When David McCullough stays at the Beacon Hill apartment he shares with his wife, Rosalee, he works in a book-lined dining room adorned with two vintage Royal Standard typewriters and the charming watercolors he has painted over the years. McCullough, who has won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Book Award (twice), and the Pulitzer Prize (also twice!), published “The Wright Brothers,” a biography of Orville and Wilbur, earlier this month.
TALK IT OUT: We have another home on Martha’s Vineyard, where we raised our children. I work in a little separate building there. How I divide my time depends on the book . . . I always keep Rosalee around me when I’m writing. She goes with me when I visit different places [for research]. I try to write for the ear as well as the eye. I think it improves your writing to have somebody read it to you because you hear things that you don’t see — overuse of a word, sentence structure. You can hear boring. She reads everything I write aloud to me, often many times. Just by talking about what I’m working on, it helps me to figure it out better.
ROYAL STANDARD: My typewriter is 75 years old. I bought it 50 years ago to start my first book — it was 25 years old when I bought it secondhand. I worked at Time and Life, and this is what we worked on; I thought it was more businesslike than my college portable. I have written everything that I have written in the 50 years that I’ve been writing on this typewriter. One of my kids said I better not change it, because maybe it’s writing the books.
THE QUESTION MAN: I don’t think of myself as a historian. Joseph Ellis, for instance, is a historian and a good one. I am a writer. I don’t ever claim to be an expert on any subject. Experts have answers; I have mostly questions.
CALL OF THE UNKNOWN: I’ve never undertaken a book about a subject I knew a lot about; if I knew a lot about it, I wouldn’t want to write a book. It’s the journey, the adventure of the subject that pulls me in. Writing a book is an experience of discovery, and I’d like to think I can look at things with a fresh eye . . . I was an English major in college, and I never wrote any historical papers or anything like that. I assumed the way you wrote a book was to do all the research first, but that doesn’t work for me. I need to research and write at the same time. I always have to rewrite the first chapter or two because I know so much more at the end.
ART OF SEEING: I paint a lot. I started painting when I was about 7, and at college, I took as many painting and drawing classes as I could get away with as an English major. I draw something to put it in my mind; when I went to Truman’s birthplace, I did a watercolor of the house. I’ve always felt that everybody who wants to learn to write should take a course in drawing and painting. It teaches you to see in a different way, since you really look at things and have to analyze what you’re looking at.
TRUE STORIES: I do a lot of interviewing. Always have. I think journalism taught me ways to approach the problem [of a book| that academic work doesn’t. When I was working on my first book, there was one formal historical, printed record of what happened during the Johnstown Flood and that was a PhD thesis written by somebody who didn’t interview one single person who was in it, and yet wrote this thesis when there were hundreds of people still around who went through it. History is a human story. It’s not facts and figures or boring quotations. It’s the people that interest me — human beings and their stories.
Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.