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The Author Speaks

Tony Horwitz on John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War

'Midnight Rising' brings the abolitionist to life

Q. This era is gripping to a lot of writers, including your wife, Geraldine Brooks. She won a Pulitzer for March, which features the men who funded John Brown's raid.

A. Geraldine had a lot to do with me writing this book. In March, some of her research led her to this group of intellectuals and idealists known as the Secret Six. These were John Brown's political behind-the-scenes supporters. She kept telling me, "You should do a book on the Secret Six." Finally, really just to get her out of my hair, I went and did research. Reading about them brought me back to Brown and wondering what it was that drove him and others to do what they did.

Q. What's the workday like with two writers in the house?

A. It's not as exotic as you might imagine. We shove our boys on the school bus and 10 minutes later we're at our desks. Basically we try and squeeze every minute we can out of the day before they return. I sit at my desk and Geraldine sits 20 feet away at hers, and we toil away. We do constantly call out to each other looking for a certain word or reading a sentence to ask whether the other one can improve it.

Q. Do you do all the reporting first, then sit down at the computer?

A. I write as I go because writing helps me figure out what pieces of the story I have and what I don't. It also shows me what material works on the page. You can have research that you think is wonderful but when you sit down to write it, it lacks color or is no longer a crucial element. You can see it should go on the cutting-room floor. I think better when I'm at my keyboard.

Q. How has your writing process changed with age?

A. One thing that I find is depressing about writing is that it doesn't get any easier. But that's part of what keeps it interesting. You do learn from your mistakes and come to recognize types of stories or kinds of materials that are not your style. I am not a nature writer. I describe landscapes, but I no longer try to write the way a novelist writes about nature. I'm more comfortable with dialogue and action and character.

Q. What do you read for pleasure?

A. I'm embarrassed to say I rarely get into bed at night and cuddle up with a history book. For pleasure I'm really a fiction reader. And it's often just whatever Geraldine recommends from the 10 books on her nightstand. I really love middlebrow works — not pulp, but not Proust.

Q. What advice would you give to a friend who wanted to be a writer?

A. Don't romanticize writing. Trying it is the only way to find out if the life fits you or you have any talent for it. So if you think you have a story to tell, get to work!

Betsy Towner lives in California.

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