Book Blogging: Stories in Stone #2 — Q&A with author David B. Williams
August 18, 2009
Note: This post is the second of two about Stories in Stone and is a Q&A with author David B. Williams. See the first post, my review of the book, here.
As part of the Stories in Stone virtual book tour I chatted with the author David B. Williams (via phone and e-mail) about his book. We ended up deciding on a Q&A format as the best way to summarize our interaction. My questions are in bold followed by David’s answers in normal font.
Also check out the comment thread below the post — David answered reader’s questions as part of the book tour. Check out his blog here to find out where and when the next stop on the tour is.
–1. Stories in Stone weaves together several different, yet intersecting, aspects of building stone — geology, history, architecture, and engineering, to name a few. Out of curiosity, what is your personal background? What aspect of the book was the most challenging for you to learn about?
I grew up in Seattle then got an undergraduate degree in geology from Colorado College. I have long had an interest in architecture and for a while in college considered getting an engineering degree so I could design bicycles. But I guess the strongest influence on my writing is my belief that the study of natural history needs to combine both nature and history, which has lead to weaving people into my writing about the natural world.
Nothing leaps out as the most challenging to learn, though I did struggle with understanding how to quarry slate because is has three axes to consider. That was mostly a spatial problem. Perhaps the most challenging part of writing was figuring out what to leave in and what to omit. To solve that problem, I did end up going with extensive end notes, which allowed me to drop in strange facts and observations that didn’t fit into text, such as my thoughts on movies that focused on the stones I discuss.
2. I enjoyed the sections of the book that discussed how geologic factors of building stone influenced the construction and/or subsequent maintenance of a structure (e.g., orientation of bedding planes and weathering of the building). How are specific geologic aspects factored into evaluating building stone by engineers and architects? For example, do they explicitly discuss bedding, sedimentary structures, igneous textures, etc. like geologists do? Or, do they have their own ‘language’?
Unfortunately, at least to my geologic mindset, few architects and engineers pay much attention to these geologic details. They focus more on aesthetic and color, then a feature such as bedding. If they did, we might have better built buildings. As I noted in my chapter on brownstone, misorientation of bedding planes contributed to the downfall of the stone as a building material. Nor, for that matter, do quarrymen always pay attention geologic features. In the Indiana limestone quarries, geologists have tried to point out where more resilient beds will be but the workers ignore the advice.
As to having their own language, a few terms leap out. What geologists call xenoliths, I heard called “heathens” and “cigars.” Veins were “ big, ugly ropes” and layering could be called flurry or veiny.
3. The majority of Clastic Detritus readers are academics, research scientists, or graduate students actively involved in research. Can you comment on the research methods you used in writing a popular book like Stories in Stone? How does it differ from doing research for technical writing?
In a way popular writing and “academic research” are similar in that you spend lots and lots of time doing the research and end up with relatively few bits of usable information, or at least few bits that help you tell your story well. That being said, I guess one difference is that I didn’t set out with a hypothesis for my research. Most often, I was reading and reading till I found the pieces I needed to tell the story. And in doing so, I was often looking for the novel and unusual, the outliers that made the stories fun, interesting, and memorable. That doesn’t mean that I neglected the basics required to write a story but often I chose a fact or observation that wouldn’t fit into technical writing. Another difference, and one that pertains a bit more toward the writing end, is that I could allow my personality to creep into the end product, which is what gave me the freedom to pick and choose what I need for telling a story.
4. Was the idea for this book something that developed over many years of contemplation? Or did it come to you in an “ah ha!” moment?
My interest in building stone has two parts. The first developed when I moved to Boston, away from the red rock desert of Utah. I felt adrift in Boston, not connected to the natural world I had been so integrated into for the previous decade. As I wrote in the book, my discovery of brownstone and its similarity to red rock, finally helped me to feel an affinity for Boston. This then launched me down the path to writing about building stone.
The second part came several years later when my wife and I had moved back to Seattle. I had recently finished a collection of essays about Seattle natural history called The Street-Smart Naturalist, and was trying to figure out what to do next. Having been interested in building stone for nearly a decade, I decided that I either had to try and write a book about it or move on. Much to my surprise, I quickly found an agent who was also interested in the idea and she and I worked together for almost eight months crafting a proposal for the book. Writing the book took another two years of solid work.
Brownstone gravestone from Portland, Connecticut (© David B. Williams)
5. What’s the most interesting story you can share about the places you visited or people you met during the writing of Stories in Stone that didn’t make it into the book?
Although I wrote a bit about my adventures in Carrara, I only scratched the surface. Carrara, the town, has a long history of being an anarchist stronghold. It must be one of the few places in the world with not just one but several marble sculptures devoted to anarchism, several of which appropriately were covered in graffiti. Far off the general tourist trail, the town was eerily empty on the day we arrived but the next day a traveling street market had set up where you could buy anything from Peruvian wool hats to designer shoes. It was very surreal but the contrasts made the town very appealing
Up in the mountains, we also came across this crazy little museum devoted to the tools of the stone trade. Hammers of all sizes, scary looking saws, odd poetry, old rail cars, blocks of colored marble from around the world, and many tools that I couldn’t discern their purpose were all crammed into a tiny yard, next to a store where you could buy sculptures of David and Moses in a range of sizes for every décor or souvenir seeker. The museum screamed kitsch but also seemed to fit Carrara’s image of “We don’t care what others think. This is who we are.” I highly recommend a visit to Carrara for any geologist.
Old tools at marble museum, Carrara, Italy (copyright David B. Williams)
Check out the comment thread below the post — David answered reader’s questions as part of the book tour. Check out his blog here to find out where and when the next stop on the tour is.