How did you become a writer?
I’m a professor (my PhD is in sociology), and academic writing is a big part of my job description. American Eden ismy second book, but it’s the first book I had the freedom to write exactly how I wanted—as a work of narrative nonfiction with character development, pacing, and sensory depth. When I first stumbled across a mention of David Hosack and his lost garden at the heart of Manhattan Island a decade ago, I instantly knew I wanted to write a book that would reach readers of narrative nonfiction. To do this, I needed a kind of mentorship that was not available from my immediate circle of academic colleagues, wonderful as they were. I had the fortune of becoming friends at just the right time with Scott Ellsworth, the author of the brilliant book The Secret Game. He strongly encouraged me to write the book I was dreaming about. He has been my weekly “writing buddy” for many years now, and I couldn’t have written American Eden without his support and ideas. Every new writer should have a Scott Ellsworth in their lives—someone who is cheering you on, talking shop, and keeping you on track with deadlines.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Among nonfiction writers, my three big influences are Ron Chernow, Erik Larson, and Andrea Wulf. I’ve studied their books over and over on my own and have also had the pleasure of conversations about writing with two of them. Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton is indispensable for me, not just because David Hosack was Hamilton’s (and Burr’s) doctor, but because Chernow knows how to make a 700-page book utterly riveting. Larson’s Devil in the White Cityis a masterclass in how to sweep a reader up in the emotional stakes of a character’s life and ambitions. Wulf has written gorgeous, rigorous works of scientific history whose narrative pacing makes the heart pound—especially TheInvention of Nature, her biography of the great Alexander von Humboldt.
I also read novels constantly; my favorites are Dickens, James, Trollope, and Woolf, and they have definitely shaped my tastes as a writer. But in terms of direct writerly influence from novelists, my sister Elizabeth Kostova (author of The Historian, The Swan Thieves, and The Shadow Land) is at the top of the list. She’s an incredibly imaginative and generous person, and she’s taught me so much about both the craft of writing and the practical aspects of being a writer.
When and where do you write?
Every day that I don’t have to be on campus for teaching or meetings, I work in my Manhattan apartment, which is on the top floor of a 21-story building. There’s a lot of sky. I am a cocooner—I have to have music playing in my noise-canceling headphones to settle into my manuscript. I stayed off social media almost completely for years, because it would have ruined my concentration. Some people can toggle back and forth easily. I can’t. Some days I write for ten hours; other days I get only an hour, or even nothing. On days when I don’t get any time to write at all, I try to at least open my writing file and read a little of what I’ve done. It keeps the story and people alive in my imagination until I can write again.
What are you working on now?
I’ve got some new book ideas percolating, but I’m currently on a sixty-stop book tour, and I also teach full-time. In my spare moments, I’m working on a very short documentary about David Hosack with the graphic artist Markley Boyer. Our video will include a virtual-reality version of Hosack’s botanical garden, which he built on twenty acres of rural Manhattan he purchased in 1801. Today that land is home to Rockefeller Center. You will be able to “walk” toward 30 Rock and suddenly find yourself strolling through Hosack’s fields of grain and up the hill into his conservatory (now the site of Radio City Music Hall). I find it thrilling that we are always moving through layers of history when we go about our daily lives. I tried to convey that thrill in the pages of American Eden. Now I want to make it visually immediate for people.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Not in a way that lasted more than a few hours. I had a ritual while writing American Eden. If I was stumped on how to bring an event or character to life with my words, I would open Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City to a random page and read for a while. Because that book is so vivid and intense, this ritual always shook loose whatever had gotten stuck in my own writing. American Eden is a very different kind of book from Devil, and I’m not Erik Larson. But as a way to keep me writing, it worked every time. I think it’s called inspiration. Everyone can find some version of this technique; it’s just a matter of figuring out what unfreezes your imagination.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
“Write relationships.” A truly great biographer suggested this to me before I started writing American Eden. (Eternal gratitude.) He pointed out to me that people are absolutely fascinated by watching humans interacting. Will they love each other? Hate each other? Snipe behind one another’s backs? Reconcile after falling out? I rushed to apply this advice to my mountains of archival documents and realized that it was the secret to both the structure of my book and its emotional core. After that, I never had any doubts about the form it should take.
What’s your advice to new writers?
First, if you haven’t read it yet, read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. The title story of this book helped me get my first draft written. The other seven or eight drafts were easy compared to that one—and often very fun. When writing is going well, there’s almost no feeling more joyful and absorbing. Second, if you feel driven to write and would be unhappy if you can’t, you should feel fine about protecting your writing time. It’s not a comfortable choice to make, often, and it’s not without consequences, but it’s legitimate. It might even preserve your sanity and bring you intense happiness, which is good for everyone around you.
Victoria Johnson is the author of American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic (Liveright/W.W. Norton, 2018), which was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award in nonfiction and a New York TimesNotable Book of the year. She is an Associate Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College of the City University of New York. For more go to americaneden.org.