What better subject for St. Patrick’s Day than that glorious work of Irish literature, Ulysses? Kevin Birmingham‘s new book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for Jame Joyce’s Ulysses, tells the fascinating story of the censorship battles that raged on both sides of the Atlantic over Joyce’s masterwork. Along the way, he fills the reader in on the origins of modernism, the women’s movement, Joyce’s passion and profligacy, and the cultural fallout from World War I.
Kevin agreed to answer a few questions about his writing process for How Did You Write That…
HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for The Most Dangerous Book?
Kevin: When I was in grad school, my first dissertation idea (there were many) involved the history of literary obscenity and censorship in the United States. I stepped aside from that project and, years later (while in the final throes of my actual dissertation) I returned to the topic and realized that no one had written the full story surrounding Ulysses, and it was so fascinating. There’s quite a lot of archival material about the case itself and the people surrounding it, so I knew it could be a book. It may have taken that years-long break for me to see the subject in a new light.
HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?
Kevin: I sifted through the published material, put together a basic outline of events and started writing them out as vignettes. It got more complicated as time went on, but I wanted to start telling the story to help get the feel of it.
HDYWT: How do you organize your research?
Kevin: I organized it mostly around people. I had big folders for “Sylvia Beach” and “John Quinn,” and I eventually turned them into notes compiled in various Word documents. I had well over a thousand single-spaced pages of condensed notes, and that was the raw material for the book.
HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?
Kevin: I’m best with a routine and no internet access. So I head to a cafe where I’d have to pay an absurd amount to get online. I sit in the same seat, order the same breakfast and start revising the last few paragraphs I wrote before plunging ahead. I listen to music without lyrics or in a language I don’t understand. After three or four hours, I have lunch. Then I press ahead for another couple of hours. If it’s a busy day I’ll put in three more hours at another cafe. It sounds tedious even to write about the routine, but it works for me.
HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?
Kevin: I’ve recently started using OCR software called Abbyy Finereader Pro. I scan books, and the software will turn it into a searchable pdf or a Word document far more accurately than other programs I’ve seen. So I now have a fully searchable copy of, say, the complete letters of a certain author, and instead of transcribing them into a Word document, I can simply cut and paste the information I need.
Bonus question: The voice of The Most Dangerous Book is lively and literary. What is your advice for avoiding a dry, academic voice when writing scholarly nonfiction?
Kevin: Imagine your audience—and not in some vague, idealized way. Imagine particular people, people who are intelligent and curious but who don’t know much about your subject. Then imagine that you’re telling them everything you’re writing. Do you have their interest or not? Are they bored or confused or anxious? Are they inspired? Do they want to hear more? The paradox of writing is that it’s a solitary task with a deeply communal purpose. You’re by yourself when you’re writing, but you should never feel alone.