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2007 National Book Award Nonfiction Finalist Interview With Woody Holton
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Photo © Hil Scott
Woody Holton
Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution
Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus & Gioux

Interview conducted by Jennifer Gonnerman.

JG: What was the hardest part of your book to write - and why was it so challenging?

WH: 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?

WH: 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?

WH: 1. Terry Bouton, Taming Democracy (similar to Unruly Americans but with more archival research--and more sparkling prose)

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 an Aussie)

JG: What are three of your favorite non-fiction books of all time?

WH: 1. Peter Wood, Black Majority (at a time when others were saying the history of early African Americans couldn't be recovered, he simply did it)

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 moment?

WH: 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 book?

WH: The first draft of Unruly 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.

JG: What impact, if any, do you think your National Book Award nomination will have on your future work?

WH: Let's not assume that all of the impact will be positive! Until Unruly Americans, 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...

Jennifer 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



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