how rich the material was and what a wonderful counterpoint he was to
characters like Benedict Arnold and George Washington, who were the
luminaries. It was so great to have someone from another perspective
who sometimes looked at the luminaries with a skeptical eye.
AYCOCK: How do you maintain suspense when the outcome of your story
is already known because it’s a matter of historical record?
PHILBRICK: Well, exactly. It’s the great 10,000-pound gorilla. Yes, hindsight shows you what’s going to happen, but what I’m trying to do is to
get you so involved in how it happened that you begin to realize how contingent things were. No one at the time knew where it was going. It could
have gone so many different ways. If I can do my job correctly, which is to
have characters that grab the reader and provide insights into their motivations, then hopefully the reader is so into it that their knowledge of the
ending doesn’t loom so large. When I’m in the middle of a chapter, I’m really into it in such a way that I find myself wondering what happens next.
AYCOCK: How does your background in journalism, as opposed to
academic history, affect your approach to the subject?
PHILBRICK: A journalist is writing about the here and now and hopefully
writing an insightful, provocative account of what’s going on today. I
apply that method to the past. I’m trying to create a sense of what it
was like to be alive then. And contemporaneous journalism is a great
source. Reading eighteenth-century newspaper articles provides insight,
particularly if the article is from right when the thing happened. I don’t
necessarily have a thesis to prove, as an academic might. The bottom line
is, I’m trying to tell a story that involves and educates the reader as to
what happened in the past.
AYCOCK: One of the hardest things, to me, about nonfiction is getting
the reader to care about your subject as much as you do. What are your
strategies for that?
PHILBRICK: What I’ve found is that the more you get to know about your
topic, the more you nudge ever closer to becoming an expert, the more
you lose your sense of wonder because you know too much. I keep a
research journal. It begins when I’m in the proposal stage for my editor;