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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: 5 / 7)

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  Stephen Ambrose

You've said writing is a very lonely occupation.

Stephen Ambrose: Writing is a monk's life. When I'm heavy into a book, I'll spend ten hours a day on it. It used to be at the typewriter; now it's at the computer. Ten hours a day. You're all by yourself, you and the cigarettes and the coffee. I'm glad to say the cigarettes aren't there anymore, but the coffee still is very much there.

I have a little cabin in northern Wisconsin where I do a lot of my writing, and it's situated on a little lake, and there's a porch that I sit at and write, and a neighbor -- friend, farmer -- came by one day, and he was going to go swimming in the lake, and he came around the corner, and I never saw him. He stopped and he looked at me for a while, and he turned and went back and went up to another neighbor's and said to the farmer's wife, "Hazel, what's the matter with Steve?" And she said, "Nothing. He's doing fine." He said, "But he just sits there." And Hazel said, "No, no, Henry. He's writing." And "No he's not. He just sits there."

That's what you do when you're writing. You just sit there, and it all goes through your fingers into that typewriter or computer, and that's all that moves for hours at a time. It's like the monks doing the illuminated manuscripts. The only movement is in your fingers and your wrist.

Did it ever feel too lonely?

Stephen Ambrose: Never. Never. Your body is immobile, but oh my God, what's happening up here? I'm with Meriwether Lewis, and we're getting into the gates of the Rocky Mountains. Or I'm with Dwight Eisenhower, and the question is: "Are we going to go or not. God almighty, who knows what the weather's going to be? We've got this great invasion set to go. I've got to decide, now, whether we're going to go, or we're going to stand down and postpone this thing." It's a wonderful way to make a living, I've always thought.

You're a time traveler in a way, aren't you?

Stephen Ambrose: Very much so. You're in different times. Undaunted Courage went on to success far beyond anything that my publisher or I or anybody had anticipated. One of the factors is science fiction in reverse. I've never written science fiction, but what works in science fiction is seeing how people do things; it's so foreign to us. Space travel of any kind or -- with Jules Verne -- travel into the interior of the Earth, or whatever. That's what grabs you about science fiction. They do things differently. The same thing happens in history. That's one reason people latched on to that Lewis and Clark story so hard. How did they do things? How did they measure distance? How did they start a fire when they didn't have any matches and dry newspaper? How did they study the stars when they didn't have the kinds of equipment that we have today? How do you make a canoe when all you've got is an ax and some big trees? How do you do that?

Your career sounds like a pretty smooth road, but there must have been times that were tough. Tell us a little bit about some of the challenges you've faced along the way.

Stephen Ambrose: Let me do two, as briefly as I can.

Stephen Ambrose: My first wife, who I loved dearly -- and my two oldest children she is the mother of -- killed herself when I was 29 years old, and she was 27, and she had been in Phipps Clinic at Hopkins Hospital for a year. And she killed herself, which was -- leaving me with two kids that I'd been living with -- just the two kids for the whole year that she had been in the hospital. That was rough, difficult, hard. I couldn't exaggerate it.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

How old were the kids?

Stephen Ambrose: When she died they were four and two. It's a time I obviously don't like to think about, but it did have one impact on my career as a writer.

Meriwether Lewis was a suicide, and one of the things that drew me to Meriwether Lewis as a subject was that. And like Judy, my wife, he was a manic depressive. She was off the charts. 190 IQ, age 16 she started at the University of Wisconsin, and a fairly classic manic depressive syndrome. When she was manic, oh, she could move the world! She was the most wonderful person on the Earth. When she was in a depressed state, oh God! It was terrible for everybody around her, and worst of all for her.

Another time of great difficulty was in 1969, when I went to Kansas State University as the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of War and Peace. We started in September of that year. Dick Nixon had just been elected President. Lyndon Johnson had not been on a college campus for four years. Nixon decided to break that ice and go to a college campus in September of 1969. That was about seven months after his inaugural, and he picked Kansas State because it seemed safe to him. It was a good choice on his part. Now I was holding this chair at Kansas State. He came, and my wife Moira and I went to the lecture, or to the talk. We sat in the faculty section, had the front row center seats. It was in the field house. Nixon came in and gave a lecture on violence -- a good subject -- and how we oughtn't to engage in violence, and it was directed at college students. In 1969, there was a lot of violence going on in America's campuses, and it was a good reminder from the President that this isn't a proper way to proceed. But...

Moira and I found it very hard to listen to Nixon. That morning's headlines had been "a new record tonnage of bombs" had been dropped on Cambodia, and the stories in the papers were about free fire zones and napalm, and, and we just couldn't take it. So we started to heckle, and as the national press reported, "From the faculty section, obscenities were hurled at the President." And it was true, because the heckling that we did was "Free fire zones! Napalm! B-52s!" And halfway through I was --Moira was really louder than I was on this, I've got to say, with whatever feeling about it. I said, "We gotta get out of here. I can't take this." And we go. And we were front row center. We got up and walked out on the President. Well the reaction in Kansas! I had just arrived, I had this prestigious title, and I'd insulted the President. And they wanted to fire me. And I was -- yeah, I was 35, I guess. Thirty-three, and had five kids. When I married Moira, she had three kids. You know, I didn't have any money. I mean, I had a nice salary -- the biggest salary I'd ever had -- when I got that chair, but I didn't have any savings or anything like that. And I was looking at getting fired in September. We had just committed to a house, had a huge mortgage on the house, and so on. That was a difficult time.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Stephen Ambrose Interview Photo
To Kansas State's credit, despite the pressure from the politicians to "fire that SOB," they let me finish out the year. In the course of that, I went in to see the president of the university and I said, "Now look, I know that you're resisting a lot of pressure, and a lot of people around here want you to fire me, and I'm also aware that you would find it deeply embarrassing to Kansas State to fire me. Not from the people of Kansas so much, but from the other universities around the country. You'd look pretty bad. I know you're in a difficult position. But I've got to tell you that Moira and the kids and I, we really love Kansas. We like living here a lot, and I like the students at KSU. We'd really like to stay here. But I have the distinct feeling that you would be a lot happier if I left, and I've got a lot of job offers. So it's your choice." He said, "I'd be a lot happier if you left." So I went back to the University of New Orleans, where I'd been teaching earlier.

That was the only time I ever saw Dick Nixon in person, and I ended up writing a three volume biography of him. The last line of that three volume biography says: "When Dick Nixon resigned, we lost more than we gained." I never in this world thought I would come to such a conclusion as that.

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