Literary Indiana: Nonfiction Authors

From biographies to memoirs, Indy authors discuss their work in reality.

Ray Boomhower

If you’re going to spend years on a biography, take a tip from this Indiana Authors Award winner, who has written 10 of them: Pick people you like—you’ll be spending a lot of time with them. The former journalist scours libraries for illuminating letters, manuscripts, and interviews in order to infuse his (mostly Hoosier) subjects—from war correspondent Ernie Pyle to suffragette May Wright Sewell—with nuance and dimension. As senior editor of the Indiana Historical Society Press, Boomhower helms Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History magazine, but good reading can be found on Twitter, too, where he sprinkles his feed with quotes on the literary life.

First Story: “I started out doing work for my Mishawaka High School newspaper, the Alltold. One of the first pieces I wrote was an editorial crusading for the school’s administrators to put doors on the stalls in the men’s rooms. At the time, it seemed like an important issue.”

Excerpt: “Hoosier novelist Meredith Nicholson was particularly taken with Lew Wallace’s dark eyes and beautiful voice. He compared hearing Wallace talk to the experience of reading a book—‘a mighty good book at that.’” (from The Sword & the Pen)

On His Nightstand: The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography, by Scott Donaldson. “When Donaldson started to research his first book, he had that clap of thunder—Hey, this is something I can do for the rest of my life! That’s the same epiphany I had with my first book.”

 Tom FrenchThomas French

For almost three decades at the St. Petersburg Times, French produced stories that set the standard for feature writing in this country. His piece “Angels and Demons,” about the murder of three women in Florida, won the Pulitzer Prize. Periodically, he has expanded those articles into books. 2010’s Zoo Story humanized the animals at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. A few years ago, French returned to teach at IU, where he was once the editor-in-chief of the Indiana Daily Student. He and his wife, Kelley Benham French, are working on a book about their preemie daughter, Juniper.

First Story: “I wrote my first book in sixth grade. It was basically a variation on Jonny Quest—an adventure story with lots of bad guys, machine guns, and hovercraft. The only person who read it was my sister, Brooke. She was a kind critic.”

Excerpt: “Above the waves and the clouds, the 747 soared on. Sunlight burned along the wings … Inside the hold, some of the elephants drifted in and out of sleep. Others were more alert, the effects of their Azaperone injections slowly wearing off. Mick, beyond exhaustion by now, was still patrolling back and forth between them, talking softly in the human language they were most likely to recognize. ‘Kahle mfana,’ said Mick, speaking in siSwati, the native tongue of Swaziland. ‘Kutwulunga.’ Steady, boy. It will be OK.” (from Zoo Story)

On His Nightstand: Scheherazade, by Haruki Murakami. “I realized that what Kelley and I were doing in the NICU with Juniper had some echoes in that tale. We were reading her stories to keep her alive. That’s what Scheherazade was doing for herself.”

 GayRoxane Gay

As hard to categorize as she is easy to read, Gay writes unsettling novels, pop-culture memoirs, and wickedly funny Tweets with equal talent. In 2014, she accepted a teaching job at Purdue University just as her literary career was taking off. That year, her essay collection Bad Feminist and novel An Untamed State stormed the publishing world. The New York Times, Washington Post, and Time all praised the works. Which raises the bar pretty high for her 2016 memoir, Hunger, said to be about bodies and eating.

First Story: “When I was 4, I would draw little villages on napkins and write a story about the people in the village on the back. My parents noticed I was doing this strange thing and they bought me a typewriter.”

Excerpt: “Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies that it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones. They held me captive for thirteen days. They wanted to break me. It was not personal. I was not broken. This is what I tell myself.” (from An Untamed State)

On Her Nightstand: Purity, by Jonathan Franzen. “I’m not liking it much. But I’m only 100 pages in, and it’s a 600-page book, so I have to give it more time. I’m reviewing it for NPR, so I better make it to the end.”

LevyAndrew Levy

Levy’s books compel you to reconsider what history tells you. The First Emancipator recounts the forgotten story of an American plantation owner who freed his nearly 500 slaves 70 years before the Civil War; Huck Finn’s America reexamines what Mark Twain’s classic says about children and race. But it’s A Brain Wider Than the Sky, Levy’s memoir and cultural history of migraines, that has inspired the biggest reaction among readers. Writing about the debilitating headaches was part of his therapy for overcoming them. “I’d like to write more books like that,” says Levy, the chair of Butler University’s English department, “but I don’t want to have more migraines.”

First Story: A 40-page political satire called Are There Any Four-Leaf Clovers on the White House Lawn? “I wrote it when I was 11 or 12, at the height of the Watergate scandal. It seemed like laughing at it all was a very good answer.”

Excerpt: “And then a throb hits you on the left side of the head so hard that your head bobs to the right. You look for the referee counting you down to ten. There’s no way that came from inside your head, you think. That’s no metaphysical crisis. God just punched you in the side of the face.” (from A Brain Wider Than the Sky)

On His Nightstand: Wonder, by R. J. Palacio. “It’s a genuinely moving young adult novel. There are a lot of young adult novels right now that really reach out, and I think they’re essential to any healthy adult’s reading habits.”

James MadisonJames Madison

Madison began writing about Indiana in the late 1960s—“mostly because it was all around me,” he says. In the nearly 50 years since, he has all but owned the topic. His evocative storytelling brought us books such as Eli Lilly, The Indiana Way, and A Lynching in the Heartland. A professor emeritus at Indiana University, he is, in the words of Earlham College history professor Thomas Hamm, “the most careful and objective historian the state of Indiana has ever had.”

First Story: “One of my first essays was about opposition to the Mexican War in Indiana. I thought it was excellent, but a magazine editor disagreed. I told myself the old guy didn’t understand opposition to the Vietnam War, which is what drove my interest. But when I found the typescript years later, I saw that it just wasn’t very good.”

Excerpt: “Hoosiers are nice people—so nice that they sometimes stick their heads in the sand and hope that contentious issues will go away. Some still believe that we should tell only happy stories that celebrate our past. That kind of old-fashioned history is better suited to fourth-graders who need civic role models. (Fourth grade is the last time the state requires the teaching of Indiana history.) This book is for adults.” (from Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana)

On His Nightstand: The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal. “A great historical memoir. It’s not about Indiana, but writers like de Waal remind me that we need to get out of the state to understand it.”

 Scott SandersScott Russell Sanders

Whether he’s writing a book of essays or the occasional novel, Sanders rarely strays far from the subjects of nature and spirituality. The environmentalist has contributed to Audubon magazine and written 20 books—with two more scheduled for 2016. A reviewer once called the retired Indiana University English professor “a sage of the Midwest.” As his inclusion in The Best American Essays shows, though, his influence extends far beyond the region.

First Story: “It was inspired by a family I knew while growing up in Ohio. The father was an amateur preacher, especially devoted to the Book of Revelations. In that dire last book of the New Testament, he detected signs that the end of the world was coming; he even specified the date, and went around warning everyone to repent or be damned to hellfire. He withdrew his children from school, quit his job, and hunkered down in the family shack to await the end. When the date passed without calamity, he moved his humiliated family away, and we never heard from them again.”

Excerpt: “The practice of conservation is not merely a personal virtue. It is the most public of virtues, an expression of our regard for our neighbors, for this marvelous planet, and for future generations. Over the past five years, my wife and I have become grandparents three times over. If I were ever in danger of forgetting why we should preserve Earth’s bounty and beauty, these children remind me.” (from A Conservationist Manifesto)

On His Nightstand: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, by Naomi Klein. “It’s a lucid, compassionate analysis of how addiction to fossil fuels, free market fundamentalism, corporate greed, and the gospel of perpetual growth have pushed the world to the brink of ecological breakdown.”

Michael SheldenMichael Shelden

“It’s like being a reporter, but the story is really cold. So you have to warm it up.” That’s how Shelden describes his five biographies. To thaw his subjects, the Indiana State University professor has researched them in places like Bermuda (for Mark Twain: Man in White) and England (for Orwell: The Authorized Biography, a Pulitzer Prize finalist). His latest, Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill, was optioned by the makers of Downton Abbey. Next up, a whale of a tale coming in 2016: his biography of Herman Melville.

First Story: Shelden’s book about author Cyril Connolly was the first thing he wrote that wasn’t criticism or scholarship. “My first story was a hit at 38 years old.”

Excerpt: “Now, as he surveyed the damage of that fiery Saturday night, tears began to trickle down his cheeks, and then to flow. Motionless in the sunlight—one hand in his overcoat, his feet planted firmly on a mound of rubble—he looked for a second like a statue that had miraculously survived the bombing.” (from Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill)

On His Nightstand: In the Kingdom of Ice, by Hampton Sides. “It’s about an Arctic expedition. I like his style of dealing with real events. It could be something that took place a hundred years ago, but he makes it seem as though it happened yesterday.”


Opening SpreadLiterary Indiana: The Next Chapter
Indiana’s Fiction Writers
Indiana’s Nonfiction Writers
Indiana’s Poets