In his 1973 manifesto, The New Journalism, Tom Wolfe describes the old-time hack as showing up at the theater just in time for the curtain to open and going home right after the show to write the story. He defines the new journalist, on the other hand, as arriving two hours before the play, nosing around backstage, attending the party afterwards, and only then going home to write the piece. "I would not have published my first book if I did not feel I was put on this earth to do that," says Gary Kinder, who often refers to himself as a "new journalist." "I have to feel the story before I can write about it," he says, "though that can take me a long time."
Kinder spent years researching his first two books -- Victim (Delacorte, 1982), about a murder and its aftermath in Ogden, Utah; and Light Years (Atlantic Monthly, 1987), on alleged UFO contactee Eduard Meier. But Kinder's latest book, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, out from Grove/Atlantic, which was 10 years in the writing, proved a journalistic enterprise of truly titanic proportions.
Ship of Gold is the story of a small band of visionary men and their search for the largest deep-sea treasure ever found: 24 tons of goldrush lucre aboard the SS Central America, buried a mile-and-a-half underwater after sinking in stormy seas off the Carolina coast in 1857. Never had such a salvage operation been attempted, and many experts, who consider the complexities of working in the deep sea similar to those of exploring deep space, thought it impossible. But by 1989, maverick scientist/adventurer Tommy Thompson, who masterminded the operation, had achieved in three years, with just $12 million and 30 people, a feat Kinder likens to the U.S. government sending a man to the moon.
Ship of Gold is filled with complicated details about deep-sea engineering, submersibles and maritime law. But it's not just the facts and figures that stand out, it's the palpable adventure of it all. Kinder's descriptions of being on the deck of the salvage ship, grappling with sea gales and the greed of treasure hunters, not to mention the tortured genius of Thompson, have a visceral immediacy. "I like the physical involvement in the story -- that as an author I can experience the situation," he says. "It also helps carry the narrative."
Kinder, 51, is a neat, soft-spoken man with close-cropped gray hair and a face that reflects the rugged outdoor life of Sun Valley, Idaho, where he lived for 16 years after graduating from law school in Florida. The drawl of his Fort Lauderdale hometown has worn away over the years, but the Southern warmth is still evident in the way he hurries to serve us a cup of tea. Kinder speaks with a lawyerly precision, which isn't surprising, since when he's not working on his books, he runs a highly profitable legal writing course for lawyers, conducting 50 seminars a year all over the country.
The Right Stuff
Kinder was not always bent on being a writer. Although he took a degree in journalism and advertising from the University of Florida in 1968, he worked part time as a lawyer while picking up odd jobs at the Sun Valley Lodge. It was not until 1972 that he began to write, and then just little essays, though they helped him realize that writing "was something I had to do." In 1974, he read The New Journalism while attending a local writer's workshop, and it changed his life. "The idea of nonfiction writing meant travel, research and insinuating myself in the middle of the scene; then going home to write the story so it comes alive." Journalism, he decided, was his calling, and he immediately enjoyed success with a series of profiles of President Ford's son Jack, then at a university in nearby Ogden, that were published in national magazines.
It was about this time that he came upon the case of the Ogden Hi-Fi murders. It was a gruesome story in which three Air Force enlistees robbed a stereo store. Two employees and three family members who happened to be on the premises were tied up in the basement, made to drink Drano and then shot in the head. Three died; miraculously two survived. As Kinder began collecting the research, however, he realized he did not just want to write another true-crime story. "I was tired of seeing criminals glorified," he says. "I wanted to tell about the personal strength of the families of those that had survived."
The family of one of the survivors said no. But the family of the other survivor, a 16-year-old cousin of the shop-owner named Courtney Naisbitt, agreed to meet Kinder. Wanting to see the scene of the crime, he traveled down to Ogden, where for the first time he faced the Naisbitts and, right there in the Hi-Fi shop, presented his case. "They were worried I wanted to make a bunch of money on this, that I was some kind of gunslinger," Kinder recalls. Instead of impressing them with his credentials as a writer and lawyer, Kinder talked to them about his own family. "I told them that it was intact and supportive, that my father had gone to university on the GI Bill and become an accountant. I explained that we were Episcopalian and went to church. And I think they realized we shared the same values."
With that hurdle behind him, Kinder immediately faced another. Having until then never written anything longer than a magazine article or legal brief, he had no idea how to put together an extended narrative. "When you read a story it seems obvious, but when you're doing it yourself, it's like walking into a wall. Pacing, structure, I didn't know any of those things." Nonetheless, though he had no guidance or outside input, he plunged in.
By then, Kinder had obtained representation with Arthur Pine Associates in New York. The connection was made by Irving Wallace, the publisher of The People's Almanac, for which Kinder worked on a freelance basis from Sun Valley. Arthur Pine's son, Richard, had just joined the agency, "and the two of us sort of grew up in the business together," Kinder says.
They both had much to learn. When Pine sent out the proposal for Victim, it was rejected everywhere, and one publisher, Kinder ruefully recalls, even wrote back that it was the worst proposal he'd ever seen. Nonetheless, it caught the eye of Simon &Schuster editor-in-chief Peter Schwed, who wrote to Pine that Kinder had a story but he wasn't sure he could write well enough to carry a narrative, and even gave some pointers.
Kinder took Schwed's advice, trashed everything he'd done so far, borrowed $10,000 from his parents and started over. Little by little, the manuscript began to take the shape of a thriller, with tightly scripted scenes and heart-pounding suspense. Three years later, Pine again shopped the manuscript around town. It was close to Christmas 1979 and Kinder was working at a Sun Valley law firm 20 hours a week. "I was in the office," he recalls, "when the phone rang, and it was Richard, and I remember gripping the arms of my chair, because I was sure it was going to be bad news." This time, however, Pine had good tidings: Dell and Delacorte had offered $100,000 for a hard/soft deal. His editor would be Morgan Entrekin.
Victim, which critics likened to In Cold Blood, enjoyed tremendous early response, and movie rights were sold, though a film was never produced. "It was too close to home for too many people," says Kinder. A made-for-TV movie starring Richard Chamberlain was eventually released, and sales of Victim leveled off at a very respectable 10,000 copies a year under Dell's Laurel imprint, appealing particularly to the college market where victimology was a fast growing area of sociology. Entrekin plans to reprint Victim as a Grove/Atlantic paperback in winter 1999. Typically for Kinder, one of the most poignant aspects of Victim's success was the chance it gave to contribute to a trust fund for Courtney Naisbitt. "Every time I got a check, I sent 10% to the Naisbitt family. It was a very touching moment for me, when we first talked about it."
After Victim came Light Years, one of the first books Entrekin released under his own imprint at Atlantic Monthly, though Kinder does not think of it as his best endeavor. "The story never did ignite me -- it was sort of dropped into my lap." Kinder had approached Entrekin with the idea of a book on the evangelical movement, a subject that interested him in part because of the physical requirements of the story, the need to go to tent revivals, observe faith healers, travel around the country. But Entrekin turned it down.
Kinder's disappointment still lingers. "Two years later, the Tammy Bakker story erupted. It would have been perfect," he says. "And I wasn't going to do a book about evangelists. It was going to be different, something ageless, something about people. Just like Victim wasn't about crime but about family."
In an age of instant hits and inflated sales projections, Kinder's idealism is refreshing. After all, many houses don't easily countenance authors with long, open-ended projects. But Kinder knows the time spent can pay off. "If you like to write, you can't allow yourself to be dissuaded from that gut instinct," he says, "even by someone you respect who says 'we can't sell many copies of that.' Because they haven't seen what your idea is going to evolve into. They have not seen the book."
Into the Deep
A certified scuba-diver, Kinder first read about the salvage expedition that became the subject of Ship of Gold in a Norfolk newspaper article. In a strange parallel to Victim, he began his involvement with the story in court-though this time it was not a murder trial, but a hearing for salvage rights to the 19th-century sunken steamer, the Central America. It was 1988, and Thompson was loathe to attract too much publicity. So far, he had not found any gold (or so he claimed), and competition to procure rights to the shipwreck was fierce.
Kinder tips his chair back against the wall, his face pensive as he recalls his efforts to persuade Thompson to grant him access to the project. "'I don't want the book to ride on your coattails,' I told Tommy. 'I want it to stand on its own two feet, exist on its own and be full of spirit and energy,'" recalls Kinder.
Although Thompson consented, Kinder was unprepared for the trials to come. The book appeared in Grove/Atlantic's catalogue once in 1995, twice in '97, and finally now in '98. The story alone was so complex that it took Kinder four more years than he originally expected to finish the manuscript. ("I have 12 to 15 feet of coded files, and that's just the interviews," he says.) Thompson also raised objections to the pub date because of the ongoing legal battles for rights to the treasure and because he wanted a lot more technical detail in the book.
Still, the delay was to the book's benefit. Ship of Gold is coming out on the coattails of Titanic's success and fits right in with one of today's hottest genres: man-against-nature adventure nonfiction. And Thompson has agreed to make several publicity appearances with Kinder. As Grove/Atlantic's first chance for a major bestseller after Cold Mountain, it will benefit from a $250,000 ad/promo campaign and a 150,000-copy first printing. Paperback rights have sold to Vintage for $500,000.
Although Kinder is about to embark on a barnstorming, coast-to-coast publicity tour, he looks forward to returning to Seattle, where he's lived for 10 years with his wife, Allison, and their two daughters. Glancing out the window a little wistfully, he says he doesn't know many local authors. Unlike the writing meccas of New York and San Francisco, Seattle has yet to come into its own as a vital hub of literary activity. Still, with Kinder possibly taking his place in the local pantheon next to such writers as David Guterson and Jon Krakauer, that may change. "I'd love to get together with other writers and commiserate about writing," he says cheerfully. "I really miss that."