Taylor Branch is the bestselling author of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (which won the Pulitzer Prize), Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65, and At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968.
The author of two other nonfiction books and a novel, Branch is a former staff member of The Washington Monthly, Harper's, and Esquire. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
Author biography courtesy of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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Some interesting and inspiring outtakes from our interview with Branch:
"The civil rights movement was my formative inspiration for writing, because I was both stunned and mystified by the courage of black people across town much younger than my non-political self."
"I would like my readers to entertain the core notion that civil rights history is not a quaint tale of yesteryear, but rather our best model for the urgent task of understanding and refining democracy."
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In the fall of 2006, nonfiction finalist Taylor Branch took some time to talk with us before the National Book Awards ceremony about his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Probably the Bible, unconsciously, for its use of personal stories to wrestle with the most basic human questions. In my primary field of American history, a landmark for me was Shelby Foote's three-volume The Civil War, which presented first-rate scholarship in a riveting narrative style.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Pauli Murray, Proud Shoes
George Martin, With a Little Help From My Friends: The Making of Sgt. Pepper
Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost
Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, Volume 1
Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg
Sheyann Webb and Rachel W. Nelson, Selma, Lord Selma
Jonathan Schell, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People
Christian Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides
Robert Manson Myers, ed., The Children of Pride
The reasons are all over the place. My taste clearly runs to nonfiction, but I have read much of Anne Tyler, most of Jane Austen, and all of Patrick O'Brien.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?One-Eyed Jacks -- The only film Marlon Brando directed
A Thousand Clowns -- The charm and the price of non-conformity
Sense and Sensibility -- Emma Thompson
Serial Mom -- John Waters in home-town Baltimore
Diner and Tin Men -- Barry Levinson in home town Baltimore
A Beautiful Mind -- Genius to dramatize the unreal
The Mission -- Beauty in music and martyrdom
The Sound of Music -- Schmaltz in a good cause
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I grew up in the Atlanta Boys Choir, then had a folk trio in high school, a rock band in college, and now sing in a wonderful church choir. So I like many kinds of music. My friend Tom Hall introduced me to the choral wonder of the contemporary composer Morton Lauridsen, in "Lux Aeterna." I like the blues singer Keb 'Mo, the late Eva Cassidy, the Indigo Girls, and the Dixie Chicks. Two college classmates and I have enjoyed our old band music so steadily over forty years that we've just recorded a souvenir CD of our favorite cover songs, mostly the Beatles.
As much as I love music, I don't listen to anything when I'm writing.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Reading for me is a solitary pleasure. I have very little experience with book clubs.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
My writing ritual is that I have to get started before dawn, usually around 5 in the morning. I have no daily goals for words or pages -- only a fixed
rule that I sit and "stew" for ten hours whether the words flow or not. Generally speaking, if I concentrate in the quiet hours before the world wakes, I'll get started and set a promising pace for the day.
My desk is usually strewn with files and reference works all around me.
What are you working on now?
I've just started a memoir of the Clinton presidency, and I'm waiting for the publisher's announcement to say more.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I spent six years in magazine journalism, starting under my mentor and first boss Charlie Peters of The Washington Monthly. Then I broke into writing books as a ghostwriter, for John Dean and then Bill Russell, thinking that ghostwriting in diverse voices was good practice to become a "real" writer in fiction. Then I wrote one forgettable novel and settled more sensibly, for me, into nonfiction.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Don't wait for gimmicks, gatekeepers, or permission to write. Just do it if you can. Seek out the writers and the forums you admire.
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