"I’m grateful for my brief career as a union organizer, because it taught me that everyone has a story. All I had to do was listen, ask questions and write it down, which is what I’ve been doing ever since.”
"And I hope they occasionally remember me," Tony Horwitz wrote recently for the New York Times of the many Southerners he met in researching his books. "Not as a Fox-induced boogeyman on the bar TV, one of those 'coastal elites' dripping with contempt and condescension toward Middle America. But rather, as that guy from 'up north' who appeared on the next bar stool one Friday after work, asked about their job and life and hopes for the future, and thought what they said was important enough to write down."
Horwitz was "known for embedding himself in the worlds he wrote about, whether joining a slaughterhouse assembly line or an army of Confederate battlefield re-enactors," and as the Vineyard Gazette of Martha’s Vineyard wrote, Horwitz “wrote as he lived, leading with the gift of a raconteur who championed the underdog but included all voices equally in his stories.” Horwitz collapsed suddenly at the age of sixty while out walking in Chevy Chase, Maryland, on Monday, May 27, 2019 (Memorial Day), before a reading at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C. He was declared dead of sudden cardiac arrest at George Washington University Hospital.
Our Lone Star Listens interview for this week was scheduled with Horwitz, whose new book, Spying On the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide (Penguin Press ), I reviewed on this site on May 19, 2019. I share our email exchanges in preparing for the interview below.
May 13, 2019, 7:02 p.m.
Good evening, Mr. Horwitz,
I am writing on behalf of Lone Star Literary Life, a media website devoted to all things literary in Texas. I had a brief interaction with you on Twitter a few days ago, and I'd love to interview you for Lone Star Lit. We typically do these things via email, and they usually consist of ten questions, though my questions tend to be multi-part despite my attempts to restrain myself.
Please let me know if you're amenable to an interview and if so what sort of time frame works for you. I hope you enjoy your reading at BookPeople this weekend. Safe travels and welcome back to Tejas.
Michelle Newby Lancaster
Member National Book Critics Circle
Managing Editor, Lone Star Literary Life
May 14, 2:12 p.m.
Michelle, I'd of course be delighted to answer questions, I'm in motion the next nineteen days but will get to them as quickly as I can, ideally before my reading in Austin! Fire away. Cheers, Tony
May 14, 6:03 p.m.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview. I greatly appreciate it—I know how busy you are with a brand-new book. I also apologize in advance for my multi-part questions. I try to restrain myself, but I begin writing one question and then ten others occur to me on the same topic.
I've pasted the questions into this email and attached them as a Word doc.
1. Your newest work is Spying On the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide, in which you follow in the footsteps of Frederick Law Olmsted’s sojourn, beginning in 1854, across the American South to report for the New-York Daily Times, which we all know today as simply the Times. What about Olmsted and his work inspired you and why?
2. You write in the prologue to Spying On the South, that Olmsted’s stated mission was “’to promote the mutual acquaintance of the North and South’ with fact and observation rather than invective.” What was your mission? Olmsted didn’t achieve his mission. Do you feel that you achieved yours?
3. In another era of stark division in the United States, what are your main takeaways from your journey and reporting? Do you have any predictions or prescriptions?
4. I’m going to put you on the spot now. You write in the acknowledgments that Texas, before you traveled here for this book, was a state you “barely knew and tended to view in stereotype.” What did you think of Texas before?
5. Almost half of the 400 plus pages are devoted to your travels through Texas. We would, of course, say that is only right and fitting. We need to note that you traveled from deep East Texas southwest, more or less, to arrive eventually in Eagle Pass, as Olmsted did. What did you learn here? How has your opinion of us changed, for better or worse or both? Do you think not experiencing Dallas or Amarillo or El Paso—you couldn’t because Olmsted didn’t—inhibits your understanding of Texas?
6. Also in the acknowledgments you thank Mimi Swartz of Houston and Stephen Harrigan of Austin for help and advice. You couldn’t have had better guides to either of those cities. What was the best piece of advice you received from each of them? And by the way, when you do make it to Dallas you should look up Ben Fountain. Y’all could have quite the conversation.
7. Please tell us about your process. How do you tackle a project such as this? How do you conduct research? Do you tape record constantly? Do you write up those recordings each night? Are you furiously scribbling in a notebook like a man possessed? How long did you travel for Spying On the South? It seems like a series of logistical nightmares and not a little serendipity, or the kindness of strangers.
8. I look at your previous books and it occurs to me that you’re creating a giant mural out of puzzle pieces. How does Spying On the South fit in with your previous work? Do you see it as an expansion or a companion of sorts to Confederates in the Attic and Midnight Rising? Did you run across Olmsted during your research for those books? How does it fit, or does it, with A Voyage Long and Strange about American history between Columbus and Jamestown? Did your Australian odyssey in One for the Road have anything in common with Texas? Did your previous experiences in long-term travel and reporting with Blue Latitudes help with Spying On the South?
9. You’ve won a Pulitzer for national reporting, traveled the world, and been a war correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in the Middle East. I’ve traveled in the Middle East, I find that such a nebulous term, and made friends I consider family, stayed in their homes, attended their weddings, and napped with their grandchildren. My mother used to send me links to stories about bombs when I got ready to return to Egypt or Jordan or Morocco. The scariest place I’ve ever been is Mississippi. What’s the scariest place you’ve been and why?
10. What books are on your nightstand?
Thanks again. Good luck and safe travels,
May 19, 4:15 p.m.
Michelle! I'm ashamed, b/c I began to answer your excellent questions five days ago and have been so overwhelmed/exhausted since flying around on book tour that haven't found a quiet hour to finish. And now I see you've written this lovely and thoughtful review. I'm guessing my answers are now moot, yes? If not say so and thanks for giving the book such a fine hearing. Cheers, Tony
May 19, 5:44 p.m.
Not moot at all! I’d like to publish the interview for the June 2 edition if you can finish the questions by then. I know how busy you are and I know how exhausting flying can be. Thanks for the kind words about my review. I bought Confederates in the Attic today at a B&N in San Antonio.
May 22, 2:51 p.m.
Me again. Speaking of Confederates in the Attic, I understand exactly what you were writing about on page 242 regarding the history in Richmond and the comparison to Egypt. It’s like driving along the ring road from the Cairo airport where you cross the Nile and on a clear day can see the tops of the pyramids at Giza. You can see the pyramids from the roof of the house belonging to a family I stay with in Giza. It’s astonishing and humbling.
Anyway, carry on. I’m reading. :-)
May 27, 10:25 p.m.
Hi Tony, Me AGAIN. Sorry to bother you, but (always a but, yes?) do you have any idea when I might expect your answers?
Also, completely off the subject, have you given any thought to writing about the Indian wars in West Texas? That’s my neck of the woods (plains, caprock). I’m surrounded by Comanche and Kiowa history. I’d love to read what you could do with that. ANYWAY.
Hope you and yours are looking forward to a great summer,
May 27, 11:12 p.m.
This is Geraldine, Tony's wife. He died suddenly, earlier today. No words.
May 28, 12:13 a.m.
Ms. Brooks, I am stunned and saddened and so very sorry. Thank you for making the effort to bother with my email. No words.
Horwitz was a native of Washington, D.C., and a graduate of Brown University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. As a newspaper reporter he spent a decade overseas, mainly covering wars and conflict in the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans for the Wall Street Journal. Returning to the US, he won the 1995 Pulitzer for national reporting "for his vivid accounts of grim working conditions in low-wage jobs, including those at garbage recycling and poultry processing plants." Horwitz later wrote for the New Yorker on the Middle East before becoming a full-time author.
Horwitz was probably best known for Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (1998). His other books include Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before (2002), A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World (2008), and Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War (2011), Baghdad Without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia (1991), One For the Road: An Outback Adventure (1988). Midnight Rising was named a New York Times Notable Book in 2011 and one of the year’s ten best books by Library Journal.
"Tony created his own unique genre of history and journalism in book after book," said David William Blight, a professor of American history at Yale and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition.
Horwitz has also been a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the president of the Society of American Historians. He was married for thirty-five years to Geraldine Brooks, author of, among other books, Year of Wonders, March, and People of the Book. They have two sons, Nathaniel and Bizu.
"He was easily bored with conventional explanations, and his restlessness led him to places a normal person wouldn't get to," said author and financial journalist Michael Lewis, who recalled that Horwitz was driven by an antic energy and unquenchable curiosity.
Horwitz worked as a union organizer in Mississippi right out of college. In an essay about this experience, he wrote, “Thirty years later, I still don’t know my way around a chainsaw, and all trees look pretty much alike. But I’m grateful for my brief career as a union organizer, because it taught me that everyone has a story. All I had to do was listen, ask questions and write it down, which is what I’ve been doing ever since.”
Tony was kind and generous to me, and I remain stunned, saddened, and so very sorry.