When the historian Robert Caro spoke at the recent Pulitzer Centennial event hosted by the Nieman Foundation, one emotion was palpable: outrage.
Fifty years after he wrote about the Roth family and a small farm undone by New York’s Northern State Parkway for his first book, “The Power Broker,” his voice still radiated with passion, with outrage. It was a powerful moment, and it provided a key to good writing that echoes something Lin-Manuel Miranda said for the same event: Find the story that moves you.
The video is 40 minutes long (Caro is not known for his brevity, as anyone reading his prize-winning books knows), but it’s fascinating. For those of you who just want the highlights, I’ve pulled a few.
On the little joys of research:
There’s something really great about going through old files. There’s something thrilling about it.
On the moment the book changed direction as he looked at a map of the route of the parkway:
On the route of the parkway ‑‑ the final route, the route on which it had actually been built ‑‑ was a row of tiny dots, little more than specks on the maps. Specks, tiny even when I used the magnifying glass, 23 of them.
They appeared to represent small land holdings ‑‑ homes or farms that were merely indicated by those dots ‑‑ the heavy line of the parkway running right through them. They were much too small to have room on them for the names of the owners or any other kind of identification.
To this day I don’t know why I suddenly decided to find out those names, and to try to find any of the owners who were still alive, and to see if they had any stories to tell about the construction of the Northern State Parkway.
On outrage as a great motivator for good writing:
I must say now as I speak to you this afternoon that during this last week, as I was writing and rewriting, actually, this tour, as I remembered those phone calls I made, I heard again the voices of Mrs. Roth and of Jimmy on my ear some 40 years after they had spoken to me. I found myself as angry again this week as I was then.
I remember my feelings, and I remember that when I finished talking to the Roths, the sentences for their part of my book just poured out of me. Now years, decades later, when I reread those sentences, I am less dissatisfied with them than I usually am with my writing.
I wrote, “Robert Moses had shifted the parkway south of Otto Kahn’s estate, south of Colonel Winthrop’s, and Congressman Mills’ estates, south of Stimson’s and De Forest’s. For men of wealth and influence, he had moved the parkway almost three miles south of its original location. But James Roth possessed neither money nor influence, and for James Roth, Robert Moses would not move the parkway south even one‑tenth of a mile. For James Roth, Robert Moses would not move the parkway one foot.”
On deciding how to tell his story (the lightbulb moment):
If my book was to tell the story of power in all its facets, all its aspects, it would have to tell the story not only of the man who wielded power, but of the effect of that power on those on whom ‑‑ for good or for ill ‑‑ it was wielded. That, I saw really in that moment, as I recall it, was what I wanted my book to be, what I guess I had always wanted it to be.