It’s early morning on a Wednesday in Burlington, Vt., near Lake Champlain, and Garrett M. Graff is in the 19th-century carriage barn that he uses as a writing studio, which is steps from the home he shares with his wife and two young kids.
Filled with eclectic historical memorabilia, the place looks like a candy store for history buffs and features a wall of Richard Nixon political buttons; an Oliver No. 5 typewriter, circa 1910; and a yellow biochemical suit that, according to Graff, the Secret Service once kept in George W. Bush’s backup limo.
“When I’m working on history books, I like to accumulate random doodads and artifacts,” Graff explains over Zoom, adding that he hunts for treasures on eBay and in antique shops. “To me, it’s one thing to write about stuff and something else to hold these things in your hands and think about what that represents.”
Graff, a contributor to Wired and CNN, has been reporting on politics, technology, and national security for nearly two decades and uses history, he says, “to help people understand how we ended up where we are and to think about where we’re going.” He’s the director for cyber initiatives at the Aspen Institute, as well as the host of the podcast Long Shadow, whose second season, about the rise of the American far right, is out now. His six previous books—including 2019’s The Only Plane in the Sky, an oral history of 9/11, and 2022’s Watergate, which was a Pulitzer finalist—have approximately 400,000 copies in print, according to Graff’s publisher, Avid Reader Press, and have been translated into eight languages.
His action-packed seventh book, UFO: The Inside Story of the U.S. Government’s Search for Alien Life Here—and Out There, out in November, is a history of UFOs that spans 75 years and covers, among other things, the rise in sightings of flying saucers after WWII, UFO conspiracy theories after Watergate, and the U.S. government’s efforts in recent years to engage in dialogue about extraterrestrial life.
“My book is about UFOs,” Graff says, “but what it’s actually about is the biggest question in human existence: are we alone?” The author—a self-identified over-researcher who amasses 100–150 books on a subject before he starts writing—became interested in 2020 in doing a book about UFOs and UAPs (“unidentified anomalous phenomena” is the government’s new catchall term that encompasses unexplained phenomena in space, in the air, and underwater) after hearing an interview with former CIA director John Brennan. “Brennan basically said, ‘There’s weird stuff up there, we don’t know what it is,’ and that caught my attention. Brennan has spent his life in the upper ranks of the U.S. national security apparatus. There can’t be that many things he can’t find answers to.”
Close encounters of the weird kind abound in Graff’s book: the author discusses crop circle hoaxes and claims of alien abductions and probes. It’s both a fun and earnest work, a definitive history that the subject deserves. Among the topics he tackles is whether the government is engaged in an alien cover-up and hiding evidence in some top-secret bunker.
“There’s a huge government cover-up, but I remain unconvinced that it’s a cover-up of actual knowledge,” Graff says. “This is more a cover-up of ignorance.” If the government is covering up anything, he adds, it’s the testing of its military technology and its knowledge of technology being tested by China and Russia. Still, he is sure strange things are among us.
“There’s almost certainly life out there in the universe,” he says. “The math of whether we’ll interact with it is incredibly challenging. What I hope readers take away from the book is this profound sense of wonder about where we rank in the universe. At a certain level, the least interesting question is, are there flying saucers visiting Earth?”
Graff has a genius for writing complex books that are a breeze to read—and no one knows that better than his editor Julianna Haubner. “Garrett is one of the smartest people I know,” Haubner says. “Every time he delivers a manuscript I know I’m about to be immersed in a 12-part Ken Burns–type documentary. He wants to answer every question. There’s no stone unturned.”
Howard Yoon, Graff’s agent at William Morris Endeavor, has worked with Graff since The Only Plane in the Sky, which Graff calls “potentially the most important work I will do in my life.”
“Garrett represents a younger generation of writers who will become fixtures in the nonfiction landscape,” Yoon says. “If Garrett could write a book a year he would. We sometimes have to tell him to slow down. He’s a machine, in the best way.”
Born in 1981 in Montpelier, Vt., Graff is a third-generation journalist who liked history from a young age. “I remember my elementary school teacher saying, ‘I’ve never met a student who loves reading history as much as you,’ ” he recalls. He applied to Harvard at the recommendation of his high school principal, majored in history there, and graduated in 2003 “at the bottom 7% of my class.” He couldn’t find a newspaper internship (“I applied to one after the other”) and turned to magazine writing after moving to Washington, D.C., in 2004. He eventually became the editor of the Washingtonian, then Politico, and in 2015 moved back to Vermont and focused on books.
Jack Shafer, Politico’s senior media writer, worked with Graff at the publication in the 2010s, and Graff co-dedicated Watergate to him. “I don’t think I ever saw Garrett angry,” Shafer says. “He’s an even-tempered, positive guy. He’s got an extraordinary skill at taking difficult issues and making them digestible. He’s good at digging new silos and telling stories that aren’t derivative of old ones.”
Vivian Schiller, Graff’s boss at the Aspen Institute, calls him a go-to collaborator. “Garrett is a walking encyclopedia about the government,” she says. “He’s funny and has a massive heart. He’s just a good dude.”
Friendly and generous with his time, Graff makes hard work look easy. He’s already prepping for his next book, an oral history of D-Day, and sifting through 80 years of memoirs and records. It’s difficult to know when he sleeps—making one wonder if perhaps he’s part extraterrestrial.
“My life doesn’t have room for random fun right now,” admits the author, who gives a shout-out in the acknowledgments section of UFO to the nanny who helps him and his wife, a college administrator, with their kids. Graff is known for his pages-long acknowledgments, which are thank you notes to the people in his life. He dedicated UFO to his son and hopes the book will inspire individuals young and old to seek knowledge about the universe.
“If my kids can grow up with that intrinsic curiosity alive within them,” Graff says, “they’ll be able to be great humans.”
Elaine Szewczyk’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and other publications. She’s the author of the novel I’m with Stupid.
This article has been updated for clarity.