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For this episode of Drafting the Past, I interviewed art historian (and lawyer!) Erin L. Thompson. Erin’s new book is Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments (W.W. Norton, 2022). She has written many essays and op-eds for a wide range of publications, in addition to regularly being interviewed for her expertise as “America’s only professor of art crime.” We had a fantastic conversation about keeping your audience interested, finding the strange details and asking the questions that intrigue you, and the power of humor in history.
MENTIONED IN THE SHOW:
- Find Erin Thompson on Twitter, @artcrimeprof
- Erin’s first book, Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present (Yale, 2016)
- John McPhee, Looking for a Ship
- All of Mary Roach’s books, including Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Sex and Science, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, and her most recent book, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law
- Michael Lewis’s books, including Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street, and The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
- Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood
TRANSCRIPT (EDITED VERSION COMING SOON)
Erin Thompson 0:00
And I think finding the weird finding the strange in historical details is very important because it’s unsettling and intriguing to readers. And when you arrive at a place where you’re like, I have no idea what’s going on. That’s when your mind is open to being convinced of other ideas of other truths.
Kate Carpenter 0:21
Hello, and welcome back to drafting the past. I’m your host Kate Carpenter, and this is a podcast about the craft of writing history. In this episode, I was delighted to talk with Dr. Erin Thompson, the Associate Professor of fraud, forensics, art law and crime at John Jay College, City University of New York.
Erin Thompson 0:42
Thanks for having me.
Kate Carpenter 0:43
Erin holds both a PhD in art history and a law degree and identifies herself as America’s only professor of art crime. Her most recent book, Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments came out earlier this year with Norton and it is a fascinating look at the history present and future of many of America’s monuments. Her first book was Possession: A Curious History of Private Collectors, and she has also written essays and the op eds for a wide variety of publications, in addition to frequently being interviewed for her expertise. We had an excellent conversation about keeping your audience interested, finding these strange details and asking questions that intrigue you, and the power of humor. I hope you enjoy listening.
Erin Thompson 1:30
I think the most important thing about the trajectory of my career as a writer is how completely different what I’ve been writing in the last few years and looks like from what I started off writing. In graduate school, where I spent years writing an utterly unpublishable on interesting dissertation that no one has ever read, possibly including my advisor, and for good reason, because it it was such an artificial construct of theory as a whole in the scholarly literature that I think I could fill with research, but nobody needed it, nobody wanted it. And so nobody has paid attention to sets and as it should be. And I wrote it by just grinding away spending days for months straight in the library, researching and writing. And it was very boring to do and the result is boring. And it took such a long time to produce something that nobody wanted. And by contrast, in the last few years, my writing has been more for the public, but produced in a really different way as well. So now it’s much faster, because I’ve realized that it doesn’t work for me just to sit down and look at my computer for 12 hours. I think of ideas when I’m doing yoga or taking walks or in a museum, looking at beautiful arts or talking to my friends, including my long suffering friends who have heard me talk through my research way too much. And then when I sit down, especially to produce a shorter general audience, piece, an essay for an online publication, it usually only takes me a day or so because I have been thinking about it in a in a looser way for much longer.
Kate Carpenter 3:30
What prompted that transition for you from sort of more academic, less publishable, as you put it, writing into more more public facing?
Erin Thompson 3:39
Well, I had a strange trajectory into my professorship. I was writing this dissertation, which I knew was not so great. I thought, I’m never going to get a job as a professor, in part, because, you know, it wasn’t just that I thought my dissertation wasn’t great. It’s that I thought, I don’t really want to do this for my whole life, make up some version of the past, and then fight with other people about whether my fantasy of the past is better than your fantasy of the past. So it turned out that being a standard art historian or Classicist wasn’t that interesting to me. But I was writing about ancient Greek vases. And I got very interested in the market for these phases and for antiquities in forgeries and looting, and all sorts of shenanigans in the art market. So I went to law school to study the legal regimes to prevent the looting and smuggling of Antiquities, and I thought I would just be a lawyer lawyer, and I ended up getting a job and you know, big soulless corporate law firm. And then for the city of New York, which was much more fulfilling, and I had no intention of continuing an academic career until there was a job posted my current job for someone studying art and law looking for Someone with a PhD and a JD. And I sort of looked around and thought, oh, I guess. So, I had been continuing to publish some academic articles. So I managed to convince me to convince them to give me a chance. And here I am. But I came in knowing that the things I wanted to work on now, were not just some scholarly concerns, that no one but you know, a dozen people in the whole history of the world would care about. But they were, I wanted my work to have an impact on what’s happening today on the marketplace, on new laws on enforcement, on the behavior of buyers and sellers of antiquities. And the problem with wanting to change people’s behavior is you have to get people to pay attention to you. So it became a very strategic process of trying to figure out how do I switch myself into this new track from this very scholarly, very limited, very eat your vegetables way of writing that I had been trained in to a way of writing that people who didn’t already care about these issues, who hadn’t already spent their entire lives caring about these issues? Or weren’t being paid or graded on reading and writing about these issues? How do you get those people interested in something?
Kate Carpenter 6:26
Had you always thought of yourself as a writer?
Erin Thompson 6:28
No, I still don’t know if I think of myself as a writer, it seems very strange, I get a lot of compliments. And I feel very antsy about that. I think I’m a good communicator, rather than perhaps a wonderful writer, which I want to say not just because I want to grovel in my own self confidence issues. But because I want to be a model of you don’t need to think you’re a fantastic writer, you don’t have to have, you know, 10 novels in your drawer or secret poetry habit to write powerfully and engagingly. Anybody can teach themselves how to become a better writer,
Kate Carpenter 7:09
I’d like to just ask you some of the basic questions about your writing. Let’s start with when and where do you do your writing
Erin Thompson 7:17
that has changed so much? Over the years, not just in the pandemic, but when I had a kid when I had two kids, even when I got pregnant for the first time, it was a whole change in how long could I be in the library, could I bend over and get all those books from the bottom shelf, etc, etc. So I don’t think that there’s anything constant in the actual nuts and bolts of my writing. But what has constantly worked for me is the idea that I need to give my best energy to whatever is most important to me at the time. So I open up my laptop, I know I have a couple of hours of really my clearest thinking. And for years, I would waste a lot of that by responding to the emails that piled up overnight. So if I had was really disciplined, I wouldn’t even check my email. But now I’ll open up my laptop, I’ll read my emails, but I will not reply to them until the end of my day, I have shifted my teaching into the late afternoon, because I still have plenty of energy for that I’m energized by teaching but the hardest part of the task I have ahead of me whatever writing project etc, I want to give my best energy earlier in the day, I even a strange little tip here, I have changed the password to my laptop. So I have to type in every time I open my computer is something that relates to whatever I think is my current priority as a little prompting of, you know, you want to answer all that bureaucratic email, but instead, you’re going to think, is there something I can do now that will forward this project. And the other thing that’s really different from how I used to write that I think is very important to me is realizing that not all writing happens on the page that I’m not going to come up with my best ideas just staring at the computer or even handwriting that sometimes I just need to use my body and give my brain a little time to stew on something. So I’ll usually only work for a couple of hours before doing something else.
Kate Carpenter 9:41
How do you organize your research in your notes?
Erin Thompson 9:44
Yeah, I hesitate because I feel the the I think common urge to say, Oh, I’m so disorganized. I wish I were more organized. But you know, I think whatever works for you. However, you’re keeping all those balls of ideas and facts in the air until you can Make sure they land on the page in the right way, you don’t have to be sad about it not being some platonic ideal of organized, whatever. So what I actually do most often these days is some sort of unholy hybrid between digital and physical. So I will use my phone camera to take pictures of the pages of books or articles with my little fingers stuck in there in the frame to point to whatever phrase or paragraph that I think I might need in the future. And then I’ll collect all those photographs in a subfolder within the book within the topic within the book project, and then at a secondary phase. So first, I research widely, I read a whole lot as much as I can, and really over annotate, which is why I came up with a sweet way of capturing, quote unquote, notes very broadly, instead of having to transcribe everything. Then at a secondary phase, when I have an idea, alright, I’m really writing this chapter on this thing, I know I need this information, I will go back and create a Word document for that book or article, and copy paste the specific lines from the photos that I think I want to use. And then only in the final phase, when I’m actually writing that section of the book, will I type out quotes or information, which I think also has a salutary effect of making sure I don’t over quote, which I’m always tempted to do. So please don’t follow this advice. It is ridiculous, this way of of doing things. But I will say that advice I wish I had been given earlier is to think about from the very beginning stages of the project, not just compiling information on the facts of your research that you want to write about, but compiling information that you will need to disseminate that research into the world. What I mean in particular, is making sure you collect images that you could use for illustrations in publications, but also the many more images you’ll need. If you want to give a nice illustrated PowerPoint lecture, that you collect the source information for those images, which isn’t always expected what you’re going to need, I would say that as soon as you sign a book contract, to ask your editor, give me the spreadsheet that the presses legal department is going to ask for it to make sure I have all of the image permissions and you don’t need to collect all of that information for every single image you’re interested in. But it’s good to know what’s what’s the universe of information you’re going to need. And also, one tiny thing that I did for my latest book, which I’m very happy I did, I have from the very beginning had a file of acknowledgments. Because I was talking to so many people, not just librarians, but people on Twitter people, I was interviewing people who connected me with people as interviewing. So I would just throw their names into this document with a tiny little note about what they had done to help me and I was so grateful when in the very end stages I was you know, proofreading the index and making sure I had all my dates, rights and etc, etc. I did not have the mental space to go through and reconstruct several years worth of whom I should think for what so as I was happy that I
Kate Carpenter 13:29
did that. It sounds like then you do most of your research before you really start drafting Is that Is that right?
Erin Thompson 13:35
Yes, I tried to do that. And then I will write and then I will do some fill in research for holes that I come across in my writing process. But that said for this book, my editor when I gave him the what I thought was the final manuscript said, Could you really put in another chapter so I ended up writing a whole new chapter, but that’s still followed the same same process of research, cogitating on sort of stewing that research down into what I was going to write,
Kate Carpenter 14:12
do you do? Are you an outliner? Do you have some sort of way of sort of setting up a sense of what you want to write before you dive in?
Erin Thompson 14:18
Yeah, so I always need before I start writing anything, whether it be a chapter, or even a shorter essay, a idea of where I’m starting the first sentence, the first paragraph, and a little bullet point of structure of here is the here are the ideas I’m going to talk about in what ever order and that really actually rarely changes once I figure it out enough to start writing. I should say that the way that I come to start projects is not through having an idea of what I want to say but having questions. So once I have an interesting orden interesting to me question about Why is this thing the way it is? How could this thing be better? I start to research and find out information that can help me think about that question I say, Help me think about rather than answer because I think that a question you can definitively answer is maybe not an interesting enough questions to support a whole large project. So I try and gather information and also gather narrative stories that will help me think about that question and will help me communicate that to the readers, which I should say is, is a big change again, from what I originally thought of, even when I was starting my professorship and thinking, Alright, I want to I want to write for the general public. When I started off, I thought, Alright, there’s there’s narrative. And then there’s the intellectual content of whatever piece Ayyad the narrative, it’s just like a little spice you add to to sky, as you know, like the spoonful of sugar to make all the intellectual argument go down. And then I realized, no, that’s not enough. You can’t have one entertaining anecdote for the first paragraph and then dries dust for the rest of it. So then I thought, Okay, well, maybe I’m I’m, I’m translating my research into a narrative structure. Like the things that I would normally gather for an academic piece, I can just like, write that in a narrative way. And it turns out, that is also not true that the things you gather, when you’re looking for just rational argument, is not enough for narrative. And so at first, I was a little resentful, like, I gotta do all this extra research to find out, you know, what sort of shoes this person was wearing, and what their hands look like, just to make it, you know, fancy it up enough to have people read it. But it turns out, especially in writing this most recent book, that what I realized I was actually doing was a whole transformation of my my research and writing process, that finding these details, these narratives, changed how I understood the underlying intellectual issues is not a decoration. It’s a transformation in your understanding of the past and the present, I think, what then does the revision process look like for you. So I’m a big believer in the idea of shitty first drafts, I have the structure that I wants, very much nailed down, I need to make these points in this order, tell the story in this way. But I will even my first draft, just write whatever sort of sentence to fit it all in there. This last book, I started to have carpal tunnel problems. So I was using a dictation software, which made it even messier looking. But I know it’s much easier to revise when you already have something there to make something existing better than it is to just face the blank page. So as long as I get it out, then I can polish on the sentence level, what I have, I know that I am not too good at spotting gaps in my narration, or explaining things or seeing where I have failed to explain something that a reader is going to need to understand. So that’s where I really rely on editors, whether they be friends or professional editors, who will say you need to explain this, or you need to slow down here, or there’s way too much detail about this there. And then I can I can follow those marching orders. So I’ve really worked out a process of figuring out these are the things I can do myself, these are the things that I’m going to need some some help in spotting. So do you then have sort of a writing community that you turn to for that sort of feedback, I have a number of friends whom I really trust, to comments on things, whether it’s just me describing my research, or asking them to read a whole draft. And none of them are academics, some of them are experienced editors and journalists, I now am comfortable doing that because I’m I’m very close with these people, they are happy to do so. But in terms of if you don’t have journalists in your life or something like that, I will say that at the beginning when I was really flailing around trying to understand what it is like to write for the public instead of academic writing. I hired a writing coach, which was great for me, I hate to ask for help. So I was like knowing alright, I’m literally paying this person to do this thing was very useful. So that went on for I don’t know maybe about a year. She helped me write a couple of pieces until I got to a level where I thought I am keeper. But enough of at least producing the first draft that that an editor isn’t going to laugh at, when I submit it to some sort of publication,
Kate Carpenter 20:07
has it been a struggle to be in academia, but write much more for a public audience?
Erin Thompson 20:14
No, which is partially, it hasn’t been a struggle because of where I am. So my college is at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. And many of my colleagues are writing to change the world as writing to advocate for changes in laws or different understandings of justices. So they look much more scans on me when I do something super nerdy and classical artists or any like what you care about, you know, where the what a kudos looks like, or whatever. So there’s a community support for writing for the public. But also, I think, wherever you are, there is an ability to at least negotiate about the what quote unquote counts or not about your writing. Fortunately, at CUNY, the requirements for tenure have been negotiated through the union. So it’s very clear what things count for what so writing pieces for the public can count as service, appearing, as an expert on news media also counts as service, etc. And I just finished up putting together my file for promotion to full professor, and took a lot of effort to explain how my latest book, although it’s fair trade press is in fact, a work of original scholarship. So it shouldn’t just be because it came out with one or the other that it, it doesn’t count and I need to throw it away, I’m able to make an argument for how this fits within more traditional academic style. And I have gotten some pushback, especially when I’m submitting a book chapter or a scholarly article, essentially, this is this is too easy to read, like people seem suspicious that there might not be rigorous enough if they can understand it. But I think you know, that’s, that’s your issue, not my issue.
Kate Carpenter 22:23
Do you have sort of an ideal reader in mind when you’re writing,
Erin Thompson 22:27
sometimes I do, especially when I am targeting some particular change. Sometimes I’m writing an op ed targeted just at members of the City Council in a particular city. Sometimes I spend as much time writing an email as I do an entire article, because I know I can send that email to the person I want to make a particular decision. When I’m making more general appeal, then, no, I don’t think so I’m trying to put in as many hooks as possible for people of different interests to come into a piece. So my latest book about monuments I really want to be read as broadly as possible. So I tried to think of different types of people who might want to read it, people who didn’t know anything about monuments, people who wanted to defend monuments, and were concerned about them being taken down, people who were already convinced that certain monuments needed to come down, but wanted to have more arguments to take these things down. So I wanted to make a contribution that would serve many audiences AR and I think teaching, as I have done for most of my career, in institutions, where somebody’s taking a gen ed class, or is not necessarily an art history, major has really served me because I have always, almost always been teaching people who aren’t already convinced of the value of what the class is about, and knowing how to talk about, say, the architecture of the Parthenon, so that the engineering majors who are taking this art history class, because it fits into their schedule, will suddenly think, ooh, this is interesting. After all, that has served me in writing for a broader audience. You alluded to
Kate Carpenter 24:26
different forms of writing that you do in terms of op eds, or even emails. And I’m curious to know, you know, you write in both essay and book form. Is your process different between those two? I think
Erin Thompson 24:39
it’s a continuum. So I am very unabashedly self confident about the weirdness of my own interests. Like I’m gonna go on vacation and look at Greek vases for 12 hours a day and my friends and family are just like, okay, whatever, see you later. We’re not We’re not sharing that with you, but I have utterly unable to tell on my own, whether things that I think are cool or are concerning, will have any resonance with anybody else. So I tweet a lot. And I do so in part because I am testing what of my interests resonate with anybody else. And it is I can never predict something, sometimes something will get zero attention. And sometimes a tweet will go viral. And I never have any ability to predict which it will be because I’m always interested in everything. But this, this means that Twitter has been a great way for me to test out, which which hooks will get people interested in topics that I want to write about. So I wouldn’t even say that it’s like I test out my ideas in, in essays that make it into the book, I test my ideas, in tweets in in threads. And getting that immediate feedback is really important to me. And also the interaction with with people who are experts on something that you would never think you would find any sort of expert on has been incredibly valuable. It meant when I was writing my finalizing my acknowledgments, I had to contact some people on Twitter and be like, Oh, what’s your real name, if you’d like to be listed under that versus your, your Twitter handle, but like we’ve been talking for years about, you know, Birmingham City history minutia, but I don’t actually know your date. Okay, thank you. So sometimes, I will have to get this running start with, I’ll tweet about something or it’s got some interest. I’ll write an essay for some publication about it. And then that will become part of a larger project. Often, the tweet is enough for me to be to think, Okay, this is worthwhile doing. But I also like having external deadlines. So a lot of the shorter pieces I’ve written over the last couple of years has been because some editors sees me tweeting about something and says, Would you like to turn this into an essay for my publication, like, great, sounds good. In fact, that happens so often about monuments that my editor had to be like, Aaron stop and stuff, like save some for your buck. He can’t publish everything beforehand. But I sometimes ignored that, actually good advice. When I thought that there was something happening in the world that I had some crucial information for, then I would turn that into a more immediate op ed, or essay. And this is another thing that’s really drives my writing lately is that I think I am talking about something not just because I find it interesting, but because I’m doing some work to provide information and background and context for an ongoing debate that I think can be had better, we can have a better discussion with this information. So I want to get that information out there. And in some cases, it really felt torturous to wait until publication for the book. And in other cases to like, I just wanted to fact check in I published a piece of the book with what I think is my most mind blowing discovery that only a single monument of the hundreds removed, since the murder of George Floyd has been irrevocably destroyed, the others are just in storage or had been relocated. I published that pieces in op ed in The Washington Post because I more or less couldn’t believe that it was actually true. Like, I did all the research, I’ve tracked all the fates of the monuments as like this cannot be we can’t just be putting these all in some sort of like North American strategic racism reserve, but nobody came forward to contradict me. So I thought, all right, dang it.
Kate Carpenter 28:48
I gotta put this in the book. But this is the the actual state of affairs. That’s wild. I have told multiple people that that bit of information since reading the book, because it blew my mind, too. It’s crazy. Did your approach to writing change between the first and second book?
Erin Thompson 29:03
Oh, definitely. The first book was more of this using narrative bits to flavor the academic. I think the first book is good for if you’re already interested in the topic, or if you’re interested in even though the broader topic about looting or the antiquities market, etc. But I really wanted to write this most recent book as something that would be engaging for people who had no interest in the topic at all or actively disinterested in right, it thought that the topic of what we should do with American monuments is too boring or too controversial or too depressing to think about. So I wanted to give people ways to think about this, which is something that I admire about, say John McPhee, one of my I wouldn’t say most influential writers, which is it ungrammatical, and it would be an insult to that The very idea of geography Yvan McPhee is so good at taking something that is, I think an actively boring sounding topic, like the US Merchant Marines in his book looking for a ship and making it absolutely fascinating and relating it to so many different areas. So I try and be like him and figuring out what’s the in into topics that seem very challenging and uninteresting.
Kate Carpenter 30:36
To talk a little more about how Erin finds her way into a challenging topic. I asked her to talk me through a paragraph from the second chapter of her recent book smashing statues. Here’s the paragraph.
Kate Carpenter 30:49
“On the January night in 1843, the sculptor Horatio Greenough, started a bbon fire in the Capitol Building in nearly killed the transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson Breno had carved a statue of George Washington for the rotunda of the Capitol, but he hated the way it looked under its skylight. Washington’s high forehead glared in the sunlight. But the details greenshaw had sculpted on the sides of his chair were practically invisible. The artist wanted to show his work to his friend Emerson in a more flattering light to greener arranged and nighttime visit, he placed oil lamps in a wooden case and had them hoisted up high enough to eliminate the statue from what he thought was the proper angle. But as Emerson reported in a letter to Margaret Fuller, the case caught on fire and crashed down with lamp smelting and then exploding and brilliant balls of light falling on the floor. They dragged the flaming wreckage of the wooden case outdoors, where it drew together a rabble from all parts. Emerson, who had first met green out in Florence in 1833, called him a Superior Man, ardent and eloquent, Emerson thought green space was so handsome, and his body is so well formed, that he must have modeled his classical statues, including an Achilles after himself. Despite the chaos and perhaps due to the presence of so handsome a guide, Emerson spent several hours sitting on the floor entranced by the statue after the smoke cleared, with half a dozen persons whose shadows were colossal on the wall, while greenhouse shouts of higher higher to the men holding the lamps reverberated up to the dome, Emerson thought the Washington was simple and grand, nobody draped below and nobler nude up.
Unknown Speaker 32:37
You do not know how much joy you gave me by picking this passage at because it was such a problem to figure out how to talk about this sculptor Horatio Greenough because as I say, in the end of the previous chapter, the little on ramp to this chapter, He is the first American citizen to make artwork to make a public monument for the US Capitol, and he sets the standard for the next 100 plus years. So it’s really important to understand what he was trying to do, how he was representing power in America to understand what everybody else did after him. And I could have just said that as the first chapter, and then started your green, I was born in Boston to a wealthy fit, and bla bla bla, bla bla. But that’s really asking a lot of the reader to trust that you are going to arrive at an interesting point, you’ve, you’ve promised you will. But there’s a difference between telling and showing. So I wanted to find a way of starting the chapter that showed how interesting and important and influential green owl was. And I found this incident, where I didn’t have to say he was an important sculptor, because you can think, Oh, he’s being let into the Capitol Building at night with a bunch of flammable material, he must be someone who is trusted by the authorities. I don’t have to say he was very interesting. I can show Emerson basically fanboying about him. And then it gives, I think, a promise to the reader that this whole chapter is going to be written in a way that will be interesting to read, even if you don’t care about the intellectual point that I’m making. I am especially happy that you like this, this opening because everything I read about Greenough was so boringly written. The only biography of him is from the mid 60s It’s very staid. He is such a weird person. But this weirdness was covered over and all of this like academic spackle of discussing the logistics of transportation of marble from Italy, whatever, whatever. So, this incident of the Emersonian fireball It wasn’t even in the biography that was written in the 60s. The scholar who wrote that left it out, I only found it in a an earlier essay she had published about the relationship between Emerson and Greenough and quoted these letters. And then I don’t know what her thought process was maybe that it was more about Emerson, than Greenough, so she just left it out of the biography afterwards. And I’m like, this is the best thing. This is the weirdest thing. And I think finding the weird finding the strange in historical details is very important, because it’s unsettling and intriguing to readers. And when you arrive at a place where you’re like, I have no idea what’s going on. That’s when your mind is open to being convinced of of other ideas of other truths. So I’m very happy that this beginning of the chapter worked out to be intriguing and strange.
Kate Carpenter 35:54
I mean, as I, as I mentioned, part of what I love about this, too, is that it’s just so funny. I mean, this could almost be a sort of sitcom episode, you know, with this, this fire, and then it ends with Emerson, after the fires sort of calmly building the statue. And so much of your writing, really, despite being about serious topics is often quite funny, and very enjoyable to read. Do you write funny naturally, is that something that you work to incorporate into your writing?
Erin Thompson 36:23
I’m very sarcastic naturally. So whenever I am telling people about what I found it and my research, I am reveling in the weirdness of it, I find it deeply hilarious. And I hesitated for a long time to put these two bring out the humor in my actual writing. Because I thought, well, these are serious subjects, you need to be serious. But with monuments, especially I think that they wield seriousness as a weapon. They are trying to be intimidating. They’re trying to deflect attention by being boring and, and making you think that all of the questions have been settled. So I think that in this book, humor operates as a tool to show the ridiculousness is of monuments. They aren’t something we all need to be afraid of, or afraid of thinking about or modifying, because they’re actually just made by weirdo humans the same way. We’re weirdos. So I think humor is a good way of pulling back the curtain to show the fallibility of what goes into the making of something that seems so divinely ordained.
Kate Carpenter 37:39
That’s great point. I also firmly believe the historian should just embrace humor more in terms of even just connecting with readers, you know, we we respond to humor. One thing that I really admire about this book is how seamlessly you really blend the historical archive, and then really contemporary reporting. And I saw that you tweeted the other day talking about sort of the, the both terrifying and exhilarating nature of getting to interview people rather than writing about just long dead figures. How do you blend those things together? How do you incorporate that in your writing?
Erin Thompson 38:11
I think that’s something that comes pretty naturally to me that I always want to know the long histories of things. And it’s important to when you are looking for projects, when you’re thinking about what you want to write to think about what are the questions that I’m asking that nobody is asking? Because for years, I would think, Oh, this just must be a stupid question, if no one is bothering to answer it, but it’s not that it’s a stupid question. It’s your opportunity. Those are the Magic Eye transformations that you are able to see and not a whole lot of other people are into. So when there are all these news articles in the summer of 2020, about monuments coming down, I wanted to know well, why did they go up? Why there? Why that person? Why that material and those questions weren’t being answered. And the debate was rather almost always about the character of the person represented in a monument rather than the monument as monument. And after enough articles where people weren’t, hence asking that I thought up, I guess I can do that. And then when I wrote you have to blend together the the past and the present. And my initial temptation was just to think, Okay, I’ll use you know, other people’s interviews, quotes in newspapers about the present. And that’ll be enough. I don’t actually have to talk to people, right? Wrong. Because I get the questions that I wanted to ask for the questions that were being asked. So I just had to talk to people myself, which was very scary to do, but then I realized after the first interview that it wasn’t that I was just coming to someone and I difference or, or a politician who made the decision to take down a monument or a curator who had made the decision to display it, it wasn’t that I was just coming to extract information from them with the no reward offered for their their time and information. Because I had done all of this research on the historical aspects of the erection of monuments, I was able to offer to him things that they didn’t know. So it became much more of a collaborative process. And that felt very rewarding and led to much more interesting outcomes. It did mean that I took it felt like a little bit of a high wire act of preparing extensively for an interview. Before sometimes I was even sure I could get that interview that the prisoner would talk to me, or, you know, maybe they wouldn’t want it chats, or they would give bad quotes or whatever. But it worked out, fortunately. And in part, I was able to turn myself into a good interviewer, because I’ve been interviewed so often. So I learned how the sausage was made from being a part of the sausage.
Kate Carpenter 41:14
I’d like to turn and ask a little bit about sort of your inspiration and where you’ve drawn from as a writer.
Erin Thompson 41:21
It took me a surprisingly long time to think about what I could write in terms of what I enjoyed reading. So I have never been the type of person to sit down with an academic journal and just flip through for fun. I love to read narrative nonfiction, creative nonfiction. And yeah, it took way too long for me to think, oh, wait, I could write something like that, as well. I particularly love writers who are good at explaining complex ideas that I have never thought about before, especially from the sciences, in a narrative way, and even in a funny way. So I have read every book written by Mary Roach, sometimes multiple times, and she is so good at being personable and showing the human side of things and being laugh out loud, funny, but also taking very complex ideas, and showing the impact of these ideas in the world. I also really like Michael Lewis, I’m not a financial person. But somehow he can take these ideas and explain them to me in a way where I’m like rooting for people and understand the tax implications of mortgage, derivative pay whatever. And Oliver Sacks to one of my very favorite books is his his memoir, Uncle Tungsten, where he combines meditations, almost, I would say on on chemistry and science, with memoir. So this is something that I haven’t really done so much in a couple of shorter pieces. Yes, but brought myself in as a character, but maybe I will. I don’t know if this is the point of my, my next book is, is doing that. So fingers crossed, I can have any sort of success.
Kate Carpenter 43:20
Well, I was gonna ask you before I let you go, would you mind talking about what you’re working on next?
Erin Thompson 43:24
Sure. So I just signed a contract with Norton to write my third book, which is tentatively titled The Perfect Fake. I have long wanted to write about forgery, because again, I see the problem. I see the questions. But what had kept me from doing so for years was I didn’t see the structure. How do you put together a book about art forgery that isn’t just a bunch of little anecdotes strung together until I had the idea that oh, I can be the uniting thread. I can try and make a perfect art forgery. And my successes and failures. And pratfalls will be the connecting tissue that will allow me to bring in stories of a forger is of the scientists who are authenticating the scholars who are studying the activists who are thinking about the role of the way that forgeries can aid in the market for illicit looted and stolen antiquities. And because I think that the best form of humor is making fun of myself, it will be a funny book as well.
Kate Carpenter 44:37
That sounds fantastic. Thank you so much for joining me today and for being willing to share some about your writing process. This has been really great.
Erin Thompson 44:44
Thank you. And thank you for this podcast, which is fantastic.
Kate Carpenter 44:47
Thanks again to Dr. Erin Thompson for joining me for this episode of Drafting the Past. You can find links and notes about our conversation at draftingthepast.com and you can also follow the podcast on Twitter @draftingthepast. If you’ve been enjoying the show and you have a minute, a great way you can support my work is to leave a review on your favorite podcasting app. That’ll help other people find the show. Thanks for listening and happy writing!
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