William Kuhn is a writer, biographer, and historian. He has published several books-such as Reading Jackie (click here to see our review), and Mrs Queen takes the train. In this interview, you will find out a lot about his work.
Hello William, thank you for agreeing to this interview.
When growing up, did you have an interest in publishing or history?
I don’t think I thought very much publishing when I was growing up, but there were lots of books in the house. My father collected eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century books, mainly works of English literature. He had a sabbatical when I was eleven years old. He was an English professor at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. We lived in London that year, which was quite different from central Ohio. History was much more tangible to me there, mainly in the built, architectural environment, but also in the sense of a long past memorialized in statues and churches and cathedrals. This was 1968-9 and there were still a few vacant bomb sites from the Second World War. I think that was the beginning of my interest in history.
Apart from publishing, do you have any previous ‘writing experience’ -such as in Journalism?
I did a PhD in history. Writing is part of what you’re expected to do as an academic, so I’d written academic articles before I became a full-time writer. I published my dissertation as a book and I taught for 15 years at a small American liberal arts college before becoming a full-time writer. I had plenty of “writing experience” grading student papers too. You have to think a lot about writing when you’re trying to correct the work of another writer.
How do you compile each manuscript?
It’s usually a multi-year project where I begin reading some of the standard works of nonfiction on a person I’m interested in, followed by some archival research. I draft chapters and show them to friends or to an editor. I get feedback and then I write some more. Reading Jackie probably took about five years all together.
Is there any specific period of history that interests you most?
My academic specialty was the late Victorian period in Britain, but the Jackie book takes place in America from the 1950s to the 1990s. I suppose I’m more interested in modern history, that is after the French Revolution, than in classical or medieval history. I’m writing a book now which stretches from the 1880s to the 1920s in both America and Britain. That period feels comfortable and more familiar to me than some other eras.
Do you have a specific writing routine?
Yes. I write in a personal journal every day for about half an hour. This is usually about what has happened the day before, and what I’m working on. It’s usually a nice big blank sketchbook I’ve converted for journal purposes. I use a favorite fountain pen. I’m drinking the first coffee of the day while I’m doing it. Then I go to the library and work on writing projects from about 10 am to 2 pm, usually about five or six days a week. Most days I read in the afternoon from roughly 5 to 7 pm both for work and for pleasure. This reading is usually the groundwork for an upcoming writing project.
What inspired you to compile the book’ Reading Jackie’ ?
I saw the book of an exhibition mounted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. about Jackie’s clothes in the White House. The curator was Hamish Bowles. Such care and knowledge of both art and fashion history went into assembling her wardrobe, that I began to see her as a much more thinking person than I had before. She wasn’t just a fashion plate. She know about the clothes that previous first ladies, and queens, and heads of state had worn and how they had been depicted in portraiture. From Bowles’s exhibition catalogue, I also discovered her publishing career, which I hadn’t known about before. You can’t be an editor who produces 100 books over a 20-year career without being also an intelligent person. It was Jackie’s intelligence that I wanted to explore and honor in the book.
Did you ever meet Mrs Onassis?
No, but I met some of the authors she worked with. I also met Nancy Tuckerman, her lifelong assistant who’d been with Jackie even back when the two went to boarding school as high school aged girls.
Throughout ‘Reading Jackie’ , you comment on how many thought Jackie would be a writer, but chose editing instead. Alternatively, how do you think she would have worked in the editorial world?
I think she came to trust her own instincts as an editor. No one really trained her to do it. She thought to herself, “If I like this book, other people will like it too.” Or, “If I don’t understand what’s happening in this manuscript, other readers won’t understand either. I’ve got to get the writer to change it. That’s my job as the editor.”
Do you have any writing tips?
Set aside the 5-10 books you love most, and ask yourself, “Why do I love these books?” When you’ve made some notes to yourself about why you love those books, then try to write something (it doesn’t have to be long) on that same cluster of subjects yourself. Try to begin by choosing and imitating writing that has been very meaningful to you.
And finally, one random question: Out of the following bands, do you have a favorite?