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

David McCullough's recommended reading: Reveille in Washington

David McCullough also appears in the videos:
Democracy and Citizenship: The 250th Celebration of Thomas Jefferson's Birthday

So, You Want to Be a Writer

Related Links:
David McCullough
NEH Lecture
Paris Review

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David McCullough
David McCullough
Profile of David McCullough Biography of David McCullough Interview with David McCullough David McCullough Photo Gallery

David McCullough Interview (page: 4 / 4)

Two Pulitzer Prizes for Biography

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  David McCullough

What does the American dream mean to you?.

David McCullough: I think the American dream is the good society. It's the city on the hill. It's what the Founding Fathers talked about, where justice is a way of life, where fundamental rights of citizenship are honored, where the individual counts, but where pulling together in the spirit of all being in the same boat can achieve more than any individual can in isolation or independently. I think it means education. This country was founded on the idea that education for all -- education at its best -- is not just good for the individual, it's essential to the system. The system won't work unless we have an educated population. Democracy demands it. It's the old line in Jefferson: "Any nation that expects to be ignorant and free, expects what never was and never will be."

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

David McCullough Interview Photo
You find yourself in education. When you go to college, and later when you decide about graduation school or vocation, don't limit your focus. It would be as if you walked into a wonderful buffet banquet, and you took your plate, and you went up and filled the plate with the first thing you saw because it looked so good. Look it all over. Sample a little bit of everything for as long as you can, because that's why you're going to college. And when you finish college, that's just the beginning. It doesn't stop. It keeps on going.

If your experience is anything like mine, the most important books you're going to read in your life you're going to read after college. The most important and inspiring people you're going to meet in life are going to come after college. The windows, the doors will be flung open for you in college by very fine people, and that certainly happened to me.

When I got to Yale, I had the privilege, the exciting experience of being one of the students of Vincent Scully. He was simply magnificent for generations of Yale undergraduates, because he opened up the doors. He opened up our eyes to so much more than we ever had had before, and that keeps on happening right through life. It's like gravity, it's accelerative, and it's fueled by curiosity. It's fueled by our innate human desire to know, to experience, and to be lifted out of ourselves -- both our physical selves, and by the limitations of our biological clocks -- to a much larger world.

Time and place. You, all of us, each of us, is limited to how much time we have on Earth by the biological clock. Now do we want, therefore, to have the experience of being alive constrained to that time only? No. It would be like saying, "You live there. You must stay in that one spot where you are in space all of your life." So you are no more required to stay in one spot in time than you are in space and that time travel you can do is in history. It's in the past, which is the larger experience of humankind on Earth. And the past isn't just history in the usual literal sense. It's music, art, history. It's culture, language, culture, and you can experience all of that, the more you know, because you can go back as far as you want, out as far as you want, and suddenly you're infinitely more alive, and that's what history is about. History is about life, about people.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

David McCullough Interview Photo
What is your next passion? What is your next project?

David McCullough: I'm often asked, "What's the favorite of all of the books you've written?" Well, my favorite is always the one I'm working on.

The one I'm working on now, which is now my favorite, is a book about the criss-crossing lives of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, two immensely different men, without whom our history -- our country -- would be very different than it turned out, who came in a way from two different countries, because Massachusetts and Virginia in the 18th Century, were as different -- or more different -- than England is from France today. Two different men who had strikingly different talents, strikingly different emotional make-ups.

Jefferson was very contained, very restrained, did not want anybody to know what he truly felt, what kinds of passion was within or at odds with him -- at odds within. Whereas Adams wore his emotions on his sleeve. Adams, who was very eloquent on his feet, a great speaker, a great convincer of juries and delegations at the Continental Congress; Jefferson, who couldn't speak on his feet to save his life, a terrible public speaker, but who could express himself on paper, as few people ever have. And how they started off as friends and co-revolutionaries, ultimately became political rivals, even adversaries, in a harsh fashion nearly. Who didn't speak to each other for years, who, in a way, were responsible for the political divisions that set up our two-party system, and who then have a great reconciliation after each has served in the presidency and become great friends, again. And correspondence! Carrying on some of the most eloquent correspondence in our history, and in our language. And who then -- incredibly, unimaginably -- die on the same day, and the same day is the 4th of July, 50 years to the day of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which they created! Now, that doesn't happen in real life. That couldn't happen on the stage or in a movie, because nobody would believe it, but it did.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

How did the country react to that? It's all part of the story, and it's got me very excited.

I want to ask you a little bit about the technique of what you do. Do you have a regular schedule? Do you write a certain amount every day? How do you go about it?

David McCullough: Years ago, when I was first brave enough, when I'd summoned the courage to decide I was going to attempt writing a book, I met a man one night at a party. And he was an elderly fellow, and I was about 28 years old, and I had heard -- his name was Harry Sinclair Drago, and he wrote Westerns -- and a friend said to me, "You see that old fellow over there? That's Harry Drago. He's written over 100 books." And I thought, "I'd like to talk to him." So I went over, and I said, "Mr. Drago, I - -somebody told me that you've written over 100 books." He said, "Yes, that's right." I said, "How do you do that?" He said, "Four pages a day, that's how you write 100 books. That's how you write books."

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

I try to do the research, up to maybe the point where I think 60-some percent of it is done, and then I begin writing. And it's in the writing that you begin to find out what you need to know, and what you don't know, and it's perhaps circumstantial, but I don't think so. I try to write four good pages a day. That's double space, typewritten pages. I still work on a typewriter, a manual typewriter, because I love the feeling of making something with my hands. Maybe it's because I started out as a painter and a sculptor. I like the feeling of working physically with my hands, and I also like the idea that if there is a power failure, or if something happens, that I won't be unplugged. I can keep working. I am the power source, not that plug in the wall. And, I love it when you swing the bar, and that little bell rings. It's like an old trolley car. And I also am superstitious about many things concerned with the craft, and I think I find most writers are -- many much more so than I am. And, I've written all my books on that typewriter, and it probably has 250,000 miles on it now.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

That's a lot of typewriter ribbon.

David McCullough: A lot of ribbon and a lot of overhauls over the years. Maybe the typewriter is writing the books, so maybe I better stay loyal to that one. It's a marvelous machine. It's a beautiful example of a great piece of machinery made in America.

Thank you very much. It's been a great pleasure talking with you.

David McCullough: You're welcome.

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This page last revised on Feb 14, 2008 17:08 EST
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