I happened upon Nigel Hamilton’s book, JFK: Reckless Youth in November, 2004, just after George W. Bush had somehow or other gotten himself re-elected President. It proved a mesmerizing portrait of the young JFK: in thrall to lust, but also intellectually independent and, from an early age, passionately interested government and the wider world. Reading the book was, for me, an antidote to political despair.
Though I’d never met Nigel Hamilton, I discovered that he was a fellow at UMass Boston, so practically a neighbor. On impulse, I sent him an email message, letting him know how much I’d enjoyed the book, and asking if we could meet. The following day, he wrote back. Explaining that he would be in DC for the next six months doing research for his biography of Clinton, he suggested that we arrange something when he returned to Boston.
Then only two months later, in January, 2005, I got a phone call which the caller ID identified as coming from from Nigel Hamilton. I picked up the receiver confused. Why was Nigel Hamilton calling me on the telephone this soon and how, anyway, had he found my number? The caller turned out to be my cousin Mark from DC, temporarily in Boston for research of his own.
“Why does the caller ID say you’re Nigel Hamilton?” I asked him, naturally enough.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I met this really great guy through Craigslist and that’s his name – Nigel Hamilton. He’s doing some research in DC for the next six months and I needed an apartment in Boston for the same length of time, so we just traded places. I’m calling from his apartment now.”
For reasons too complicated to go into here, Nigel Hamilton and I did not meet in person until two weeks ago, when, through another string of coincidences, I wound up at a reading from his newest book American Caesars. We arranged an interview at his house. The act of ringing his doorbell felt fraught with significance - though I had no idea what the significance might be.
Recently returned from a canoeing trip on the Merrimack River and dressed in casual clothes, Nigel greeted me at the front door, introduced me to his wife and pets, and made us tea. For the next three (for me, blissful) hours, we sat in his library talking about his experiences as a researcher and writer, and the future of book publishing. Nigel’s thoughtful, candid answers to my many questions reminded me about how much courage it takes to be a serious writer and how strongly you need to believe in your work to withstand the sometimes brutal criticism you receive.
I’ll start with a comment: When I picked up your first book about an American president, JFK: Reckless Youth, I didn’t know much about JFK, but after I read it, I loved the man – warts and all.
If I achieved anything with that book, I hope I changed the mind of many Americans who’d assumed JFK was a man whose father had pushed him into politics after his poor older brother died, and who then turned out to be rather charming and serious. Because the truth was he’d always been a serious young man, though certainly a playboy, too. He wrote Why England Slept (1940) not because someone told him to but because he was genuinely fascinated by the question of how an empire [England] could let down its defenses to the point that it could be steamrollered by any militaristic state. [Germany under the Nazis]
When you began writing about JFK, you planned to write a single volume. What made you then decide you needed to write more than one book on him?
I started interviewing people JFK had grown up with and I thought “Oh my God. He’s turning out to be so much more interesting as a young person than I ever imagined. I’m not going to get all of that into one volume.”
So did you tell this to your publisher?
Yeah, and they fired me.
They fired you? Why?
My publisher was Houghton Mifflin. And Arthur Schlesinger – who was not a small-minded man, except with respect to the Kennedys - was Houghton Mifflin’s main adviser. They showed Arthur the manuscript and he was savvy enough to know that, though the portrait of JFK was fascinating, in many ways rather heroic, the portrait of mummy and daddy was devastating, and the family – pretty tribal in terms of Boston Irish loyalty to mum and dad – was going to go ballistic.
How did you find another publisher?
A man named Harold Evans who headed up Random House sought me out. At the time, I had a summer cabin in Finland with only an outside toilet, but it had a telephone. My wife told me I had a call – I was probably on the toilet at the time – and Harold Evans was on the line. He said, “Weren’t you writing a book about JFK? How’s it going?” “ I told him it had been finished for three months, but that my publisher had fired me. He said, “Send it to me. “ And Bob Loomis, then the chief editor at Random House, read it and said. “I’d love to do it. This is great and we’re not afraid of the Kennedys.”
What happened after the book came out?
The family did something they’d never done before and never done since. Except for the daughter who’d been lobotomized, every single Kennedy came out and signed this op-ed for the New York Times denouncing my book as reckless biography. And claiming that their parents were pure, wonderful people who’d never done anything wrong and I had committed a grave calumny.
How did you react to that?
Well, Random House had sent copies around the country to booksellers and the booksellers seemed to love the book, so the publisher sent me around the country – to Chicago, I think – and I was doing a radio interview and was just coming out from my hotel and a reporter came up to me and asked if I had a statement to make. And I said, “About what?” and he said about the New York Times op-ed piece and I said I didn’t know of any such piece…And then all hell broke loose. I suppose it helped that I was younger then.
But you didn’t have a very thick skin yet.
I certainly didn’t. And it hurt.
What inspired you to write the American Caesars?
I had always wanted to do some sort of group portrait of American presidents. I had just finished my second volume on Clinton and I thought I’d like to do something else before going on about Clinton in the third volume – something about great presidents as opposed to this really awful current president [George W. Bush] in 2007. And right around that time I got this phone call from Random House in England and they had the idea for a book about U.S. presidents on the model of Suentonius’s The Twelve Caesars. And even though I don’t particularly like to write on other people’s ideas – these books take years and a hell of a lot of work and it’s got to come from somewhere inside you – this was a book I’d always wanted to write. So I said,“Where do I sign?”
Why write a book about American presidents in the style of Suetonius?
Suetonius concentrates, first of all, on how the guy came to be a caesar and then what sort of caesar he was, and only then goes to his private life. Nowadays people expect you to paste in the childhood, the influences, the psychological understanding that will allow you to appreciate this guy as he or she develops. But I did this trial chapter on Truman [following Suentonius’s method] and I thought, “This allows the author – and thus the reader – to see the caesar’s political struggle with absolute clarity in terms of the issues and challenges of his time without muddying it.” I wanted to focus first on the challenges the particular ruler was facing. What was the decision he had to make? [e.g. in Truman’s case]: “Do I recall General MacArthur now, in the middle of a war?” The British publisher [Random House UK] was delighted. But then we couldn’t find a single New York publisher to do it. I was grateful when Yale University Press took it.
Why did the New York publishers reject it?
They claim that biography doesn’t sell well enough anymore and that not enough people are interested in history to make it worthwhile to them. But there’s an up side to this.
Until now, there’s been only one way an author can get to his/her audience – through a publisher. You’ve got to submit your proposal, then get them excited about it, then go through the process of being edited, then accept the way they want to market your book. They hold all the cards. But there is an opportunity now, for the first time in history, to reach an audience on your own.
You can, for instance, produce a book by yourself by putting your CD-Rom into a machine and having it spew out a volume and to hell with the stature thing, If you want to do a hundred copies for family members and people who come to a reading you give, that’s fine. If you want to pay for somebody to help you edit and promote it, you can pay for that yourself. But writers won’t be able to make a living from writing anymore. As someone in my biographer’s group said the other night, “Hang onto your day jobs.” And that’s it. Consider this to be a hobby or whatever.
But you’ve gone so far as to say that biography is important for the survival of democracy itself. Wouldn’t the kind of extensive research you’ve done be impossible for a person with a day job?
Yes, well then you’ll have to – look, it’s like NPR; they’re constantly doing fund raising. As a serious author of biography – and other non-fiction – you’re going to have to go around fund raising.
I see you’re getting out there writing Huffington Post articles and you also have a Twitter account. Do you use it?
Well I’ve started. I had this one-day conference with the biography group and the consensus there was whether you like it or not, you’ve got to start using that kind of social networking tool if you want to sell any books. So I recently started with twitter. I have four followers.
You’d better get busy!
Yeah, but the thing is that it doesn’t work on its own. I only have four people following me because I’ve got to follow other people and get them to re-tweet and so on. But this is what I meant about the future: You can set the level at which you want to push out your personal envelope. And if you want huge sales, you’ve got to do it a lot. I mean when I was younger, I wanted my books on the bestseller list.
I’m sufficiently ancient now not to worry so much about it. I mean, I want people to read my books, but there’s a limit to how much I’m willing to do. And if I can go canoeing on the Merrimack – hey, I might do that.