Note: Links to books are affiliate links to Bookshop.org. If you purchase books through these links, I’ll make a small commission, which helps me keep Drafting the Past going. Thanks for supporting our guests and the podcast! You can also support Drafting the Past by becoming a monthly contributor via Patreon.
For this episode, I spoke with Dr. Andrew Wehrman, an associate professor of history at Central Michigan University. Andrew’s first book, The Contagion of Liberty: The Politics of Smallpox in the American Revolution, came out in December 2022, and he has also published many essays and op-eds on the subjects of epidemics, public health, inoculation and vaccination. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and, since our interview it was named a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in history. Our conversation gives an excellent look into the long process of writing this book, and I hope you enjoy listening as much as I enjoyed talking with Andrew.
MENTIONED IN THE SHOW
- T. H. Breen
- New England Quarterly Whitehill Prize
- Society for Historians of the Early American Republic
- Wehrman (as a graduate student) on NPR
- Philip Deloria, Playing Indian
- Nicole Eustace, Covered with Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America
- Joe Posnaski, The Baseball 100
- Alan Taylor
- Woody Holton
Kate Carpenter 0:01
Hey there, and welcome to Drafting the Past. I’m Kate Carpenter. And this is a podcast devoted to the craft of writing history. For this episode, I spoke with Dr. Andrew Wehrman, associate professor of history at Central Michigan University.
Andrew Wehrman 0:15
Well, thank you so much for having me.
Kate Carpenter 0:17
Andrew’s first book, The Contagion of Liberty: The Politics of Smallpox in the American Revolution, came out in December 2022. And he’s also published many essays and op eds on the subject of epidemics, public health, inoculation and vaccination. So you know, not timely at all. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. And since our interview, it was actually named a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in history. Our conversation gives an excellent look into the long process of writing this book. And I hope you enjoy listening as much as I enjoyed talking with Andrew.
Andrew Wehrman 0:51
I’ve only maybe considered myself a writer for a little bit now though, now that I have a book. I got into history to be a teacher. And to learn a lot about history. Writing I knew was part of it, I would have to write as part of this career and I liked writing, I was okay at it. But I went to undergrad first, I first wanted to be a doctor. But organic chemistry was too hard. And I thought history was good. I liked history a lot. And then I was on the path to becoming a high school teacher. I got a master’s degree in teaching social studies. And I taught in public schools for a year, but still wanted to know more. I wanted to see if I could get into some top graduate programs for history, so I applied and got into Northwestern. And you know, the first couple of years are taking classes and you start thinking about needing to write a dissertation and doing more writing. And my advisor was T.H. Breen, an eminent historian of the American Revolution and colonial America and a fantastic writer, especially in terms of like, writing analytical arguments, really clear, persuasive, kind of writing, not necessarily narrative writing. And I remember writing a first paper for him in graduate school, and I tried, I guess, to set a scene and to wax prosaic on the page. And I think I was supposed to write about a town meeting or something. And I wrote something like, “the birds were chirping outside the window as the meeting started to commence.” And I remember getting the paper back, and it was covered in red. And he said, Do you have a source for this? Do you know that the birds were chirping outside the window? And I was like, No, I just figured it’s a spring day, there probably were birds. And he says if you don’t know, if it’s not in your evidence, if there aren’t people commenting on it, you can’t write about it. And so I don’t know if it was that paper. But the first feedback on my writing I got from Breen, who was a real tough love, a kind of old school professor, had the comment written on it, “not completely disgusting,” which was a joke. And it was funny, and he meant it because he kind of knew me, and it was, but it was also do better than this. I had some good parts. But I needed to, in general, his advice was always to, to have more argument. I like to do a lot of storytelling, and writing and to make sure that the significance and the so what questions were answered. And I guess I really only started as, you know, trajectory of becoming a writer, when I started doing the dissertation and came upon a topic that I really liked. And there was a lot of interest in it. And that’s when I didn’t have those parameters of writing essays for courses or doing in a certain way for a professor when I could kind of find my own my own way that I think I started seeing myself as a writer.
Kate Carpenter 4:12
I want to ask a little bit about sort of the practical elements of your writing. So just to start, when and where do you like to write?
Andrew Wehrman 4:19
I like to write when I have big chunks of time in which to do it. I’m not a writer who says I have to write every day for a half an hour, I have to write 500 words a day. I really don’t accomplish much if I’m just giving myself half an hour. I blow through that and don’t end up with much. I need hours at a time to really focus on it. Where I like to write, I like to write in the office. Not at home, in my campus office. When I was writing my dissertation I would write in a carrel in the library. Home has too many distractions. That’s where the TV lives and there’s always something to do around the house. Now that I have have kids, it’s too easy and too distracting to, to keep up with the kids to see what they’re doing, to do family stuff. I need to be away from it to get lots of writing done. And then my job, it’s hard to find those chunks of time sometimes. Coming out of grad school, I taught at a, at a small liberal arts college first with a high teaching load. My son was born within two weeks of starting that tenure track job. So lots of time devoted to family. My son, Charles, at nine months was diagnosed with special needs. He had infantile spasms, a terrible form of epilepsy. So all writing kind of dropped in those times as we were dealing with those sorts of real life kinds of issues. So you know, when I can get a chance to sort of clear the decks and focus a whole day or a weekend on writing, that’s where the biggest gains came from, in terms of of writing, it wasn’t a little bit every every day for me, it was big chunks of time that I could carve out.
Kate Carpenter 6:14
How about tools? Do you have to write on a computer, in a notebook…?
Andrew Wehrman 6:17
I write in an all over the place way. So the book itself that came out this past December 2022, started as a dissertation, and I graduated from Northwestern in 2011. So it’s been a 10 year process to the book. And then, you know, several years of dissertation writing before that, and so technology changed a lot across that, that time, so I have different kinds of tools. I never, I didn’t use Zotero starting out, so I write my own footnotes. Most of the time. I’d like to change going on to the next project. But yeah, computer, sometimes I write outlines by hand, or I take some notes by hand when I was doing some of the early research for the paper archives weren’t always allowing cameras in especially some of these smaller town archives and things. So I’d have to do handwritten notes there. When I’m writing, I tend to have different kinds of files open, just sort of a Word document with with running notes in it. But I also have a paper file of both things I’ve written in notebooks and torn out and put in this folder, or things that I’ve printed out and put in a folder. So I have a really messy desk when I’m writing. That’s one of the reasons that I didn’t say I like to work in a cafe, some people like that. I can’t work in a cafe, that’s crazy. I’ve got so many things spread out everywhere. If you have to, you know, get up and go to the bathroom or something you worry about your stuff or the wind blows and then shifts all your papers away. Plus, I’m a loud writer, I get up and have to pace and think and grumble and scratch my head and I look like a weirdo. So I like it with a door closed and everything shut out. So I can mumble and pace and work out the sentences talking out loud and things. And you can’t do that in the cafe. I don’t know how people get writing done there.
Kate Carpenter 8:16
I do have a question that will identify me entirely as a historian of a certain later generation. But that’s that I’ve always been spoiled, I think, in the sense that I have always been able to take photographs in the archives that I’ve been to. And I’m always curious for when you can’t, you know, even today, there are plenty of archives where you’re not allowed to do that. How do you approach taking notes on sources in the moment? You know, I feel like so often I don’t really know what I’m looking for until later. So how do you how do you approach that?
Andrew Wehrman 8:45
You have to spend time, notes in the moment was tough. And I think those of us who were going to archives in the kind of middle late 2000s were begging librarians and archivists to let us use our digital cameras or let us use our phones that won’t harm the document, it’s actually less harmful than really poring over the page and taking notes next to it and that kind of thing. So sometimes I could convince them to do it. But otherwise, if you’re just handwriting notes, it’s probably a good practice. In a sense, even when I’m taking photos. I like to keep notes going next to it to transcribe some of those letters, but you’re just looking for the juiciest stuff. And you’re also making sure you’re labeling everything. So if you have to go back, you can reuse them. Some of these places would, you can pay to have photocopies done, but it was like 50 cents a page and it would add up a lot and add to your your cost. So you had to be really selective about what you wanted to photocopy. I admire the people that were even earlier generations of historian in that we do everything on our note cards and just totally try to take precise notes of everything they’re, they’re finding. You know, I’m kind of that Oregon Trail elder millennial generation that kind of can do things in analog, but also learns digital. And I think that gives me a lot of skills as a historian because I can use an old card catalog. Sometimes there’s good stuff on those old card catalogs that hasn’t been digitized, or reading through the actual newspaper archive instead of the digital version or not trusting your keyword search to find everything. Having really a nose in research is helpful. But yeah, the taking digital photographs have just changed a lot of the game. You do a lot of your researching and thinking when you’re back at home rather than in the library itself.
Kate Carpenter 10:51
So normally the next question that I ask you is what your revision process looks like. But I have another question that I think goes with it. So I think I’ll ask the second one, which is that I was actually, as I told you, I was surprised to learn that this was a dissertation that became a book because often you can sort of tell I guess, you know, when a book emerged from a dissertation, and in this case, I couldn’t, which I mean as a compliment. I’m quite curious to know, especially at the time, you mentioned earlier, what was the process like, I guess, first to write the dissertation, but then to take it from dissertation to book?
Andrew Wehrman 11:24
Yeah, it was it is a dissertation that had basically the same title. But it was, the dissertation was much more narrowly focused. My adviser was like, We want you to get this done. Can you focus on smallpox and inoculation during the revolution, just in Massachusetts, or just in New England? So the dissertation was focused in terms of years, it was like, just 1773, to George Washington’s decision to inoculate in 1777. And it focused mostly on New England towns and New England soldiers forcing that decision, so it was a narrower range. It was an introduction and four kind of beefy chapters, and it was good it got, was well received by my committee, I sent it off. After I got a job as an ABD, which is like lightning striking it was, even in 2011, the job market wasn’t great. It’s far, far worse now. But it felt really good. And there was excitement around it, I send it off to a dissertation prize, the SHEAR discipline dissertation prize, the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic, and it was a finalist for that prize. And if it had won that prize, it would have gotten a publishing contract with the University of Pennsylvania Press. And that would have been great, I would have been very happy with that. And it would have probably felt like a first book that was written out of a dissertation. It didn’t win the prize, they actually didn’t give a prize that year. It was like, you’re a finalist. But we don’t think, the committee couldn’t agree. And so I had some hopes wrapped up in that. And when, when that didn’t go through, I sent it to another press a year or two later, after making some small changes. It went around and around with reviewers and got some really positive reviews, some not so good. And it ultimately didn’t get published there either, one of the top presses. And I thought, Okay, this narrow scope that I did for the dissertation is leaving some readers, reviewers unsatisfied. When I would go give a a conference talk people would ask me about, well, what about the Fort Pitt smallpox blankets incident? And I said, Well, that’s a little before the time that I’m studying. Or they’d say, What about vaccinations? When did that start? Like, well, that’s a little bit outside my book, or they’re like, what about what about the South? What about the people, did they inoculate slaves? And I said, Well, I’m mostly up in New England. And I realized that to make it the book that readers wanted, and that more people were interested in, it needed to expand. So in moving it to a new book, so I after leaving Marietta College, I got a new job at CMU, lightning struck twice, and I was able to get a new tenure track job up here in Michigan, and the tenure clock started over again. There was no advantage to going up for tenure early and not even really an ability to do it. So I had six more years. And I could have published the dissertation kind of version of the book, but I thought, Okay, here’s my chance to really make it something bigger. So it’s a little bit like, I’ve thought of it like Star Wars. And so there’s the original Star Wars series. That’s sort of the core of the book, those chapters from the dissertation had been revised. But that’s largely the center chapters of the book. And I added three or four chapters at the beginning. And I added three or four chapters after the end that kind of smoothed it all over and made it a bigger thing. And it makes the argument work better. It answers the questions that readers have. It runs a longer chronology, it covers more places. And it took a long time to do that, to go back and do research again. But I kind of consider it my first and second books because of that.
Kate Carpenter 15:35
The timing, of course, I guess, worked out. I hesitate to say it that way, because it’s terrible for public health. But from a publishing perspective, the Contagion of Liberty ended up coming out at an extremely relevant time, when we’re continuing to talk about vaccinations and health issues. How did that context impact the way that you were revising and writing the book?
Andrew Wehrman 15:59
Yeah, so obviously, I had written it and was working on it for like a decade before COVID-19 strikes, and there were there was already some interest in it. Early on, I got interviewed for NPR after I wrote my first chapter and published the first article from it. And that was kind of in the Obamacare debates, debates about equality and health that my book has some answers to. And I had some interview, interviewers talk to me from the Washington Post, because of anti vaccination movements in 2015, before the book was ready, so there was interest in it already, but yeah, COVID coming, you know, people ask me, and they almost expect me to be excited about COVID, because it made my book so relevant. And there’s not, excitement is not the thing. It did make me depressed sometimes. And it made me more angry, I knew that my book would become really relevant. And that I carried some answers for some of the debates that were happening. But it wasn’t done. So it gave me an urgency to really finish it and get it published. I think it gave it a little bit of a sharper edge than it might have had before. Because, you know, I was angry about seeing these idiots carrying 1776 flags as they protested lock downs at the Michigan State Capitol. And I just thought, you have no idea the sacrifices and what people at the time of the revolution thought of disease control. That’s was one of their major aims was to control an epidemic, not to protest public health, you know. So I think that in finishing the book, writing the the conclusion of the book, I wrote the conclusion right as the first vaccinations were going in, to get in people’s arms, and you could watch on CNN, the trucks carrying vaccines rolling out of the factories and going to the hospitals and the first nurses getting vaccinated. And so it was kind of this little bit of an uplifting moment. That’s when I wrote the final conclusion to the book. But it made the book certainly the timing has been good. It’s made more people interested and engaged and want to read it. But it’s very much a book that’s rooted in the past, I had a conversation with my editor, Matt McAdam, and we said, Should I talk about COVID-19 in the text of the book? Should I talk about it in the introduction? Should I make connections and talk about parallels in the conclusion? Should that be part of it? Because that’s what so many readers are going to come to the book after having experienced, and we ultimately decided against it. So COVID-19, coronavirus, is not in the text of the book. It’s really rooted in the past. I mentioned it in the acknowledgments. And then, with the editor, we just said, Well, when I give public talks, when I do podcasts and things I can talk about those connections, I can write op eds, making those connections, but that the book itself is a work of history and kind of stands on its own, readers can draw conclusions themselves.
Kate Carpenter 19:28
It’s so interesting to hear that was a conversation because it’s something I thought about a lot as I was reading the book that I like that it didn’t become sort of a polemic, though it very easily could have been. That instead COVID and other public health questions sort of hover over the entire text, you can’t avoid them as you’re reading it. And yet, you really are just focused on how things are playing out historically and letting the reader sort of come to their own conclusions about the connections to the present. It makes it almost a more powerful book, I think, in that way.
Andrew Wehrman 19:57
Yeah, I really wanted to highlight regular people’s voices as much as possible, their words, their debates, and make it really clear. As I tell my students, these aren’t Dr. Wehrman’s words. These are words that were being said in the past. These are their questions. They don’t always resonate with what we’re going through, but you can really get the sense from it, that people in the past, ordinary Americans, colonial Americans, were deeply concerned with public health, and they expected their government to do something that they, that all people have a duty to respond to public health crises in a way that we seem so fractured on that question today.
Kate Carpenter 20:40
I know that COVID also impacted sort of just the practical aspect of revising and finishing this book. What was it like to switch to a entirely virtual zoom based process in the midst of finishing up?
Andrew Wehrman 20:54
Yeah, well, I said that I like to be at my office at work to do my writing. And all of a sudden I’m at home I don’t even really have a home office. So I had to carve off a space in my basement, you know, bare concrete walls and fluorescent lights with the furnace overhead. Yeah, my wife worked from home too. She got the better office upstairs. My kids were doing virtual school so we made sure they had good spots. And I was happy taking the cold dark basement, but I don’t know made me angry or made me write with a fury down there. That was really just in the revising part that I was in the basement doing that stuff. But yeah, everything was on Zoom. I’ve never met my editor in person. We’ve had discussions over zoom. The press was having to figure out how they were going to conduct business because they were, you know, becoming home based as I was leaving CMU and we were at home kind of figuring it out. It made things go a little bit slower than they ordinarily would. Editors were talking about it being difficult to find reviewers for books, everybody was busy and frantic and lots of things happening at once. Very thankful to my reviewers who got back to me and were giving me good feedback on a book that isn’t escapist. It wasn’t a book that you read, because you want to get your head out of COVID-19. So I’m thankful to that. But yeah, it was done virtually. I don’t know any other way.
Kate Carpenter 22:37
To take a closer look at the results of the long journey that Andrew took in writing this book, I asked him to read an excerpt and talk me through how it came together. Here’s Dr. Andrew Wehrman reading from The Contagion of Liberty.
Andrew Wehrman 22:51
“On the night of January 26, 1774, a group of twenty men from Marblehead, Massachusetts, armed with tubs of tar, rowed out to the newly built inoculation hospital on Cat Island, set fire to the despised institution, and burned it to the ground. The episode was as rough, angry, and destructive as any other in the decade preceding the American Revolution—and perhaps more so. Its radically egalitarian justice, fueled by the notion that all people should have equitable access to immunity from disease, stunned political leaders. Although the siege of ‘Castle Pox’ drew some of its inspiration from the Boston Tea Party, which had occurred the month before, it sported none of that incident’s playfulness or gentility. Instead of dressing the part and ‘playing Indian,’ as the Bostonians had done, the fishermen and sailors of Marblehead assumed an ominous countenance, blackening their faces with soot and grime before launching their brutal attack. They left casualties in the wake of their assault and, unlike the Sons of Liberty who had tossed the tea overboard, they did not sweep up afterward. Indeed, the event was especially shocking because it had been prosecuted not with the guidance of Marblehead’s patriot elite but against them.”
Kate Carpenter 24:19
So this is a gripping image to start a chapter with, especially that first sentence, and then for the reader the rest of the chapter steps back and sort of explains how we got to this point. It’s kind of like the opening scene of a show or a movie almost and then you step back and and figure out how we came here. How did you decide to arrange this chapter that way?
Andrew Wehrman 24:39
I thought it was great that you picked this paragraph. I was excited because I know the show and I was like, what paragraph is she going to pick? I like lots of them. I have lots of favorites. But this one was good. This was probably one of the very first things that I wrote for my dissertation. I I tried to go back through my notes some to kind of discover when I wrote this, but I think this was part of an abstract that I wrote for a Newberry Library seminar where folks were going to come in and read a chapter from my dissertation, the only chapter I had written at that point and drafted. I wanted to make it sound interesting for the poster or for the email that was gonna get sent out about the, about the event. So I started with the craziest thing of the burning of a hospital. Who could do such a thing? And I started with that, because I wanted that image just to keep people reading, to have them come to the talk. It was something that I think most Americans, even if they know the American Revolution, have not heard of. And so I thought it was a great place it, the actual burning of the hospital comes about in the middle of of the chapter. There’s other crazy stuff that happens in the wake of that, or before that, there’s tarring and feathering, and there’s the destruction of, of a jail and the breaking out of prisoners. It is just this amazingly explosive episode that I discovered in doing my dissertation research, and I thought that just like that it deserved that sort of cinematic treatment, you can see the trailer, you can know what’s going to happen. But it’s still fascinating to figure out the background and get there. The other thing that I like about that, that paragraph is that it’s I don’t know, almost mocking the Boston Tea Party and saying that it’s it’s this polite event, and they swept up afterward, which they did, I remember reading that just thinking how organized and polite and clean this event was. And we like to think of the American Revolution that way that it’s people in tidy powdered wigs in the breeches, making sensible arguments and even the protests were done with a kind of gentleness and and it overshadows sometimes purposely the really nasty violence that undergirded the call for independence. And so I like playing with those against each other. And then in reading that paragraph, I also can see a little bit of dissertation, a little bit of grad student, there’s that reference to Playing Indian, which is a reference to Philip DeLoria book of the same name. And I liked the way he writes and writes about why Americans at different points throughout history have decided to play in the end and what that means culturally. So that was a little reference, I think, maybe to my dissertation committee that I’ve read over books, I know things, but I think it works really well in the paragraph too. So it didn’t get taken out in revision as some other historical graphic things did.
Kate Carpenter 28:01
I also chose this excerpt in part. You know, in addition to it being so gripping, what I love about it is that it shows off one of the strengths of the entire book, which is that America’s experience of smallpox is really entangled with questions of politics and liberty and the colonial area and the revolution, and that you show that off here. But it would be super easy for the drama of the revolution itself to have overpowered the story of smallpox. How did you work to balance that to make sure that you kept those stories connected, but but in balance,
Andrew Wehrman 28:35
that was a central issue throughout because I was convinced, right that smallpox wasn’t just an afterthought, something that happened to the to the army that George Washington had to fix that it was ever present, it was making people crazy and making them angry and making them read the newspapers making them expect more of their government during this time, that it added volume and added amplitude to the revolution itself. So I knew that so I came into it as a sort of political historian of the revolution. That’s what I was trying to to write about. When I was finding a dissertation topic, I was really interested in how people and little towns came together to support the revolution. Smallpox came later, I found that I didn’t consider myself to be a medical historian, but I kind of had to become that. So in writing the story, it was always necessary to tell it the right way to weave these things together to make sure that the reader remembers what is happening chronologically with the revolution as at the same time that I’m telling them something new the arc of this, actually multiple smallpox epidemics happening across. So it’s the way it kind of needed to be, but also I’m I’m lucky as a as a writer, that my audience who’s reading this will mostly know the American Revolution story, or at least know some of the characters that I talk about. So when I talk about Thomas Jefferson, I’ve got their attention, they can kind of picture who that is Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, I sort of use those figures, every chapter, or almost every chapter, I try to include a figure that readers are going to have heard of events that people have heard of, because a lot of the other material, especially in the early going is talking about smaller towns and communities and a lot of names that, that people wouldn’t know. But I want to make sure even though I consider it kind of a bottom up history, that I still have those founding fathers top down names, so that was affecting them, as well.
Kate Carpenter 30:53
So this, this book is sort of the type of narrative I find most challenging to grapple with as a writer in the sense that there are a lot of overlapping things happening in different places, at different times, but also in sort of the same timeframe. And, and you deal with that really well in your chapters. But I’m curious, did it take you a while to figure out the narrative arrangement of this book, or did that come easily?
Andrew Wehrman 31:16
Did it take me a while, it took me like 15 years, it took a long time, lots of notes, lots of weaving of stories, I would go into archives, and a lot of archives don’t have the stuff labeled, they don’t necessarily have a volume or collection or a research guide on smallpox. So you’d have to look in different places smallpox affected all of these people’s lives. And I would generally know some of the outbreaks and we’d be able to go in and, and look for that. So I just took gobs of notes, I kept a Google map of places where inoculations occurred, because my book is less about deaths and destruction from smallpox, and it is about attempts to stop it. So everywhere I could find a reference to a smallpox hospital or an inoculation event, I would, I would plot it on a Google map and then write in all my notes about it, a lot of this came from, I would find it from searching contemporary newspapers. But also a lot of it came from like antiquarian history is like little town history is written in the 1870s, about places in Massachusetts or New Hampshire, and a lot of times, there’d be a section in there on hospitals or local doctors, and they would, they would mention it. So anytime I got a little scrap of something, I would pin it on a Google map, there’s a map in the, in the book that shows all these little dots of where smallpox was, and where there are hospitals. Each of those, I could have written stuff about in the book that I had to then narrow to make it chronological and readable and pick just some of those, those stories to, to follow. But yeah, choosing where and when to do it, there’s a lot of stuff that got cut out, because it was an interesting story. But it didn’t fit chronologically, or it didn’t fit in terms of where the narrative was and where it was going. But I had to leave out. So there’s a lot of things like that, that are still still out there for others to, to write about it even as much as is in the book. I didn’t mention this. So one of the things, turning it from a dissertation into a book and adding all those chapters meant that this got really long when I submitted it to, to get published, I had been keeping it in separate documents, like each chapter I wrote in its own word file. And then at some point, I switched to writing it in Google Docs, because I felt safer because it was in the in the cloud and stuff that way. But I didn’t put it in one big document, and I wasn’t paying that close attention to word counts. I didn’t realize how much elders cared about that I in my mind, I was thinking about pages. I wasn’t counting the footnotes and how those were adding up. So when I, when I got to where I was finished and consolidated it all into one document to send it off. It was 196,000 words, usual book, you know, a 300 page book is 80 to 100,000 words, Johns Hopkins knew it would be a big book. And so they said I could submit up to 140,000. So here I was way over over that. And so the revision process meant I had to cut a lot of those other stories and other things back back out of the book. And then it became a major challenge of how to keep a narrative going how to make these these connections as the book went on. I hope some if grad students ever read it, I haven’t heard anybody that’s that’s noticed the but there’s a little bit of a pattern. The first few chapters really focus on one place. There are a whole chapter on Marblehead, Massachusetts, there’s a chapter on Boston, there’s a chapter that focuses largely on on Charleston. And they’re mostly in these places. When we start, when we get past Lexington and Concord 7975 1775, the chapters start talking about the colonies as a whole, or the country as a whole. So they ping pong across space much more than those earlier chapters do, where the smallpox epidemics were really contained as local events. After 1775, the epidemic becomes more of a national event. And so the the chapters then include that that text from other places where I try to keep the reader up with what’s happening in different places that wants is a challenge.
Kate Carpenter 35:56
Yeah, I imagine. I’m struck that, you know, you mentioned that you hadn’t really necessarily always thought of yourself as a writer. But it didn’t surprise me to hear that you had wanted to be a teacher that that was important to you. Because I often find that great storytellers, and great teachers have a lot in common and you seem to have a real instinct for hooking the reader keeping the reader engaged. How do you think about the connection between your writing and your work as a teacher?
Andrew Wehrman 36:22
Well, for one, I don’t want to write anything that I think would go over the heads of smart college students, because then who am I writing for my audience gets really small. And if my own students can’t read it, or find something interesting or getting engaged, then you know, what good is the work in terms of getting it out there? So I do, I think teaching really helps. It really helped me become a better writer writing lectures trying to open with a hook. I think, a good college lecture needs to have beginning middle and ends just as a good chapter does. And so I do think that the that, that teaching and sort of understanding what gets students confused, what gets them bored, what excites them, helped me in terms of writing now I’m sure I’m gonna bore some students with some of this. But the majority of it, I want to write things that interest me, and I think will interest others. And so that that teaching aspect is part of, of the writing. It’s part of what what makes me interested because I am trying to teach people things that I know that I get out of the material.
Kate Carpenter 37:35
We talked a little bit earlier about how one of the ways that you have been able to connect this book, and sort of contemporary news stories is to write op eds to write for sort of more public facing outlets. How does writing those sorts of pieces differ from writing a book like this?
Andrew Wehrman 37:50
I’ll give you a little backstory. So when I wrote that Marblehead chapter was the first chapter that I wrote for the dissertation. And I drafted it I did that Newberry Library seminar, a great historian, Alfred Young attended that seminar and gave me some comments on it, which were really helpful. I was thinking it was, it was in pretty good shape. I showed it to my advisor, th brain and he said, Well, this is above average, he told me, which is the highest compliment he had ever given me today above average that sent me into the cloud. So that was great. And so I had this this one chapter that I thought was pretty good, above average, and I was looking to send it off to publish as a as a journal article. And thinking about which journal could it go to. And there was a call that I got through the through email and announcement for an award from the New England Quarterly, their top article prize. And you know, I’m a grad student, don’t have much money. So I figured I might as well send it out for ahead of that, that prize and see if I could, I could win it. It was like 2500 bucks. It’s a big deal. So I sent it off to the New England Quarterly. And a few months later, I learned I won that prize. Judges for that prize competition are we’re a group of amazing historians, Edmund Morgan, Bernard Bailyn. And Robert Middlekauff, just huge names in the American Revolution. I’ve got something here. So it it it was published in the New England Quarterly won this Whitehill award. And that also led to an appearance on NPR and a feature article in the Boston Globe. And I was I just written that one piece that was one chapter. I wasn’t really prepared for that. You can google and listen to me on NPR as a very nervous graduate student. I think I did OK. But in writing that piece for the Boston Globe, as maybe you can tell from the interview. I’m a very deliberate writer. Write slowly, I tried to get all the details, correct and accurate. And writing for public audiences for the or in terms of op ed or a newspaper, you have to write so much faster. The the editor wants it done by, you know, 24 hours, and you have to turn it around. And he has these edits for you, and you have to approve it and get back and it goes back and forth in in draft form. And you’ve got something that publishes in a few days, the speed of it took some getting used to. But since then, of course, during the pandemic, I wrote a lot of op eds, I was able to, some of them were requested by newspapers, others, I pitched out there to try to get something published. I wasn’t always successful in in getting the pitches even if I thought that I had really relevant information, you have to pitch and often they don’t go. But it’s a similar sort of thing. In that you want to write a a hook at the beginning, the differences, it has to connect to current events, a news hook, that kind of thing I avoided doing in the book is exactly what you want to do for these op eds, because you have to link it to what’s happening in, in, in the news. There’s some there’s some freedom in that you can voice some opinions in ways that you maybe wouldn’t want to and in your book, but yeah, what gets me every time is sort of the speed at which they’re produced. And I marvel at those editors, like the editors from made by history, who can make your writing better and clearer and can do it in just a matter of days.
Kate Carpenter 41:42
Want to turn finally to ask you a little bit about influences and your own influences. So are there other writers or even other media that you read or watch that inspire the way that you write?
Andrew Wehrman 41:53
I’m inspired of course, by a lot of historians, I mostly read history. I don’t read much fiction. I try, people recommend novels to me, and I make it to page 65 or so before I find something else to do or read or look at. I want to read more fiction, but I generally don’t. So I read historians that write really well. I think Nicole Eustace, in terms of early American history, writes brilliantly, I mean, she just won the Pulitzer Prize writing in the present tense, which is talking about the 1720s. And and, you know, reading people that can really argue well, or really can synthesize information like an Alan Taylor or Woody Holton, but outside of historians and reading for the job, I think an untapped source for historians other historians don’t really talk about is sports writing. I love writing sort of long forms sports essays, especially my favorite is Joe Posnanski, who I grew up reading in the Kansas City Star, when I grew up in Kansas City, and, and has since written wonderful books and long form pieces in Sports Illustrated. His best stuff is the stuff that he writes for the Olympics coverage where he goes into sort of deep dives about where these people coming from often humble backgrounds to do amazing things and about how their families and hometowns are supporting them. And it’s great. I keep Joe Posnanski’s book, The 100 Best, it’s an essay on his opinion of the 100 best baseball players in history on my nightstand. And he will write a 1500 words or something about Jackie Robinson. And as a historian you think, okay, I need to write something about George Washington. Well, where do I start? How do I write something new that somebody else does? How do I not just fawn and praise or go to criticism or whatever, where you enter that? That conversation? And so I just love the way he does that talking about sports and baseball, it’s all historical writing, in a sense, but it’s so lively and quick and funny. I would like to be a Joe Posnanski when I grow up and write that kind of piece.
Kate Carpenter 44:14
Absolutely. Have you ever gotten any particular pieces of influential writing advice?
Andrew Wehrman 44:20
Yeah, so my PhD advisor Breen was very fastidious about writing, especially topic sentences, and paying close attention to topic sentences when you’re writing. But the topic sentence needs to carry the reader from the previous paragraph into your next material. I spend a lot of time on those so that the topic sentence is a little argument in and of itself that a reader can sort of topic sentence surf and read the first bits of each paragraph and they can really follow the story that way to pay attention to those He would sometimes say if I’ve written a new chapter, he’d say, Oh, that’s great. I’m glad that you’ve got a chapter. Show me the first paragraph, right? And he’d want to see how you set it up. And so, and I emphasize this to students, write introductions, first sentences, you’ve got to get the reader moving, giving enough information, calling back to what they’ve got. And so crafting topic sentences is the way to go about writing. I like to when I finish, when I’m in a good movement, writing, I’m getting words on the page and things are flowing, to write my next topic sentence before I stop, and then so when I come back to it, I can, I can fill it in, based on what I was thinking before and fill in those details and keep writing that way. And I’ve heard other authors say that you want to park on a downhill slope when you’re writing and give yourself something else to work on for the next time. And I totally agree with that. I write little notes to myself on the page and in the document, do this next here, the next steps, but it’s especially good when I can write out my next topic sentence. And then that’s where I in for the day are in for the for the session, it makes it so much easier to jump back in if you’ve done that for yourself.
Kate Carpenter 46:20
Well, before I let you go, I’m curious to know if you could talk at all about what you’re working on next.
Andrew Wehrman 46:25
I can it’ll probably be a slow process, hopefully a faster process. This time, I want to write a shorter book, and a more focused one where I can do a little bit more scene setting in one place. So I’ve got a research fellowship to go to New York and to start studying. I’ve got a sabbatical in the fall is my first ever sabbatical. I haven’t had one of those before. So maybe it will happen a little faster this time. But I’m writing on medicine, politics and race in early New York City, there was a specific episode a riot in New York, and attack on medical students and doctors in New York City in 1788. And it’s also right at the time that the Constitution is getting debated and getting ratified. So I’m thinking about writing a kind of short narrative that not only talks about the history of medicine, medical schools and involves, the riot was over using bodies, usually black bodies for anatomical lessons in New York. Putting down the riot was Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and Baron von Steuben, and figures from the revolution in early politics. And I want to write about local politics, national politics, medicine, race, all in this one place. I’m hoping to write a short book that might be able to be used in an undergraduate survey or something like that is what I’m what I’m shooting for. We’ll see if I can get there.
Kate Carpenter 48:06
Dr. Wehrman, thank you so much for joining me on Drafting the Past. It’s been so great to hear more about this project and about your writing process.
Andrew Wehrman 48:14
Thank you, Kate. This was the best. I love the podcast and love what you do.
Kate Carpenter 48:18
Thanks to Dr. Andrew Wehrman for joining me on this episode of Drafting the Past, and to you for listening! You can find links to the books we talked about in this episode at draftingthepast.com, where you can also learn more about how to support the show. If you have a moment to leave a review on your favorite podcast app, I always appreciate hearing from listeners. Until next time, remember that friends don’t let friends write boring history.
Join the discussion