August 29, 2014

Q & A

Pulitzer prize-winning writer Richard Rhodes (the Making of the Atomic Bomb) has produced many books and magazine articles, but he'd never done a biography until his latest, John James Audubon: The Making of an American. Why Audubon? Find out when Rhodes speaks at the Naples Press Club Authors and Books Festival Feb. 26 (call [239] 598-2880 for info).

Q. Did you love history even as a kid?

A. I really developed my love for it as a teenager. Before that, I'd been a dedicated reader of science fiction. Then one day I picked up a historical novel and was hooked.

Q. Out of all the ideas in your files, what made you settle on Audubon?

A. My publisher and I decided that after 19 books, it was time to write a biography. Years earlier, on a trip to Key West, I stopped by Captain Geiger's house, a public museum, and saw Birds of America open on a table. It really amazed me. When I thought about writing a biography, I realized that my last two books had been about darkness and violence, and I wanted to go someplace sunny and bright. And Lord knows John James Audubon was a sunny and bright human being.

Q. Tell me a little about your research and writing process.

A. I'm a magpie researcher. I start with previous biographies and works about the period. I look at their footnotes and bibliography, and then I follow my nose. Of course you use all the original documents you can get your hands on. The libraries holding Audubon's letters made copies for me, and then I had to carefully transcribe them. My wife and I also traveled to the places where Audubon lived and worked: Kentucky, New Orleans, Edinburgh, London and his childhood village of Coueron, France. I put everything I found on a computer in a chronological file, and ended up with 2,000 to 3,000 pages of date-marked documents. Then I could sit down and focus on the writing, which is usually very straightforward. I produce about a chapter a week.

Q. Did writing about Audubon end up making you fall in love with birds?

A. I've always enjoyed watching birds, but it did make me pay more attention to bird behavior.

Q. Aside from being a wonderful life story, what message is there in the book for Americans today?

A. Audubon gives us two gifts. First, his was an exemplary life during a period of American history that's understudied. This was when the American character was formed; one of optimism and individualism, with a rough-edged humor. The other gift is that in those huge plates, there's what I called "the concentrated essence of the wilderness." He was a founding father of the environmental movement. What he put into his art was a view of the wilderness as something with value, with spirituality. And anyone who sees his art for the first time is dazzled. No one's ever done it better.

Q. What's next for you?

A. The third volume in my nuclear history, which will cover the last 20 years. I've found some marvelous dramatic eyewitness stories.

-Kay Kipling

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