A Handbook for Dogged Research

I found a great new book on the writing craft at Barnes & Noble in Redding. It’s called Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, and it’s by Robert A. Caro. Caro is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for biographies. The first Pulitzer was in 1975 for The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. The second was in 2003 for The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate, Volume Three of Caro’s multi-volume biography of Johnson.

Yeah, I had never heard of Robert Moses, either. Caro wrote the book because he was interested in the theme of political power. Moses was an unelected city planner for New York City who was the driver behind the modernization on the city. The current NYC freeway system was the vision of Robert Moses. Caro was amazed that an unelected official could hold so much power. Building that freeway system was not just about pouring concrete. People lived and worked in the paths of those proposed freeways. They had to be moved. Entire neighborhoods were demolished to make room for the roads. The Power Broker is more than the biography of one man. It is the story of the shaping of 20th century New York City. It is a huge book: 1296 pages.

Caro has been working on The Years of Lyndon Johnson since the mid-1970s. The first volume was published in 1982. The fifth and final volume is in progress.

Working is sort of Caro’s memoir of his writing methods. He writes in the Introduction that it is “not a full-scale memoir.” It is a brief look (at only 207 pages) at what he has learned along the way about researching, interviewing, and writing (as the subtitle says).

As a memoirist and non-fiction writer myself, I was challenged and inspired by Caro’s dogged approach to his subjects. He describes how he researched subjects that did not exactly want to be open and forthcoming. He writes about securing and scheduling interviews. He uses multiple interviews of the same person, always digging for more, and usually finding it.

He learned the most basic lesson as a young newspaperman, before starting work on The Power Broker. An editor told him to “(t)urn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page.” Young Caro takes that lesson to heart, and he has spent his successful writing career turning every page.

That’s a research lesson we could all use.

Writing can be found at the Redding Barnes & Noble, or at Amazon.