Listen: Candice Millard on writing, exploration and her upcoming lecture
By William Padmore, Host/Reporter Nebraska Public Media
Sept. 23, 2022, 5 a.m. ·
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New York Times best-selling author Candice Millard is this year’s speaker for the Governor’s Lecture in Humanities Series. The discussion will be held Wednesday, Sept. 28 at 7:30 p.m. at the Lied Center. The discussion will also be livestreamed. Throughout her career, Millard has used her skill as a journalist and author to explore, humanize and contextualize people and events in ways that may be surprising to readers. In her latest book, "River of the Gods: Genius, Courage and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile", Millard analyzes an ill-begotten journey to discover the source of one of the most important rivers in history. Nebraska Public Media’s William Padmore spoke with her prior to her talk.
Editor's Note: This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
William Padmore: Do you want to start by just telling me about your upbringing and how you fell in love with books and writing?
Millard: I grew up in a little town in Ohio, a little blue-collar town. I didn't know anyone. I didn't know any writers, anyone who was a writer. So it didn't really occur to me that I could be a writer. But I loved to read, I spent all my time going to the library and reading books. So I just knew I wanted to do something that involves books and somehow reading and so my dream for a long time was to work at National Geographic magazine. And I was finally able to make that happen when I was sort of in my late 20s. I had I have two degrees in English literature, but really interested in history. And so I was able to get a job on National Geographic magazine. I was there for six years, and I was kind of their point person for stories about history and biography stories about people. And that's what always really interested me, and so then I moved to Kansas City. I got married. My husband has a company here, and that's when I started writing books.
Padmore: Now, you say that you're a point person for history and, obviously, there's a deep love there. Just going over your catalog of work, it takes a lot of effort and resources to make these things real, right? Anybody who reads even a portion of your books can understand how much painstaking research goes into it. So, like, what are the elements of a good story? When you decide to commit to a story what are those things that you look for?
Millard: Yeah, you got right to the heart of what I do, actually. I always say the idea is the most important part of the story, so I've had a lot of ideas that have never and should never see the light of day because they just wouldn't work. In something that I'm going to write, I try to find the same thing that I would want to read because, like I said, I love to read. I love a story. If I'm completely sucked in, I forget where I am, who I am. I'm just completely absorbed by the story and in order to do that, with nonfiction, you have to have just a wealth of primary source material. You have to be drowning in letters and diaries and newspaper articles and books. So that's what I spend most of my time on. So when I when I finally have found a story that I'm really interested in, then I know I have a ton of primary source material to work with. It takes me- so overall, it takes me about five years to write a book, and 80-to-almost-90% of that is doing research. So I start with a very wide net, just getting everything I can, trying to understand all the aspects of the story. And then I spent about a year outlining it and figuring out how I'm going to tell the story - working on the structure. And then I see holes in my research, so I go back and do more research. So it's really not until like the last year really that I start writing.
Padmore: Oh boy. What's harder the research – or staring at that blank page, when you have all the research done?
Millard: Definitely staring at the blank page! But I love the research. I'm completely an archive nerd. I love it. I love going to where the story played out. And that's really an amazing opportunity, but I also really love working in archives. The blank page problem is one of the reasons that I outline because when I start to write at least I know, okay, this is how I'm going to tell the story, so I have at least an idea of how to begin.
Padmore: At the core, many of your books focus on these titanic figures in history and their exploits, right? And you tie them to the real world often, you know, by their mistakes. Whether it be Roosevelt being a little bit too overzealous in the Amazon or Winston Churchill being a little bit too overzealous in South America. Why focus on these figures at these particular moments of their lives? What does that do?
Millard: I realized very early on with these figures and any sort of big person from history or even the people we don't know, the way we can connect to people, to anyone is to understand we have these connections, right? So we've all experienced sorrow or fear or envy or, or joy or triumph, frustration and that's the way we can connect to each other and to understand each other and that can cross you know, geographical distance. It can cross historical differences. It’s how we see each other as human. And what interests me in these In the sort of larger-than-life characters are not their moments of triumph actually. It's their moments when they're struggling – when they're sort of grasping trying to find a foothold and trying to find their way and we've all been there in some way and we can connect to. Someone like Winston Churchill or Theodore Roosevelt that can seem almost mythical, but that we can understand. With Theodore Roosevelt, he, again and again, throughout his life when he would find himself in a situation where he's grieving or he's failed, he would throw himself into these really difficult, really dangerous situations. It's sort of a type of therapy. And Winston Churchill, was the same, you know? When I wrote about him, he's just 24-25 years old, but always throwing himself into these really dangerous – not just into war – but the most dangerous opportunities that he can find. Because he thinks that, if people will pay attention, he'll become famous and that's how he'll propel that to political power. So, again, and again, I think you can see someone's character to what James Garfield used to call "the bed of the sea." Everything's kind of stripped away, and you can see them for who they are.
Padmore: When we talk about storytelling and shared histories, I noticed that you take great pains to put the spotlight on characters and institutions that people may not have heard of, or associated with these great explorers and figures of history. Now, what is the thinking behind telling those stories in addition to our "main characters" like Teddy Roosevelt?
Millard: Well, I think as a writer of history, one of my obligations, one of my responsibilities is to try to tell the truth as best that I can. And the truth about exploration, this Gilded Age of Exploration is that none of it would have happened without the people who lived in these places, you know? And I think it's, I mean – let me be clear – I'm obviously far from the forest to make that point or to put it in my book. But, as I said, I worked at National Geographic for six years. I had never heard the name Sidi Mubarak Bombay. I think most people have never heard of him. He was, without a doubt, one of the greatest explorers in the history of African exploration. He took Burton and Speke to Lake Tanganyika, and they became the first Europeans to reach Lake Tanganyika, which is in western Tanzania. He took Speke to the Nyanza, the largest lake in Africa, the source of the Nile –which Speke then named for a British Queen. He took Henry Morton Stanley to find David Livingstone. You know Dr. Livingstone, I presume? We've all heard that story. That was Bombay. And then with Verney Lovett Cameron, he became the first across the entire continent from east to west. And so obviously, he did so much to help map his own continent, but very few people have heard his name. And honestly, when it was when I heard about Bombay, when I read about him, that's when I decided this was a story I wanted to tell because, you know, we need, he needs to be put back into the history books. I mean, he was essential to our understanding of Africa.
William Padmore: It'd be like telling the story of Lewis and Clark without Sacagawea.
Candice Millard: Right, exactly. Exactly.
William Padmore: Now, here's a more existential question. For you, being an author of the printed page, how has technology do you think changed the way we absorb history? And what are your thoughts on the relevant relevance of a narrative long form of storytelling to teach history in an era of instant gratification and solutions in the palm of our hand?
Candice Millard: I think we love stories, I think, you know, human beings love stories. I have so much deep respect for historians and for academics and what they do is vitally, vitally important. But I also think that storytelling also brings a truth because if it's a series of facts, and figures and dates and names, it takes out an essential truth about history, which, again, is that that shared experience, right? The joy and envy and things that we talked about before, so I don't worry about it too much. I mean, in a way, technology has helped made my job a lot easier. You know, so many archives have digitized a huge portion of their letters and things. I always go to the archives if I can, but sometimes I can't. Also, sometimes I'll go, and then I'll miss something so I can, you know, I email them, and they, they'll send me a digitized version of it I can get online. I can also find archives that I would never have known about. Even the smallest archive today seems to have its own little website, so I can find them. I can also find books sometimes. People sometimes will self-publish a book – for instance, with Winston Churchill – there was a guy who was in South Africa with him, who wrote a diary, and his grandson found it and self-published it, and it had all this great detail that I wouldn't have been able to find anywhere else. So in a way technology is, really great for storytelling, for, as you say, long-form narrative nonfiction. But I don't worry. I think people will continue to want to hear stories, even if they're, they take more of their time. I hope so.
Padmore: And for those who are listening to this, who also aspire to be bestselling authors one day, what are some important tools, tips and tricks you'd recommend? And what would you recommend people avoid?
Millard: Well, first of all, believe in yourself. It sounds cliché, but again, I came from this little town in Ohio. I never thought that – I mean I never thought I would be writing books. But I just love to read. I love to write. I love to tell stories. So I just kept trying and like we were talking about earlier, spend a lot of time on the idea, even if you think this is such a great story. I've had several ideas that I've had to walk away from because I just didn't have enough primary source material. So if you want to write narrative nonfiction, you have to have that wealth of source material. I also would highly recommend outlining like I said, I mean, when I talk to high school students, they do not like to hear that but you want to have things like foreshadowing and stuff, and in order to do that, you need to figure out your structure. And also like you said, you really help yourself, I always laugh with my kids, I always say thank you past Candace for doing this, because it really pays off in the end you know? You're not starting from nothing, you have an idea of how you're going to tell this story. What would I avoid? I would avoid falling in love with your own writing, which you know, they always say "kill your children" when you're editing. You have to be kind of brutal about that. My first book, when I first turned it in, it was like 100 pages longer than it ended up being. So it's Theodore Roosevelt and he's trying he's on this river, right, this River of Doubt, all these people die on it. But it took a month to get to this river. Well, I'm from National Geographic. I'm like: "Well, that's part of the story, we have to put it in." But there's so much that you, the reader just didn't need to know. And you would lose readers along the way. And so what I do, sometimes when I find something that I think: "Wow!" This, to me, is really fascinating, and I haven't seen it anywhere else. I hate to not include it, but it's a distraction. I put it in the notes. And so there I feel like if somebody's interested, they can see it. I feel like okay, I've put it down, I feel better about it. But it's not taking away from the story itself.
Padmore: I know that you like to travel to many of the locations that you mentioned in your book, including the Nile and the River of Doubt. So what is the strangest or most fun place that you visited in relation to your work?
Millard: Oh, it has to be East Africa. I had been in East Africa. I've been in Ethiopia when I was at National Geographic and just absolutely fell in love with it, and was really excited to be able to go back. And I'll tell you a little story though. When I did the research for this last book, I had planned it. It takes a long time to plan it and saving up the money to be able to spend to get there and spend while I'm there. and Finally, the date we landed on was February of 2020. And I just didn't know that it was going to be that big of a deal. The pandemic wasn't a huge deal in the United States yet, and I didn't get back until well into March. So I was kind of worried that they wouldn't let me back in. But I had the most incredible time you went to Zanzibar, Tanzania and Uganda. When I was in Tanzania, I went to Lake Tanganyika which, as I said, Burton and Speke went to, and Burton had hoped was a source of the Nile. And I was trying to get in and it's huge. I mean, it's just an absolutely enormous lake, and I was trying to get from one bank to the other. And the boat I was waiting for was delayed because there had been a storm. And finally, they reached us, but it's dark by then. And the water is really rough. And we're in an open boat. It's small. It maybe can hold 10 people and you feel like you're on a storm-tossed sea. We were just flipped. I mean, the boat was just tipping all the way over – like we're holding on because it's tipping. And this is a trip of a couple of hours. And I said to my husband I was honestly really scared. I said: "Look how far the bank is. If we capsize there's no way we can swim that far." He said: "Oh, don't worry about it. The crocodiles will eat us before we get near it." I was seriously scared. And reading you know Speke's –especially, his diaries and things when he's writing when he's on this river – he talks about those crocodiles because the people he was riding with who knew the lake really well. He would eat and then he would dump the rest of whatever he had leftover into the water, and they were so angry with him because they were like: "That's going to attract those crocodiles. And they'll just knock you right out of the boat and eat you."
Padmore: Oh my gosh. Never say that research can't be harrowing in its own sense. Okay, so I only have one more question for you. And I can't let you go without asking it. I've noticed this in your other interviews, probably a long-running gag. At some point, someone has to bring up Madame Curie. Okay. Are we any closer to seeing that book?
Millard: No, that's what that's a great example of an idea that I had to walk away from. I spent a year trying to make that work. But the problem was all the action takes place in her mind. Her personal story is incredible. But yeah, with the kind of writing I do would be like: "Oh, yeah, she's still in our laboratories." So she's still there. But I will say that I can't say exactly what my next book is. But my next book, the central character is a woman.
Padmore: A little tease for the listeners. Candace, thank you again so much for doing this. I appreciate you taking the time out, and we look forward to seeing you on September 28.
Millard: Thank you so much, William. I'm I really enjoyed it.