today’s podcast: a conversation with Pulitzer-nom, biographer, and historian H.W. Brands

Today’s episode of the podcast is the “proper” episode for the week–another one was posted yesterday, which was shorter and more slap-dash and conversational. There was a family emergency two weeks ago involving my mom and cousins and grandpa and self (detailed in the episode) that drew me out of town and kept that week’s episode in limbo. 

This conversation with W.H. Brands is, on the surface, about his biography of Ronald Reagan–but it ends up being more about writing, about the craft of biography, and about storytelling in general (Brands is also a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and his literary efforts are informed by his decades of work as a person who communicates sprawling historical narratives, orally, to whole auditoriums full of distracted undergrads–and has to make it interesting). 

Last month I interviewed MSNBC political analyst Jonathan Alter about his magnificent biography of President Jimmy Carter, called His Very Best (it’s on sale for $4 at Amazon and I swear to you it’s worthwhile!!), which came out back in September.

When Alter’s biography launched its denouement with Carter’s loss of the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan…I wanted to continue the story. 

Which begs a question: “Which story?”

The story of the American presidency, I guess.

Which is such a curious experience, I’ve never had it before: pursuing an immeasurably complex narrative…and hopping among different authors in order to collect it. Each chapter of the narrative that is The American Presidency is told by a new person, and revolves around a new character. (And by the way, yes, I’ll be moving from Brands’s book on Reagan to John Meacham’s biography of George H.W. Bush. Fingers crossed that Meacham’s game for a chat.)

Brands is a wonderful interview subject, as seasoned in the written form as he is in the spoken, and I didn’t ask a single question to which he didn’t have a chunky, incisive, magnificently circuitous and comprehensive response. A storyteller born and bred, practiced in collecting arcana, raw data, forbidding primary documents and processing them into lively inviting narratives. 

Another meta level to the episode, if you care for it, is that this is just the third serious longform interview I’ve conducted with an author for the podcast. (I interviewed Louis Menand a few days later about his new 700-page Cold War history, The Free World.) And while the very fact that Dr. Brands was willing to accord me his time is a tremendous compliment (manifesting the exact stripe of generosity-to-youngsters that signifies a great professor) I was quietly proud to notice that, as our conversation went on, he seemed to liven up. You might notice that, while friendly and cordial and softspoken in the beginning of our conversation, the dude’s gone volcanic with caffeinated charm by our tenth minute. 

You could describe Brands’s conversation the same way Tom Waits describes carnival music: “electric sugar.”

The likely reality here is that he’s just a great talker, and incredibly friendly, and that our first ten minutes gave him the time he needed to work himself into proper form. But I’ve been moisturizing my ego with the idea that what he was really responding to was the laser-like brilliance of my questions. 

And reader, look, I ask only two things of you: that you 

  1. Subscribe and listen to my podcast, and
  2. Allow me my fictions.

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