You won the Pulitzer for biography in 2008 for your first book, Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. What prompted you to write the book?
Eden's Outcasts was one of those remarkable projects that acquires its own life and direction. I followed it where it wanted to take me. My wife and I had a daughter while I was in grad school, and I fell into the role of stay-at-home dad while my wife paid the bills. I think it's easiest to write about topics that resonate with one's own life, so, when it came time to write a book, I thought it might be interesting to write about an idealistic, education-obsessed father and his highly verbal, independent-minded daughter. Writing Eden's Outcasts helped me understand my own parenting better, and my experiences as a dad helped me read between the lines of the letters and journals and understand the motivations of Bronson and Louisa May Alcott.
What was your reaction to being awarded the Pulitzer?
Well, it was a pretty extraordinary moment. I had no idea that I was even being seriously considered for the prize. I was sitting in a college-wide faculty meeting where the university chancellor, Matt Goldstein, happened to be speaking. A colleague tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “You've got to leave this room right now. It's an emergency!” I walked out wondering which of my relatives had been hit by a bus. When our department secretary, who was waiting outside, told me I had won a Pulitzer Prize, my first thought was that there'd been a mistake. When she repeated herself, I put my hands up to my face and sank to both knees. If you remember Bob Beamon's reaction when he broke the longjump record in 1968, that's the picture. One of my boyhood literary heroes was John Steinbeck, and I remembered what he'd said when he won the Nobel Prize. He said he felt “wrapped and shellacked.” I knew just what he meant — you don't feel real. Then I thought of various other people who had won Pultizers — Hemingway, Faulkner, JFK — and of how great it was to have done this for John Jay. They were the college that had believed in me when no one else did.
What drives the continued fascination with Louisa May Alcott?
Louisa combined the best aspects of both her parents. She was a moral idealist, like her father, but she was also a fighter like her mother. When she found a cause she believed in, she became a fury on its behalf. As with Harriet Beecher Stowe, you can't read Alcott without feeling inspired to be better than you are. It's remarkable to me to see how that legacy has been carried on in the people who work at Orchard House, the Alcott home in Concord, Mass. They are deeply kind and incredibly passionate about doing good in the world. It's funny, by the way: many of the authors we consider great have a deep sense of moral ambiguity: Melville, Dostoyevsky, Goethe. Alcott never had much doubt as to right and wrong. Perhaps that makes her somewhat less of an artist, but reading her can be a wonderfully strengthening experience.
What is the one thing that has defined your life so far?
Just one? I'm too much of an Emersonian to buy into that question. He thought — and I believe him — that as soon as you start defining something, it starts to die. I'm finishing a book on Margaret Fuller, and I agree with her that the best life is one that is always changing, always growing, and never consenting to be defined. But if you forced me to name something, I suppose I'd say having a father whom I never thought I could satisfy. I don't feel as if anything I've ever done is good enough. But I keep trying.
Favorite weekend activity?
I love cooking, and making an elaborate Sunday dinner is a tremendous joy.
Who are some of your favorite writers? What is it about them you hold dear?
I loved Steinbeck when I was a kid. He has a marvelous grasp of cadence and clarity. I love the sheer humanity of John Ruskin and the sly playfulness of Nabokov. For pure sensory pleasure, I don't think one can do much better than reading Proust in French. Emerson has shown me the beauty of the world as no one else has, and Melville awakened me to its profundity. I love the raw violence of Emily Brontë and the emotional intelligence of George Eliot. My desert-island biographers are Robert Caro and Stacy Schiff.
Best and worst thing about your career as a writer?
There are two wonderful things about writing. The first is those rare, unexpected mornings when the words just flow out of me and I feel like a child of the gods. The second is getting mail from a reader whom I've managed to touch in some unpredictable fashion. The least fun also comes in two categories. I regard revision as a necessary chore, and I also get tremendously anxious when I'm about to be reviewed.
Moment you realized you were an adult?
Becoming a dad. Until that moment, it seems now as if everything I did had a slightly dilettantish feel to it. Ever since, I've felt the need to stand straighter — as a breadwinner, as a scholar and as an example.
Who do you most admire and look up to in your life?
I don't do that so much anymore. Putting one's faith in any particular person is terribly risky because the chances of disappointment are so great. Having said that, though, I find myself astonished and inspired every year by the people who are honored by the John Jay Justice Awards. The awards are generally conferred on people who have truly set safety and self-interest aside to help the less fortunate. Courageous altruism puts me in awe.
What is something you have learned this past week?
That an umbrella is no defense against a Hartford thunderstorm.
If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would it be and why?
Of the places I've been, snorkeling off Maui. It has just the right balance of peace. beauty and drama. Of places I haven't gotten to, I would love to check out the lake region of northern Italy. As I was researching my book on Fuller, [the] descriptions of Como and Lugano had me salivating.
Mustard or ketchup?
Funny you should ask. My daughter got into pickling last year, and she makes incredible homemade ketchup. So it's no contest.