PHILBRICK: The process is to figure out what my take on the subject is.
I start a book not because I’m an expert in the field but because I have
questions about it and I haven’t found a book to answer them. All my
books are in one way or another about community stress, whether it’s
a whale ship that’s been rammed by a whale or 102 pilgrims on a leaky
ship bound for a coast and they don’t know what’s going to happen. With
Bunker Hill, for instance, I was interested in figuring out what would
happen to a community of 15,000 people—Boston at the time of the Revolution, which was on an island—what would happen to them under
the extraordinary pressures of the Revolution. So I have an angle at the
beginning, and then I figure out what characters I’m going to focus on.
Often that’s surprising. In Bunker Hill, I didn’t see Joseph Warren as
being potentially as big a focal point as he became. That’s what I enjoy:
how the research contributes to the overall structure of the book. I figure
all that out, where it’s going to go, and then follow the narrative. I have
discursive footnotes, or I guess they’re endnotes, and I put stuff in them
that I thought was really cool but just didn’t fit.
AYCOCK: So when you start the research, you have an idea of how the
narrative will go, but then it changes as you go along.
PHILBRICK: It does, yeah. There are always surprises along the way. Characters emerge, and I think, oh, my goodness, I have to go with this guy
earlier than I expected. In the Revolutionary series [the trilogy Bunker
Hill, Valiant Ambition, and In the Hurricane’s Eye], Joseph Plumb Martin
was this wonderful private from Connecticut, kind of a Forrest Gump
character. He was everywhere. I knew about him, but I didn’t realize
All my books are in one way or another about community stress, whether it’s a whale ship that’s been
rammed by a whale or 102 pilgrims on a leaky ship
bound for a coast and they don’t know what’s going to