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If you like David McCullough's story, you might also like:
Stephen Ambrose,
Tom Clancy,
David Herbert Donald,
Shelby Foote,
Doris Kearns Goodwin,
James Michener,
Peggy Noonan,
Vincent Scully
and Neil Sheehan

David McCullough's recommended reading: Reveille in Washington

David McCullough also appears in the videos:
Democracy and Citizenship: The 250th Celebration of Thomas Jefferson's Birthday

So, You Want to Be a Writer

Related Links:
David McCullough
NEH Lecture
Paris Review

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David McCullough
David McCullough
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David McCullough Interview

Two Pulitzer Prizes for Biography

June 3, 1995
Williamsburg, Virginia

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  David McCullough

Was there a particular experience in your youth that you believe had a formative influence on you?

David McCullough: One of my own children once said to me, "Pop, I don't think you're going to be a great writer, because you had such a wonderful childhood and all of our great writers have supposedly had miserable childhoods." I had a marvelous childhood.

I grew up in a family of four sons who are all quite different from each other and who all had very active interests. I have a brother who is a wonderful musician and very interested in the history of music. I have a brother who is a scientist and gifted in technology who builds computers for use under water in oceanographic studies. I have another brother who is a very good businessman and who has had a strong and important career in business.

David McCullough Interview Photo
We went to the public schools, and we had lots of friends, and we played on baseball teams and football teams, and ran on the track team, and all of that. I was in the dramatics at school, I worked on the newspaper. I thought I was going to be a painter. I drew the cartoons for the paper. I painted portraits. I sang in the glee club. I did all of that, and I loved all of it. I loved school, every day. It wasn't cool to say you liked school, of course, but I did. And it was the same in college, and it's been the same since.

I think it's very important not to typecast people and especially yourself. Because what you may be interested in now, or what you may show signs of ability in now may not be what you're interested in later on, or may not be where your ability emerges later on.

When did you first have an idea of what you wanted to do?

David McCullough: I had many ideas of what I wanted to do. The question was, "Which one would I do?" I think I ran through the usual spectrum of imagined futures. I thought I would like to be an architect, an actor, a painter, a writer, a lawyer, for a while a politician. I considered going to medical school.

I knew I didn't want to be in business, and I knew that I wanted to get to New York as soon as I could, and once I got to New York, one thing sort of led to another. A lot depends, of course, on who you happen to meet, what your economic needs are of the moment.

When I arrived in New York, I needed a job, and I was fortunate enough to be taken on as a trainee in a brand new magazine that was just starting called Sports Illustrated. And I think now, in retrospect, that what I did in the next 12 years was to serve a kind of apprenticeship in different jobs, different magazine jobs, primarily editing, writing. And after I'd done that for about 10 or 12 years, I felt that I had reached the point where I could attempt something on my own.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

We had many children by then, and I had a good job. I liked my job.

It wasn't that I was rebelling against the imprisonment of a vocation that wasn't for me. I liked the people I worked with. I went in every day very eager to do whatever we had to do. I was an editor then at American Heritage Publishing Company, but I had an idea for a book, and I began working on it at nights, and on weekends, and on vacations, and it took me three years. And when that book was published it had a reception -- both critically and publicly, with the reading public -- that was far beyond what I had expected. And at that point, I decided that I would cut loose and try it on my own. And, because I had a wonderful partner, editor-in-chief, wife, who was equally willing to take that risk -- biggest risk we ever took. I did it. Had I not had someone in my life who was as willing as I was to take the step, I might not have done it.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

What was that first book?

David McCullough: The first book was The Johnstown Flood.

I had been an English major in college.

I had no anticipation that I was going to write history, but I stumbled upon a story that I thought was powerful, exciting, and very worth telling. And I taught myself, in effect, how to do the research, how to dig out the pieces, both large and small, of the past. I discovered in the process that -- contrary to the notion that the past is a dead thing -- that in fact, wherever you scratch the surface, you find life. And it was the life -- the people and what happened to them -- that was the pull for me.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

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This page last revised on Feb 14, 2008 17:08 EDT
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