It’s been my privilege to be in the personal spaces of several writers. Among others, Pulitzer winner Tony Horwitz warmly welcomed me at his home on Martha’s Vineyard as did William F. Buckley at his place on Long Island Sound.
I have interviewed over 200 authors. Everyone has their own style with reading, capturing what they have read, research, and then writing. In my own writing I have settled on an approach that certainly has its idiosyncrasies.
Moore: Do you still acquire books as you get older or have you slowed down a bit?
McClay: Haven’t slowed down at all. I have stopped acquiring works of new fiction, a whole realm to which I’ve ceased to pay much attention. But I’ve more than made up for it by the expansion of my interests into other areas.
Moore: What are the best time(s) and place(s) for you to write?
McClay: I write best in my study at home, late at night. Not the only time or place to write, but the best one.
Moore: How do you capture your research? Old school with note cards etc., or new school with computer programs?
McClay: All of the above, but for factoids and quotations and the like, mainly written notecards of various colors, and sometimes legal pads, or notes recorded in Word files. I make far less use of computer programs, aside from compiling bibliographical material.
Moore: Do you immediately start writing on the computer (perhaps typewriter) or by longhand?
McClay: I start with a handwritten outline, often quite bizarre in its structure, and frequently illegible even to me. But thereafter I compose on the screen.
Moore: Do you put marginalia in your physical books?
McClay: Oh yes. That’s one of life’s great pleasures, and one of the many good reasons to own your own copies of books. But only if you revisit your old books frequently, as I do. There is tremendous interest in coming upon marginal notes that you recorded many years before. I just reread The Iliad in the same Richmond Lattimore translation that I used as a college freshman, and was bowled over by the intelligence and liveliness of the marginalia. I used to be so much smarter!
Moore: Do you read digital books?
McClay: When I have to. Not one of life’s great pleasures. But sometimes very helpful. Scholars use lots of books that they don’t really read in the conventional sense, but merely trawl through, looking for particular things, aided by copious use of the index. A digital book works well enough for that. But you know you are in the presence of a different kind of book when you can’t do that, or don’t want to try. And when that happens, you want to be able to hold the book in your hands.
Moore: What is some good advice you received on writing?
McClay: Do not wait too long to start writing. The best time to start is when you don’t yet feel quite ready to start. You are the one who must free the sculpture from the stone. So get to it! But keeping in mind that, unlike Michelangelo, you can work in drafts.
Moore: What do you think is your best book?
McClay: I’m not wild about any of them, but probably LAND OF HOPE is the least bad. But let me make a qualification. It’s completely different from everything else I’ve written, since it is essentially a textbook, self-consciously written to be accessible to an intelligent high-school readership. Probably the least esteemed form of writing there is in my field. But the discipline of being compelled to write in that way forced me to write far better than I ever have, by demanding that I eschew obfuscation, cut out the academic hemming and hawing, and otherwise distill and concentrate what I had to say. The process was a revelation to me, and a part of me now wants to go back and rewrite everything I’ve ever written. But only a part.
Moore: Please name a few of your favorite authors from your own field of study
McClay: I assume you mean historical scholars and such, rather than primary texts? I would say Henry Adams (considered as an historian and not as a historical artifact), Eugene Genovese, Daniel Boorstin, Daniel Walker Howe, Pauline Maier, Kenneth Lockridge, John Lukacs, George Marsden, Kenneth Lynn, John Shelton Reed, Constance Rourke, Edmund Morgan, Gordon Wood, C. Vann Woodward, David Hackett Fischer, Bernard Bailyn, Christopher Lasch, Allen Guelzo, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Sean Wilentz, Mark Noll, Andrew Delbanco, and I had better stop there, .but I could keep going. I should add that I keep coming back for insight to the great foreign observers of America, not only Tocqueville and Bryce, but also Santayana and D.H. Lawrence and Luigi Barzini and several others. They saw so many things about us that we cannot, or will not, see on our own.
Moore: What is a book you should have read by now, but haven't? This will make all of us sleep better!
McClay: OK, if we want for people to sleep better—which is a noble enough motive—I must resist the temptation to answer this in a show-offy way, as in a Dewar’s Profile. I shouldn’t say, for example, that golly gee, I still haven’t finished Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, although I’ve been meaning to get around to it, once I’ve finished with Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. The confession for which you’re asking can’t engage in that kind of conspicuous shamebragging. It has to be at least a bit genuinely embarrassing. So here goes. I haven’t read any Dickens, beyond Christmas Carol and Tale of Two Cities, next to no Thomas Hardy. I haven’t read a single word of Proust or Salman Rushdie. Moreover, I’ve never even read Where the Wild Things Are, and never finished the Narnia Chronicles or the Lewis space trilogy. So sue me. After you’ve gotten some sleep.