How did you become a writer?
I’d like to say I was focused and intent on being a writer early on, but that wasn’t the case. I drifted from course to course in college and finally ended up as an English major at Wake Forest University, but hardly a stellar student. My junior and senior year, I began taking a few journalism classes and working on the student newspaper. I found I liked journalism.
My first eight years out of college, I worked for newspapers in North Carolina, where I sat on a copy desk, covered the criminal courts, wrote some investigative pieces, and learned the craft of writing along the way. I took a break from journalism for eight years and worked as a legislative assistant in Congress. Next I moved to Newsweek and then to Time magazine as a correspondent. At Newsweek I began writing books on the side. Now I write books fulltime.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Bynum Shaw, who had worked for the Baltimore Sun, taught the journalism classes at Wake Forest and had written several superb novels, was my mentor. He taught me the basics of reporting and inspired me. He also got me my first two newspaper jobs in North Carolina. As a young writer, I read countless fiction and nonfiction books along the way to try to copy the styles of the authors.
The best book I’ve ever read on writing clearly and concisely is The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. At Newsweek, my boss Evan Thomas (who was the magazine’s Washington bureau chief and a best-selling author) taught me how to be a magazine writer and passed on a lot of valuable advice on book writing.
When and where do you write?
Writing is a nine-to-five job for me. I go to the office (which is now the third floor of our home) Monday through Friday to research and write.
What are you working on now?
Simon & Schuster just published my sixth commercial book: Disciples: The World War II Missions of the CIA Directors Who Fought for Wild Bill Donovan. This is a World War II spy book, which follows my last biography of General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services, Franklin Roosevelt’s World War II spy agency. For my next book, I plan to shift from World War II to the Civil War and write about spying during that conflict.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
No. Some days the writing might be more labored than on other days. But if I ever became afflicted with writer’s block, I’d just say to myself--“Get over it. And get over it quickly.” Writing is a job like any other job, as far as I’m concerned. If you’re a factory worker, a business person or whatever, and you show up one morning and tell your boss, “I don’t feel like working today,” he or she will likely tell you, “Get over it or you don’t get paid.”
What’s your advice to new writers?
I’m frequently asked this when I talk to students who want to be writers. Or I plant the question with the audience. My answer: study everything, absorb everything. Read not only poetry, short stories, plays, novels, and nonfiction works to soak up the style and voice of other authors. Also take classes in the sciences, mathematics, history, politics and economics. You don’t know what you’ll need to know as a writer.
I’ll give you an example. I wrote BIG RED, a nonfiction book on a Navy nuclear submarine. I recounted in one dramatic scene how the crew tracked enemy submarines and fired torpedoes at them. Calculating the firing solution for launching a torpedo at another sub requires the crew to use trigonometry. I had trigonometry in high school and it went in one ear and out the other. Before I could watch this exercise in the sub and recreate it for my readers, the boat’s executive officer gave me evening classes in trigonometry so I would understand what I was seeing.
On October 6, Simon & Schuster released Douglas Waller’s latest book: Disciples: The World War Two Missions of the CIA Directors who fought for Wild Bill Donovan. His other books include the best-sellers Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, The Commandos: The Inside Story of America's Secret Soldiers, and BIG RED: The Three-Month Voyage Of A Trident Nuclear Submarine. Waller also wrote Air Warriors: The Inside Story of the Making of a Navy Pilot and the critically acclaimed biography, A Question of Loyalty: Gen. Billy Mitchell and the Court-Martial that Gripped the Nation.