Interview with David McCullough

Posted by Goodreads on May 5, 2015
If there is a modern voice of American history, it's David McCullough's. The Pulitzer Prize winner's books document some of the most pivotal moments of the American story: stories of disaster (The Johnstown Flood), of man's drive to create and conquer (The Great Bridge, The Path Between the Seas), of innovators (The Greater Journey), of revolutionaries (1776), of presidents (Truman, Mornings on Horseback), and of the complicated relationships between the Founding Fathers (John Adams). The venerated historian makes the lessons of the past accessible to us all. "I like to tell a story," he says, and his latest work, The Wright Brothers, chronicles the lives of the Dayton bicycle mechanics who "taught the world how to fly."

McCullough spoke with Heather Scott Partington about taking flight, stepping into the past, and the latest book that bowled him over.

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Goodreads: The Wright Brothers tells another story of men who changed the world despite odds that were perilously stacked against them. How did this particular book come about?

David McCullough: My last book was about aspiring young American doctors, writers, architects, [and] artists, who, in order to improve themselves...went to Paris, primarily, because they needed the training that was not available here. When I finished it—it ends in 1900—I thought, Why not carry it on into the 20th century? And I began looking to see who was in France in the early part of the 20th century. I was astonished to find how important [that] time in France was to the Wright Brothers. So I began reading about them, and the more I read about them, the more I realized that that's the book I wanted to write.

GR: Was it a challenge to write about two men who, by all appearances, were so polite and virtuous? You've said previously that "an entirely virtuous person is not interesting."

DM: I found them extremely interesting, because they were so devoted to their mission, their purpose. People with purpose are often a little different from others, and [the Wrights] sacrificed a lot that they excluded from their lives in order to accomplish what they did—not unlike someone who devotes their life to priesthood. But what saved them for me is that they were constantly in trouble. They were up against adversity of a kind that most of us would have said, "To hell with this, I'm not gonna go ahead!"

But they had [a] great sense of humor, and the relationship between them and their father and their sister I found terribly compelling. I really got a kick out of [Katharine]. I love to feel that I'm giving credit where credit is long overdue with my work. And I sure feel that with her. I'm not really sure that they would have succeeded with their mission if it had not been for her. She really played such a very...vital part. She had so many opinions, and she could get mad, and I like it when the brothers got mad at each other, too. That was a treat.

GR: Was anything particularly interesting to you about the twists of fate that allowed the Wright Brothers to become who they became?

DM: The fact that Wilbur was hit in the teeth with a hockey stick when he was still in high school, and went into [a] kind of depression [and] seclusion for several years, changed the course of his life. And then to find out...that the one who hit him was a young man who later became one of the most notorious murderers in all [the] history of Ohio.

And I think that shows the atmosphere of Dayton, Ohio: the neighborhood, the small town, and these trustworthy, admirable fellows...we shouldn't think of it as an idealized Norman Rockwell kind of Saturday Evening Post cover setting. Because right around the corner, here is this boy [who hit Wilbur], who is suffering from severe tooth decay and works in a drug store. And the druggist, out of pity for him, gives him the only painkiller of the day, which was cocaine. And he became a drug addict. He became addicted. He became an alcoholic. He became a savage murderer. And yet they're growing up, these two men, same neighborhood, same school. One was the neighborhood genius; the other was the neighborhood bully. It's a very American story. That's what I like about it so much.

[The Wrights] did it on their own. No advantages of the usual sort. No telephone, no electricity, no running water, no indoor plumbing, and a house full of books. There's the difference.

GR: At first the Wrights couldn't get the press to pay attention to this wonderful thing that they were doing, and then the press was so desperate for a story that they couldn't get, they would fabricate details—

DM: [laughs] No, the press does not come off as particularly ethical...nor particularly bright. [And] our government was very, very slow and stubborn and rude, and slammed the door in their faces again and again. People take a while to catch on, to wake up to the fact that what they believe—what they long believed to be true—is no longer true. They long believed that of course, man can't fly. So then when man does fly, they refuse to believe that man is flying. It took five years before the world awakened to the reality.

GR: Were there any interesting connections that you found—ways that this work fits with the rest of your books?

DM: The creation of the Eiffel Tower was a major symbolic event of the 19th century. It affected the whole world. And that scene at the end of The Wright Brothers book, where Wilbur is flying up the Hudson River, and he gets hit by those sudden, unexpected blasts of air because of the high-rise buildings going up, the skyscrapers being built. This sense of reaching for the sky, both architecturally with skyscrapers, in engineering with the Eiffel Tower, and then with the airplane...I think that when Wilbur flies up the Hudson, [and] when the French pilot who trained under Wilbur flies over the Eiffel Tower, those are about as symbolic moments as one can imagine in any days of history.

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I feel very strongly, increasingly so, that history shouldn't be understood to be all about politics and war. Yes, of course politics and war play an enormous part. But that isn't the whole story. And this book is the third in a trilogy, if you will: the first being the book on the Brooklyn Bridge, the second on the [Panama] Canal...and now this one. And all three of those were immensely emblematic of accomplishments that were achieved within about 30 years' time. Not very much at all—one generation.

GR: Goodreads member Kaylene Coleman asks which of your books "moved you to be better, wiser, kinder?"

DM: They all did. Each in its way. I've learned enormous amounts from the people I've come to know. In a way, you get to know these people you're writing about from other get to know them as well or even better than people in your own real life. For one thing, in real life you don't get to read other people's mail. And when you're working on these characters of the past, that's really what you're depending on. The fact that I can get inside the house on Hawthorne Street, in Dayton....To get inside dinner table conversations, or the worries they had...because they wrote it all down, in over a thousand private letters. Think of that! Over a thousand. And none of them was capable of writing a short letter or a boring letter. They're just [a] terrific source.... And we don't write letters [anymore]. So I'm not sure how future biographers and historians are going to be able to write about us.

GR: Goodreads member Scott Berghoff says, "Deciphering thought and intent must be extremely difficult, especially when writing about historical figures.... How do you pull that intimacy out of the immense amount of data...even though we already know how the story ends?"

DM: A historian can't make anything up the way a novelist can. A historian can't change facts or figures or say what somebody's thinking as they're walking down the street. You can't do that. And you have to play it straight. You have to have a source for anything actual or descriptive detail.... But it's amazing how much you can find if you know how to look for it.

And one of the [things] many historians neglect is to go where these events happened and to soak it up. Don't just go by in your car and look and keep driving. Stay there for a couple of weeks! Walk the walk. Go out at night; smell the coal smoke in the air.... Empathy is what a historian needs: the capacity to put yourself in the other person's place. One of my favorite historians, a man named J.H. Plumb, said once that "what we need are more heart-wise historians."

GR: Goodreads member Andrew asks if you "have ever encountered a subject you [wanted to] write about—but the historical detail [was] too thin?"

DM: Oh yes, very often. I've often thought somebody should write a wonderful biography about Martha Washington. And there isn't one. And the reason there isn't one is that there's very little to go on. She destroyed all her letters, he destroyed letters he had from her, and what he wrote to her. There's just nothing there of substance with which to shape the biography. Same for Jefferson's wife. We don't even know what she looked like. He destroyed everything she ever wrote to him. And exactly why they did that is not clear. There are a lot of theories... But when those letters survive as they did with Abigail and John Adams, oh boy, it's pure gold.

GR: You are the envy of many a writer for your writing shed, or "bookshop." Can you talk about any routines that you have related to writing?

DM: Well, with some exceptions, I try to write every day, and it's easier that way.... And I try to stop—to end the day, knowing where I am going to pick up. So when I come back to sit down at my desk again, I don't think, "Oh, now, what the devil do I do next?"

I work on a typewriter. Many people find that hilarious and hard to believe. But I work on a manual typewriter, a Royal Standard typewriter, and it's the same typewriter I've written all my books on, and there's never been anything wrong with it. So I never saw any reason to change the tool.... People say to me, "Don't you realize how much faster you could go if you'd use a word processor?" and of course I know. But I don't want to go faster. If anything, I'd rather go more slowly.

GR: I'm also interested, kind of related to that last question, what your reading process is like. Do you have routines that relate to reading? It could be reading for pleasure [or] reading for research? Anything.

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DM: Well, when I'm in a book, really thick in the middle of it, I have no time or even any particular desire to read anything but what I need for what I'm writing. So very often at the end, after the book's finished, it's as if I can now start eating whatever I want. I can start reading whatever I want. I read a lot of fiction, and I particularly love good detective stories, and I try to read as many new writers as possible, but I also go back and read more of a lot of old favorites, too.

GR: Do you have any recommendations, or any books that you feel were an influence to you as a writer?

DM: Strunk and White's Elements of a book I turn to every now and then just to refresh what's important. It's like an aid to navigation. I'm very fond of some of what Robert MacNeil has written about in his book called Wordstruck. The old novelist Conrad Richter wrote a terrific book about his way of writing, I love it. [W.] Somerset Maugham also wrote wonderfully about being an author and writing books. And [William] Zinsser's book, On Writing Well, superb book! As good as it gets.

GR: What are you reading now?

DM: Well, I just finished one of John Grisham's books, called Sycamore Row, and I have to admit I've never read one of his books, and I was bowled over by it. Wonderful book. It's a real work of literature and held me spellbound from the first page to the last.

Interview by Heather Scott Partington for Goodreads. Heather is a writer, teacher, and book critic. She lives in Elk Grove, California.

Learn more about Heather and follow what she's reading.

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Comments Showing 1-12 of 12 (12 new)

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message 1: by Pat (new)

Pat What a wonderfully interesting interview! I am ready to put everything else aside and read this book. Of course, that is true of each of David McCullough's masterpieces. My yellowing trade paper copy of The Great Bridge sits on my shelves -long before ebooks - and i still pull it out now and then, look at the photographs, and could read it again right now - but he keeps publishing new works that compel me to read. Can not wait to read The Wright Brothers!!!

message 3: by John (new)

John Wonderful interview.

message 4: by Omayer (new)

Omayer Nice

message 5: by Richard (new)

Richard O I wonder if he included anything about the young (frenchman)? who flew his plane further and higher and earlier than the Wrights, yet they were the ones who because famous and well off, while he faded into obscurity? Odd how things happen like that?

message 6: by Greg (new)

Greg Messinger Terrific interview! I really appreciate the latter questions about what constitutes David McCullough's writing and reading routines as well as his influences. Hopefully he has written and received (as well as saved) lots of letters as I am sure that one day soon someone will want to write a book about him! His work and story-telling is truly second to none as an American historian!

message 7: by Kay (new)

Kay I so enjoyed this interview; very interesting and comprehensive conversation with one of my favorite authors. I look forward to reading this newest book-- and "living with the Wrights" for the duration of Mr. McCullough's writing about them. I'll never forget being in a packed auditorium at Elon University so soon after 9-11, when David McCullough spoke to us about John Adams- his latest book then, and the trials and tribulations of the founders. His dignified presence, and compelling voice, as well as his words, gave us much needed encouragement to recall the examples shown by our forefathers during their own difficult times in our country's past. He was, quite simply, grand.

message 8: by Ran (new)

Ran Perhar Re: David McCullough's interview.

Art of letter writing is disappearing with the brevity driven social media.

message 9: by Susan (new)

Susan Mykrantz My mom read this book and she really couldn't put it down, because it was a fascinating book. And this is high praise because she doesn't like history.

message 10: by Barbara VA (new)

Barbara VA Wonderful interview! I have read 3 of his books and whenever I now want a non fiction, I pick him up. They take me forever to read because, as awesome as they are, there is still so much more that I need to read about in each chapter, boom open In lap and laptop open beside me with a pad for notes! Pure bliss!

message 11: by Judy (new)

Judy A wonderful interview. I could hear everything he was saying in that great voice of his.

message 12: by Jerry-Book (new)

Jerry-Book I also saw his documentary on HBO. I would recommend it to anyone interested in this writer. This interview supplements that documentary very nicely. I have read all of his books and I don't find any to be a bad read.

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