Some of the best books I have ever read were paintings. Or else they were meals or plays, meaning they had shapes and flavors and moved about. “A novel,” wrote Saul Bellow, “should be loose, cover much ground, run swiftly, risk mortality and decay.” Peter Carey, who directs the graduate writing program at Hunter College, compared writing to “running a marathon, juggling balls, cracking walnuts and playing fifteen instruments.” That description holds true for non–fiction as readily as for fiction. There is no such thing as fiction—just poor writing.

Most of my books are biographies that describe humane people searching for truth under inhumane conditions. Most of these people find what they are seeking. Rarely does it look anything like what they expected.