as a narrative, Boykin avoided using superscript endnote numbers in the text. Instead, each endnote begins with a page number and a few key words that peg it to the passage it refers to.
Boykin cited as his main mistake that he had grossly misjudged the scale of the project, thinking it would take three years to write a complete biography of Habib's life. In reality, the project took seven years, and the subject was narrowed to the events of the summer of 1982 in Lebanon. Boykin researched Habib's work in the Philippines and Central America but included the material only in an index. While producing this book on weekends and evenings, Boykin worked full time at other pursuits. So far the book has not reached the bestseller lists, although the Arabic translation is selling especially well in Lebanon. The most rewarding aspect of his efforts, Boykin said, was simply in the doing and the learning. Habib, he said, was a hero for all of the right and best reasons, a man who risked his life to stop carnage, and his story had never been told. It is a dramatic story and a story of individual heroic effort. Having such a good story to tell, Boykin concluded, made the effort worthwhile.