Scholars Talk Writing: T.J. Stiles

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Image: Penguin Random House

Anyone who wants to write books would do well to spend some time working at a publishing company — doesn’t matter if it’s in editorial, production, or marketing, the overview you get as a would-be author is invaluable. And anyone in graduate school should be thinking about what to do if/when the whole tenure-track dream turns into a nightmare.

Bailing out of academe, however, doesn’t mean you have to give up on writing an important book. The writing career of T.J. Stiles is a case in point. After graduate school he started work in publishing. Today, as an independent scholar, Stiles has snagged two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award for his biographies of Cornelius Vanderbilt and George Armstrong Custer. He is on the executive boards of the Organization of American Historians, the Society of American Historians, and the Authors Guild.

Stiles will be the first to admit that the life of an independent scholar is not an easy path. And he knows a thing or two about good writing. So I asked him some questions for the Scholars Talk Writing series.

You started your career in publishing. How did that help you as an author?

Stiles: It taught me to think about the book as a book — as a self-contained, satisfying reading experience. I went from graduate school at Columbia University to the trade marketing department at Oxford. I wrote catalog and jacket-flap copy for serious nonfiction that was being marketed to the general reader. I read manuscripts. I ran my copy past my boss, who had an M.F.A. in creative writing. I called up authors and spoke to them. It taught me to think about what made each work appealing to readers. I also learned about the business, from contracts to agents to bookstores.

When I wrote my proposal for my first biography, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, I knew it would be wise to arm the editor with a way of talking up the book to his colleagues. I titled the proposal, "American Terrorist." I was fine with changing the title for publication, but it served the purpose of immediately establishing the distinguishing point.

Can you talk about writing history as an independent scholar?

Stiles: Academic books earn not royalties but respect from one’s peers, leading to career advancement. That incentivizes the kind of work that wouldn’t be supported by the commercial book market — and a kind of writing that is aimed at colleagues.

Nonacademic readers should appreciate that, and academics should also understand why their professional, academic work — excellent though it may be — often is not absorbed by the world outside the university. You have to write for the audience you’re trying to reach. Many academic historians would like to find a larger readership, and I think there should be more training in narrative writing in graduate programs.

Working outside the academy, I can write narrative and strive for a literary style, unhampered by the demands of academic discourse. And I can pursue subjects that aren’t of current interest to the profession. (When I was working on Jesse James and Custer, I met a lot of skepticism from academic historians.) The commercial market can limit your topics; but if you can convince a publisher there’s an audience, you can write about whatever interests you.

Why narrative history?

Stiles: Narrative begins with the intent to make the reader want to keep reading. That requires plot. In The Art of Fiction, David Lodge defines plot as raising questions in the mind of the reader and delaying the answers.

Academic writing usually lays out the questions and the answers at the outset, then proceeds to demonstrate. Again, that’s fine for its purpose. But it strands a reader alone, without the happy company of mystery and suspense, the crew who sail every plot forward.

Narrative generally centers on characters. Scholarship is concerned with the conditions of humans; literature is concerned with the human condition. Serious nonfiction narrative can be concerned with both, but it’s hard to pull off without individuals who have intentions, carry out actions, and face consequences.

There are other aspects of writing narrative, and of incorporating argument and interpretation, but we always begin with plot and character.

As to why, it’s that narrative is inherently part of the historical enterprise, thanks to the element of time. It’s one reason why many academic historians turn out to be very good writers. By centering on human beings, narrative adds a quality of understanding — a glimpse of the human condition, that central concern of literature. And history has always been considered a branch of literature. There’s no Pulitzer Prize for sociology, after all.

How about some specific tips about writing narratively?


  • Write the kind of book you enjoy reading. If you’re not a part of your own audience, you’ll be faking it. Readers are like children: They can always tell when adults are faking it.
  • The reader must have a sense at all times that you are going someplace — that you will make revelations, that there will be results, that questions will be answered.
  • Everything must serve to advance the story. Contextual material must be part of the propulsion mechanism. Of course, new arguments and research give significance to a book, but you must use them to make the story more compelling. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside, for example, is about the investigation and prosecution of murder in urban America, told through a specific case. She deftly uses the narrative to advance the argument and, in turn, uses the contextual information to heighten the suspense.
  • Vary pace and point of view, though with care.
  • In most cases, you are writing about human beings. Think of them as characters — complicated, contradictory, with needs and desires and agendas. The American historian, Debby Applegate, who won a Pulitzer for her biography of Henry Ward Beecher, says she likes to make the reader first care about her subjects, then worry about them. When they’re not so likable, make the reader interested in the characters, then wonder about them (e.g., How the hell will he get out of this disaster he created for himself?).
  • Kill every cliché.
  • Read your work aloud. You’ll catch a lot that you’ll otherwise miss.

How do you manage the process of research and writing?

Stiles: I’m reminded of what a great Japanese karate instructor once told me: Some things you have to figure out for yourself.

Seriously, this is a question that really has to be worked out according to your own personality. I organize nested folders in my laptop with source files (images, PDFs, notes), organized initially by source or category (e.g., newspapers), giving each item a date, and loosely where they will be used in the book (e.g., Part 1 Primary Sources). As I write, I go through these files again and organize them more tightly, then begin to compile a large Word document with specific quotes or points from them, roughly in the order I will use them in the text. But some people are more organized than that.

When conducting primary-source research, I am already writing in my head — identifying characters, seeing agendas, conflicts, scenes. I stop researching when I feel that I just can’t absorb any more. Then, when writing, I often go back and do more research with something specific in mind. Sometimes I start writing before I’ve finished researching — it’s complicated.

Can you talk about beginnings?

Stiles: First sentences are important. They hum the themes to come. They raise questions, create expectations, establish the stakes. You can start a chapter or book small, with a trail of paw prints — or big, with a death, a triumph, or a disaster. But the opening should guide the reader forward.

Arnold Rampersad’s biography, Ralph Ellison, begins with one of my favorite opening paragraphs: "Decades after the blazing hot afternoon in June 1933 when Ralph Ellison, on his first and last outing as a hobo, climbed fearfully yet eagerly aboard a smoky freight train leaving Oklahoma City on a dangerous journey that he hoped would take him to college in Tuskegee, Alabama, his memories of growing up in Oklahoma continued to both haunt and inspire him. For a long time he had suppressed those memories; then the time came when he began to crave them."

It accomplishes so much at once: Puts us in a specific time and place, sketches the trajectory the narrative will take, speaks to the inner life of the main character, and looks forward and backward at once. It raises questions in the mind of the reader and delays the answers, foreshadows not only the succession of events but the causation, the internal forces driving Ellison.

Stylistically, too, that long, rumbling sentence echoes the "smoky freight train leaving Oklahoma City," carrying the reader forward from the very start on this journey. This opening doesn’t simply invite the reader in, but frames so much of what is to come, creating expectations that propel us forward.

You write what I might call "old white guy" books. What can you say about that?

Stiles: Power has historically been monopolized. We have to keep investigating power, which means writing about old white guys, but we have to keep doing it in ever new ways.

In my most recent book, I selected a well-known subject, George Armstrong Custer. I did so not to celebrate him, but, in large part, because the sources finally allowed me to write a book that would pass the Bechdel test.

At the heart of the book is a complicated relationship between Elizabeth "Libbie" Bacon Custer and Eliza Brown, a self-emancipated woman who served as the Custers’ household manager for nearly six years. It’s a story that changes our understanding of the Custers and connects them to subjects many readers might not have pursued if they were not embedded in a biography of a famous figure. I wanted to show how Custer was immersed in Reconstruction as an army officer and political partisan, for example, and to highlight his attitudes about race, gender, emancipation, and civil-rights enforcement, all of which had received little attention.

I am interested in writing about big questions. But as an independent author who must derive income from my work, I must find a way to invite readers into my books. I have to start with something recognizable. I select iconic figures, then set out to surprise readers by presenting a new understanding of their significance.

I enjoy writing stories of power and conflict, episodes of high drama, but it’s my job as a writer and scholar to draw on new scholarship, find the broader context, and make the story more complicated, more revealing — to understand who else was in the room and what they were facing.

You opted out of academe but have managed to make a life as an independent scholar. What advice do you have for folks who want to do that?

Stiles: Get a day job. Not too demanding, with benefits. Even after two Pulitzers, I am in a constant and stressful search for money to keep my work going.

Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane, and a former acquisitions editor at Oxford University Press and Duke University Press. Her website is

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