Saturday, May 08, 2010

Q&A with Author Kenneth C. Davis; A Nation Rising, Untold Stories of Flawed Founders, Fallen Heroes, and Forgotten Fighters from America's Hidden History

Kenneth C. Davis is the author of the book, "A Nation Rising; Untold Tales of Flawed Founders, Fallen Heroes, and Forgotten Fighters from America’s Hidden History"

Below is a short interview

“When You Don’t Know Much, Ask a Question: A Q -and- A with Bestselling Historian Kenneth C. Davis”

Since I began my career as a writer more than 25 years ago, I have embraced the basic belief that there are no bad questions—only bad answers.  Whenever I write a new book, give a speech, talk to teachers, students, librarians or radio show audiences, I try to invite questions and tackle them as best I can, while encouraging a spirit of curiosity in adults and children alike.

Here are a few questions that I am often asked —as well as some new ones about my current work.

Q. You didn’t finish college and you're not a trained historian or academic. How did you come to write history books?

A. Years ago, while working as a freelance journalist and book reviewer, I was casting about for a book project when my wife said to me, “You love American history. Why don’t you write about it?” That’s how I got started on Don’t Know Much About History more than 20 years ago. To my surprise the book went onto the New York Times bestseller list, stayed there 35 consecutive weeks and eventually sold over 1.5-million copies. Don’t Know Much About History gave rise to a series of “Don’t Know Much About” books for adults and children.  More recently, I wrote America’s Hidden History, and my new book, A Nation Rising.
        But my love of history is much older –it goes back at least as far as third grade, when I wrote a book about the U.S. presidents with colored markers on construction paper.  (Thanks to my mother, I still have it!) As a child, on family camping trips to places like Gettysburg and Fort Ticonderoga, I learned that history isn’t about marble heroes in textbooks—it happens to real people in real places. And that the “villains” like Aaron Burr or Benedict Arnold can sometimes be heroic too.
        All I’ve done in my books is to share my passion and curiosity and try to replace that “black hole” of dates and battles called “American History” with some true stories of remarkable, real people, told in an entertaining style.

Q. How do you respond to critics who say you are tearing down our history and our heroes with a “negative” approach?

A. I don’t equate “negative” with “accurate.”  People are ignorant of history because they are bored. They are bored because we have created a tidy but false narrative that is more like a bedtime story than real, live history. Our “heroes,” like Andrew Jackson in this new book, were capable of reprehensible things –like cutting off the noses of dead Indians to count casualties. We can put those truths into the context of the times, but we cannot ignore them. And sometimes we can find new “heroes” whose names we didn’t know –like William Weatherford, an American “Braveheart” who fought for his people’s land and freedom. It’s all part of the Hidden History. It’s not always pretty, but it sure is interesting.

Q. What is your new book,  A NATION RISING, all about?

A. This book describes what happened between 1776 and the Civil War –you know, those famous “four score and seven years ago.” More precisely, I set out to tell the story of an extraordinary half-century in which America went “from sea to shining sea.” But I’ve done it through the lens of six stories that your schoolbooks probably ignored. They are stories of courage, corruption, conquest, and conspiracy –not the tidy tales of “rugged individual” pioneers heading west and happy immigrants coming to America, mixing into the “melting pot” and fulfilling the dream.

Q. Of all the things that happened between 1800 and 1850, how did you choose the six stories in this book?

A. I often head down one path of research only to discover all sorts of people and events that have been overlooked –or deliberately erased—by our history books. Aaron Burr is a good example. I learned that as a 19-year-old, he served in the Revolution with Benedict Arnold and that remarkable coincidence fascinated me. Then I went on to find that this extraordinary character, who was reduced to a murderous scoundrel, was actually more complex and quite noble –he was a war hero, an early abolitionist and an advocate of the vote for women.  Or in looking into Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans, I found another story in the Fort Mims Massacre in Alabama that led to Jackson’s brutal first war with Native Americans, who called him “Sharp Knife.”  I had never heard of Fort Mims, but it was the deadliest frontier massacre in American history, a 19th-century “9/11” moment. But most of us never heard the name “Fort Mims.”
        Each of these stories involves this incredible expansion of America –what the textbooks called “Manifest Destiny.” But they left out the sordid details and the human cost of that lofty goal: the ethnic cleansing in our own past; the violent fights over religion; the vicious attacks on immigrants. And these stories are not only fascinating; they are important and obviously timely. We are still fighting over immigrants and religion in America.

Q. You've sold 4.5-million books. But your name isn't as well known as other historians. Why is that?

A. I may be the “Rodney Dangerfield of American History “—”I don’t get no respect.” No, seriously, my satisfaction doesn't come from being famous but rather from hearing a parent who says that my books got their kids hooked on history. And there’s always the student who gratefully tells me, “Your book got me through my AP History exam.” But the best compliment is when a teacher comments, “Your books made me want to teach History.”  I consider that a good day’s work!

© 2010 Kenneth C. Davis

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