An Interview with Pulitzer Prize-Winner David McCullough on the Art of Writing Non-Fiction
David McCullough is one of America’s greatest historical writers; his work, honored twice with the Pulitzer Prize, has included deep examinations of John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, the American Revolutionary War, and the Brooklyn Bridge. In this interview, he speaks about his approach to writing, research, and thinking about the historical world.
This is going to be easy. I’ve only got one question.
How do you tell a story?
I don’t know. I grew up with stories in my family. My father was a wonderful storyteller, and I grew up with grandmothers who read aloud to us when we were children.
What made your father a wonderful storyteller?
I think he enjoyed the people he was telling the story about, some character he knew, somebody who did something odd, or had figures of speech, and he was a salesman and he met all kinds of people, from going down into coal mines to calling on the executives of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company or something. I grew up with three brothers and we all loved the stories of days past when there had been floods or fires or some adventure that he’d been on or knew about. And I always loved the movies, and I loved to come home after having been to a movie and tell the story of the movie to the point where they would all groan at the table that I was starting to tell it, because I would tell the whole thing, and take longer to tell the story, it seemed, than the movie had lasted. E.M. Forster, in a book that he did about the art of fiction, has a passage in there which I can’t quote exactly but he spoke of the difference between a sequence of events and a story. ‘If I tell you that the king died and then the queen died, that’s a sequence of events. If I tell you that the king died and the queen died of grief, that’s a story.” So it’s understanding the human equations involved, and I particularly have always liked stories, plays, movies, novels, where plot derives from character rather than outside forces. Now, the outside forces of course do happen, but all my books are about a journey. They all are about a journey. And I like books about accomplishment.
I was going to cite an exception to that but I guess even your book The Johnstown Flood is a journey. You start with the water where it’s supposed to be, in the dam at the top of the hill, and then it’s all about the journey to the bottom, and you tell it in slow motion, and the people…
Yeah, but it’s also about their journey, how do they come out of this catastrophe, what do they do.
Right after that book was published I had two different publishers come to me offering me an advance. One wanted me to do the Chicago fire, and the other wanted me to do the San Francisco earthquake. I was hardly out of the gate as a writer and being typecast as Bad News McCullough — I didn’t want that. In fact, I was searching for a symbol of affirmation, because I know that we human beings can be very short-sighted, irresponsible, stupid, but that we aren’t always, so I wanted as an antidote for having been through the Johnstown story to do something that was admirable, noble, and that has stood the test of time. And it took me quite a while to come up with my subject, and it only happened because of a chance remark that somebody made at lunch one day in New York, and that’s when I decided to write about the Brooklyn Bridge.
In many ways The Bridge has stayed with me as a subject longer than almost anything I’ve written about. Some books, I write it and it’s out of my system and I can move on, but I go back to that subject. I go back about once a year just to walk across, just to visit the old neighbourhood where Rosalie and I lived when we were first married. They built it right, and against horrific odds, and all manner of unexpected problems, and human frailty, human greed, human deceit. I hope very much that the movie on that subject will eventually be made, because we need to be reminded of things that turn out right.
We’re living in a kind of gilded age now. I’ve been re-reading Trollope’s great novel The Way We Live Now, and it’s exactly what we’re living with now, the corruption of greed, money, amoral behaviour in high places. But out of the earlier gilded age rose this magnificent bridge, which is still the primary symbol for the City of New York. When 9/11 happened, the very next morning, front page photographs in the New York Times, towers in flames, in the foreground is one of the towers of the Brooklyn Bridge, people fleeing out of the city by way of the bridge. So the bridge was not only saving lives but it was also reminding us some things still stand. We’re not cathedral builders in the literal sense, but that’s about as close as we ever came to nineteenth-century cathedral.
When you sat down to write the story of the Brooklyn Bridge, to write about that particular journey — everyone knows the bridge gets built.
Right. How do you keep them guessing?
That’s the big challenge. How could I make you wonder are they possibly going to do this, how are they going to do it, will they live to do it, all of that. And it’s how you unfold it, and what you hold back, without trickery or anything. Put yourself in their shoes, put yourself in their time. Remember they don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I like to talk about the hinge of history. It could have gone either way. And very often, as often as not, it goes one way or the other because of a person, or because of a group of people and how they respond, what they believe, what they are willing to endure, what ingenuity they have, all the rest.
I love making something. I’m not a sports fan, and there are probably all kinds of reason for that, but when the game’s over what have you accomplished? I’m happiest when I’m making something, and I think I’m happiest when I’m making something about the lives or life of people who made something, who accomplished something, and I think that’s why I’ve loved every subject I’ve undertaken, every book.
You talk about the uplifting quality of a story like the Brooklyn Bridge, and I’ve heard you say the same about John Adams. Could you write a story about a man who was ultimately a failure?
It would depend in what realm he was a failure, or who considered him a failure. One can make a very good case that John Adams was a failure as a president. That isn’t what interests me, it’s the life, what a life he lived.
Same thing. Truman is a journey. He’s representative of not just middle America or middle-brow America but the experience of that generation that went off to fight in France and came back changed it. There’s an old writer’s adage of keep your hero in trouble. You asked how do you tell a story: keep your hero in trouble. But Truman, I never had to worry about that. He was in trouble all the time! It’s Joseph and his coat of many colours, he gets put down the hole, how is he going to get out of that hole?
So when you start a story like that, do you need to know that all those elements are going to be there, or do you trust you’ll find them along the way?
No, I have to have the form, first, before I can proceed. When I first started out, I’d been an English major and I’d never written history but I knew how to find things out from my years in publishing and journalism. So I thought, “Well, you do all the research and then you write the book.” I very soon realized that’s not the way to do it, you’ve got to do enough research to get started, then start writing, because when you start writing then it really becomes clear how much you don’t know, or what you need to know, and you can target your research far more efficiently that way. Many people spend years and years researching and they never start writing. You gotta start writing. I’m often surprised at the turns the book will take.
So you don’t have a sense of an ending when you start out?
No, I have no outline. I don’t want an outline. I don’t want a paint-by-the-numbers.
So if we’re dealing, say, with one of your biographies, you would start at the beginning of the life without really knowing what happened in the last half?
Yes. Right. I very often don’t know what’s in for my subject, and that’s one of the reasons I keep the reader in suspense. I don’t know either! I haven’t read those letters yet, where he reveals the true secret of whatever.
So you move chronologically.
Yeah, I move forward with the character. I also feel I have to be able to see it, smell it, feel it, hear it, I’ve gotta walk the walk, I’ve gotta visit the places, I’ve gotta be in the jungle at night, I’ve got to get up and walk by the Seine in the morning, or whatever, climb the stairs, climb the steeple. Adams climbed a steeple down at Christchurch in Philadelphia. I said, “I gotta climb that steeple, I gotta know what that was like.” And also that’s what I enjoy doing. And talk to people. I tell students, “Talk to people. Tell people what you’re working on. You never know who knows something, or someone.”
That goes against the grain for a lot of writers.
Some people are writers because they’re solitary. For you, writing a book seems to be like a communal event.
Oh, it is. People talk about, “Oh, it must be a lonely profession.” Far from it.
You obviously have no anxiety about showing…
Somebody stealing my terrific idea? Baloney, that’s not going to happen.
Or showing something that’s not finished?
Oh, I don’t show them what I’ve written, but I tell students when you go into a library it’s not just the treasures of letters and manuscripts and rare books that are in there, it’s the people that work there who are often the more important source for you than what you’re going to read, because they know so much, they can direct you to books you would never know about, or tell you the batch of letters that no one’s ever looked at over here. It’s often the secondary characters who are going to give you the most insight.
Into your primary character…
Yes, or deliver lines that are more important than the main character.
I’m impressed by a lot of things in the way your write, and sometimes I’m impressed less for what you do than for what you don’t do. There are no tangents in your approach to story-telling, no arguing with other experts, not a lot of speculating or armchair psychologizing about your characters’ motives. That must be deliberate.
It is, and I can tell you some other things I don’t do. These are my own house rules, so to speak. No contractions. I don’t use “can’t” or “don’t” and so forth. No quoting of present-day historians to substantiate my point. Leave them out. That’s off-stage. Don’t need that. And all my training as a writer emphasized the old adage, “Don’t tell me: show me.” Don’t tell me he’s a miser, show him being a miser.
I don’t flail away about my own particular take on history. I don’t like to write history as viewed from the mountaintop, that’s not my business. If I couldn’t write narrative history, if I couldn’t make what really happened as compelling as a made-up version of what happened, then I wouldn’t want to write it. That’s not my line. And if critics are bothered by it, that’s fine, doesn’t bother me. This is what I do and I try to do it as best I can. And I don’t feel I’m in competition with anybody. If I’m praised by an academic historian I love it, but what pleases me most is when, on the one hand, somebody learned or well-read praises what I’ve written, and then a guy jumps out of a Brinks truck on Michigan Avenue in Chicago on a bright sunny morning and tells me he loves my books. That really pleases me, because I don’t think history ought to be reserved for the initiates, the high priests of academe, and I think that’s one of the reasons that our children are so inadequately educated in history.
So you don’t feel, when you’re writing about a John Adams, who’s been written about by a lot of academics, historians, political scientists, you don’t feel you’re arguing with their takes?
Or that you have to state your case on whether Truman was right to use the bomb or not?
No. There are all kinds of still lives of peaches, but that doesn’t stymie me to sit down and do a water-color of a plate of peaches on my kitchen table. I once worked for an editor who had a big rubber stamp, about that big, that said, “Dull,” and if you handed in something and he didn’t like it he’d go ‘boom’ and hand it back. Wouldn’t tell you why it was dull, just said, “Dull.” Made a big impression. How do you keep the lumber out of it? How do you keep the tedious patronizing flim-flam out of it? Move it along. When I read for pleasure I read mostly fiction, and I admire most those people who could turn it around in a page or two.
Oh, everybody from Trollope to Elmore Leonard to Ruth Rendell. You every read Penelope Lively?
Whoa. Read her. She’s an English writer and she wrote a novel called Moon Tiger, one of the best novels I’ve read in years. I was just told about her recently. She’s wonderful. It’s about a love affair that takes place between a female correspondent – newspaper writer – and an officer in the British Army during the Second World War in North Africa. Terrific book.
What’s the story you’re proudest of, the story you think you’ve told best, your greatest narrative?
Huh. I don’t know. A lot of it has to do with scale. I did an essay in my book, Brave Companions, on Louis Agassiz that I feel very good about. I just reread it recently. I think a lot of the Panama book is some of my best writing ever.
I am a writer. I think I want to emphasize that. I consider myself a writer, not a historian. I’m called a historian, fine, but I don’t think of myself that way. I’m a writer who happens to write about what happened in other days, and I try to get as close as I can to those people in every way possible, and to tell their story truthfully, and faithful not just to what happened but to them.
That was enjoyable. Thank you.
(A version of this interview previously appeared in Maclean’s magazine)