Edward Ball’s is the kind of man-bites-dog story that makes pretty big news in publishing. Ball, an art critic for the Village Voice, decides to tackle his first book project—a 300-year family history. And with his memoir he hits a literary grand slam: the manuscript is taken on by one of publishing’s preeminent editors, and Slaves in the Family (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998) goes on to win the National Book Award for nonfiction. The memoir, called “a brilliant blend of archival research and oral history” by The New Yorker, draws the kind of attention its best-selling predecessor Angela’s Ashes attracted for Frank McCourt. Following that comes the author tour, with book signings, readings, lectures.
But all that must have been the easy part for Ball, whose best-selling scholarly memoir traces the history of South Carolina’s Ball family, the rice and cotton plantations they ran and the people they enslaved. The real work was the research and writing, which for Ball was a full-time job for three years. During that time he reviewed 10,000 pages of family records, letters and papers spanning some 300 years; interviewed hundreds of people, both Ball family members and descendents of Ball family slaves to record oral histories; and spent months “roaming the halls of libraries and reading other works to learn the rules of research and history.” Public reception, Ball says, was icing on the cake.
“When you’re writing a book, you only think about whether you can finish it. I didn’t have the luxury of saying ‘this will all be worth it in the end’,” he says. “I was trying to do something that took every fiber of my intelligence, and an enormous exertion of strength, and I was just thinking ‘can I actually do this?’ This is the first book I’ve written, and like a lot of writers, I wasn’t exactly sure what it would be like after publication.”
While the recognition Ball’s book has received makes his story a bit of an anomaly, more writers than ever are taking a crack at memoir. The form is alluring now, both because it has exploded in popularity, and because everyone has a story to tell. But before writers sit down to craft that life story, whether it’s a 300-year family history an intimate personal account, a little instruction can go a long way: Where do you find the archives and documents that create the roadmap for your story? Can you rely on memory alone, or do you need to corroborate that with records? What can you do to prevent causing rifts in the family you’re writing about? What should you know when you sit down to do the actual writing?
Here Ball discusses the path he followed to write Slaves in the Family, and shares advice from the trail for writers considering tackling their own life stories.
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