Q&A With Stacy Schiff

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Q&A With Stacy Schiff 

Another Q&A to start off 2024 is with author, former essayist & editor Stacy Schiff. Some of Stacy’s many well known books are CLEOPATRA: A LIFE, THE WITCHES: SALEM 1692, VERA (MRS. VLADIMIR NABOKOV) & The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams. Stacy has had work appear in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The New Yorker & The New York Times! 

Q: Q: How do you choose a topic for writing historical non-fiction books? 

A:  Each book has arrived differently but insofar as the process is similar, each has begun as a mild thrum that developed, sooner or later, into an obsession.  And at least some of the reasons for the obsession tend to reveal themselves only later.  With VERA for example I kept tripping over her absence in her husband’s biographies.  There she stood on nearly every dedication page Nabokov wrote and yet she was missing from the critical literature.  Who was this woman, who accompanied her husband to every one of his Cornell classes, whose image he admitted was refracted throughout the work, who typed every one of her husband’s pages, many of which counted among my favorites?  It did not occur to me at the time that I was newly married and probably eager to spend a few years thinking about partnerships.  Similarly, the epidemic of 1692 witchcraft began when two pre-adolescent girls began to writhe and shriek.  I thought that an interest in women’s voices had led me to the Salem trials; they seemed somehow a logical next step after CLEOPATRA. Only after I had finished the book did a friend point out that I had been living for those years with an adolescent daughter.

Q: What is the process like when researching, writing, and editing your historical nonfiction books? How long does it typically take for you to write a book?

A: It generally takes five years, though THE REVOLUTIONARY took six.  That book was especially difficult to write; it was also a Covid book, which meant that I lost a few months to Purell-sourcing and to inaccessible archives.  I spent the first few years exclusively researching, which is highly ineffective and not what most of my wiser colleagues do.  It also means that for several years I feel I am compulsively grocery shopping for a meal I’m never actually going to cook.  But by the time I settle down to write I know where the material can’t take me and where it will, I can begin to see something of the arc of the story, I know where I’m going to want to slip in a narrative detour or two.  Also by the time I settle down to write I like to be in my office every day, including weekends; if I stray too far from my misshapen draft I feel I’ve essentially left the patient to expire on the operating table.  

Q: What is your advice to anyone wanting to write historical nonfiction? What do you enjoy the most about it?

A:  I don’t know that what one learns with one book necessarily translates into lessons for the next, but I do know that the only way one learns anything in this business is by reading.  So that is my prescription for the aspiring nonfiction writer.  It would probably help to spend a few years as a private detective, especially if one’s research is likely to include interviews. Those are not my favorite part of the process, in part as I’m shy.  The writing is:  The thrill of winding up somewhere you had not envisioned three hours earlier when you sat down at your desk is, to me, the enduring thrill of this exercise.  It’s a magical process:  Ideas somehow materialize on the page that you could not have located in your conscious mind.  Put differently, writing is thinking, with (in my case) a pencil in your hand.

Q: What was it like being an editor and essayist? What would be your advice for anyone wanting to go into those fields?

A:  I started out as an editor and could happily have remained one; it’s a fabulous job, especially for anyone who likes (as, arguably, does the biographer) to stand somewhere outside the spotlight.  To start out as an editor is also to start out on a salary that will require sacrifice, supplementation, or both; I did freelance work throughout my first years in publishing, as it was impossible to live on the salary otherwise.  There’s no better way, in my mind, to see what makes a book work than to disassemble and reassemble it, as editors do.  The only regret is that the former editor cannot work this astonishing feat on herself.

Q: What’s it like having your work featured in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, THE NEW YORKER & The New York Times? How would someone go about submitting pieces into those famous publications if they wanted to?

A:  Anyone can submit an op-ed piece; it’s a matter of finding the name of a receptive editor and respecting her word-count.  In a way this is easier when you have a prior relationship, though as op-ed editors are perennially hungry for fresh voices, a prior relationship – or a recently published piece – can also work against you.  The closer parallel one can draw between one’s subject and current events the better. It was easy to convince a Wall Street Journal editor, with whom I had never worked, that a 2022 piece on fake news in early America had some relevance.  To your first question:  Sometimes these pieces elicit a loud, wide-ranging response, as was the case with an essay I did on rifts among the founding fathers. (  And just as often they disappear without a trace.