Here is the complete interview with researcher and writer Michael Hill from the February issue of The Biographer’s Craft.
TBC: You’ve just been hired for a new biographical project, or are beginning one of your own. Briefly, what are your first steps in beginning research?
Hill: First, find out what manuscript collections are in existence and are they currently open to researchers. Where are they located and how extensive are they—i.e., do they contain diaries, correspondence, notebooks, and photographs? Not only would I be interested in collections concerning the subject of the biography, but also collections of people who knew the subject, were related to him or worked with him. Related to this is to find out what, if any, oral history collections exist. Finally, is there audiovisual material related to the subject in any of the archives? Second, find out if anyone is still alive who knew the subject: children, spouses, staff members, contemporaries and/or journalists. Not only might they be a good interview, but oftentimes these people have diaries or letters or other materials which would not be found in any archive and can be extraordinarily useful.
Third, what newspapers and other periodicals might have covered the subject and his or her time period? The Library of Congress has an exceptional collection of newspapers which I have used over the years.
Fourth, what museums or house museums might still exist which relate to the subject of the biography?
Fifth, if it is a military subject, find out if the battlefields or theater of operations still exist. Seeing these sites firsthand can provide tremendous insight and detail for specific scenes.
TBC: Are there any common (or uncommon) research roadblocks, and if so, how do you get around them?
Hill: There are two: First, the scarcity or non-existence of archival material for the subject, and second, the existence of material which has not yet been processed or has restricted access to it.
One way to try and get around the first is to find people still alive who knew the subject. A personal interview can provide terrific insight, but also they may hold archival material which would never be found anywhere else. If no one is living, try and find manuscript collections of people who knew the subject. Diaries and letters of friends, relatives or colleagues can provide fabulous material and insight into your subject. Never, ever neglect to look at the letters or diaries of wives, daughters or mistresses. Over the years I have found true jewels in their letters or diaries.
For material which is restricted, find out if there is a living family member (or estate executor) who can allow access. The archivists at the various institutions are always helpful in trying to locate such contacts. Another hurdle, with modern presidential libraries, is material which is restricted by the Presidential Records Act. That is often a tough nut to crack.
With regard to material which exists, but has not been processed, unfortunately that is a matter which is often beyond your control and that of the individual archive. Most times it is a question of manpower and financial resources. The only suggestion I can offer is that occasionally an arrangement can be made with an archivist to process limited portions of a collection bearing on your subject, but this is tricky and is granted in only very rare cases.
TBC: Any others tips or words of encouragement for our members as they do their research?
Hill: It [his experience with the Washburne book] should be a source of encouragement to anyone who has a passion for history and has always thought about writing a book about history or biography. Just do it.
TBC: What led to you Elihu Washburne as the subject of your own book?
Hill: David McCullough and I came across the diary and letters while he was working on his The Greater Journey about Americans in Paris during the 19th century. After the book was published, many reviewers picked up on the Washburne story as one of the great characters and highlights of the book’s dramatic narrative. At that point, David thought it was important to have the entire diary published in book form, along with his personal letters and diplomatic correspondence during that historic period. Simon and Schuster agreed with him and asked me to do the editing.
Washburne is one of the great unknown characters of the 19th century who knew Ulysses S. Grant, President Lincoln, Napoleon III and was at center stage of two of the greatest struggles of the 19th century: the American Civil War and the Siege and Commune of Paris 1870-1871.
TBC: Was the research process any different from when you work for someone else?
Hill: Actually no. Working on books for nearly thirty years with some of our greatest writers was invaluable in making good use of my research and writing time.
TBC: Did you enjoy the writing process?
Hill: I enjoyed the whole writing process immensely. It was terrifying at first and I was unsure about whether I could pull it all off. But with encouragement from David McCullough and my editor, Bob Bender, I got through it.