Savannah, Ga., native Bruce Feiler is a storyteller who finds source material in the streets of Cairo or in his own backyard.
He is best known as a chronicler of the places where ancient religious texts and modern political trouble overlap, from his biblical travelogue “Walking the Bible” to the Arab Spring narrative “Generation Freedom.” Feiler dove deep into an interior, dark adventure in 2008 when he received a cancer diagnosis with “The Council of Dads,” about the men he asked to help raise his daughters should he die.
Today, cancer-free for five years, Feiler has entered the next phase of living — raising a family — and, true to form, he’s found a way to make a book out of it.
In “The Secrets of Happy Families: Surprising New Ideas to Bring More Togetherness, Less Chaos, and Greater Joy,” the writer seeks answers from Green Beret soldiers, Mideast peace negotiators and other unlikely experts, to find out how to make the nuclear family a more loving and less radioactive place.
We spoke to him at the Brooklyn home he shares with wife Linda Rottenberg and their twin 7-year-olds, Tybee and Eden.
Q: You’re pretty good at turning your life into a book, aren’t you?
A: That’s something I’ve been doing for a while.
Q: Why this book?
A: I get frustrated. I go looking for answers, sometimes I don’t find the answers that I need. There’s a lot of stuff about babies and breast-feeding and napping, and actually there’s a fair amount of stuff about teenagers ... but there’s not a lot of stuff out there about how to build a family culture.
Q: You said your favorite bit of advice came from Marshall Duke, a psychology professor at Emory University, who said parents should tell their kids family stories.
A: Those guys at Emory gave kids a simple ‘Do you know?’ test. They asked things like ‘Do you know where your grandparents were born? Do you know where your parents went to high school? Do you know something bad that happened to them?’ And the kids who scored the highest had the greatest sense that they could control their own lives and the highest self-esteem. This ‘do you know?’ test was the single biggest predictor of emotional health and happiness.
Q: Telling stories about the old days when your grandfather was young sounds about as square as “Father Knows Best,” doesn’t it?
A: The biggest insult people say about “Secrets” is that it’s corny. But the corny thing I’m trying to do is make my family stronger. That’s radical. That’s not going to make me cool on Twitter. It’s not going to get me Facebook fans. But it’s going to help me with the thing I care about most, which is equipping my children to have a happy life.
Q: Why are so many self-help books so ineffective?
A: Part of the problem is there’s not enough ‘us’ help. We need less ‘me’ and more ‘we.’ ... What’s the number one thing we’ve learned in the self-help movement? It’s that happiness is other people, that happiness is relationships. And the relationship that matters most is our family.
Q: You draw ideas from business strategies such as the Agile system of software development to help the family. What can you learn from Agile?
A: Flexibility. Change all the time. That’s Agile. But that’s life. You think, ‘I’m a parent now, I’m a dad. I’ll make three rules and I’ll stick to them and I’ll make my children do what I say.’ But every parent discovers that you can tell your children over and over the same thing and it doesn’t work. Or you can say “I can’t predict what’s going to go wrong, I’m going to come up with a system that will change and react over time.”