Behind The Books with Candice Millard

To some authors, it just seems to come easy. They hear an ordinary story and refashion it into something extraordinary. Candice Millard is among them. She has an uncanny ability to pluck a fascinating narrative from the unlikeliest of places. A potentially dry subject like an early American President is suddenly the centerpiece in a dazzling story of deceit and intrigue. Did you know Teddy Roosevelt foraged through the Amazon Rainforest after losing the 1912 election, starving through the wilderness to grace cartographers with eye-opening discoveries? In Millard's hands, he expands into much more than just a President with a penchant for parks. In her most recent book, "Destiny of the Republic," we learn in detail about James Garfield's suffering for eleven weeks on his deathbed, only to die by the hands of uneducated doctors.

Millard even turned Joan Rivers into a believer, who in a recent interview with The New York Times called "Destiny" a "fascinating" read. It's no wonder she was once a writer and editor for The National Geographic, the classic yet constantly innovating publication intent on introducing readers to far-flung corners of the world. When you aren't looking, Millard is secretly working toward making historic figures cool. Here we ask her a few personal questions to get a sense of the writer behind the books. She tells us about the simple pleasure she takes in reading, why she writes during school hours, and the lasting impact of Maya Angelou's "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings."

What book are you currently recommending?

At the top of my list right now are "Nothing to Envy" by Barbara Demick, which is an incredibly well reported, fascinating look at life inside North Korea, and Michael Ondaatje’s most recent novel "The Cat’s Table," which I fell in love with from the first page.

Do you always have to finish reading a book you start?

Not at all. On the contrary, I decided long ago that life is too short and there are too many great books for me to spend a minute reading a book I don’t love or that doesn’t teach me something.

Read any great biographies or memoirs recently?

Winston Churchill’s "My Early Life" is one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. The book ends in the early 1900s, long before Churchill becomes Prime Minister, but his young adult life is full of enough adventure and excitement to keep anyone captivated -- and of course, since it’s Churchill -- completely entertained.

It’s said that people either read to escape or read to remember. Do you fall into one of these groups?

I don’t think so. I read for enjoyment. Next to spending time with my family, reading is my favorite thing to do. I’m always carrying a book around.

What’s your writing routine? Where, when, and how does it happen?

I have three small children, so it’s always been important to me to have an office outside of my home. My hours are essentially school hours -- between drop-off and pick-up -- which forces me to be very disciplined when I’m at work. It can be difficult at times, when I’m in the middle of a thought and realize it’s time to pick up the kids, but I leave long notes to myself right on the page so I can pretty easily pick back up where I left off.

How much does your writing reflect your own life story?

I think it’s impossible, even when writing nonfiction, to separate yourself entirely from the story you’re trying to tell. After I’ve chosen a subject -- and it takes me a long time and a lot of thought and research before I find the right one -- I spend years in very close quarters with it. I bring it home with me. I think about it while I’m doing laundry and making dinner. I tell my family and friends about it. I even dream about it. After a while, I feel like I know the people I’m writing about, and when I finally finish writing the book, I miss them.

What’s the first book in which you recognized the author’s voice more than the story or plot?

I grew up in a small town in Ohio, and we had a little library that I could walk to from my house. One day, when I was about nine years old, the library was giving away some books that they had put on a vertical, revolving rack. After a few turns of the rack, I found a torn paperback copy of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." I had no idea what it was about or who Maya Angelou was, but I liked the title, so I took it home with me. Obviously, there are a lot of things in that book that would surprise and fascinate a little girl from the Midwest, but what struck me most was the way Angelou told her story. Reading the book made me feel close to her, even though our lives were so different. She’s still one of my very favorite writers.

What five writers -- dead or alive -- would you invite to an imaginary dinner party?

Maya Angelou, William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad.

Faulkner said a writer needs three things: experience, observation, and imagination. Do you use all three equally, or rely on one over another?

For me, observation far outweighs the other two. I love traveling for research -- to a remote river or battlefield or historic home, but also to the actual, physical archives. I go with a plan in mind, but I always find something I didn’t expect, or didn’t even know existed. There’s also something incredibly powerful about holding an original letter or diary in your hands, talking to your subject’s descendants or experiencing a place for yourself. There’s no replacement for that.

What’s next on your reading list?

Robert Massie’s Catherine the Great.