Tony Horwitz is one of the best writers who are forging the trail for a new genre, one that is in desperate need of a name. More on that in a minute.
In books like Confederates in the Attic and Blue Latitudes (my two favorites), as well as Bhagdad Without A Map, Horwitz has merged travel writing, history writing and memoir writing.
Why, for example, write about the trip Captain Cook took when you can ride it yourself and mix your experiences with a colorful summary of Cook's trip, as Horwitz did with Blue Latitudes?
Put another way Horwitz retraces the steps of others, taking readers along for the ride. These reports are unflinching at times – Howard Zinn would be satifisfied – while also quite comic and entertaining.
I was excited at the chance to interview Mr. Horwitz about his new book.
The second half of this interview will follow in about two weeks, after I finish the book, and will focus more on the book itself.
Scott:How would you describe your style of writing? In encouraging others to read your books, especially my favorite, Confederates In the Attic, I call it a cross between memoir writing and history. Do you agree it has elements of both?
Tony: To be honest, I don't know what to call my books. They're a blend of history, journalism and adventure travel, with my own story woven in. There's a bit of memoir in Confederates but not much of it in my other books. If you come up with a catchy shorthand name for this style, please let me know!
When you started writing your books what was your goal? Did you intend to inject yourself into your stories or did it just sort of turn out that way? Have you encountered any historians giving you grief over that?
My first two books, One For the Road and Baghdad Without A Map, were basically traveler's tales that grew out of my adventures as a reporter in Australia and the Middle East. I had no goal other than to write books, which gave me the latitude to do things I couldn't in my journalistic work and also a second career of sorts. But I did them while still working at my day job as a journalist.
My last three books, Confederates in the Attic, Blue Latitudes, and A Voyage Long and Strange, were full-time occupations and have gradually moved me away from journalism and towards history. By and large, I find historians welcome nonfiction that exposes a general audience to historical topics, so long as the material is accurate. Also, since they're often limited to libraries and classrooms, they're very interested to find how ordinary people remember and experience history.
What was your goal and plan with this particular book? Have you thought about what historical periods you will be writing about for future books?
I don't really have clear goals when I begin a book, apart from exploring (and getting lost in) a topic I feel passionate about. In the case of A Voyage Long and Strange, I wanted to fill a gaping hole in my knowledge and better understand why it is Americans in general have chosen to forget or neglect an exciting chapter of our history, one that explains a great deal about what this country became and who we are.
What kind of reaction have you received from those you have written about? I'm particularly curious about reaction to Confederates In the Attic since you wrote in there about Civil War reenactors including those at Antietam and Gettysburg, both of which are in my backyard.
You can never please all readers and I've occasionally gotten angry responses from those I've written about. While most reenactors I've spoken to enjoyed Confederates, and felt it accurately portrayed living history, some hardcores felt I was making fun of them (I was, of course, but of myself as well, and felt I was sympathetic while gently ribbing reenactors). I also got heat from extreme Southern nationalists who resent any suggestion that the Confederacy was misguided or that remembrance of it may offend others.
I wrote a llist of things you should never say to a Civil War reenactor. Would you like to suggest any other things you should not say?
Your list hits the high points. To be safe, never call someone a reenactor, say living history. Also just "hardcore" not hardcore reenactor
What is it about history that so interests you as a writers
Like a lot of history buffs, I think it's just a bug I've had since early childhood, the past has always fascinated me, even staring at old pennies as a little boy. As a writer, I'm also drawn to the way the past influences the present, despite Americans' generally forward-looking and amnesiac tendencies. Perhaps, too, I find the present so discouraging at times that I prefer to hide out in the past.
What other writers do you like to read?
For pleasure I mostly read modern fiction, a few of my favorite novelists are Ian McEwan, Russell Banks, and my wife, Geraldine Brooks. For nonfiction, I'm a big fan of Jonathan Raban and Annie Dillard.
related: my don't-say-to-reenactors-list