What are good nonfiction books by fiction authors?
December 27, 2021 10:55 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for good nonfiction books by authors who primarily write fiction — any recommendations? e.g.
  • What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Murakami)
  • On Writing (Stephen King)
  • A Moveable Feast (Hemingway)
  • In Praise of Shadows (Tanizaki)

posted by kepano to Writing & Language (36 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
I enjoyed Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby.
posted by labberdasher at 11:02 PM on December 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram by Iain [M.] Banks. Ostensibly an account of his many trips to write about distilleries across Scotland, it's part autobiography, part travelogue (including an account of 'great wee roads' where driving is particularly pleasurable) and part personal musings. Plus that Scotch malt thing.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:09 PM on December 27, 2021 [4 favorites]

The Motion of Light in Water is among the most well written memoirs I've read, with lots of appearances from famous 20th century intellectuals of various stripes.
posted by latkes at 11:16 PM on December 27, 2021 [5 favorites]

I expect you already know Danse Macabre by Stephen King?
posted by rjs at 12:16 AM on December 28, 2021 [2 favorites]

Distrust that particular flavor, William Gibson. Somewhat biographical, gives you some idea of his thought process and travels.
posted by unearthed at 12:24 AM on December 28, 2021 [3 favorites]

It’s been 20 years, but I loved Murakami’s Underground, which is kind of an oral history of the Tokyo subway sarin gas attack in 1995.
posted by verbminx at 12:38 AM on December 28, 2021 [4 favorites]

Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty: A Friendship is wonderful and heartbreaking.
posted by El_Marto at 2:50 AM on December 28, 2021 [4 favorites]

If you primarily know George Orwell as the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, then you may not know of his non-fiction work, especially Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, and Homage to Catalonia.

All of them are classics, all are immensely readable regardless of whether the synopsis appeals. Orwell was just a fantastic writer in every genre he worked in.
posted by underclocked at 2:54 AM on December 28, 2021 [12 favorites]

Mouse or Rat? Translation as negotiation” - Umberto Eco (but really I love all his more technical texts “Role of the Reader”, “Serendipities”, etc)
posted by alchemist at 3:01 AM on December 28, 2021 [4 favorites]

A lot of non-fiction by writers who primarily work in fiction is probably memoirs, books about writing or collections of essays and journalism.

* Angela Carter has three essay collections plus The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography.
* Diana Wynne Jones has a collection Reflections On the Magic of Writing.
* Penelope Fitzgerald wrote a biography of Charlotte Mew (and two other biographies which I have not read).
* Ruth Adam has A Woman's Place: 1910-1975.
* Susan Cooper has the collection Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children. She also has a travel book, Behind the Golden Curtain: A View of the USA, but I've not read that.
* Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote a biography of TH White (and a book on Tudor music, but I have not read that).
* Roxana Robinson has a biography of Georgia O'Keefe.
* Elizabeth Gaskell was also the biographer of Charlotte Brontë.
* Penelope Lively also wrote The Presence of the Past: An introduction to landscape history (and several memoirs, but I have not read those).
posted by paduasoy at 3:04 AM on December 28, 2021 [2 favorites]

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 3:59 AM on December 28, 2021

William Styron: Darkness Visible. About his fight with depression.
John Steinbeck: Travels With Charlie. Travelogue.
Mark Twain. Several books including Innocents Abroad and Travels With Mr. Brown.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:13 AM on December 28, 2021

Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, was a kick in the head.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 5:18 AM on December 28, 2021 [6 favorites]

A Mouthful of Air by Anthony Burgess is a really good read.
posted by flabdablet at 5:19 AM on December 28, 2021

The Anthropocene Reviewed by YA author John Green.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 5:21 AM on December 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

"An Innocent Man" by John Grisham. He's known primarily for writing legal thrillers like "The Firm" and "A Time to Kill", but this book is based on actual events.
posted by Roger Pittman at 5:40 AM on December 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

My usual suggestion for this is Willam Goldman (who is perhaps better known as a screenwriter than a novelist, these days.)

The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway (from 1968), where he digs into how the Broadway sausage gets made.

Adventures in the Screen Trade, a memoir of sorts (plus other writings) of his first couple of decades as a screenwriter in Hollywood.

Which Lie Did I Tell?, a "sequel" to Adventures.

Hype and Glory, another memoir covering the year where he somehow wound up as a judge at both the Cannes Film Festival and the Miss America pageant.
posted by soundguy99 at 5:57 AM on December 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Asimov wrote a lot of nonfiction, where he dabbled in math, philosophy, psychology, biology, physics, and lots of other topics.
Here's an overview guide with lots of essays organized by topic.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:05 AM on December 28, 2021

I love Jonathan Franzen's books of essays. The two I've read are How to Be Alone and Farther Away, but he has a newer one also, called The End of the End of the Earth.
posted by number9dream at 6:56 AM on December 28, 2021

Doris Lessing's autobiography appears in two volumes. She was very involved in the communist party as a young person and writes a lot about that. Volume 1 is Under My Skin. Volume 2 is Walking in the Shade.

I am not a fan of David Foster Wallace's fiction, but he has some truly brilliant essays, available in Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. I would especially recommend the title essays in both of those.

And I love Hilary Mantel's fiction, but gave up on her memoir.

Maggie O'Ferrell, author of the novel Hamnet, has written a great memoir called I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death. (There's a lot in that book that is very disturbing.)
posted by FencingGal at 7:07 AM on December 28, 2021

Truman Capote famously wrote In Cold Blood, "the first non-fiction novel" about a real 1959 quadruple murder in Kansas. Although the book is generally true to the events, there are questions about the veracity of some of what he wrote, so how much this meets the definition of "pure" non-fiction is up for debate. But Capote always maintained he'd written the story accurately, and In Cold Blood is in the true crime section of bookshops, which indicates that it is generally accepted that the book is non-fiction.

Bonus: His research collaborator was none other than Harper Lee, a woman who knew more than most about crime writing.
posted by underclocked at 8:27 AM on December 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Shirley Hazzard's Greene on Capri is astringent and beautiful.

(Also, fair warning on the rec of Goldman's "The Season" above: the author hated women he deemed unattactive and gay men who dared to exist, and regularly digresses into bizarre and tiresome rants about both. Gird yourself.)
posted by minervous at 8:43 AM on December 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. It's her memoir intermixed with the stories of five black man she was close to who died young. I still think about it often years later.
posted by carolr at 8:55 AM on December 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf. From the Amazon blurb: "one of the great feminist polemics, ranging in its themes from Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë to the silent fate of Shakespeare's gifted (imaginary) sister and the effects of poverty and sexual constraint on female creativity" and "Probably the most influential piece of non-fictional writing by a woman in this century"—Hermione Lee, Financial Times.

On my permanent reading list as a book I return to often.
posted by angiep at 10:54 AM on December 28, 2021

Winterdance by Gary Paulsen.
posted by Crystal Fox at 11:04 AM on December 28, 2021

Umberto Eco also wrote How to Travel with a Salmon which I remember enjoying when I read it years ago.
posted by wittgenstein at 12:40 PM on December 28, 2021

Aldous Huxley wrote a fair amount of criticism and essays but of course is best known for Brave New World. I found his nonfiction (though narrative) account of a fascinating witchcraft trial and mania, The Devils of Loudun, extremely interesting.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 1:01 PM on December 28, 2021

Peacock & Vine: On William Morris and Mariano Fortuny by A.S. Byatt. So lovely!
posted by Isingthebodyelectric at 2:02 PM on December 28, 2021

Response by poster: This is incredible stuff, so many great answers. Thank you all for your recommendations!
posted by kepano at 3:03 PM on December 28, 2021

Gabriel Garcia Marquez trained as a journalist and wrote 3 non fiction books. I’ve read two. News of a Kidnapping is very good, Clandestine In Chile is excellent, one of my very favorite underrated books, reads like a thriller. I have heard that the third, Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor is good too.
posted by vunder at 10:14 PM on December 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

I am excited to read Amitav Ghosh's new nutmeg book.
posted by athirstforsalt at 11:02 PM on December 30, 2021

Names for the Sea is a book about a year in Iceland, written by Sarah Moss, whom I know otherwise only as a writer of literary fiction. I enjoyed it as much as her novels, which are in my buy-on-sight category.

Lisa See's On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of my Chinese-American Family is a family history that complements her novels.

Barbara Kingsolver has written at least one book of essays, High Tide in Tucson. If you enjoy her fiction (I do), you'll enjoy her essays.

I haven't read them, but John Lanchester has written a couple of books about finance and the financial crisis, and (I've just found out) one about the Tube. His novels are excellent; I'm sure his non-fiction is too.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 1:26 PM on January 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

Oh I also liked Barbara Kingsolver's account of a lengthy and ultimately failed miners strike in Arizona. In retrospect this story aptly represents the general decline of Labor in the US in the 80s - and also the transformation of the mythologized 'working class' from white men to women and people of color.
posted by latkes at 2:24 PM on January 2, 2022

I must second every nonfiction by Samuel Delaney. The Motion of Light in Water, mentioned above, is superb. Also check out Times Square Red, Times Square Blue which is about encroaching "cleansing" of public spaces to serve capitalist needs and a vision of a "productive" expensive use of our social time, and the loss of specifically queer and sexual spaces and what social potential is lost with those spaces, namely the spontaneous mixture of human contacts across barriers of class, race, education, and so forth.
posted by panhopticon at 10:05 PM on January 3, 2022 [1 favorite]

Melissa Harrison's Rain : Four Walks in English Weather sounds very promising (having experienced much rain wandering in the UK). I've read her debut novel Clay, about a group of Londoners whose lives intersect via the local park, amazing, sensitive novel, reviews of her non-fiction suggest she is equally great there.
posted by unearthed at 11:01 PM on January 4, 2022

I recommend novels by Nevil Shute whenever possible (and he wrote 20 or so) but he also penned Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer which includes his work (and flight) on the successful British R-100 dirigible.

Arthur C. Clarke wrote many science fiction novels (and the short story which was the basis for Kubrick's "2001") but he also wrote an autobiography about his time developing the Ground-Controlled Approach system during the war: Glide Path.
posted by Rash at 6:03 PM on January 7, 2022

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