© Hil Scott
Unruly Americans and the
Origins of the Constitution
and Wang/Farrar, Straus & Gioux
JG: What was the hardest
part of your book to write - and why was it so challenging?
Unruly Americans devotes
a lot of attention to the people who bought up the government
securities that had financed the Revolutionary War.
I argue that these bond speculators played a huge, albeit
indirect, role in bringing about the adoption of the
U.S. Constitution in 1787. Discussing this topic with
friends, I quickly discovered that my enthusiasm for
it was not infectious. You have to be pretty weird to
get excited about government finance.
It occurred to me that I could
make the topic a lot more appealing to readers if I
could find a compelling story about a single bond speculator;
then that one guy could stand in for all the rest. For
years I searched in vain for a speculator who left sufficient
documentation. Near the end of the writing-almost too
late-I found my speculator. It is Abigail Adams. Twenty
years before becoming First Lady, in June 1777, Adams
discovered this incredibly lucrative investment. And
she was still buying bonds in the 1790s, when her husband
was vice president.
JG: What's the greatest
personal debt you incurred while writing this book?
To my partner, of course. Gretchen
was happy to give up her two careers (teaching at universities
in Japan and the U.S.; running non-profit organizations)
to be the primary care-giver for our daughter Beverly,
born just last year. We agreed, though, that on weekends,
we would spend equal amounts of time with the kid, both
for her sake and because both of us needed time for
other chores. But my classes, committees, and grading
chewed up my weekdays, and I often had to ask Gretchen
to let me spend most of the weekend writing. She agreed,
though it meant neglecting her own duties: everything
from unpacking boxes (we moved right before Beverly
was born) to cutting the grass.
That extra time spent on
Unruly Americans probably made the difference in
its becoming a National Book Award finalist. And yet
as guests wade through our grass and wend their way
among the boxes that still fill our dining room eighteen
months after our move, many inevitably see Gretchen
as neglectful. Her willingness to look bad so I can
look good puts me deep in her debt.
JG: If you
were a judge for this year's National Book Awards, what
two non-fiction books would you have picked as finalists?
Taming Democracy (similar
to Unruly Americans but with more archival
research--and more sparkling prose)
1. Terry Bouton,
2. Michael McDonnell, The
Politics of War (shows that during the American
Revolution, the country was at war not only with Britain
but with itself; not a candidate, since McDonnell is
JG: What are three
of your favorite non-fiction books of all time?
(at a time when others were saying the history
of early African Americans couldn't be recovered, he
simply did it)
1. Peter Wood,
2. Richard Kluger, Simple
Justice (the most inspiring nonfiction writing
since the final chapters of Alex Haley's Roots)
3. Laurel Ulrich, A Midwife's
Tale (I'm awed by Ulrich's quiet anger)
JG: Of all that transpired
after your book was published, what was your favorite
Changing planes at LaGuardia,
I got a voicemail message from something called the
National Book Foundation. I hadn't heard of that organization
and wasn't sharp enough to connect it with the National
Book Award, so I figured it was a charity that gives
books to poor children. They probably wanted me to donate
a couple of copies of my book. When I reached Harold
Augenbraum and he gave me the good news, I whooped so
loud that the woman sitting directly across from me
in the waiting area at Gate 5 asked me, after the call,
"So, what did you win?" "Something called
the National Book Award," I replied, "And
I didn't win. I'm just a finalist." I swear to
God, this is what she said back: "Oh, I was a finalist
for that, too." Such a New York moment!
JG: What's the single
best piece of advice you received while working on this
Americans was nearly twice as long as the final.
Since I make some highly controversial claims in the
book, it seemed wise to give readers an ample taste
of the evidence that drove me to these conclusions.
But my editor, Thomas LeBien, urged me to delete all
but the most persuasive and remarkable quotations, replacing
them with (much briefer) narrative. When I balked at
these cuts, Thomas said, "Look, the people who
don't want to believe you aren't going to believe you,
no matter how many quotes you pile up." Good point.
The first draft of
JG: What impact, if
any, do you think your National Book Award nomination
will have on your future work?
I wrote mostly for my fellow academics. I wanted to
reach a wider audience this time around, so I told more
stories, sketched more characters, and left more of
those characters hanging on cliffs. But to be honest,
Unruly Americans is still pretty dry compared
to the history bestsellers, so I want to make my next
book (a biography of Abigail Adams) even more accessible
to non-historians. The question is, will I be able to
add dramatic tension to my prose while still making
original arguments that draw the attention of my fellow
academics? Stay tuned...
Let's not assume that all of
the impact will be positive! Until
Gonnerman is a contributing editor at New York Magazine.
She was a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award
for Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine
Bartlett (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Photo © Nina Subin