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Lee Gutkind, Author, The Best Seat in Baseball & Almost Human: Making Robots Think

August 27, 2012
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Lee Gutkind, Author

First, what is the “creative nonfiction movement” and how did you come lead the writing community in this method for storytelling?

The movement is simply about taking information and turning it into a compelling story without changing the meaning or facts.

We try to communicate information in as compelling a way as possible so people who would not be interested normally would be. People care about real people and their stories.

You see magazines and newspapers doing this more. We’re seeing a heckuva lot more narrative as people learn more through storytelling. Now there’s a storytelling explosion. I got a big science foundation grant to teach storytelling to science policy wonks. teaching policy is important but difficult to communicate to people.

The world needs to learn a lot more. The common every day person needs to understand more of what’s happening in the world as it’s much more complicated with new sciences and technologies.

Your book, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, documents CMU students and faculty over six years as they designed and built robots. What inspired you to cover this subject and what were some of the biggest lessons you learned?

The only thing the world seems to know about robots is that they are cute and are taking over the world and taking away jobs. Is that true? I wanted to see, so I picked Carnegie Mellon’s Robotic Institute to study it. It’s the world’s largest robotic academic institute.

In creative non-fiction, you immerse yourself for long periods of time in the milieu and then write on that. So, I walked from Shadyside to CMU and hung out with them for a half-dozen years, trying to develop stories versus just information on robots. That’s what creative non-fiction writers do.

What did you learn from your experience?

That robots taking over the world is only half-true. They are incredibly important but not nearly reliable as we think. They are too unpredictable at the moment to give the world away to them. Maybe in fifty to a hundred years we’ll be able to trust these robots to do what we want them to do.

By then, we’ll have had time to think about what we really want them to do! Now, they are killing people in Afghanistan and being used as security guards. Is that what we really want them to do?

The other thing that interested me is that the robotics world is a very young world. I originally thought of these grey-haired ex-hippies. But the fact is, the senior scientists are the supervisors and raising money. The real geniuses are the students writing the code. They are kids doing the essential work to make robots think.

Just like when computers first took off. They were children in Silicon Valley – Steve Jobs was under twenty-one.

You’ve crossed so many different genres and topics – from motorcycle subculture and robots to organ transplants and baseball umpires. What is your approach to learning something so diverse and foreign each time you look to write a new book?

The whole joy is immersing myself in the subject. I love writing, but what a challenge to pick a subject you know nothing about and walk in to a situation just like the everyday reader does. I involve myself for long periods of time. The big challenge is to get people to trust you and believe in what you’re doing.

You then have to take what you learn and find a real story – not one you make up – to relate the information.

How has sports influenced you and your writing, and do you follow any of the local sports teams?

I had a deep interest in baseball, but soured against it after writing my book The Best Seat in Baseball and getting such flack on it. It took a while to get back into it.

90% of the book is totally pro-umpire covering all kinds of information and challenges they had. Nobody’s perfect though and there was stuff that was critical too. I just showed people they way they are. And they went bananas.

I immersed myself with one crew of National League umpire – Hall of Famer Doug Harvey, Harry Wendelstedt, Pelosi and Art Williams. Williams was very important in the world of baseball – he was the first Black umpire in the National League. He only had two years of experience before that. The American league brought a Black umpire in the year before and the National League felt threatened so they brought him up to the major leagues. after only two seasons.

He had a difficult time – they paired him with Harvey and Wendelstedt to take care of him. They weren’t smart from a racial perspective. They focused on the race card and that made his life miserable. He lasted only one season then they let him go. He later sued for racism. He was a hero, but Harvey and Wendelstedt didn’t like the way I wrote about them.

Does Pittsburgh rely too much on sports to define itself?

How else does Pittsburgh define itself?

Come on! Steeler nation is everywhere. It’s all about the Steelers – everything I read was about Ben Roethlisberger and concern about the team. The place is crazy in it’s worrying about the Steelers. The Rooneys are wonderful and have done a lot for the city.

But….CMU is one of the most important places for science and technology in the world. The University of Pittsburgh too – without them, there’d be no Google. That’s what we need to focus on. The accomplishments of what we do besides football. There’s a lot besides the Steelers – not that the Steelers are terrible.

In talking with students looking to attend CMU, the single drawback of the city was that there was little else to do there. No movie houses and cafes – we don’t have that here, and that’s the shame to me. It has incredible potential – with fascinating people. But they are not brought together in any significant way like you see in Portland or Seattle.

People don’t move here because of the Steelers. They move here because of the schools….to study medicine…

How has the city shaped who you are and the way you’ve approached your writing style?

It’s great place to write. It’s a quiet place and the people are cooperative. They are interested in what you do and feel it’s ok to be different. I like the down-home, comfortable atmosphere. There’s not a big night life, but that’s nice for a writer.

The writing community is disappointing. We have MFA programs for writing at Carlow College, Chatham and University of Pittsburgh as well as an undergraduate program at CMU. They are all in walking distance of one another, but they never cooperate. There’s no connection. The Robert Morris and Drew Hines writer series are not shared with the city. High school kids can’t afford twenty-five dollars to come see them.

What’s surprised you the most over the course of your writing career, and why?

How much people want t be written about. The more we sit in our offices and email, the more isolated we are. When we get out in the world, people open up. It’s delightful to immerse yourself with people who want to talk about themselves.

On the other hand, the downside is people are not buying books. It’s frustrating.

The publishing industry is changing due to new technologies and the web. How do you plan to adapt your content and writing, taking into account these new technologies?

Well, I edit a magazine – it’s been around now for over twenty years. We started a book imprint and we’re doing well with the e-books. I’m trying really hard to adjust to this new world and understand it. I’m trying to figure out how to being the product to market. I’m learning you can’t sell books through tv and tours – you have to hammer away at your niche market. That’s how you do it. I want to stay in the game and I started when the game was entirely different.

Your writing success has garnered you a good deal of media attention – both in print and on other venues like the Daily Show, the BBC and NPR. Do you worry about “staying grounded” as you realize more success?

The truth is, nobody pays attention to me. From my point of view, nobody knows I was on Good Morning America or the Daily Show. I was really happy to have those experiences – it was like immersing myself when I write. The Daily Show I was on won an Emmy!  It stunned me, seeing a clip of me on national tv!

I feel good – I feel I accomplished a lot. If anyone reads my books and mentions it to me, that feels good.

What’s next for you?

I don’t know! I no longer work at the University of Pittsburgh. I’m at Arizona State University and travel a great deal for the university and my books. I want to keep doing that.

I’m focusing now on My latest book – You Can’t Make This Stuff Up. It’s my last book on writing – I’m putting all I know about writing in this book – it comes out in August.

I’ll spend my time telling people about the book then will find another book project. I usually have a couple of projects in hand before I complete the current one, but I intentionally did not do that this time. I am stopping am thinking more than before about what I do next.

I’ve gotten interested in hockey recently after reading about concussions and Sydney Crosby. I’m also getting interested in golf – I just hit a hole in one – even though I’m a terrible golfer. I find it satisfying – I love how you have to focus so deeply on writing  -and golf is similar. The focus of the sport is similar. Maybe I’ll write a book about how golf and writing are the same.

As Arnold Palmer said, golf is 90% mental. It’s not physical. That’s what I care about and would make it fun to write about.

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