132: David Maraniss
David Maraniss has a motto: go there. What he means is that when he’s researching one of his books, whether it’s a biography of a person or the history of a place and time, he believes that in order to fully understand the story, he has to go to the physical location. Not, like, just for a weekend. He really goes there. He moves in.
But there’s another meaning behind the phrase “go there”. He moves in, not only to the space, but also to the nuance, subtlety, complexity of a life, of a time, of the history, sociology, feeling of his subject. He gets totally obsessed. He says he can’t write a book about something if he’s not obsessed with it.
Fortunately, throughout his career, he has managed to get obsessed with plenty. He’s written many celebrated biographies including books about Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Al Gore, Vince Lombardi, and Roberto Clemente, and books about social, political and cultural importance (like Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed The World and They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America 1967 among others). Often his books appear on best seller lists.
David has been affiliated with the Washington Post for more than forty years as an editor and writer, and twice won Pulitzer Prizes at the newspaper.
His new book A Good American Family is both a continuation and a departure for him. It tells the story of his own family and is framed around an event that happened in 1952 when David’s father was called before HUAC (The House Un-American Activities Committee) and outed as a communist during the Red Scare.
Those who were called to testify and didn’t cooperate by naming other Communists were blacklisted, and that’s exactly what happened to his father.
But the book also examines much larger issues around that event, including the ongoing question of what it means to be and who is American, the influence of extreme ideologies in the 20th century, and the ways in which mental health and personal tragedy are handled in families.
We talked about his general process & approach, the techniques he uses, and the values that inform his work. For example, he says at one point that he believes that “all creative arts are in some sense dependent on magic”. We also considered the role of the press in America, traditionally and how it’s being tested in today’s political climate.
Like much of David’s work, this episode is both timely and timeless. Who informed his values as a journalist? What does it mean to be a nonfiction story teller? Where does he feel most at home? When is it time to go swimming? Why is the lost art of letter writing so important to historians? Can we really ever really know what someone else is thinking? It’s all here.