On Finishing Up a Book I’ve Been Working on for Four Years: Part 1

(With apologies to A. Peterson’s On Editing a Novel series.)

oldmanmikeno“The home stretch” is a baseball metaphor, right? Far be it from me to be familiar with baseball metaphors, but I think this is where I am. In, on, or at least facing the home stretch here. Two-to-three thousand more words and I’m finished. Carl Akeley, who is dead, has to die, and then I have to show readers what his African Hall is like. Then, maybe, I need an epilogue at the pet cemetery in town, the one that doesn’t bring its animals back to life.

When you’ve been working on a nonfiction book for four years, reading hundreds of source texts and rereading a handful of source texts many, many times, it all starts to feel like this thing infesting your head. This tapeworm or something you need extracted. Because as the texts accrete and the time passes, unless you are a much more organized person than I am, the hard part is figuring out: okay, is this something I read, or something I heard, or something even I’ve just made up? If something I read, where did I read it? Did I take notes on it, or not? Where can I find it?

Where can I find it?

The datum in question is a quotation regarding the animal depicted above, or left, depending. His name (well: “name”) is the Old Man of Mikeno, and it’s a bronze sculpture of a gorilla killed by Carl Akeley when on expedition to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then the Belgian Congo) for the American Museum of Natural History. He was the first gorilla Akeley shot. The first of four. He was also the first animal Akeley shot that he also named.

I can remember when I first heard Carl Akeley’s name but I can’t remember when I first learned of the Old Man of Mikeno. I imagine it was in his autobiography, In Brightest Africa. But the point of all this is that for as long as I’ve known of the Old Man, I’ve also known that, about him, Carl once said “I really am fonder of him than I am of myself.”

I cannot find where or when he said or wrote this.

After Carl went to Africa for the fourth time and shot four gorillas something changed about him and he began working for nature conservation. The above quote re fondness is the sort of thing we nonfiction writers jones for, if you will. Because of its usefulness as evidence: here’s a glimpse inside a real person’s mind. In fiction, these pathways are ours to create. In nonfiction it’s like every path lies behind a locked gate.

“I really am fonder of him than I am of myself” is, thus, a key I can’t find.

Penelope Bodry-Sanders, Akeley’s chief biographer, drops the quote in an epigraph to her chapter on this African expedition. She is way more lax about citation than I’d ever allow myself to be. Fortunately for me, she’s still around, as the executive director of the Lemur Conservation Fund. I may need to send an email.

But Penelope’s book was published almost 19 years ago. If I can’t track sources on a book I’ve been working on for merely four years, what can I expect of her?

3 thoughts on “On Finishing Up a Book I’ve Been Working on for Four Years: Part 1”

  1. I think home stretch is a horse racing metaphor.

    When you got your book picked up, did they pay you, like, an advance or something? Knowing you, you blew it in a week on hookers and blow, so now you HAVE to finish it!

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