Fortunately, there is a Robert Caro, whose concept of biography is both exacting and literate. There’s that, and much more, to be drawn from Caro’s not-quite-autobiographical, mainly instructive little volume titled “Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing.”
Caro has made his living and estimable reputation writing about two people. His revelatory biography of New York urban planner Robert Moses, “The Power Broker,” came out in 1974 after about seven years of research and writing. It earned Caro a Pulitzer Prize for biography. He then devoted most of the subsequent half-century to a massive biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, with four volumes completed and the fifth due out soon. The third volume of that series, “Master of the Senate,” won Caro a second Pulitzer Prize.
At 230-plus pages, “Working” is the Caro equivalent of clearing your throat before a two-hour speech. Caro’s books are usually produced in a full-immersion, straight-line process that takes years of researching, interviewing and writing. He’s just getting warmed up at half-a-million words. “The Power Broker” topped 1,300 pages, and he’s still lamenting the 300,000 words he says were cut from the final version. The first four volumes of the Johnson biography average 900 pages per book.
Caro uncharacteristically worked in the writing of “Working” while completing the fifth volume the Johnson biography. There’s a reason for “Working’s” publication now, he candidly explains in the book: He hopes to write a full memoir, but at age 83 and given how long it takes to complete a typical Caro volume, he’s acutely aware of time.
In any event, as Caro says in his introduction to “Working:”
I have so many thoughts about writing, so many anecdotes about research that I would like to preserve for anyone interested in reading them. I decided that, just in case, I’d put some of them down on paper now.
For which those of us who appreciate the rigor of powerful storytelling should be grateful.
It surely helped the publishing process that big chunks of “Working” are excerpted from previously published articles and interviews, which is fine by me. I’m just looking for guidance and inspiration, whatever the source. There is plenty of both in “Working.” Caro offers much of the same advice as other authors do. But few writers pursue the necessary discipline with as much purpose and passion. He is a bit self-deprecating in describing his obsession with original research (basically, he can’t help himself), but his justification is as profound as it is simple: Truth takes time.
Boy, does it ever. Especially if it is spun out in a deep-dive narrative that illuminates the subject, the historical context, and the places where it all happened in full-exposure detail. Inevitably, he has collected a few critics along with all those words, mostly for idealizing his subjects. But original documents, eyewitness interviews and on-the-ground descriptions build layers of authenticity into his work.
At the center of Caro’s passion for biography is his fascination with exploring where political power comes from and the implications of how it is exercised: “Because political power shapes all of our lives.” In the case of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, Caro writes not only about how they strode through history, but also who got trampled underfoot along the way.A few things to be gleaned from “Working:”
- Writing, they say, is re-writing. When he’s ready, Caro starts by writing longhand, edits the heck out of that, types up the results on an electric typewriter, then edits the heck out that before it’s ready to publish. He confesses to editing book proofs as well. “I’d rewrite in the finished book if I could,” he said in one republished interview.
- Caro describes himself as a fast writer, and to be sure it does take a while to write a million words, or several million if you count all the drafts, at any speed. His publishers are generous with the concept of deadlines. Caro’s internal clock tells him how long he’s going to need: “It’s the research that takes the time.”
- As for the research, Caro’s tactics are timeless. He lives by the dictum, “never assume anything.” Documents are key, and he still cites a long-ago mentor’s admonition to “turn every page” — because the next one might have what you’re looking for. “You always need something in writing,” he says, and proves the point by citing previously unreported or misreported incidents that came to light through relentless reading.
- Caro is no cloistered research drudge. He talks to people — hundreds of people, from all walks of life — to mine their memories for revealing details. He will interview some people again and again, sometimes to the point of annoyance or anger, to confirm a bit of information or deepen an insight. The question he seems to pose most often is “What did you see?” — because he really wants to know. He has more than once tracked down sources that no one else could, or tried to, find.
- Place is always a major player in Caro’s books. He’s determined to put you in the middle of the culture, scene and action. He and his wife moved to the Texas Hill Country for three years, where Johnson grew up, so that his story would be “true to the reality” of the place.
- Caro doesn’t start writing his big books without first developing a short, finely honed outline for the entire volume. As he’s writing, he constantly checks his work against that outline to ensure that he’s staying true to his mission and vision.
- He sets daily writing goals and adheres to them. He wears a coat and tie to his office to remind himself that it’s a job.
Caro does this work for the same reason that all autobiographers, journalists and nonfiction narrative writers do: So you, dear reader, don’t have to. He gets closer to the bone than most historians do. But he is mindful that no matter how much digging he does, there might still be another nugget of information he’s missed.
“Of course there was more,” he says of one productive reporting expedition. “If you ask the right questions there always is. That’s the problem.”