In an interview Jill Lepore explains how she writes and the writers she admires mostHistorians in the News
tags: Jill Lepore, interview
When she was a freshman at Tufts University, Jill Lepore received a scorching letter from Jill Lepore. Assigned by a high school English teacher, the note from her 14-year-old self chastised Lepore for neglecting what she loved. A math major and member of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, she dropped both and shifted to English. It was a wise choice.
Now a staff writer at The New Yorker, where she has been a contributor since 2005, Lepore also finds time to regularly turn out widely admired books. The list includes “The Name of War” (1998), winner of the Bancroft Prize; “New York Burning” (2005), a Pulitzer Prize finalist; “The Story of America” (2012), short-listed for the PEN Literary Award for the Art of the Essay; “Book of Ages” (2013), a National Book Award finalist; “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” (2014); and “Joe Gould’s Teeth” (2016).
Lepore, the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History, answered questions on her past and present as a writer, including how her typing skills were instrumental in landing her first job at Harvard, for the third installment in “Decisions and Revisions.” ...
GAZETTE: Are there people you look up to in that regard, people who do that really well?
LEPORE: Yes, tons of people. But because I am writing this history of the United States from 1492 to the present and I am in 1945, I was just reading John Hersey’s “Hiroshima.” Hersey was an incredibly talented field reporter, did a lot of reporting from the war. He’d worked for Time, and he wrote for The New Yorker, and they had him report about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from Japan. When the piece came in it was so good and so long they just threw away the whole issue they had planned and instead ran this one long story. It begins, “At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”
Even if you just read the first sentence, you can already see what he is doing, where this thing is going to go, what it’s going to do. This is for an audience of Americans who have interned their fellow Americans, Americans of Japanese descent, for the duration of the war, and whose war propaganda has been about the inhumanity of the Japanese. It’s the most striking sentence: You are just dropped into this incredibly ordinary day, people beginning their work day. You are taken on a tour of a whole cast of characters in different parts of the city. And then you are going to follow them through their day, and then you are going to understand his argument — which has to do with, among many other things, how time stopped, at eight-fifteen, and how the world that you thought you knew is not the world that you thought you knew. ...