Pulitzer Prize winner discusses writing, happiness

cpride@losbanosenterprise.comApril 11, 2014 

Find something you’re passionate about in life.

That was the advice from Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer T.J. Stiles to the Los Banos High School History Society and members of the public last week.

Stiles spoke to about 50 people at the school on April 3, discussing how he researches the subjects of his books and his transition from academics to writing.

“The saying about following your dreams really is true. The question is how do you find your own way?” said Stiles, who was in town visiting a relative.

Stiles, 48, is a historian and former professor at Columbia University, where he taught creative nonfiction writing. He worked in publishing for the Oxford University Press and eventually became an author.

At last week’s event, he focused on two of his books: “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War” (2002) and “The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt” (2009).

The book on Vanderbilt won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in the biography category.

Stiles said many books are written about people whose stories have been told repeatedly. He said he finds that type of writing uninteresting, so he takes a different approach.

“I write about people you know and tell you something you don’t know about people you do know,” Stiles said.

He said his book about Jesse James purposely focuses on his time fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War and the terror campaign against blacks that he participated in after the conflict. Stiles said he took a similar approach in writing the Vanderbilt book.

“He had very little education; he was probably dyslexic,” Stiles said of Vanderbilt.

Stiles said he reviews public records and personal letters as part of his research. He said it can take him as long as four years to write a book.

“It has to be interesting to me, because if it’s not interesting to me I can’t make it interesting for somebody else,” he said.

Stiles said teachers are important. He said a high school history teacher recognized his curiosity and sent him on the path toward becoming a historian.

“Sometimes people find what they really want to do and sometimes it takes people really long,” Stiles said. “A lot of that is just knowing yourself. The thing that you get really into and can focus on, that tells you how happy you’re going to be. It’s much easier to put in the hard work on something you love.”

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