Moses needed five books to tell of the Jews' journey to freedom; Taylor Branch needed only three for African-Americans', ending with At Canaan's Edge (Reviews, Dec. 19).
Congratulations on finishing this monumental project.
Thank you. I'm a little numb. I started in June of '82. That's when I got the contract and started working. I started trying to get the contract before that, in some ways years before that, because I always asked Alice [Mayhew] or whoever my publisher was, Can I do the Civil Rights movement yet? And they always said, No, you have to get more experience.
What did you do before this?
I broke into books out of magazines as a ghostwriter, which was common back then—this was in the mid-'70s. My first book was with John Dean, called Blind Ambition, about Watergate. And then, I thought if I were going to be a writer, a real writer was a novelist. And ghostwriting was practice for becoming a novelist because you write in the voice and heart of another person. I picked the next ghostwriting offer from the person most different from Dean and did a book with Bill Russell, who played center for the Boston Celtics.
How did you come to want to write about Martin Luther King?
I grew up in Atlanta in that period... it changed the direction of my interests against my will. I didn't grow up in a political family. But the Civil Rights movement planted the question: where did this come from and what did it mean?—what did it mean for an American, what did it mean for somebody like me who felt simultaneously touched by it to the core and separate from it, because I was a white Southerner.
Now that it's over, you say you feel numb. Do you feel bereft?
Yes, I feel a loss, but it's a real jumble because I'm thrilled that it's done, in part because I've been doing it for so long.... I knew I could get run over by a bus and that maybe I'd never finish it.... I'm nervous about how it's going to do. I think this book reflects my conviction that it's not just dusty history, that it's contemporary, that these are the same issues that still define our politics about how you create freedom.... We should at least be discussing whether or not we could advance freedom in Iraq by nonviolence.... So I'm nervous as to whether that message will strike a nerve.