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Garrison Keillor’s “The Writers’ Almanac” posted this greeting:
It’s the birthday of American author, historian, and narrator David McCullough (books by this author), born in the Point Breeze neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1933). McCullough has won two Pulitzer Prizes, both for nonfiction books about presidents. The first was for Truman (1993); the second was for John Adams (2001).
At Yale University in the early 1950s, McCullough took a writing class with novelist Robert Penn Warren, who required his students to slip a fresh piece of original prose under his door each day at 8:30. If they didn’t, they received a zero. McCullough said, “It was a great way to learn discipline.” He also grew close to playwright Thornton Wilder, who advised him to look for stories that hadn’t been written yet, and write them.
After graduation, McCullough worked at Sports Illustrated as a writer. One editor at the magazine had a red stamp with a four-letter word on it: dull. McCullough grew to fear receiving the stamp on his work, so he became meticulous with his writing. It was later, while working at American Heritage magazine, that he really thought he might become a writer. “Once I discovered the endless fascination of doing research and of doing the writing, I knew I had found what I wanted to do with my life.”
For many years, he wrote in a small, windowed shed in the backyard of his Martha’s Vineyard
home. He said, “Nothing good was ever written in a large room.” The shed had no running water and no telephone. Family members had to whistle when they approached so as not to startle McCullough. On his desk were a green banker’s lamp and a Royal typewriter, which he had freshly oiled for each new book.
When asked how he chooses which historical figure to write about, he admitted to quitting a project on the painter Pablo Picasso. He said: “He was an awful man. I don’t think you have to love your subject — initially you shouldn’t — but it’s like picking a roommate. After all, you’re going to be with that person every day, maybe for years, and why subject yourself to someone you have no respect for or outright don’t like?”