Wil Haygood has a voice you never forget. And yes, we could be talking
about his deeply rich speaking voice. But as a journalist, he has a distinct voice as well. Clear. Smart. Probing. Unstoppable. When he started writing books – seven now – he bumped up the stakes narratively. His work now, he says, is done with his own “painterly brush.” His newest biography Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination that Changed America was published last year. An earlier book The Butler: A Witness to History, about a long-term butler at the White House, was the inspiration for a 2013 film. Haygood has also crafted biographies of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Sammy Davis, Jr. and Sugar Ray Robinson. He has written for the Boston Globe and Washington Post, and holds the position of distinguished scholar at the department of media, journalism and film at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. The following is an edited version of our conversation last fall at the Miami Book Fair.
Process for biography
The lives I’ve tackled have been epic. In a big way, the journalism has lessened my fear because when I look at a book project like Thurgood Marshall, I have to look at it chapter by chapter by chapter. And each chapter to me is like seven long magazine articles. In that way, I don’t get overwhelmed by the scope of the project.
If you study enough about the person’s life and the people around that person, things start to click.
When I first started out making the transition from journalism to books, my editor would see my writing and say it was too much like journalism. He said this – and I’ll never forget it – he said: “You have to get inside the skull of Adam Clayton Powell’s head. You have to become the authority.” That’s a leap from journalism. In books, you’re in the same barn, but it’s a different animal.
Crafting nonfiction books
Book editors expect you to dance a little bit. They expect you to climb the darkest side of the mountain at midnight. They want you to tell the book reading public what they are not going to find in newspaper or magazine articles. They want you to take it to a higher plateau.
Before John McClellan died, he said the archives could not be opened until 50 years after his death. I started research on this book 50 years and three weeks after his death. I flew to Arkansas for one of the most poignant moments during five years I was researching this book. I was plowing into the John McClellan archives, and I come across a letter that was written on the second day of Thurgood Marshall confirmation hearings. It was written by Barbara Ross from Texarkana, Arkansas. She never got an answer from the McClellan staff but she wrote: “Dear Senator McClellan, I listened to the second day of the hearings. I can tell you’ve already made up your mind, and chances are the nomination will be turned down..” Her last paragraph brought tears to my eyes: “Mark my words Senator. Some day there will be a Negro president of the United States.” She predicted Obama. I sat in a little archival room in Arkansas looking at this letter and I could hardly move. I had to make this decision. Do I use that letter at the end? Or do I show my hand early? And that comes from the simple knowledge that the writer of a nonfiction book is now out of the pool of journalism, and the water is so deep you have to be confident you can make it from one shore to the buoy and rest and keep going to the next buoy and not be afraid to be washed down stream. I said to myself: It’s my book. I found the letter. I will put it where I think it goes.
Alicia Anstead is editor-in-chief of The Writer.