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If you like Stephen Ambrose's story, you might also like:
Tom Clancy,
David Herbert Donald,
Doris Kearns Goodwin,
Shelby Foote,
David McCullough
and James Michener

Stephen Ambrose's recommended reading: R.E. Lee, A Biography

Stephen Ambrose also appears in the video:
The Power of Words

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Stephen Ambrose in the Achievement Curriculum section:
The Power of Words

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Stephen Ambrose
Stephen Ambrose
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Stephen Ambrose Interview (page: 4 / 7)

Biographer and Historian

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  Stephen Ambrose

It sounds like curiosity and having an open mind is very important to what you do.

Stephen Ambrose: Curiosity is essential. You've got to have a burning curiosity to find out, "How did Lewis and Clark do that?" To find out "How is it that Dick Nixon impressed these guys that I know are good, honest, substantial, contributing people. I'm curious. How did -- what was there about -- that they saw in Nixon, or that Nixon did? With Eisenhower, curiosity about of the whole of his life, and "How did he rise from rural poverty, and West Point, and on to D Day, and how did he do it?" and so on. You've got to be driven by curiosity. If you don't have that curiosity, find another way to make a living, you're never going to make it as a writer. Because if you're curious, and then you find the answer, then you want to share it, and you want to tell that story, and you want to say to the world, "Listen, come, come here, sit down around this campfire. I want to tell you a story. I want to tell you about this kid from Whittier, California who is about as obnoxious a kid as you'd ever imagine, that nobody wanted to be around. Nobody. And he went on to be President of the United States, winning two elections -- how did he do that? And I'm going to tell you how he did it." If you don't have the curiosity, you're not going to be able to do it that way.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

You've said that teaching has helped you tell stories.

Stephen Ambrose: There's nothing like having an eight o'clock class in a non-air conditioned building at summer school in New Orleans, Louisiana, to sharpen your skills as a story-teller. Because those kids come in there, and there's a big fan, a big floor fan rattling away over there, and they're in that heat, and if you want to get 'em up here like this, boy, you damn well better learn how to tell a story! And you better learn to do it quick, and how to capture their interest and then hold it. How to impart information in a dramatic way, that keeps them awake. You've got to keep your audience awake.

I was very struck by something you said, that the act of biographical writing is the act of learning. Is that what drives you?

Stephen Ambrose: Sure. I get curious about a subject and then I go out and start the research, and at some point I've just got to start writing. I want to start moving it in the other direction. I'm ingesting all the time when I'm doing research. Now I want to start telling the story. And as soon as I start telling the story, I realize that what the reader needs to know next, to make this understandable. If I don't know, I've got to go find that out.

You learn what the gaps in your knowledge are by starting to tell the story. So the act of writing becomes the act of learning, and "Whoa! I can't tell this story unless I find out." I'm currently working on a book on the building of the transcontinental railroad, and I'm in a research stage now. I have been for about six months, and I'm dying to start writing about it, but I know I don't know enough yet. And once I start writing, I'm going to learn how much more I don't know, that I'm going to have to learn in order to make it understandable to my readers, so that the writing guides the research. I think a big mistake that a lot of young writers make who are doing nonfiction is you complete the research and then you sit down and write the book, and it's not like that. There's got to be a flow between, and the writing guiding the research, or at least for me. That's the only way I can do it.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

What does it feel like to pick up a book of you've written? What did it feel like to pick up your first book in print?

Stephen Ambrose: The same way it felt to pick up the 20th. Wonderful. My college roommate was Dick Lamm. He went on to great fame as governor of Colorado. He was a four-term governor. We had a room above the pub in Madison, and we were both avid readers, and very active liars beyond that, but avid readers, and we would talk about, "God, what a thing it would be to see your name on the back of a book, that you had written." And both of us have done it. Dick's done four or five books now.

I've done a whole bunch of books, and it always feels wonderful. And when that book finally comes from the printing -- now it's a long process, and it's almost a year between handing in the script and getting the book back -- and during that time you've had to read that damn book another four or five times until you're just sick unto your death of it, going through the galleys. And then there comes a period when the galleys are done and the pictures are ready, and you've done the captions, and then you wait, and wait, and wait, and then -- and of course you're waiting for the reviews. You're dying to know what the reviews are gonna say, and there ain't anything you can do to speed up the process! And then finally that book comes, and it's a wondrous moment. And it's not like a woman giving birth, but it's -- that comes to my mind, every time I pick up a new book. I did it!

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This page last revised on Sep 22, 2010 11:44 EST
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