How did you write that, Neil Swidey?

Photo credit: Denise Drower Swidey

Photo credit: Denise Drower Swidey

Deep-sea diving. Waste management. Chemistry. Engineering. Municipal contracts. In his latest book, Neil Swidey brings together all these topics and more into a gripping story about the men and women who made Boston’s vision of a clean, safe harbor come true.

Trapped Under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles Into the Darkness is the product of years of research, countless hours of  interviews, and solid story-telling. After reading this book, I had to know: How did you write that, Neil Swidey?

In this interview, Neil talks about:

  • Where he found his idea.
  • How he organized massive amounts of research.
  • How to write clearly about highly technical subjects.

Trapped Under the SeaHDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Trapped Under the Sea?

Neil: I was at a birthday party for one of my daughters’ friends about seven years ago, and began chatting with a lawyer friend from the neighborhood. When I asked him if he was working on any interesting cases, he mentioned that he had sat in on a deposition for a case involving divers who were sent to the end of an unventilated miles-long subsea tunnel. They had used Humvees for the first part of their journey and then continued on foot the rest of the way. The mission had taken place years earlier, but I was struck by why I had never heard of it. I soon discovered why. It had been overshadowed by the spotlight-dominating story at the time: the plane crash involving John F. Kennedy, Jr. But as soon as I started looking into this tunnel story, I was immediately hooked.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Neil: I moved from my defense lawyer friend to the plaintiffs’ lawyers who had represented the surviving divers as well as the families of those divers who had been killed. That led me eventually to the surviving divers themselves. None of them had ever before spoken publicly about the horrors they had endured at the end of an unventilated, pitch-black, 10-mile-long tunnel built hundreds of feet below the ocean. So it took a good deal of effort to secure their trust.

HDYWT:  How do you organize your research?

Neil: Chronologically, mostly. I amassed an unholy amount of material as part of my research — not just thousands upon thousands of pages of documents, but also audio tapes, video tapes — documentary evidence of pretty much every kind. To bring some semblance of order to it, I created a series of massive, annotated chronologies, which I updated continually.

HDYWT:  What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Neil: Research days were generally exhausting but fascinating — on the move from morning until night, attaching myself to the hip of compelling people. Writing days were generally exhausting but enervating —  a sedentary, solitary and sometimes soul-sapping exercise. But what a feeling of relief and accomplishment when it was all done! Promotion days have sometimes been tiring but have also provided a fantastic opportunity to connect with readers who are passionate about the book.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox? 

Neil: J.I. Rodale’s The Synonym Finder, which I find more useful and user-friendly than Roget or any other thesaurus. And like my writing teacher father used to tell me: Use a thesaurus only to help you identify the perfect word that was already hiding out somewhere in the back of your mind. Don’t use it to find a fancy word you wouldn’t otherwise use. (And when in doubt, cross reference with the dictionary —  bound version, not online —  to make sure it truly is the perfect word for the sentence.)

Bonus question: What is your advice for writers who are dealing with highly technical source material? How do you make it accessible for the reader?

Neil: Never pass on fogginess to your reader! Resist the temptation to fall back on jargon in order to hide something you don’t understand. Read your source material multiple times. Find people who are specialists but who are also effective translators, and lean on them for help in clearing up your fogginess.

Also: before you get too deep into your research, and long before you start understanding the field like an expert, write down the basic questions you had at the very beginning. Then, when you sit down to write, refer to that list of initial questions. That will refresh your memory on what seemed most opaque to you at the start, so you can make sure your explanations effectively clear the air.

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