When she’s not teaching history at Harvard, Jill Lepore writes insightful and impassioned pieces about everything from Edgar Allan Poe to the Tea Party for the New Yorker, where she is a staff writer. She has written nine books; the latest, “Book of Ages,” is about the life of Ben Franklin’s sister. She lives and works in Cambridge.
NEARER, MY COFFEE, TO THEE: I work at home because that’s the easiest place to drink coffee. I drink a really shameful amount of coffee. I have a study on the third floor, and I should work up there, but I rarely do because it’s too far from the coffee. I also have a lot of animals who don’t like going up to the third floor, and I like to have them around. If I go upstairs, the dog barks, and I have to go out and let the dog outside.
MOBILE LIBRARY: You know those huge LL Bean canvas bags? I have one of those. When I’m working on something, I tend to keep the core set of 20-30 books that I’m using in a bag like that, so that if I want to move from one room to the other, I can always have my stack of books with me. I get very upset if I’m very far from my books. I just need my books and my coffee and my animals.
CLEARING THE CALENDAR: I’m not good at splitting up my days — I couldn’t wake up in the morning and write and then go teach in the afternoon. At the beginning of the month, I look at my calendar, and I x-out all the days I can manage to reserve as writing days . . . .Because I have so many other obligations, it’s important that I give the writing at least as much status on my calendar as everything else.
GETTING IT DONE: When I’m writing something, it is the only thing I’m able to think about it. I dream about it. I think about it when I’m out running or picking up groceries — I think about it more or less constantly until I get done with it. Part of why I feel urgent about getting done with things is that sometimes the things I’m writing about are very oppressive to think about; they involve a lot of injustice or suffering or cruelty. I find it painful to be in the company of some of that, as much as I feel urgently about writing about it — it’s a spur to completion.
UNPLEASANT COMPANY: If I’m writing about a person I do not like, I don’t find it fascinating to get to the bottom of somebody deeply unpleasant and find out that they’re more horrible than I thought. Novelists have a different way of dealing with this — they have to love villains and people with failings in a way that they can not only explore those failings but create them. I cross to the other side of the street to not deal with a person that is vicious.
THE BIG DIG: I love being in archives. I spend a prodigious amount of time in archives. I love digging stuff up. I love being in the middle of that. I don’t get professional historians who use research assistants to do their archival work — I love to find things. It’s usually in the archives that I begin to figure out what the story might be. I get lost in people. I have a sensitivity to them that as a historian is really useful. If I see, in an archive, someone’s letters, they’re quiet . . . there’s a kind of muffling that happens with the passage of time, so that when you read something, like a journal entry, it doesn’t really scream out at you: You have to listen carefully. The downside of having this oversensitivity is that if your subject is not a good companion, you really need to get away.