How does a biographer finish a project as extensive and far-reaching as a book about the current U.S. president? Day by day.
In Slate recently, David Maraniss shared a short essay on the 40-day push to finish "Barack Obama: The Story," which just came out in paperback. The book follows Obama's childhood and young adulthood, right up until the moment he heads east from Chicago for Harvard Law School.
After over two years of research and writing, the Madison-raised Maraniss writes how, on Sept. 14, 2011, he pulled out an editor's pad (a paper pad, not an iPad) and sketched out a day-by-day plan for how he'd finish up the book.
"Even then, as the book neared its end, I was getting new information," Maraniss writes. "I never stop reporting until the book is going to print. So in this sprint to the end I was adding things here and there to Chapter 9, reshaping Chapters 16 and 17 to accommodate new information, and finishing the second half of the 21,000-word Chapter 18, before spending another week at the end in a last round of fact-checking and polishing."
The hadnwritten plan, which Slate reproduces, is pretty fascinating, showing now only which chapters Maraniss intended to work out on which day, but how many words he planned to write in each day. He said the last 40 days were a blur of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. working days (minus a couple of off days for golf and to give lectures in Milwaukee and Fond du Lac), with the book finally finished, right on schedule, on Oct. 23, 2011.
"I have written 10 books, and the feelings at the end are the same every time: exhaustion, relief, joy, and somehow surprise—not emptiness but shock that the work is over."
Reviewing "Barack Obama: The Story" last July, Cap Times editor emeritus Dave Zweifel wrote, "an incredibly well-documented collection of the most minute details of Barack Obama’s young life, going back to the great-grandparents of his white mother from Kansas and his black father from Kenya to help the reader understand the often-misunderstood man who became the nation’s 44th president.
Amusingly, Zweifel also writes in the review how, with a deadline looming, he had to carry the 600-page book everywhere he went with him in order to finish it on time.
Perhaps he needed to draft a day-by-day reading plan as detailed as Maraniss' writing plan.