His Reason for Writing
During part of the eight years I ran my literary agency, Leap First, in New York, I had office space on West 57th Street. Next door, in a small office, was an older man whom I would meet occasionally in the hallway when the food cart came around. He was friendly, and our conversations were brief. One day my office-mate Nanette said to me: “you know who that is, don’t you?” I did not. “That’s Robert Caro,” she told me.
Some of you, my dear readers, will know who Robert Caro is, and some of you won’t. He is an esteemed Pulitzer-prize winning biographer. He writes big books, and I mean big in all senses of the word. His first book was The Power Broker, a biography of New York City Commissioner and urban planner Robert Moses. For those of you who have spent any time at all on New York’s highways, bridges, or many of its public parks (such as Jones Beach), you have Robert Moses to thank. Caro is currently at work on the fifth volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson.
In my time on West 57th Street, I got to know Caro a bit better after I admitted to him that I knew who he was. When we met at the food cart, we would talk publishing, and once he invited me in to see his office. He was always kind and I have warm memories of our very brief conversations.
Recently I started reading his memoir, Working. I love the memoir genre, and I especially like books by writers about their writing life. In this book, Caro speaks frankly about why he chose to write the books he wrote (and is writing), why they take so long to write (a question he is often asked) and why they are so big. He talks about his research methodology and why it is important to him to be so thorough. (For example, he and his wife Ina spent three years living in the Texas hill country where Johnson began his life and his political career so he could really get to know the people who knew Johnson.)
He says he plans to write a full-on memoir someday, and that this book Working is just meant to be a taste of his thoughts. But it is just right for me, and offers wonderful insights. He talks about his early career as a journalist and how he became good at his work, and how he learned to be such a thorough and methodical researcher. I connected with that part. I’m sure I would not have the forbearance to slog through file cabinets of memos as he and Ina did, but I do love hanging out in libraries and doing research. The research was my favorite part of writing my book Elements of the Table and I did read every book I could find on the subject.
I’m still reading the book, but I can already tell you that my favorite chapter is and will be the short piece he wrote about how he was selected to use the Frederick Lewis Allen Memorial Room at the main branch of the New York Public Library, which he describes as “a marble and wood-paneled space containing eleven cubicles for writers.”
He writes of how, once he was given a key to that sacred space, he became part of a small community of writers who treated him like one of them, whereas prior to that, he had been working alone on his book for five years and wondering if it was even worth it. He talks about how this small supportive community developed for him and what it meant to him. And in the end of the piece, after his book The Power Broker is finally published and he sneaks back to the room after hours to see if his book has joined that of the other writers who have used the room over time on the shelf, and see that it is indeed there, my eyes teared up.
To be alone, to struggle alone, to set a goal for yourself and not know if you’re going to make it or if it’s even worth it, and then to find people like you doing what you do who give you support and encouragement – well, that’s what it’s all about.
Kudos to you, Robert Caro. Even if you have no memory of the woman in the office next door, I think of you fondly and I wish you all the best, including a long life so you can finish volume five of the Johnson series and the next memoir.
One more thought – you write about your interest in political power and how you chose Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson as an examples of people who wielded it effectively and for a long time. Writers have power as well in how they tell stories and illuminate lives for us. You, Robert Caro, are a literary power broker.