Russell Freedman was raised by parents who were involved with books and authors, so perhaps it is not surprising that he was attracted to writing. It is fortunate for readers of all ages that he was ultimately drawn to it as a full-time career.
Sincere thanks to Mr. Freedman for taking the time to share insight into his writing. His responses clearly demonstrate the thought and the respect given to the subjects about which he writes and readers of all ages.
Your work has become the gold standard for narrative nonfiction for younger readers. What drew you to write this type of literature?
I have been a dedicated history buff ever since I first read Hendrik van Loon’s The Story of Mankind as a fifth-grader at Cabrillo Grammar School in San Francisco. I lost myself in that book. It was packed with tales of adventure, heroism, and villainy, with stories of fantastic voyages, monumental battles, and awesome discoveries, and the best thing about it, the very best thing, was that every story in that book was true.
I already had writing ambitions, and I remember studying passages in van Loon’s book and wondering if I’d be able to write like that. Years later, my experience as a young reporter and editor at the Associated Press convinced me that I wanted to write about real people and actual events.
You’ve written on a range of historical periods and people, though you seem to most often deal with people and times that are often not well represented. How do you decide which subjects you focus on?
Ah — so many subjects, so little time! When I’m trying to decide on the subject for my next book, I keep in mind that I’ll be spending a year or longer totally preoccupied with that subject. I’ll be thinking about it when I go to bed at night and when I wake up in the morning, so it has to be a subject that I believe has some redeeming value — a transformative event, perhaps, such as World War I or the Selma voting rights campaign, or a life story that has something to tell us about leading our own lives. And it has to be a subject that I believe will interest my readers and keep them turning the pages, so that I’m not just blowing in the wind.
How do you approach the research? How does it change with the subject?
I try to approach my research with an open mind. I still depend primarily on old-fashioned books. Books by reputable scholars and historians provide the depth, vision, and authenticity not necessarily available online. I begin by reading some recent authoritative books on my subject and gradually work my way back in time, concentrating on memoirs, autobiographies, letters, and first-hand contemporary accounts in newspapers, journals, broadsides, and other primary materials. Along the way I try to visit the places where the events I’m writing took place.
I’ve toured the World War I battlefields around Verdun, peered into the Montgomery city bus in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, and stood in the temple courtyard in Qufu, China, where Confucius lectured under an apricot tree more than 2500 years ago. Most recently I visited Munich University in Germany, the seat of a student anti-Hitler resistance movement during World War II, the subject of my upcoming book. And I’m about to go to Vietnam for the second time in connection with a book I am currently working on about the Vietnam War. If my subject is not too distant in time, I try to interview people with first-hand knowledge of the events and characters I’m describing — Martha Graham’s dancers, for example, or Eleanor Roosevelt’s grandchildren, who grew up in the White House during FDR’s presidency. Most recently, I had a chance to talk with Sam Brown, who helped organize the anti-Vietnam War moratoriums and march on Washington. I also consult the Internet, of course, but with selectivity and caution.
History comes to us from different perspectives. How do you make certain that what you include is accurate? (i.e., Do you check multiple sources? Are some more trustworthy than others?)
I follow the rule I learned while writing articles for the Columbia Encyclopedia years ago: have at least three sources for each factual assertion. When I encounter different versions of the same event, or a lack of evidence, I suggest as much in my text.
When I was writing my biography of Abraham Lincoln I came across the following anecdote: In 1862, while Lincoln was president, his 11-year-old son Willie died of a fever. Willie was the second son to be taken from the Lincolns. Mary was overcome by grief, and the President plunged into the deepest gloom he had ever known. Again and again, he shut himself in his room to weep alone. He was heard to say about Willie, “He was too good for this earth. It is hard, hard to have him die.”
Now all of that is in my book. In early drafts, I had also written that Lincoln twice had his son’s body exhumed, so he could gaze on Willie’s face again. I felt that the harrowing image of the grieving president looking into his son’s coffin was a powerful and unforgettable representation of Lincoln’s profound sorrow. And I thought it said something about Lincoln that could be expressed only by example.
And yet something about the story made me uneasy. My only source was a single biography published during the 1930s, and I felt I needed at least one additional source, and preferably more, for confirmation. When I couldn’t find one, I decided to drop the incident from my book. But the image still haunts me and I still wonder if it’s true.
Is objectivity possible when writing history? How does a nonfiction writer’s point of view show?
I was once asked: Is history what happened, or is it the record of what happened? Let’s say that history is what happened. The record of what happened depends on how each individual happens to see those events, so they’ve already been filtered. When the historian or biographer takes over, history is no longer exactly what happened because a process of selection has been going on.
It’s difficult to write about anyone, any event, any period of time, without in some way imposing, even unconsciously, your own standards, your own values. You simply can’t avoid that. The historian strives for objectivity, does the best he or she can, but the result inevitably reflects the life experience and the values of that person. Every biographer, every historian, makes different choices. The Story of Mankind would be a very different book if written today. A writer’s point of view is expressed by means of selection and emphasis. And a book without a point of view is a toothless tiger.
Talk about how illustrative material works with text in your books. How does the research – and the interpretation of what you glean from visuals - differ from other research?
Images are an integral part of my books. I do my own picture research and select the pictures I want to include. Each picture is keyed to a specific passage in the text, so the reader’s eyes can move back and forth from the words to the picture. My guiding principle is that the image should reveal something that words can’t express, while the text should say something that isn’t evident in the picture.
Not so long ago, picture research meant traveling to libraries, museums, and historical societies all over the country, putting your white-gloved hands into the files as you examined fading photographs and fragile transparencies. Today, most major collections are substantially digitized, and the researcher can access and order reproduction images from all over the world without leaving the computer. For my recent book Because They Marched, I looked at hundreds of images on the websites of the Library of Congress, the Associated Press, and various photo agencies.
I usually start my picture research after I’ve written two or three drafts of my text, so that I can revise the text accordingly as the images I find yield insights and impressions that are often unexpected.
Your recent book, Because They Marched, is about the same period that a recent movie brings to the big screen. Though different media, both are art forms, about which US Rep. John Lewis said (in the LA Times, 1/16/15) “The role of art in our society is not to reenact history but to offer an interpretation of human experience.” Do you think this is true of literary art as much as the visual?
As I suggested earlier, the historical record (as expressed in a book or a movie) is by its nature “an interpretation of human experience” because it inevitably involves selection and emphasis. What is left out is as important as what is included. A filmmaker has considerably more creative license than a nonfiction author.
In an interview with Gwen Ifill on PBS , Ava DuVernay, the director of [the movie] Selma, said: “This is art; this is a movie; this is a film. I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian.” Fair enough. Selma has some powerful re-enacted scenes, such as the horrifying depiction of the four schoolgirls killed by white racists in the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama, church. The film has also been criticized for its characterization of President Johnson and its focus on Martin Luther King while barely acknowledging the grassroots movement that preceded King’s arrival in Selma.
As Darryl Pinckney noted in The New York Review of Books (February 19, 2015), “A film based on a historical subject, even a beautifully shot one, can remind us without meaning to that although reading in the U.S. is a minority activity, the book is still the only medium in which you can make a complicated argument.”
It is 50 years ago this month that the marches in Selma took place. To continue the conversation about this pivotal moment in American history and more, consider downloading a thoughtful educator’s guide to Because They Marched .