Biographer T.J. Stiles grew up in Foley, Minn., where his father was the county coroner and his brother is still the town doctor. He was educated at Carleton College in Northfield and Columbia University in New York and now lives in San Francisco with his wife and son.
Last month, he and his buddy Colum McCann (the two met as fellows a few years ago at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library) each won a National Book Award -- McCann for his novel "Let the Great World Spin," and Stiles for "The First Tycoon," his sweeping, comprehensive biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Stiles recently spoke with the Star Tribune about investigating a man who left few papers behind, and spending three times longer on a book than he had planned.
Q What was the awards ceremony like?
A This was about as glamorous as publishing gets. It was in this beautiful, extremely high-ceilinged classical interior, columned space. Everybody was in formalwear. A good friend of mine had advised that it was a good idea to prepare remarks in advance. I felt rather foolish as I did so. But as it turned out, I was very glad that I did. I was not prepared for how emotional it would be.
Q This book -- and your first book, "Jesse James" -- seems to be both scholarly and populist. How difficult is it to marry those two?
A I believe that there is no reason why we have to sacrifice scholarly standards and investigation for reading pleasure. What I like to do in my writing is to tell good stories and ask big questions. I like to write about the making of the modern world. I want to write books that are about complex characters, that tell compelling stories, and I want to give the reader a reason to turn every page.
Q What drew you to Vanderbilt as a subject?
A Cornelius Vanderbilt was an absolutely pivotal figure who had never received an adequate biography.
I find myself drawn to physically adventurous lives. Vanderbilt was a sailor, he was out sailing his own boats, he was designing his own steamships. Even into his old age, he was racing his fast-trotting horses against all comers on the roads of Upper Manhattan. He helped explore his own path through the Nicaraguan jungle during the gold rush. He had this very physical, personally dramatic life.
Then I found out why there had not been a biography in so long. It's because he left no collection of papers. And as the research process took one year after another after another. It was a real struggle, bringing it all together. I really despaired of finishing it at certain points, because it took much longer than I anticipated.
Q You hadn't realized this when you started out?
A I did realize that he didn't have a collection of papers, but I didn't realize that so much could be had -- there was so much material that would shed light on his life and that it would take so much work to get at it.
I looked up the letters of a banker who had been involved in a certain railroad that Vanderbilt was later involved in. I thought it would be just background information. It turned out it was filled with letter after letter from people who were dealing with Vanderbilt during a period that was previously largely unknown, the 1830s and '40s. And so as I carried out my research, it was almost the abundance of material that I found as I dug and dug and followed up leads that took so long.
For instance, I was working in the New York municipal archives, and the archivist suggested I try the seventh floor. So I took this rickety elevator, the light fixture duct-taped to the ceiling, rattling up to the seventh floor of this 19th-century court building, and went into this kind of ancient room that looked like it had been transplanted from a medieval castle, filled with ancient bookcases, stuffed with dusty volumes.
It was the old records division of the New York county clerk's office, and Civil Court records are transferred there kind of willy-nilly. They had all the surviving civil lawsuit papers going back to the 1600s. I ended up spending months there.
I found lawsuit after lawsuit after lawsuit: insights into Vanderbilt's personal life and his dealings, lawsuits from his passengers during the Gold Rush who were stranded in Nicaragua. They would describe what his office was like, and where his desk was, and how he put on his reading glasses -- just vivid, contemporary descriptions that I had no idea existed. So what caused the book to take so long was the abundance of material that no one had connected to Vanderbilt before.
Q How long had you thought it would take?
A I thought it would take about two years. The entire process was about seven years. I had the benefit of a fellowship and a couple other fortunate things that happened, and I did some side work, of course, but it was really my main endeavor for over six years.
I was joking to friends that if I won, I would ask the audience to have a moment of silence for the 401(k) that gave its life so that this book could live.
Q So you're on to your next book now.
A The books that I write overlap each other. I find myself painting a portrait of America in the middle decades of the 19th century, the Civil War era, as we became a modern nation.
My next biography is on Custer. It'll be about his life, but it will also be about his role in the creation of modernity. It will talk about how he tried to make a go of it on Wall Street, how he took part in the new mass media as a popular-magazine writer, it will be about his role in the Civil War and America's experience in the first mass industrial warfare.
Q Another seven years?
A No! No! In fact, that's one reason why I selected Custer, to be honest. Unlike my previous two subjects, he does have a lot of letters. He and his wife were great letter writers.
Q Do you worry that the digital world will make life more difficult for future biographers?
A Yeah, it's kind of ironic. In a way we're all writing much more than we were 10 or 20 years ago because we're constantly texting or e-mailing, and yet it's so ephemeral, it's all disappearing. So yes, future biographers are going to have a very hard time.
Laurie Hertzel, the Star Tribune's books editor, is at 612-673-7302.