What Would Robert Caro Do? (I finally got to ask.)

From the back cover of a reporter's notebook, where I tape reminders on story structure, Caro-style digging and other inspirations.

From the back cover of a reporter’s notebook, where I tape reminders on story structure, Caro-style digging and other inspirations.

Twenty-six people were featured in the iconic Air Force One photo of Lyndon B. Johnson being sworn in as President of the United States. Standing next to him was Jacqueline Kennedy, just 43 minutes after her husband was pronounced dead.

The prize-winning journalist Robert Caro, who’s spent four decades chronicling the 36th president in a series of acclaimed biographies, had examined the records and talked to most all of the 26 people on board the plane that day, many of them multiple times. Then it hit him: After thousands of interviews about Lyndon Johnson, after decades of archives-combing, he’d never thought to interview the photographer who’d taken the picture.

So Caro found himself calling the Florida home of 89-year-old retired White House photographer Cecil Stoughton, praying he wasn’t actually calling Stoughton’s widow.

“My name is Robert Caro, and I’m writing books on Lyndon Johnson,” he told Stoughton’s wife, nearly 50 years after the photograph was made.

“Oh, Mr. Caro, Cecil has been waiting for your call.”LBJ photo

Caro, the two-time Pulitzer winner, brought down the house with that bit of meta-journalism during a recent panel on book-writing organized by the Lukas Prize Project, a joint project of the Columbia School of Journalism and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. I was in the catbird’s seat, sitting on the dais between Caro, who’d just won the Mark Lynton History prize for “The Passage of Power,” the fourth of his five planned LBJ books; and Andrew Solomon, who’d won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize for “Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.” Still a month from turning in my own work of narrative nonfiction, I was there for “Factory Man,” which had won the J. Anthony Lukas Book-in-Progress Award.

What would Robert Caro do? I had asked myself that question numerous times during the writing of my book about globalization and a struggling Virginia furniture-maker named John Bassett III, who’d taken on China and a tidal wave of corporate greed to save hundreds of jobs.

Now I had a chance to ask Caro that in person. The question had already sent me on a quest to interview an 86-year-old ambulance driver about an EMT call he’d made 30 years before. (Caro’s editor, who was seated in the audience, told me she roared at hearing that story.) It had sent me kayaking — white-water rafting, actually — down Virginia’s Smith River, which is 42 degrees year-round if you want to know. (Oh, I know that intimately, after plunging in head over tree branch.) It had sent me back to some of the same subjects over and over again, resulting in new material every time and my own new insights on prompting memories and, maybe more importantly, a subject’s genuine trust.

At the start of my project, I had taped a quote from Caro on the outside of my notebook: “There is no one truth, but there are an awful lot of objective facts, and the more facts you manage to obtain, the closer you will come to whatever truth there is,” he told a Time magazine interviewer last year.

I had 11 months to complete my manuscript, not a decade, which is what it took Caro to turn in his fourth, 700-page installment. His pace is so methodical and slow, The New York Times’ Charles McGrath has pointed out, that it’s taken Caro longer to write about LBJ’s years in power than LBJ spent actually living them. Among the things I learned during the hourlong panel:

Caro makes detailed outlines, which he types on an old Smith Corona Electra 210 then pins to the walls of his Columbus Circle office, near New York’s Upper West Side. The very first thing he does is write a two-sentence to two-paragraph summary of each book — all the better to authoritatively digress from your theme if you know intimately what your theme is.

He does better when he has a last line in mind, something he can aim toward. The moment Caro heard the subject of his first biography, Robert Moses, tell an audience that people weren’t sufficiently grateful for his work, it occurred to Caro exactly how he would end his seven years of research into the life of the urban planner who built and bulldozed much of New York — with the line: “Why weren’t they grateful?”

Similar to Caro’s tracking down the 27th set of eyes aboard Air Force One, Andrew Solomon spoke about the process of trying to court the parents of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold for his book about children who are markedly different from their parents, including kids who are cognitively, physically and psychologically impaired. Solomon’s book is full of bitter truths and surprises but always from the perspective of a journalist who is proud to bear witness to the “shimmering humanity” of parenting.

Respectfully but persistently, Solomon kept asking for interviews, even when the original response had been no. He corresponded with Sue Klebold for two years before she agreed to meet him for coffee — only to cancel at the last minute, saying she and her husband had changed their minds.  Solomon told her he’d already purchased the nonrefundable ticket from New York to Colorado for their meeting — whether that was true or not, he didn’t say (I got the sense it wasn’t). But the Klebolds finally relented out of guilt, and ended up talking to him for seven hours during their first meeting alone.

They were thrilled that, finally, someone was more interested in understanding them — including the things they loved about their son — rather than judging them.

Solomon allowed himself to be moved, letting the emotions of his characters drive the theme of his book and the contextual reporting, not the other way around. His structure developed around the idea of what it’s like to parent profoundly different children, but he let his characters shape the final form as he winnowed 25 potential stories/interviewees down to ten over the course of 11 years.

“I tried to be awake to the possibility that the stories I was hearing were going to maybe change from what I thought I was writing,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to find the stick figures to back up points I’d already thought up. But I hoped that by talking to large numbers of people and [using] a more inductive process, I could get to the point of having my idea take shape around the people.”

In fact, he didn’t fully delve into the intellectual armature of the book until he was five years into story gathering mode. “I always thought if you ended up writing the book your proposed, it probably wasn’t worth investigating,” he said.

Friends asked me later what it was like meeting Caro, one of my heroes. He’s friendly and at the same time distant, putting his hand on your arm when he talks to you but volunteering — in a way that beats you to the punch — that, alas no, he does not blurb other writers’ books. (Fair enough, I thought, given that he’s in his late 70s and still has that fifth LBJ book to write.)

From left: Moderator Nicholas Lemann, Robert Caro, Beth Macy and Andrew Solomon

From left: Moderator Nicholas Lemann, Robert Caro, Beth Macy and Andrew Solomon

When I had a minute alone with him at the end of the evening, I asked how he might handle a sticky ethical issue I’ve been wrestling with for several months. “I don’t know, but I sure am looking forward to seeing what you do with that!” he said, beaming his bright-white smile and shaking my hand one final time.

Then he was off to hail a taxi with his faithful research assistant and wife, Ina. He had made a point to share the glory, asking her to stand up as he accepted his award, noting that she did not complain when they had to sell their house to help finance an earlier book. Throughout his  career, Ina Caro was the only one he trusted enough to help him with research.

My friends and I headed to a bar while they waited for their cab. And I thought of another bit of advice I’d taped to my notebook at the start of the project, sent by my storytelling mentor Mary Bishop, in the form of a poem by David Whyte. While it’s good to take inspiration from the masters, the real magic happens when you find your own way into a project and develop your own Caro-like work ethic, starting with the genuine sound of your own voice and “the ground you know, the pale ground beneath your feet.”

The last stanza of David Whyte's "Start Close In"

The last stanza of David Whyte’s “Start Close In”

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