As told to Erin McCarthy
The author of seven nonfiction books, most recently Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (she was also the voice of Violet in The Incredibles) tells us about her musical beginnings, dirty laundry, and love of index cards.
1. When I was growing up, I wanted to be Louis Armstrong.
My childhood dream was headlining at the Blue Note with my trio. I quit the trumpet when my teacher told me I wasn’t good enough. After my musical career fizzled, I studied art history and started writing for my college newspaper.
2. I come from a Protestant background, and we love our work ethic.
Music—especially jazz and classical music—lends itself to teeth-gritting, mind-numbing applying yourself. That kind of discipline leads to success in anything, I think.
3. Even as a small child, I was fascinated by the past.
Some of my family are Cherokee Indians and ended up in Oklahoma because of the Trail of Tears. And some of [my ancestors] ended up there because they were Swedish immigrants. History was in my DNA.
4. There weren’t a ton of books around when I was a little kid.
I lived out in the country and went to a small-town school. There was no library. The Bible was the main event, and then stories of American history, so it makes sense that I would end up writing them.
5. When I meet someone new and they ask me what I do, I say, “I’m a writer,” and they say, “What do you write?”
I say, “I write books.” They say, “Oh, novels?” I say, “No, narrative nonfiction books about American history,” and then, usually, there are no follow-up questions.
6. I’m curious about a lot of things.
Right now I’m reading a book about a Japanese garden designer and a Danish crime novel, and I’m rereading the poems of Richard Hugo. I was thumbing through Hemingway’s short stories yesterday, and the day before that I woke up at 4 a.m. and decided to reread Robert Frost.
7. When I’m starting to research, I sit around reading old letters, and diaries, and books about dead people.
I love that part because it’s just about learning, which is—and I hate to admit this in public—my favorite thing in the world. I spend way too much time researching, and then the jig is up, and I’ve got to scramble.
8. I think the rule to nonfiction is that there is no one rule.
Every story deserves to be told differently. I have an index card for every plot point, every quotation, every observation, every joke, every thought, every analysis. I arrange these cards on my living room rug and try to come to some cohesive semichronological trip through the topic.
9. I want the reader to learn along with me.
I let it all hang out. I air my dirty laundry. I will tell a reader about the moment I learned something.
10. If I have a notepad and a pencil, that’s all I need.
I don’t even need a table—I wrote a lot of this most recent book sitting in a big rocking chair.
11. My latest book is two books under one cover.
One is about the Marquis de Lafayette and how he personified the alliance with France. There’s this second book swimming underneath about who we are as a country and how we’ve never gotten along—and how, even though this hinders us and makes us less efficient, it’s also our strength.
12. Writing is a job.
Basically you’re just sitting in a room by yourself doing homework for the rest of your life. But I do have nightmares about having to get a regular job that you go to and put on shoes for. That is my biggest fear, that I would have to do that again.