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new england writers at work

Joseph Ellis finds teaching complements writing process

Joseph Ellis in his study with, Lucy, one of his dogs.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Joseph Ellis in his study with, Lucy, one of his dogs.

Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning historian Joseph Ellis (“Founding Brothers,” “American Sphinx”) has entertained and enlightened thousands with supremely readable, superbly analytical books about the men who founded the United States. His latest book, “The Quartet,” tells the story of how 13 colonies became a nation. He lives in Amherst.

TEACHING AND WRITING: I retired from Mount Holyoke two years ago, but I taught this past semester at Williams and teach around the [Pioneer] Valley. A great day for me is to get up in the morning, read the paper, have three cups of coffee, work for three hours at my desk, get my act together, go teach a class, go to the gym, come back and walk my dogs, and then, in the evening after dinner, go back and look at what I wrote. Instead of seeing teaching as something that gets in the way of writing, teaching is complementary for me. Teaching is social; writing is solitary. Teaching forces you to talk things out; writing allows you to digest those conversations and put them into, perhaps, a more concise form. It’s seamless.

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FLOW OF THOUGHT: I write longhand. I use a medium-fine rollerball with black ink, and I write on the backs of pieces of scrap paper. In part, it’s because I’m pre-computer, and I never made the transition. I’m not a luddite, and at some point in time what I write gets put on a disc, but for me the creative process is sitting and trying to digest what I’m thinking about; the relationship between my hand and my wrist and the flow of ideas in my head is almost physical. Typing is too fast.

LARRY, MOE, AND VIRGIL: I went to a Jesuit high school in D.C. I had two sisters, and I didn’t have a place of my own: I didn’t have my own bedroom, and I didn’t have a study, so I learned how to stay focused. My sisters would be watching “The Three Stooges” on TV, my mother’s yelling at us, and I’m trying to translate Virgil. I somehow learned how to focus. It’s blissful when I really can, and I’m not interrupted, but sometimes it gets me into trouble with my wife.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

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WILL WRITE FOR MONEY: I have a very limited creative outlet — I can’t even build a doghouse. When I did, I almost killed my dog. The only thing I seem to be able to do is write prose, and the fact that I can earn money is just a bonus.

TALE WAGS THE DOG: When I was in graduate school at Yale, my mentor, Ed Morgan, the leading early Americanist of his day, said that when you construct a building, you put up scaffolding, and when the building is finished, you take the scaffolding down. Most history is all scaffolding and no building. If you spent two or three years doing research on a topic, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll want to tell the reader about everything you discovered. It creates a forest/trees problem, and it creates books that are very long. I don’t do that — I’m driven by the story.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

The study is adorned with presidential photos.

A PEOPLE’S HISTORY: There are a lot of people who’ve written very successful books about the founding [of the United States] — people like David McCullough, Ron Chernow, and Stacy Schiff — who are very talented writers, but they’re not historians and don’t claim to be. I’m a card-carrying historian, but I have a lot to learn from them about what it means to craft something. My books fit the criteria for scholarly work, but I’m trying to attract readers that are not professional historians . . . People are very smart, but they can’t tell you the difference between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In fact, Reagan didn’t — he used to quote the Declaration and think it was the Constitution, and Boehner does it the other way around. There’s a need for us to reach out to a readership that is interested in American history but is not part of an academic culture.

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LUCKY SUCKERS: I’m secretly jealous of Ron Chernow because of his marvelous play on Broadway based on his Hamilton biography. I think the success of the play is an indication that if you make American history come alive, there are people who really want to learn more. I wrote him an e-mail that said, “You lucky sucker, you.”

Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached at eugenia.williamson @gmail.com.
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