Let’s say you were going to pick a topic for a first book. And you decided that you would wade into a fierce battle about a revered Founding Father’s love life—and that you would take on much of what the world believed about it. Well, that’s how Annette Gordon-Reed broke into the world of book writing, and she’s the historian credited with establishing the romantic connection between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.
In historical circles, she caused an earthquake. Even more surprising was that she wasn’t trained as a historian; she trained as a lawyer. She nursed dreams of writing for a long time, and then left the law to do it. She took classes, toyed with different ideas, and then happened upon the controversy that would lead to her first book. It wasn’t a well-planned path into writing, but then, is anyone’s?
Her results: A Pulitzer Prize. A National Book Award. A MacArthur Genius Grant. And dozens of other prizes and recognitions. Part of what earned her all these awards was that her histories weren’t just dry recitations of facts. She brought the figures in her story to life, which is easier said than done considering she was writing about events from almost two centuries ago.
How does she do it? Well…
I am a morning person, so I prefer to work in the morning. I am at my best writing between 6AM and noon. Things begin to deteriorate after that. The afternoon hours are not so great. I can start back up again around 7PM or so.
I start off all serious writing with pen or pencil and paper. I also say out loud what I am writing. I sometimes dictate. It is very difficult for me to start out writing on a computer. Once I have the flow going very well, I transfer what I have written onto the computer. Then I can keep writing and editing.
I prefer silence because, as I said, I am talking as I’m writing. I only want to hear what I am saying.
I listen to music and I straighten things up around where I’m going to be writing.
Oh, there is no set amount. It depends on where I am in the writing process. I would say most of it sees the light of day. I don’t move onto the next thing until I’m satisfied with the pages I have written. It is very unlikely that I will have written, say, a chapter, and then throw it out and start all over. I do not proceed until I’m satisfied with what I have done.
What do I want to accomplish today?
Just endlessly re-reading what I have written. I want to see how the sentences flow in relation to one another. So I type things out single spaced. That way I can keep better control of how the sentences are working and how the paragraphs are flowing.
No, I don’t think I write differently. I have an intelligent reader in mind.
Well James Baldwin was at superb stylist. But, I think I have tried to develop my own voice.
When I have writer’s block it is because I have not done enough research or I have not thought hard enough about the subject about which I’m writing. That’s a signal for me to go back to the archives or to go back into my thoughts and think through what it is I am supposed to be doing.
Yes, it did prepare me. The law is about storytelling. Great lawyers know how to do that very well. I think it presses me to be more analytical in my approach to material.
Haha. Actually, I have not. I suppose I am busier now than I was at the start. So that requires a lot more planning. But I do things pretty much the same way.
Yes. I consider it to be easy. Some projects are easier than others. But I find it fascinating when I hear other people talk about what torture it is for them to write. The closest I come to that is if I have agreed to write something that I really don’t want to write about. But if I have chosen the topic, and I’m committed to it, it comes naturally.
I have wanted to be a writer from the time I was a little kid. I spent a good amount of my time growing up writing short stories. That was my hobby.
My first book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy was my favorite to write. I had so, so much fun doing that. I was absolutely compulsive about it. I wrote the manuscript in about four months. I would wake up in mid-sentence. I have heard that some people think they have to drink in order to write. I sometimes drank one of those half bottles of Veuve Cliquot to STOP writing.
Oh, you’ve stumped me there. I don’t really have any.
It certainly was different. Historians do not usually collaborate on books, and certainly not in the way Peter and I did it. Our editor at Liveright, Bob Weil, wanted us to achieve a single “voice,” as if the book had been written by one person. Instead of handing off chapters for each other to write, we wrote the book in sections with the idea that the other person would read over what had been written, comment on it, or rewrite it. Then we’d confer. We did that all the way through. So a sentence that may have been started by one person, was nearly always added to, or finished by, the other person. We went sentence by sentence, building the paragraphs.