How did you become a writer? I’ve wanted to be a writer since I learned to read. In school, what absorbed me was writing, whether class papers or articles for the school newspaper. I chose college teaching as a profession because it would allow me to write. But writing always meant two different things: non-fiction, in my case academic writing; and literary fiction. I suppose one doesn’t really “become a writer” till the work is published – and you know that you can not only put words on paper, but that they “work” for an audience. So I first became an academic writer (starting in 1966) and then – when academic publication boosted my confidence – a fiction writer (in 1980).
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). Teachers: Miss Rockmore in Freshman English at Brooklyn College, who took my writing seriously as writing as opposed to responding just to the ideas. Writers were my best teachers. Mark Twain, Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Hemingway, Conrad, Paul Horgan – in a strange way, John Ford
When and where do you write? If I’m committed to a project, I prefer to write in the morning, break for lunch – then perhaps go over what I’ve written in the afternoon. If I’m between projects I’m usually still writing, sketching ideas, taking notes – on a more random schedule.
What are you working on now? I’ve just finished a novel, THE BROOKLYN BOYS, about a Jewish war veteran and union organizer (in 1931) trying to get the gangsters out of the garment unions.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? Not as such. I’m always at least playing with possible projects, and I can always sit down and write an article or lecture for a particular occasion. But I’m often between projects, when there’s no book project I can fully commit to.
What’s your advice to new writers? I’m assuming “fiction writers” here. You have to have confidence in the validity of what you have to say, and in your ability to get it said. You have to give yourself license to speak freely on your subject – not worry about critics, but see yourself as the authority on the subject at hand. Of course you’re the authority – who knows better than you what it is you’re trying to say? After that, it’s putting in the time to get the work done.
Richard Slotkin is Olin Professor of American Studies (Emeritus) at Wesleyan University, where he began teaching in 1966. He developed and for more than twenty years directed the American Studies Program, for which he received the 1995 Mary C. Turpie Award of the American Studies Association. He also helped develop Wesleyan’s Film Studies Program.
He was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1942, and educated in the public schools and Brooklyn College before getting his Ph.D. in American Civilization at Brown University (1967).
He is best known for an award-winning trilogy of scholarly books on the myth of the frontier in American cultural history. Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (1973) was a Finalist for the 1974 National Book Award in History, and received the 1973 Albert J. Beveridge Award of the American Historical Association. The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 (1985) received the literary award of the Little Big Horn Associates, and has become a standard reference in the field of American Studies. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America (1992) was a Finalist for the 1993 National Book Award. Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality (2005) combined military and social history to show how war transformed the nation’s understanding of race, ethnicity and social justice. In 2009 he published No Quarter: The Battle of the Petersburg Crater, 1864, a study of the political and military forces that shaped the war’s largest racial massacre. His latest book is Long Road to Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution (2012), which deals with the political and strategic crisis that transformed the conduct and objectives of the Union and the Confederacy.
He has also written three historical novels. Abe: A Novel of the Young Lincoln (2000) received the Michael Shaara Award for Civil War Fiction (2001) and the Salon.com Book Award (2000). A chapter was reprinted in the Library of America’s Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy (2009). The Return of Henry Starr (1988), is a historical Western about an American social bandit. The Crater: A Novel of the Civil War (1980) was the first work of fiction offered by the History Book Club. His other works include So Dreadfull a Judgment, a collection of primary documents concerning King Philip's War (1675-77), published in 1978. Articles and reviews have appeared in American Literary History, American Quarterly, Berkshire Review, Journal of Popular Culture, Prospects 9, American Historical Review, Journal of the West, Western Historical Quarterly, William and Mary Quarterly, Radical History Review and Representations. His article "Nostalgia and Progress: Theodore Roosevelt's Myth of the Frontier," in American Quarterly received the 1981 Don D. Walker Prize as the best article on Western American literature.
Slotkin has been awarded fellowships from the NEH and Rockefeller Foundation. In 1987 he received a Distinguished Achievement Citation from Brown University; and in 1986 was elected a Fellow of the Society of American Historians. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2010, and in 2012 received the Distinguished Achievement Award of the Western Literature Association. He has twice received Wesleyan’s Binswanger “Excellence in Teaching” Award (1997 and 2007).
He often serves as a consultant and on-screen interviewee for media projects on violence, racism, popular culture, the Civil War and the West. Recent projects include “America: The Story of Us,” History Channel (2009-10); Custer’s Last Stand: American Experience (2010); “Clint Eastwood” (American Masters, 2000), “Colt: Legend and Legacy” (PBS/1998), "Big Guns Talk" (TNT, 1997), and “Gunfighter Nation” on Bill Moyers & Co., PBS (2013).