Famed journalist Robert Caro has won two Pulitzer Prizes, written millions of words, and become the ultimate white whale of a certain pompadoured late-night host. He’s also, as you might expect, brimming with wonderful advice about researching, interviewing, and writing, which is the subject of his (way shorter than usual!) new book, Working. Weaving in stories from his epic journeys into the biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson (the second quest is still ongoing after 40 years), Caro is more than happy to serve up news you can use, whether you’re a seasoned editor expensing lunches at Balthazar or a newbie blogger just jamming your foot in the door. This mid-level Vulture writer was thrilled to devour the book in one sitting. Here are five pieces of advice that stuck out.
“Turn every page.”
When Caro was in his 20s and working as a beat reporter for Newsday on Long Island, his boss, a man named Alan Hathway, instilled in him a mantra he’s diligently followed for the rest of his career. Caro recalls that after he turned in his first investigative assignment, Hathway “looked at me for what I remember as a very long time … ‘Just remember,’ he said. ‘Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamn page.’”
Years later, when Caro was shacking up in the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, working on one of the four so-far–published volumes of his magnum opus and sifting through a monstrous amount of documents, those wise words came flowing back through him. “During all the years since he had given me that first piece of advice, I had never forgotten it,” Caro writes. “It was engraved in my mind.” He adds, perhaps a little dismissively, “These weren’t lessons you learn in journalism school.”
Don’t be a “portable journalist.”
When Caro first began to research Johnson’s youth, he believed he wouldn’t need to do too much additional work, as there were already numerous biographies of Johnson that relayed the same overwhelmingly wonderful anecdotes about his upbringing in Texas Hill Country. But Caro found interviews to be “unexpectedly difficult” when traveling to these rural ranches and farms; the people in Johnson’s past were clearly reluctant to be completely candid about the man they had known. “Part of the problem, I came to realize, was that they had talked to too many people like me,” Caro recalls. “During Johnson’s presidency, journalists from all over the United States had come to the Hill Country, had spent three of four days there, or even a week, and had gone home to explain this remote place to the rest of America. Hill Country people had a name for them: ‘portable journalists.’ They basically thought I was a portable journalist, too.”
Caro realized that the only way to break down those assumptions was to move to the Hill Country with his wife, Ina, and live there full-time. They ended up staying for three years, and it changed everything. “As soon as the people of the Hill Country realized we were there to stay, their attitude towards us softened. They started to talk to me in a different way,” Caro writes. “I began to hear the details they had not included in the anecdotes they had told me before, stories about a Lyndon Johnson very different from the young man who had previously been portrayed: stories about a very unusual young man, a very brilliant young man, a very ambitious, unscrupulous and quite ruthless person, disliked and even despised, and, by people who knew him especially well, even beginning to be feared.” Investing such time and energy, Caro insists, is pivotal for a journalist to tell a complete story — even if it means temporarily uprooting your life.
“Silence is the weapon.”
Caro can’t preach this loudly enough. If you have the urge to talk or interrupt during an interview, suppress yourself: Shut up. “Interviews: Silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it up — as long as the person isn’t you, the interviewer.” Caro even has a little device that keeps him from being the first to talk during a long pause, however awkward it may be. “When I’m waiting for the person I’m interviewing to break a silence by giving me a piece of information I want, I write ‘SU’ (for shut up!) in my notebook,” he said. “If anyone were ever to look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of ‘SUs’ there.” So if one day you wind up in Caro’s archives, turning every page, look for the SUs in his notebooks; the best dirt will surely follow.
The daily process.
While Caro has no intention of telling journalists how to organize their schedules, he’s happy to offer up his own method. While his schedule isn’t fixed, he writes each day as long as he possibly can, and he’s been doing it the same way over a half-century of biographizing. Here he is on the benefits of good old-fashioned longhand and the best method he’s found for killing his darlings:
I write my first drafts in longhand — pen or pencil — on white legal pads, narrow-lined. I seldom have only one draft in longhand. I’d say I probably have three or four. Then I do the same pages over in a typewriter. When I started writing books, I switched to white legal-size typing paper. You can get more words on a page that way. I triple-space the lines the way I did as a newspaperman, so there will be plenty of room to rewrite in pencil. I rewrite a lot. Sometimes I look at a page I typed but have reworked in pencil, and there’s hardly a word in type left on it. Or no words in type left at all — every one has been crossed out. And often there’s been so much writing and rewriting and erasing that the page is tossed out completely.
The two questions.
If you ever have the privilege to be interviewed by Caro, there’s a guarantee you’re going to be asked these questions again and again and again, repetition be damned: “What did you see?” and, “What did you hear?” Because as Caro reasons, if you talk to people long enough, you can always “find out things from them that maybe they didn’t even realize they knew.” Next time you chat with someone for a story, give it a try. “My interviewees sometimes get quite annoyed with me because I keep asking those questions,” Caro adds as a warning. “I’ve had people get really angry at me. But if you ask it often enough, sometimes you make them see.”