Sure, your favorite fiction writers probably have a book or two of nonfiction in them, be it a collection of essays (personal or critical) or a memoir about what it was like growing up to be them. But what about the outliers, the strange nonfiction journeys of our best writers? Did you know that E. Annie Proulx has an expert’s knowledge of cider, or that Willa Cather may have written a biography of a young woman who discovered her own religion? These nonfiction anomalies in a fiction writer’s life can tell us about the author’s passions — or, at the very least, what they wrote about for money. Here are our ten favorite nonfiction oddities and adventures by some formidable fiction writers. Some of these books are rare and out-of-print; some are still readily available (and worth your time).
The Florida Keys: A History & Guide, Joy Williams
In her Paris Review interview, novelist and short story writer Joy Williams, who earned a National Book Award nomination for her debut, State of Grace, calls her Florida Keys guidebook “the only book I’ve ever made money from.” It was an assignment from Random House in the ’80s, and the resulting combination of essays, legends, lore, and guide makes it an unforgettable look at one of the weirdest parts of weird Florida. Williams also mentions that for the latest edition, she was worn out and wrote an afterword that said the Keys had gotten shitty and she didn’t want to update the series anymore. Random House ran the piece as submitted.
Making the Best Apple Cider, Annie Proulx Cider: Making, Using, and Enjoying Sweet Hard Cider, Lew Nichols & Annie Proulx
It is always a pleasure to wander into a make-your-own-beer emporium, only to find a pamphlet on cider written by the Pulitzer- and National Book Award-winning author E. Annie Proulx, author of The Shipping News and the short story “Brokeback Mountain.” More research reveals that she has actually written the ultimate book on cider, and if you get the full-length Nichols and Proulx treatment, you’ll be able to start your own cider farm, where you can spout off to tourists on the history of apples.
The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of Christian Science, Willa Cather, Georgine Milmine, David Stouck
It took five writers to discuss Mary Baker Eddy in 14 articles that ran in McClure’s Magazine between 1907 and 1908. The work was collected as a biography of the sickly young woman from New Hampshire who ended up discovering her own religion once she wrote about her path to healing and what it entailed. It has been speculated that the My Antonia author, who joined McClure‘s in 1906, was the main author behind this biography; however, the book is out of print, and scholars need something to fight about.
On Snooker: The Game and the Characters Who Play It, Mordecai Richler
The last book that Richler finished before his death in July 2001, On Snooker explores the Barney’s Version writer’s obsession with the bastard child of billiards. It starts with his time as a teenage poolroom hustler on the mean streets of Montreal, where the game was more fun than classes in the Talmud. Eventually, it grew to be a respite from the drags of the writer’s life, and with that, an easy metaphor — if the perfect game was out there, then maybe he could get the next novel done and ready, right?
The Language of Clothes, Alison Lurie
Do you remember how, in Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, spoiled daughter-of-a-great-journalist Marina was forever working on her sold-for-too-much book, The Emperor’s Children Have No Clothes, about what the clothes of children tell us about the mores of the age? It turns out that Pulitzer Prize winner Alison Lurie, the author of Foreign Affairs, basically wrote that book, which focuses on what we wear and what it means; this year she published a companion book called The Language of Houses.
They Live, Jonathan Lethem
There is a certain breed of pop culture-besotted, formerly young male novelist — you know, the type who plays around with genre, who is often named Jonathan, who gets five separate New York Times reviews for his minor efforts. And those Jonathans invariably publish a short nonfiction essay-book on a topic of their choice. Lethem has also contributed to Bloomsbury’s never-ending 33 1/3 series (on Talking Heads’ Fear of Music), and his entry in Soft Skull’s Deep Focus series on film is great fun — it’s a book-length riff on John Carpenter’s 1988 cult flick They Live, where “Rowdy” Roddy Piper has magical imitation Ray-Bans that show self-satisfied Los Angeleno yuppies for what they really are: aliens.
Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, Kingsley Amis
A compendium of three of Amis’ books on booze, On Drink, Everyday Drinking, and How’s Your Glass?, this book offers quizzes, essays, quips, and history, all focused around Amis’ prodigious relationship with the bottle. While the famously alcoholic writer may not have had the best taste in drinks, he still had the precision of the great writers, even in the throwaway moments, to make the mundane topics of an afternoon tipple into a rollicking good time.
Seek: Reports From the Edges of America & Beyond, Denis Johnson
In this collection of journalism written for the likes of Esquire and The Paris Review, the author of the stone-cold classic Jesus’ Son and this year’s The Laughing Monsters shows his wayfaring, reckless side as he goes to places that the average reader will never see — from a Christian biker rally to waiting for Charles Taylor in Liberia in the extraordinary, must-read “The Small Boys Unit.”
Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women, Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar
After Walker took on the difficult topic of female genital mutilation in her 1996 novel Possessing the Secret of Joy, she teamed up with documentarian Parmar to further report on the topic. The resulting book and documentary is a personal look at a complex, horrifying practice, and the reader learns along with Walker how these tortures affect women’s lives.
Golf Dreams: Writings on Golf, John Updike
When you think of John Updike, you think about books like Rabbit, Run, and a whole host of awkward sex scenes featuring WASPs. But he was also super into golf — enough so that a book was published featuring 30 of his pieces, originally published in Golf Digest and The New Yorker, on how the bucolic mystery of the fore and the green.