T.J. Stiles is—simply put—one of America’s most accomplished historians.
His biographies on George Custer, Jesse James, and Cornelius Vanderbilt have won every big prize a writer can get, and his books combine intensity of research with the writing flair of a great novelist. They are long reads, but they go down easy—a testament to his skills as a writer.
His books take years to write, and he’s achieved a discipline about the craft of writing that few can match. This interview is filled with gems, so without further ado…
In the morning I have more energy and focus. But when I’m in the writing stage, I’m always thinking it over—arriving at new insights, redrafting sentences, thinking of analogies or metaphors. I have often leaped out of bed to write down something that just occurred to me, and when I do I usually slip on a shirt I threw on the floor. Leaping is not the best way to get out of bed. But that’s the impulse, because I’m afraid of losing the thought.
I think people who write longhand must hate themselves. Which makes sense to me, because hating yourself is both a requirement for and product of the writing life. I write on a laptop with Word, and express my self-hatred by writing long, research-intensive books. I took my first typing class in ninth grade, and immediately made a habit of typing everything I wrote. Now the keyboard is a more natural tool to me than a pen or pencil.
When I’m doing boring work, such as scrolling through search hits in a newspaper database, I listen to music. But when I’m writing I have to have silence.
Coffee. Make and drink lots of coffee. Also coffee. And getting my kids out of the house. Did I mention coffee?
I never set a word count. I write until I’m exhausted. Because writing is exhausting. In my late 20s and early 30s, I was on a chess kick, and used to play in novice-level tournaments; the hours of concentration would utterly deplete me. After I’ve written in one long streak, I feel the same way. V.S. Naipaul once said that he can only write 250 words a day, and if he does more he pays for it the next day. I am not so afflicted, or gifted, but I know what he means.
If I’m just starting, I never consider the page blank. I’ve been writing in my head long before I sit down at the keyboard. In fact, I sometimes start inadvertently, by describing to someone what I’m doing. Conversation often crystalizes my own thinking far more effectively than solitary reflection. When I put the first words down, I know they’re likely to change, which I find liberating—no need to get it perfect the first time. But I want the first sentence to set a tone or indicate a theme for that chapter, so I have to start with a clear sense of the meaning of the events that follow, and how I want the reader to feel.
When I’m away from the laptop, I’m mentally revising and rethinking almost constantly. When I come back, I start by going to the beginning of the chapter, and I read and revise everything I’ve done so far. There has to be a better way, but I can’t help it. When I’m done with the chapter, I print it and go through it with a pencil, and do the same for the entire manuscript when it’s done. I also read the finished work aloud. That’s the best way to catch mistakes and infelicities and to refine the rhythm of the language.
For me, research is the first phase, writing is the second. I rarely do both in the same day, or week, or even month. But I mentally write as I research. As I read the raw primary sources, I’m identifying and defining characters, shaping scenes, detecting episodes and subplots.
Hell no. I get up and walk away. Though I may come running back.
I agree that a writer must be a good reader, but I hesitate to say I emulate other writers. Back in 2004, Louis Menand wrote a review for The New Yorker in which he basically threw aside the book in question (one about grammar), and began a marvelous reflection on voice, that essential and confounding aspect of writing.
I read and learn, but naturally I’m always trying to write in my own voice. I admire immensely such nonfiction masters as Jean Strouse, Robert Caro, and Richard Rhodes. I read fiction, not only to draw on the music and technique but for the insights into human nature. For my book on Vanderbilt, I read Edith Wharton, Herman Melville, and Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. To write about Custer, I read Tolstoy’s stories about his experience as an army officer in the Caucuses in the 1850s, Isaac Baabel’s Red Cavalry stories, and James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird. My inspiration for leaving the Little Bighorn offstage in Custer’s Trials was the way James McPherson handled Lincoln’s assassination in Battle Cry of Freedom, the great Pulitzer-winning history of the Civil War, an exceptional work of prose as well as history.
I find that writing comes naturally to me. On the other hand, I always have a sense that everything I’ve ever written could be better. Whatever I feel proud of writing has been the product of countless revisions. I read Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb after finishing The First Tycoon, and was glad I hadn’t read it earlier, or I might have quit in despair of ever producing something half as good.
I’ve always loved both writing and history, from as early as I could read. A telling moment came in college, when I changed my major from English to history because I found writing literary criticism was less enjoyable and original than primary-source research papers. (There was no creative-writing major at Carleton College.) One reason I went to Columbia University for graduate school was that New York is the capital of other likely fields for me if an academic history career didn’t work out. It didn’t work out. My graduate-school years were a disaster, and I went to work in book publishing for a decade. That dual background in the academy and publishing allowed me to conceive an independent career as an author of serious books that would succeed on a literary level as well. While still working full time, I published a few anthologies of historical sources, which taught me how to structure a book. Then I hit upon the idea for my first biography, though I knew I could undertake it only if I wrote full-time. Fortunately I found a terrific agent, Jill Grinberg, and signed at Alfred A. Knopf with the great Jonathan Segal, the same editor I work with today. That double stroke of luck allowed me to quite my job, and has been critical for my career.
That’s tough because they’re so different from each other, due to the sources. Jesse James probably had the biggest impact in redefining an iconic figure, but that took a major investigation of the historical context; James was a lifelong fugitive who left little personal material. The First Tycoon had to succeed on an epic scale, given the length and scope of Vanderbilt’s life. It was also an intellectual challenge, as I tried to explain the emergence of the corporate economy from the inside. The rich and intimate sources for Custer’s Trials allowed me to write a much more internal biography, and to bring women to the page as three-dimensional characters. Writing each book required a different approach and provided a distinct satisfaction.
I’m always learning from other writers, whether in my on-stage conversation last year with the brilliant Annette Gordon-Reed or a 2016 interview I just read in the Paris Review with Robert Caro. I often go back to E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, or David Lodge’s collection of very useful columns, The Art of Fiction.
I’ve practiced traditional Shotokan karate-do with the Japan Karate Association since I was sixteen, and it informs everything I do. For one thing, it teaches the need for discipline, the importance of every little aspect of the endeavor, and the necessity of a continual effort to improve. I vividly remember moments in karate classes from thirty years ago and apply those lessons today; the same goes for my writing. It has taught me about the human body. When I was writing about Jesse James (who was badly injured more than once), I broke my hand in class; even though the metacarpal was sheared in two in a “boxer’s fracture,” the ER doctors tried to set it, and their prolonged grinding of the bone sent me into shock. I vomited and passed out, and when I came to my first thought was, “That was really interesting. I can use that.” It has taught me about fighting, its emotional states and physical skills; I read the West Point sword manual that Custer studied, and saw that it offered some of the same fighting advice I give to my karate students. It has taught me about human nature, about ferocity and self-control. And when I practice it clears my mind of everything else. That’s important.
Writing a book is hard. There’s no way around it. I have to break up it up into chunks, focus on what’s in front of me, and remind myself that eventually I’ll get through it. When I was deep in my seven years of writing The First Tycoon, I ran out of money, even after draining my 401k. I applied for a fellowship at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writer, and wrote to George Plimpton for a letter of recommendation. I had met him while writing Jesse James, since James tried to rob Adelbert Ames, Plimpton’s great-grandfather. Plimpton sent back a characteristically warm, generous note, promising to help. As I read it, I heard on the radio he had died. I felt selfish worrying about myself, but I despaired. Fortunately the fellowship came through. It ended up being a turning point in my writing life, as well as critical to my finishing that book.
For me, the problem is not fear of measuring up, but the ongoing difficulty of making a living. My books have never hit the New York Times bestseller list. So the Pulitzer comes my way, in a moment of enormous good fortune, but I’m still asking myself, “Am I doing something wrong? Have I picked the wrong subjects?” But I can’t cheap out on writing a major biography. As my editor says, there are no shortcuts. My publisher is terrifically supportive, yet the books have to sell. So it’s stressful. But I’m the one who chose this life, and it would be far, far worse without the major prizes. The recognition is priceless to me, and has kept me in business.