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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.
A weathered, brownstone face (formerly a dragon) from Brooklyn, NY (© David B. Williams)

A weathered, brownstone face (formerly a dragon) from Brooklyn, NY (© David B. Williams)

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)
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 in Carrara, Italy (© David B. Williams)
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.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. August 18, 2009 7:13 am

    One of the most interesting parts of your Carrara trip (to me, anyhow) was the digression into the proper way to eat pig fat. Can you share some of the details of that delicacy with readers?

  2. Esther permalink
    August 18, 2009 8:06 am

    I have yet to read your book (though definitely plan to the moment I get a copy!), but given your comment on how architects, builders, and quarrymen don’t really take geologist comments into account, I’m interested to hear whether you think this was also true of ancient builders and sculptors/quarry workers. Did they have a closer relationship to their materials than architects today? Would they have paid more attention to material characteristics and bedding, given a relative proximity (either literally or experientially) to the sources, or was it pretty much the same dialogue of ‘hey, local rock! Send it over!” and/or “I want my temple constructed of the most extravagant material possible!” ?

  3. August 18, 2009 8:13 am


    Thanks for the fine gastronomic question. Yes, eating lardo was a highlight of my adventure in Carrara. Lardo is a very geologic food, considering it is “deposited” as pig fat layers intercalated with herbs, salt, and spices in a vat, basically a bathtub, of Carrara marble. Lardo has a centuries-long history as the food of the quarrymen, or cavatori, of Carrara. My experience with lardo was at a refugio hiking hut above Carrara, where we stopped for lunch. The lardo looked like, well lard, and we cut it into thin slices and ate it on a piece of bread with onion and tomato. It was delicious, cool and creamy. Following the lardo I had a shot of espresso, and we then headed out in search of more stone. As I wrote in the book, geologizing doesn’t get any better than that.

  4. August 18, 2009 8:19 am

    We do know that, at least in ancient Rome, the builders and architects had a better understanding than their modern counterparts of the strengths and weaknesses of stone. The great writer of architecture Vitruvius devotes a long section in his book to analyzing which rock one should use in which situation. Several modern geologists, including Marie Jackson at Northern Arizona University, have used modern tools to analyze the stones the Vitruvius discussed and she has found that in most situations Vitruvius was spot on. I write extensively about this facet of building stone in my chapter on travertine, another key stone used by the Romans.
    Hope you enjoy the book and thanks for your question.

  5. August 18, 2009 8:57 am

    On the topic of modern architects and stone, do you get the feeling that their concentration on aesthetic and colour is damaging to local heritage and local stone quarrying industry? We’ve exchanged a couple of comments on our respective blogs about ‘stone miles’ – but would you care to elaborate here?

  6. August 18, 2009 9:36 am

    I do think that architects and builders should consider the idea of “stone miles” or “slow stone,” particularly when there is good local stone nearby. By importing stone from all over the world, we do damage local industry and also, as you observe, neglect local heritage. One great example of this is the brownstone industry around Portland, Connecticut. Not too long ago, the quarries, which had long been shut down and flooded, were slated (excuse the pun) to be developed into a yacht club, or something like that. Fortunately, local historian Alison Guinness knew the quarries’ history and helped protect them. Within a few years, Mike Meehan had opened a small quarrying operation at the old quarries. He is now providing local stone for new projects and for restoration work.
    So as I have said before: “Prevent the Reuniting of Gondwanaland; Don’t Ship Stone.” “Support Slow Stone; Use Only Regional Rock.”In this world where we are trying to be more environmentally hip, architects and builders should consider the global footprint of the stone they use.

  7. August 18, 2009 11:31 am

    Congratulations on breathing so much life into the old stone trade, David. in the USA and the Stone Roofing Association in the UK are both into the issues of local stone. Even if we don’t use local stone quarries for new construction, restoration of historical structures often requires it.

    Did you ever visit the NIST’s test wall, where a couple thousand samples of building stone have been exposed to the elements for over 50 years?

  8. August 18, 2009 11:56 am

    Thanks for your comments and for your posting about my blog tour earlier today. I have heard of but not been to the NIST test wall. It sounds interesting. You are right about the requirement of local stone in restoration. Again, as I pointed out in my book, the brownstone company owned by Mike Meehan has supplied some brownstone for restoration in Brooklyn. I hope he continues to provide the stone because the rock is far more interesting and beautiful than the stucco that is now covering up many of the old Brooklyn brownstones.

  9. August 18, 2009 12:10 pm

    Great conversation.

    David … while reading this book (and your blog) I was reminded of a story from a professor from my undergrad days back in upstate NY talking about how one could get a decent overview of an area’s geology by looking at old stone fences.

    I’ve always wondered if anybody has put together a ‘geologic map’ of stone fences … or I suppose with tombstones or building stone as … do you know of something like that?

  10. August 18, 2009 12:23 pm

    No I don’t know of any such map. There are some great stone fence posts in Kansas, in what is known as Post Rock country. And there are two wonderful books on stone walls. Both are by Robert M. Thorson. The books are Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England’s Stone Walls and Exploring Stone Walls: A Field Guide to New England’s Stone Walls. I do not know of such a book for tombstones, though I can imagine it would be interesting and fun to write and research.

  11. August 18, 2009 2:34 pm


    I just discovered this blog and read with great interest the stories of stone and building. Your description of Carrara reminds me of the mostly defunct marble industry in East Tennessee. The “marble” here is really a very tightly cemented limestone that has undergone a lot of diagenetic change and now closely resembles the properties of metamorphic marble.

    What many people don’t know is that many(most?) of the early federal buildings in DC were constructed of this dimension stone. Once you become aware of its use, you start seeing it in many applications, e.g. stalls in restrooms in Chicago, on the walls of many Post offices around the country etc.

    I wonder if you have looked into this stone source and its history?

  12. August 18, 2009 3:33 pm

    Thanks for your note. No, I haven’t looked into that stone. There is so much amazing rock out there, I had to limit myself. Do you know the trade name and/or geologic name of the rock? Perhaps I can try and track down some additional info on it.
    I am glad you pointed out the use of stone in bathrooms. I keep thinking I will do a blog about stall stones. The other day I took a group of kids on my building stone tour in Seattle, which ends up at a hotel that uses a German limestone with five-inch wide ammonites. We spent time in the lobby looking for ammonites but when I told them they should check out the bathrooms they all sprinted to the restrooms in search. I hope there weren’t too many people using them at the time. It might have been a shock when the little paleontologists arrived.

  13. August 19, 2009 11:16 am

    David, thanks for the reply. Check out the Holston Marble (Middle Ordovician). Its distinguishing properties are:

    1. Pink mostly, but differing colors exist.
    2. Abundant, semi-parallel styolyte seams
    3. Except for styoltes, fairly uniform texture (large white calcite clasts are sometimes seen)
    4. Found in thrust sheets (belts) in the southern Appalachian Thrust Belt.


  14. August 19, 2009 4:41 pm

    I will see what I can find.

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  1. Week Two of the Virtual Book Tour |

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