I have always thought of myself as a writer. It’s hard to say where I got that notion — maybe from being naturally comfortable living in my own head. My mother’s memory: I am standing with my back against the crib’s railings, facing the wall instead of looking outward toward the room. “What a strange baby,” she probably thought, or as she more gently put it when telling me about my early habit, “I thought that was interesting.”
Then there was the 2-year-old me asking if I could sit on the steps of our front porch, and quietly observe the world going by — whatever “world” there was in my small hometown. Or maybe it came to me when I learned to read, and reading turned into an obsession. It was a short trip from loving to see words attractively arranged on a page to wanting to arrange them myself. At 7, I wrote my first “book,” Lost at Sea, about a traveler marooned on a deserted island. During my teenage years, I spent countless hours writing short stories.
I learned to research, discovering both the intellectual and physical aspects of the process — the rush of being on the hunt for documents and the toil of wrestling with microfilm and microfiche machines and inter-library loans. I learned which sources were likely to yield answers, which were not to be trusted, and how to deal with the inevitable dry holes, dashed hopes, and fruitless efforts that attend any serious research project.
Through it all, it was the biographies that gripped me most fiercely. They were not just windows into the personalities of my original subjects of study. They gave me entrée into the strange world of other people’s families, revealing their variety, their peculiarities, and the often very great distance between a family’s public presentation and its private realities.
The chief value of having read lots and lots of biographies, and having seen multiple families in action in them, is that whenever anyone insists that a particular thing could not have happened, or a given situation could not have obtained in any domestic setting, I can think of a half dozen instances where that very thing, or something akin to it, or something even more bizarre, happened in a family.
Biographies also introduced me to the world of writers in general. I learned that they could be a contentious lot, often vain, twisted by jealousy, and prone to feuding. Sinclair Lewis v. Theodore Dreiser, James Baldwin v. Richard Wright, Ernest Hemingway v. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and, perhaps, the whole world. I saw that there were two, three, maybe even more sides to the stories told about these battles.
I didn’t encounter Kurosawa’s Rashoman until college, but reading the accounts of, say, the Lewis-Dreiser feud written by partisans of each man — at a well-attended dinner party Dreiser gave Lewis what was called “the slap heard around the world” — showed me how presentations of truth so often depend heavily upon the perspectives and interests of those writing the story. So, I sought out “neutral” observers whose observations often tipped the balance in favor of one or another version of the competing stories.
In the process, I learned that some chroniclers of events, whether by dint of their innate personalities or training, were better than others at stepping outside of their own preferences to at least approach the ever-elusive state of objectivity. They, I thought, were the people to emulate.
By the end of high school, I could have written a pretty good book about author feuds and conflicts, both in the United States and across the Atlantic. I never made the move, however, to write anything based upon the research that I was pursuing just for fun. My literary sleuthing stayed at the amateur level while I pursued a career in law — until 1997 when I wrote my real first book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.
That book, an analysis and critique of the way historians had written about the story of Jefferson’s 38-year liaison with Hemings, an enslaved woman on his plantation, Monticello, allowed me to do everything I had been doing as an intense hobby for nearly 25 years. With no knowledge that this was where all my efforts had been leading, I had prepared myself to use what I had learned wandering through the public library in Conroe, Texas, the library at Sam Houston State University in nearby Huntsville, where I retreated after exhausting the resources of my hometown library, then Baker Library at Dartmouth College, Harvard’s Widener Library, and, once I moved to Manhattan, the New York Public Library. The process was seamless. I simply stopped one research project that I was doing for my own edification and picked up the Hemings-Jefferson project. The only differences were that I traveled farther to find information and I actually wrote down the conclusions that I drew from the material I gathered.
From there, I went on to other books, including The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History. Again, this work benefitted from what I had learned about the craft of biography and the ways of family life during all my self-driven research projects. Because I have been doing it for almost my entire life, researching and writing these books rarely ever felt like real work.