An Interview with Tony Horwitz
- Walter Stahr
- July 15, 2014
Tony Horwitz, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is the author of seven books, including, most recently, the e-book Boom: Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers, and the Energy Rush That Could Change America Forever.
In your recent New York Times essay, you wrote about the difficulties you encountered in the electronic publication of Boom. Knowing what you know now, how would you have approached the project? Would you have tried to turn it into a more traditional book?
For several reasons, this project seemed uniquely well suited to publication in a digital format. The subject was timely, so I wanted to publish as soon as the material was ready rather than wait months, as authors typically do with traditional print books. Second, the length — about 110 pages — was too short for a true book, but much too long for a magazine piece. And third, the project came about in the first place because a digital outfit, the Global Mail, suggested the idea and offered to fund it. If I were doing this over again, I’d involve my agent from the start so that I’d have a proper contract and recourse if things went awry.
I’m curious about your own reading habits: Do you read print books? Electronic books? A mixture of both?
I read print books almost exclusively. But I’ve occasionally read e-books and, as a writer, I don’t care how readers consume my work. I just want them to read it in whatever format suits.
What about your research? How much of your research for the John Brown book [Midnight Rising] was electronic — for example, reading digital versions of 19th-century newspapers? And how much was old-fashioned, reading microfilm or paper records?
Digitization has been a great boon to historical research, including my own. I did about half the research for Midnight Rising by accessing digital archives. This allowed me to cover much more ground and to do so more efficiently (e.g., reading old newspapers online using search keys, rather than squinting into a microfilm machine). At the same time, I visited about a dozen libraries and archives around the country and hope the “old-fashioned” research techniques won’t disappear. You always find more by visiting a physical archive, in part because archivists and librarians are there to help and guide you to files you might not have known to look for. It’s important, at times, to handle physical documents and see notations or scribbles or bloodstains that may not come through digitally. And old-fashioned archival research is just plain fun — it’s like a treasure hunt, searching through boxes and files for gems of information. In our over-wired age, it’s also a joy to lock yourself away in a reading room without a cell phone or electronics for hours at a stretch.
What about your older books? Are they selling well in digital format? Or are you, like me, somewhat in the dark about digital sales?
Almost all my books are available in digital format, but I haven’t carefully studied royalty statements to see what percentage of sales are electronic. Generally speaking, nonfiction and history, in particular, sell less in digital format than other genres do. If I had to guess, perhaps a quarter of my book sales are now digital.
One of my favorite parts of Boom was about how many people take a position on the pipeline based on their enemies: If their political enemies favor the pipeline, they oppose it, and vice versa. Do you see this as a new phenomenon? Or is this just part of human nature?
Political polarization isn’t new, but it’s unusually venomous at the moment. The Left and Right really have little or no time for each other and assume anything the other side supports must be toxic. So the fight over the Keystone XL has become a proxy war for the much broader conflict between red and blue America. I’ve written a lot about the Civil War, and the atmosphere today reminds me a bit of 1860-1861, when the North and South saw each other only through caricature and didn’t really communicate, except through angry rhetoric. We’re not on the verge of civil war today, but we’re very divided, and I don’t see that changing soon.
Your book topics are, literally, all over the map, from the South Pacific to the Middle East to the United States. Can you share what you are thinking about for your next book?
I’d be happy to share if I’d settled on an idea. Writing Boom made me avid again for the road; I loved exploring a relatively little-traveled part of the continent and experiencing the grittiness and color of the oil patch, cowboy saloons, Indian reservations, boomtown casinos, and strip clubs. I also enjoyed writing about a newsy and critical subject. Before Boom, I was drifting deeper into the past, but now I’m tempted to detour into the present again and immerse myself in another contemporary adventure.
Walter Stahr is author of two biographies, Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man and John Jay: Founding Father. He’s currently at work on a third, this one about Edwin Stanton.