Interviews

David McCullough, The Art of Biography No. 2

Interviewed by Elizabeth Gaffney and Benjamin Ryder Howe

“Nothing good was ever written in a large room,” David McCullough says, and so his own office has been reduced to a windowed shed in the backyard of his Martha’s Vineyard home. Known as “the bookshop,” the shed does not have a telephone or running water. Its primary contents are a Royal typewriter, a green banker’s lamp, and a desk, which McCullough keeps control over by “flushing out” the loose papers after each chapter is finished. The view from inside the bookshop is of a sagging barn surrounded by pasture. To keep from being startled, McCullough asks his family members to whistle as they approach the shed where he is writing.

In its simplicity and modesty, the bookshop is characteristic of an author who prefers to deflect credit for his success—to his material, to his family members, to his upbringing. McCullough’s wife Rosalee was present throughout the interview. We were sitting in the McCulloughs’ low-ceilinged living room, which became progressively darker as the tape recorder rolled on, so that by the end of the afternoon, with the lights off, only the nineteenth-century library across the street was clearly visible. During the entire time, almost eight hours, McCullough spoke vigorously and quickly, growing hoarse but never seeming tired.

In person the sixty-six-year-old McCullough is somewhat different from the image projected on public television, where he frequently hosts and narrates programs. The voice, coming out of shadows across the room, was full of emotion. His face seemed longer, his eyes larger. He gestured often, sometimes calling attention to nearby objects, such as a piece of cable from the Brooklyn Bridge. At the end of the meeting, he issued an impromptu dinner invitation and whipped up a delicious pasta with clam sauce, one of his specialties.

McCullough was born in Pittsburgh in 1933 and grew up in the boom years of World War II steel production. He attended Yale, where he studied English and visual arts, and got a job at Sports Illustrated in New York after graduation. During the 1960s he edited and wrote for American Heritage magazine and briefly worked for the United States Information Agency. His first book, The Johnstown Flood (1968), was not published until McCullough was thirty-five and already married with several children.

He has won the Pulitzer Prize, two National Book Awards, the Francis Parkman Prize and dozens of other honors, and not a single one of his books—including Truman (1992), The Great Bridge (1972), and The Path Between the Seas (1977)—has ever been out of print.

 

INTERVIEWER

Would you tell us about the motto tacked over your desk? 

DAVID McCULLOUGH

It says, “Look at your fish.” It’s the test that Louis Agassiz, the nineteenth-century Harvard naturalist, gave every new student. He would take an odorous old fish out of a jar, set it in a tin pan in front of the student and say, Look at your fish. Then Agassiz would leave. When he came back, he would ask the student what he’d seen. Not very much, they would most often say, and Agassiz would say it again: Look at your fish. This could go on for days. The student would be encouraged to draw the fish but could use no tools for the examination, just hands and eyes. Samuel Scudder, who later became a famous entomologist and expert on grasshoppers, left us the best account of the “ordeal with the fish.” After several days, he still could not see whatever it was Agassiz wanted him to see. But, he said, I see how little I saw before. Then Scudder had a brainstorm and he announced it to Agassiz the next morning: Paired organs, the same on both sides. Of course! Of course! Agassiz said, very pleased. So Scudder naturally asked what he should do next, and Agassiz said, Look at your fish.

I love that story and have used it often when teaching classes on writing, because seeing is so important in this work. Insight comes, more often than not, from looking at what’s been on the table all along, in front of everybody, rather than from discovering something new. Seeing is as much the job of an historian as it is of a poet or a painter, it seems to me. That’s Dickens’s great admonition to all writers, “Make me see.”

INTERVIEWER

Have you had Scudder moments?

McCULLOUGH

Oh, yes. I suppose the most vivid one—when I actually felt something like a charge of electricity run up my spine—was while working on the puzzle of young Theodore Roosevelt’s asthma. Hoping to pin down the cause of his attacks, I had been talking to a physician who raised such questions as whether there was a dog or a cat in the house or if the attacks occurred during the pollen season. Then a specialist in psychosomatic aspects of the illness suggested a different approach. Did the attacks come before or after some big event? Or before the boy’s birthday, or the night before a trip, or just before or after Christmas? Using his diary entries, I made a calendar of what he was doing every day. In pencil I wrote where he was, who was with him, what was going on, and in red ink I put squares around the days of the asthma attacks. But, a little like Scudder and the fish, I couldn’t see a pattern. Then first thing one morning, without really thinking about it, I looked at the calendar lying on my desk, and I saw what I’d been missing. The red boxes were all in a row—the attacks were all happening on Sunday. I thought, What happens on Sunday? Then it began to make sense. If he had an attack, he didn’t have to go to church, which he hated, and his father would take him to the country. He loved the country, and when it was just he and his father alone—that was pure heaven. This doesn’t mean the attacks were planned. The closest analogy to an asthma attack might be a case of the hiccups—you don’t decide to have them, and yet just as the hiccups can be ended by something traumatic some kinds of asthmatic attacks are triggered by anxiety. Roosevelt paid an awful price for those trips because attacks such as he had were horrible. There may well have been other things contributing to the attacks, but the Sunday pattern was too pronounced to be coincidental.

There’s another scene in Mornings on Horseback that I felt was crucial to understanding Roosevelt’s character, which might not be considered important by conventional standards. The family was taking a trip up the Nile and young Theodore, who was an amateur taxidermist, shot and stuffed a number of birds. So I went out and found out how taxidermy is done. It takes patience and dexterity, and it’s smelly and grubby—a kind of work that would be very difficult for a child. And if you do it on a boat with your whole family present, you upstage them all. There’s a paragraph or two in the book about the process of stuffing a bird, because I thought that would show a lot about the boy. I didn’t want to say, He was a bright boy who did things other boys couldn’t. I wanted the reader to know it.

Novelists talk about their characters starting to do things they didn’t expect them to. Well, I imagine every writer of biography or history, as well as fiction, has the experience of suddenly seeing a few pieces of the puzzle fit together. The chances of finding a new piece are fairly remote—though I’ve never written a book where I didn’t find something new—but it’s more likely you see something that’s been around a long time that others haven’t seen. Sometimes it derives from your own nature, your own interests. More often, it’s just that nobody bothered to look closely enough.

INTERVIEWER

What led you to become a writer?

McCULLOUGH

Thornton Wilder was a fellow at my college at Yale. Here was a world-celebrated writer for us to talk to, to have lunch with—imagine!—and he was easy to talk to, delightful. Later, while working in New York, I read the interview with him in The Paris Review. I can’t tell you what a difference it made for me. When asked why he wrote books and plays, he said, “I think I write in order to discover on my shelf a new book that I would enjoy reading or to see a new play that would engross me.” If it didn’t exist, he wrote it so he could read it or see it. 

INTERVIEWER

What were you doing in New York?

McCULLOUGH

After graduation I got a job at Time-Life, as a trainee at Sports Illustrated, a new magazine. I worked there and on others of the Time-Life magazines for five years, and for a number of different editors. One of them had a big rubber stamp and a red ink pad. The stamp had a four letter word on it and if he didn’t like what you’d written, he’d stamp it and send it back. The word was dull. When you’d had that done to you a couple of times, you began to get the point.

Earlier, as a graduation present, I’d been given A Stillness at Appomattox by Bruce Catton. And though I didn’t know it at the time, that book really changed the course of my life. I thought it was just marvelous and wondered, How do you do that? I read more of Catton and other books about the Civil War. Margaret Leech’s Reveille in Washington stands out in memory. I was finding my way, I suppose. 

INTERVIEWER

When did you decide, to use Thornton Wilder’s words, to “write the book you wanted to read”?

McCULLOUGH

It was when I came across a set of old photographs of the Johnstown flood. When we were little kids, we used to make a lake of gravy in our mashed potatoes; then we’d take a fork, break the potatoes, and say, The Johnstown flood!—with no idea why in the world we did it. That was about all I knew about it until I saw the photographs of the flood, quite by chance at the Library of Congress. I became extremely curious to know what had happened and why. I went to the library and found a book, and it was only so-so. The author had some of the geography of western Pennsylvania wrong, I could see, and he didn’t answer certain questions I felt he should have. I took out another book, a potboiler written at the time of the disaster, and it was even less satisfactory. So I decided to try to write the book I wanted to read. I wasn’t at all sure how to go about it. One evening, in New York, at a gathering of writers and historians interested in the West, my boss, Alvin Josephy, pointed to a white-haired man across the room. He said, That’s Harry Drago. Harry Sinclair Drago. He’s written over a hundred books. I waited for my chance and walked over. Mr. Drago, I said, Alvin Josephy says that you’ve written over a hundred books. Yes, he said, that’s right. How do you do that? I asked. And he said, Four pages a day. Every day? Every day. It was the best advice an aspiring writer could be given.

I wrote The Johnstown Flood at night after work. I would come home, we’d have dinner, put the kids to bed, and then at about nine I would go to a little room upstairs, close the door, and start working. I tried to write not four but two pages every night. Our oldest daughter remembers going to sleep to the sound of the typewriter. 

INTERVIEWER

What kind of research did you do for that book?

McCULLOUGH

Well, one of the great resources I came across was testimony taken by the Pennsylvania Railroad from their employees after the flood. It was done in anticipation of lawsuits. They brought people in and sat them down and said, Tell us what you saw and what you did. Thus we’ve been left with many reports of the disaster from a cross section of the population, all in their own words.

INTERVIEWER

Did that wealth of vernacular reports determine the narrative form in which you’ve continued to write history? Would your first book have otherwise been told in that style?

McCULLOUGH

I never had any intention of writing except in the narrative form. I believe in the strong narrative. In E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel he talks about the difference between a sequence of events and a story. He says, If I tell you that the king died and then the queen died, that’s a sequence of events. If I tell you that the king died and then the queen died of grief, that’s a story—you feel that. The basic information about the Johnstown flood can be looked up in an encyclopedia, an almanac, or reports. But you’re not going to feel anything by reading those. Not only do I want the reader to get inside the experience of the events and feel what it was like—I want to get inside the events and feel what it was like. People often ask me if I’m “working on a book,” and I say yes, because that’s what they asked, but in fact they’ve got the wrong preposition. I’m in the book, in the subject, in the time and the place. Whenever I go away for a couple of days, I have to work to put myself back in it, to get back under that spell.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have other subjects in mind as you were working on The Johnstown Flood?

McCULLOUGH

Not long after that book was published, two different editors asked if I’d like to do the Chicago fire or the San Francisco earthquake. I felt I was being typecast when I had just barely started—I was going to be Bad News McCullough. I said no. What had interested me most about the story of the flood were the social and political aspects of it. The book was really about human shortsightedness, the message being that it’s extremely risky, even perilous, to assume that because people hold positions of responsibility they are therefore behaving responsibly.

After I had finished the book, I felt the need for a symbol of affirmation, for something that was done right. One day I was having lunch in a German restaurant on the Lower East Side with an architect-engineer and a science writer. They started talking about what the builders of the Brooklyn Bridge didn’t know when they started it. The more they talked, the more I realized I had found my subject. I had lived in Brooklyn Heights and walked over the bridge many times; the Roeblings came from my part of Pennsylvania and I knew something about them because they plotted the course of the Pennsylvania Railroad through Johnstown. I left the restaurant and went straight to the Forty-second Street library and climbed those marble stairs to the third floor as if I had a jet engine on my back. There were over a hundred cards on the Brooklyn Bridge, but none described a book of the kind I had already begun blocking out in my mind. I went to Peter Schwed, my editor at Simon and Schuster, and said, I’ve got my next book. He said he had an idea too—the Panama Canal. I told him mine and we agreed that I’d go ahead with the bridge first, then the canal. A lot of work was cut out that day.

I heard about a collection of Roebling material at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Troy, New York, where Washington Roebling had gone. One day in the fall of 1968, my wife, Rosalee, and I drove up there. At the library, a gloomy old Gothic building that had once been a church, the woman at the desk told us the Roebling material was up in the attic, in a storage closet. She handed me the key. It was really a small windowless room with shelves on all sides, packed solid with boxes and bundles of letters, old books, scrapbooks, the door knocker of the Roebling house in Brooklyn, a statue of the old man, John A. Roebling. I looked at it and thought, My God, what a treasure. Rosalee looked at it and thought, My God—there goes who knows how many years! None of it had been catalogued or sorted. I was told I could have the key and come and go as need be. It was interesting. I knew nothing of engineering or bridges. Like a lot of people, I had been told as a youngster, You’re good at English and history; best stay away from science and math. I had no mathematics beyond algebra, no science courses except for geology. The Roebling papers were a great lesson because I found not only that I could handle technical material, but that it was extremely interesting. Of course, I had help from experts and engineers, but my thought was, If I can make this clear and interesting to myself, then maybe it will be interesting to others. I remember one night at a party here on the Vineyard, we were introduced to a socially prominent woman from Washington. When she heard what I was working on, she said in a big, whiskey voice, Who in the world would ever want to read a book about the Brooklyn Bridge? In a way she did me a great favor. I was determined to prove her wrong.

INTERVIEWER

What makes an historical subject compelling, then? Why do you think she didn’t expect the story to be interesting?

McCULLOUGH

Well, some subjects appear on the surface to be more compelling than others. I think one of the reasons that historians write about war so much is that it’s not very hard to hold the reader’s interest. I have no particular desire to write about war. As a writer, I’m interested in the creative drive, the continuity of a civilization, the connection between one generation and the next. Maybe that’s why fathers and sons play such a large part in my books. How does one generation break away from the preceding one and what does it gain or lose by doing so?

INTERVIEWER

The Path Between the Seas, about the Panama Canal, was your first best-seller.

McCULLOUGH

That project required an enormous amount of research. I expected it to take three years and I was wrong. The Path Between the Seas wound up taking twice that. About halfway through, our money ran out, the advance was gone. We were holding our breath, wondering how to pay the bills, the tuitions, how to keep going. But, the more I looked, the more I found and the longer the work went on. Then I saw that the book was too long. I had become very involved in the French side of the Panama Canal story, which is fascinating, but the book was out of balance. I went back and cut about a hundred pages. That was painful. You really can’t just cut—you have to rewrite.

INTERVIEWER

How do you decide what to include, what to omit, what belongs to history and what’s extraneous?

McCULLOUGH

Thornton Wilder talked, in that Paris Review interview, about the difficulty of recreating the past: “It lies in the effort to employ the past tense in such a way that it does not rob those events of their character of having occurred in freedom.” That’s the difficulty exactly—how do you write about something that happened long ago in a way so that it has the openness, the feeling of events happening in freedom? How to write solid history and, at the same time, give life to the past and see the world as it was to those vanished people, with an understanding of what they didn’t know. The problem with so much of history as it’s taught and written is that it’s so often presented as if it were all on a track—this followed that. In truth, nothing ever had to happen the way it happened. Nothing was preordained. There was always a degree of tension, of risk, and the question of what was going to happen next. The Brooklyn Bridge was built. You know that, it’s standing there today, but they didn’t know that at the start. No one knew Truman would become president or that the Panama Canal would be completed.

I feel I am working in the tradition of historians, biographers like Bruce Catton, Barbara Tuchman, Paul Horgan, who work in the narrative form. I love to tell a story. History, I really believe, is best understood as an unfolding story. I think there’s more intellectual honesty in seeing it that way, from within what happened. The moment has gone, the characters are dead, but you can bring them back, recreate their ever-changing lives in such a way that the story does not sound monotonous, with an unrelieved tempo. Life does not come at us that way—why should history? Some, of course, prefer history as seen from the mountain top and write it that way, which is fine. It’s just not the way I wish to do it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you still read much fiction?

McCULLOUGH

Oh, all the time. Reading fiction is also a part of my historical research. Just now, to immerse myself in the world of the book I’m working on, about John and Abigail Adams and their circle, I’m reading little else, in the way of fiction, but eighteenth-century novels—Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Tobias Smollet, Sterne.

INTERVIEWER

What’s the process of writing like for you?

McCULLOUGH

I work in the small building out back, and it’s just right for me. There’s no running water and no telephone. No distractions. Because it has windows on all four sides and a high ceiling, there’s no feeling of being boxed in. It’s off-limits to everyone but grandchildren. They come out anytime they wish—the smaller the better. I work all day and just about every day. I go out about eight-thirty in the morning, like I’m going to the train, come back in for lunch, look at the mail, then I go back again for the afternoon. We built it when I was writing The Great Bridge. Before that I rented a little studio from a neighbor who had built several of them, each on wooden skids. You could pick out a spot on his farm and he’d hook a studio to his tractor and drag it there for you.

INTERVIEWER

You use a typewriter.

McCULLOUGH

I write on an old Royal typewriter, a beauty! I bought it secondhand in 1964, before I started The Johnstown Flood, and I’ve written all my books on it. It was made about 1941 and it works perfectly. I have it cleaned and oiled about once every book and the roller has to be replaced now and then. Otherwise it’s the same machine. Imagine—it’s more than fifty years old and it still does just what it was built to do! There’s not a thing wrong with it.

I love putting paper in. I love the way the keys come up and actually print the letters. I love it when I swing that carriage and the bell rings like an old trolley car. I love the feeling of making something with my hands. People say, But with a computer you could go so much faster. Well, I don’t want to go faster. If anything, I should go slower. I don’t think all that fast. They say, But you could change things so readily. I can change things very readily as it is. I take a pen and draw a circle around what I want to move up or down or wherever and then I retype it. Then they say, But you wouldn’t have to retype it. But when I’m retyping I’m also rewriting. And I’m listening, hearing what I’ve written. Writing should be done for the ear. Rosalee reads aloud wonderfully and it’s a tremendous help to me to hear her speak what I’ve written. Or sometimes I read it to her. It’s so important. You hear things that are wrong, that call for editing.

INTERVIEWER

Do you make corrections while she’s reading?

McCULLOUGH

Yes, I make a little mark, or she does. Once when she was reading one of the last chapters of Mornings on Horseback, she stopped and said, There’s something wrong with that sentence. I said, Read it again. She read it again, There’s something wrong there. I said, Give it to me, you’re not reading it right, and I read it out loud and said, See?

Well, a year or so later, when the book was published, Gore Vidal reviewed it in The New York Review of Books. It was a favorable review and I was very pleased, except that, out of the whole book, he singled out one sentence as an example that my writing wasn’t always the best. And it was that sentence! The only one he quoted!

INTERVIEWER

What was wrong with it?

McCULLOUGH

Nothing!

INTERVIEWER

What was the sentence?

McCULLOUGH

You would have to ask. “The horse he rode so hard day after day that he all but ruined it.”

INTERVIEWER

Oh. Can you talk about the mental process involved when you’re at work in your study?

McCULLOUGH

There’s no question that the sheer effort of writing, of getting it down on paper, makes the brain perform as it rarely does otherwise. I don’t understand people who sit and think what they’re going to write and then just write it out. My head doesn’t work that way. I’ve got to mess around with it on paper. I’ve got to make sketches, think it out on paper. Sometimes I think I’m not a writer, I’m a rewriter. When a page isn’t working, I crumple it into a ball and throw it in the wastebasket. Always have. Our son Geoffrey, when he was a little boy, would come out where I work and look in my wastebasket to see how many “wrong pages” I had written that day. If the basket was full, it had been a good day. I’d worked things through. 

INTERVIEWER

When do you and Rosalee begin reading aloud to each other?

McCULLOUGH

Usually after I’ve finished a chapter, especially in the early stages of a book. It’s only when you begin to write that you begin to see what you don’t know and need to find out. In the early stages I’m sort of trying my legs. I have to feel each chapter is pretty close to being right before I can go on. Each page has to be close to right before I can do the next. And, of course, all the time you’re asking yourself, Am I getting it right? Is this clear? Am I being fair? Is this really the way it was? The way it really happened? Am I putting too much faith in this person’s analysis or that person’s recollection? Am I being overly influenced by latter-day sources? I have to put everything into focus so that my point, some essential aspect of Louis Agassiz’s fish becomes clear.

INTERVIEWER

Is it possible to do too much research? 

McCULLOUGH

I love the research. And it certainly can become seductive. The tendency is to wander off on tangents—digging into the life of some minor character beyond what’s necessary. In the case of The Great Bridge, I actually did some additional research after the book was published. I spent an evening with the Boston Psychoanalytical Society to discuss the character of Washington Roebling with them. I told them a few new things I had learned about his illness and they helped me make sense of them. Washington took over as chief engineer after his father, John, the designer of the bridge, died. He developed a case of caisson disease, or the bends, an excruciatingly painful affliction, and went into seclusion in his house on Brooklyn Heights. He directed the whole project from his window. I realized that some of his symptoms had nothing to do with the bends and they seemed to be psychosomatic. From what I learned from the psychoanalysts, I came to the conclusion that Roebling was almost certainly addicted to opiates. His pain was so severe that he was given a lot of drugs—morphine and later laudanum. In addition, he was encumbered by his father’s reputation. If the bridge succeeded, it would be his father’s success; if it failed, it would be his disgrace. He really had good reason to detest his father. It can’t be coincidental that as soon as the bridge was finished, he came out of the house and resumed a normal life. Now, I’m not a psychobiographer—I don’t generally venture into that kind of speculation—but these two factors, the addiction and the hatred for his father, tell a great deal about Roebling’s character.

INTERVIEWER

Were you tempted to add a discussion of that to subsequent editions of The Great Bridge?

McCULLOUGH

I thought about writing a new foreword to the twenty-fifth anniversary printing, but there are a lot of things I’d like to do that I don’t have time for. Still, it was fascinating. And perhaps it contributed to my thinking about the psychosomatic aspects of Theodore Roosevelt’s asthma. I’ve found medical research as absorbing as anything I’ve ever done. It’s another way of understanding people. If you think about medical diagnosis, it’s much the same as what a writer has to do—diagnose his characters. For my current book, I want to find out more about smallpox, which was a defining circumstance of life in that era. That’s the great thing about a writer’s life—nothing is useless, everything bears on future work.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve done “field research,” too, such as growing a beard when you were working on The Great Bridge. Did that help?

McCULLOUGH

It all helps. And anything that helps is welcome. I couldn’t possibly have written about people trying to dig the Panama Canal without going down there and feeling the humidity, the rain, and the heat. For Truman I had to see the places where he was in World War I, and to make the run he made through the Capitol on the night that Roosevelt died. Sam Rayburn had a little hideaway on the House side of the Capitol, which is where Truman, who was presiding over the Senate, had gone that evening. He got a call there, summoning him to the White House. He didn’t know why. Nobody told him that Roosevelt was dead. In his diary or one of his letters, I forget which, he writes that after excusing himself he ran to his office to get his hat—which is a nice period touch—before going to his car to drive over to the White House. Well, that run, it seemed to me, was one of the key moments in the whole story. Why was he running? Was he running toward something or away from something? Did he somehow guess that he was running to the presidency? It’s a great moment. I wanted to see how long it would have taken him to make that run, to figure out which route he took, because he could have gone several ways, to see what would have been flashing by in his peripheral vision. To do it, I had to make arrangements with the Senate historian, a wonderful fellow named Dick Baker, because you can’t just start running through the Capitol. It was a long run. Among other things, I realized that Truman must have been in very good shape. At the end of the run he had to go charging up a long flight of stairs.

INTERVIEWER

How do you know when it’s time to stop? 

McCULLOUGH

It’s a little like knowing when you’ve eaten enough. I know exactly when it’s happening, just as I do when I get an idea for a book. It just happens. It’s not rational, not even explainable. I sometimes get the feeling that the subject picks me, as if I was meant to write each book at a certain time in my life. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you miss your characters when it’s over?

McCULLOUGH

Oh, you bet. You can’t help getting attached to them, and to the time and the subject. I loved writing about Ferdinand de Lesseps. I loved writing about John Stevens, the Panama Canal engineer. And Harry Truman. I’ve been fortunate in my subjects. 

INTERVIEWER

What happened to your biography of Picasso?

McCULLOUGH

I quit. I didn’t like him. I thought I would do him as an event, the Krakatoa of art. He changed the way we see, he changed the imagery of our time. But then I realized that strictly in terms of what would work for me, his wasn’t an interesting life. There’s an old writer’s adage: keep your hero in trouble. With Truman, for instance, that’s never a problem, because he’s always in trouble. Picasso, on the other hand, was immediately successful. Except for his painting and his love affairs, he lived a prosaic life. He was a communist, which presumably would be somewhat interesting, but during the Nazi occupation of Paris he seems to have been mainly concerned with his tomato plants. And then his son chains himself to the gate outside trying to get his father’s attention; Picasso calls the police to have him taken away. He was an awful man. I don’t think you have to love your subject—initially you shouldn’t—but it’s like picking a roommate. After all you’re going to be with that person every day, maybe for years, and why subject yourself to someone you have no respect for or outright don’t like?

INTERVIEWER

You thought at one point of becoming a painter yourself, after studying portraiture at Yale.

McCULLOUGH

The training I had in drawing and painting has been of great benefit. Drawing is learning to see and so is writing. It’s also an exercise in composition, as writing is, though in writing it’s called form.

Growing up in Pittsburgh I went to a wonderful public school where the arts were given as much attention as standard subjects like math and history. We had art and music every day. We were taken to museums and steel mills. I had excellent teachers both in grade school and high school. Most of us are lucky if we have two or three teachers who change our lives and I had several, especially Vincent Scully, who taught art and architecture at Yale. He taught us to see, to think about spaces, to pay attention to what the buildings were saying, and to think about what the alternatives were, what might have been built that wasn’t. And few men I’ve known have such a great understanding of America. I also took Daily Themes at Yale, Robert Penn Warren’s writing course. Every morning at eight-thirty you had to slide a sheet of original prose under the professor’s door, and if you didn’t, you got a zero. There was no kidding about it. It taught us discipline, to produce.

The hardest thing with writing is to make it look effortless. It’s true of everything that’s done well. People see a performer or an artist or a carpenter and they think, Well, that looks easy. Little do they know.

I get a bit impatient with people who talk about all the trials and the pain and loneliness of being a writer. That’s not been my experience. I love the work. I would pay to do what I do. That’s not to say it’s easy, but I don’t think ease and pleasure are necessarily synonymous. I like it in part because it is hard. And because I don’t know how it’s going to come out.

INTERVIEWER

What was it like growing up in Pittsburgh?

McCULLOUGH

I was very fortunate to have been raised there. We lived in a nice residential section of the city, but you could smell the coal smoke and hear the trains at night. I was a young boy during the Second World War, when the mills were going full blast, and at night you would see the sky pulsing red from the furnaces going off. It was highly dramatic. In school we were told that the industry of our city was winning the war. We were made to feel that we were part of a great world event. We went house-to-house with wagons collecting scrap metal and bacon fat for the war effort. There were air-raid warnings, sirens, and blackouts. And there sure wasn’t any smoke control. Nobody painted a house white, it would be gray in a couple of months. When you put your window down in the morning, the sill would be covered with what looked like black sand—soot from the mills.

A big part of life for me was the Carnegie Museum Library complex, a natural history museum, art museum, library, and concert hall, all under one roof. The building itself conveyed the idea that all these things went together, there were no dividers. You walked from the library into the big hall with a plaster model of the Parthenon and the facades of great buildings from Europe. Around the corner were birds and dinosaurs. Upstairs were the paintings from the permanent collection and visiting exhibitions.

As a kid, twelve years old or so, I could get on the streetcar and go by myself, go see the paintings of Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper, go to the library. The architect Louis Kahn said a great city ought to be a place where a young person gets an idea of what he might like to do with his life. Well, I certainly did in Pittsburgh. Willa Cather wrote her first stories right near where I grew up. Dreiser lived in Pittsburgh. Stephen Foster was a native son. There were the great musical traditions of the Czechs and Germans and Poles of Pittsburgh. Everybody talks about diversity now. If you were a kid riding the streetcars in Pittsburgh in 1945, you knew about diversity. You heard three or four languages being spoken. You smelled the garlic. You saw the foreign newspapers.

The combination of first-rate public schools and the freedom we had to explore the city on our own—unsupervised—well, it was great. I loved growing up there. But I had never seen the ocean and, I think most of all, I wanted to get to New York. Maybe it was seeing so many movies.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little more about the Thomas Jefferson–John Adams book you’re working on now? 

McCULLOUGH

It’s about John and Abigail Adams, and to a degree about Jefferson too. It began as a book about Jefferson and Adams. My plan was to maintain a balance between them, give them each equal time, so to speak. But once underway, I realized it was Adams I wanted to write about, and Abigail as well, most emphatically. I don’t think I’ve ever had better material to work with. First of all, Jefferson and Adams were completely different. In every way. Physically, Adams was short and stout, Jefferson, tall and thin. Adams loved to talk, Jefferson was often ill at ease expressing himself in front of others. Adams loved to argue, Jefferson would never get into an argument with anybody. He didn’t want any contention. Abigail was very important to Adams. Their marriage was so interesting. The exchange of ideas, the sentiment and devotion and grief and uncertainty that fill their correspondence. Because they were separated for so many years, the volume of letters between them is exceptional. She was as learned as any man of her time and she could write like an angel. And Adams kept a diary. When I read Abigail’s letters, I wonder how she ever had time to write them. She was raising a family with four children, running the farm without her husband there; it was nip and tuck whether she could make a go of it financially; she had sickness to contend with, plagues, waves of smallpox and epidemic dysentery that swept through Braintree. How did John Adams have time to write his letters and keep the diaries? If they’d done nothing else, you’d say to yourself, how did they do it? And remember they were writing by candlelight with a quill pen, they probably had their teeth hurting because there was no dentistry as we know it. They were probably getting over some recent attack of jaundice or whatever else was epidemic at the time. It’s very humbling. You can’t help but say hats off to them.

INTERVIEWER

Do you know what your next book will be?

McCULLOUGH

No, I probably won’t know until I finish the present book. It could result from something I’m writing now, or somebody’s chance remark, or something Rosalee and I see while traveling. I’m very interested in the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiora in Florence. I’m fascinated by Brunelleschi and all that was going on in Florence in those years. I love mysteries and the dome is one. It’s still not known how they built it. Yet there it is, built before Columbus sailed.

I’m often asked which is my favorite book and it’s always the same—the one I’m working on. And I feel that now. I really look forward to going out there tomorrow morning and working on chapter three. The time will fly.