ANTHONY AYCOCK: Welcome to North Carolina! Or I should say,
welcome back, because you have a history here, right?
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: Yeah, I was at Duke University for a year. I was a
James B. Duke fellow, which is a three-year fellowship, but after a year, I
began to realize that my father, who was an English professor—it was his
life I was leading, not necessarily what I wanted to do. So I was able to
leave after getting a master’s and then went to work at what’s now Sailing
World magazine, which was then in Connecticut.
AYCOCK: So you decided that an academic life was not for you.
PHILBRICK: I needed to just get out and live in the world for a while. I
wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do as a writer. I dabbled in fiction and
poetry, but I just wasn’t sure. I had been a competitive sailor in college
and knew someone who was already on the magazine staff, and they said
a job was available. So I applied and got it. Looking back, it was the best
thing I could have done because there’s a difference between dabbling
and being a professional. I was now a journalist on a young staff, writing
about sailing but getting critiqued, every piece I would write, and then
reading others. I had a very hands-on editor-in-chief who gave me some
excellent pointers. I was there for four years, and it was the right thing
at the right time.
AYCOCK: In an earlier interview, you said that good narrative nonfiction,
instead of being comprehensive, is selective.
PHILBRICK: I think it’s an underappreciated thing. A narrative historian
does a lot more research than is ever noticeable on the page. It’s the
old Hemingway quote about how a story is like an iceberg, with most
of it below the surface, and to a certain extent it’s true with narrative
history. What you’re focused on is character- and plot-driven, but that
doesn’t mean you’re scrimping on the history. In my case, it’s very important to go to the primary sources because that’s where the good stuff
is, although academic histories are helpful, particularly when it comes
to raiding their bibliographies and seeing how others have tackled the
AYCOCK: What’s your selection process?