Jason Emerson is a man of many talents who knows his passion. Although I normally sway to interviewing fictional authors I knew I had to find out more about Emerson, his books and articles and what better way to discover more about something than to ask questions?
Emerson has studied the Lincoln’s for many years, has written many articles about them and has published two books – The Madness of Mary Lincoln and Lincoln the Inventor. One you read how passionate Jason Emerson is about the Lincoln’s you’ll spend at least weeks wondering about them too unless you read his books!
Butland: Would you have written The Madness of Mary Lincoln if you didn’t conclude she was bipolar?
Emerson: Yes I would have. I actually wrote the book because I had discovered a cache of Mary’s “lost” letters from her time inside the insane asylum in 1875. These letters had been missing—and sought by scholars—for nearly 100 years when I found them, so I knew I had to write the book immediately.
Previously I had not really considered Mary Lincoln in any depth or detail, and I never had any intentions of writing a book on her. But once I began writing, I did not start with the premise that she was bipolar, or even that she was insane. I started with the knowledge that she had done bizarre acts and had been committed by her son, and let the research dictate the facts, and the facts dictated my interpretations.
Butland: What in particular drew you to researching and writing about the Lincoln family?
Emerson: My interest in the Lincolns began because of my work with the National Park Service at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois. I worked there twice, once as a student volunteer and once as a park ranger. I started, of course, researching and writing about Abraham Lincoln, but through the years I became fascinated by Mary Lincoln and the oldest son Robert Lincoln—whose biography I recently completed—because they both have been largely neglected by historians. I prefer to work on topics not previously done a thousand times (such as general biographies of Abraham Lincoln).
Butland: Do you know if your search for information regarding the Lincoln’s ever be fulfilled? If so will you direct your efforts to another political family and, if so, who?
Emerson: There will always be something to write about the Lincoln family, and I have a few more book ideas in mind. However, I do not want to limit myself or my career to Abraham Lincoln. I certainly want to branch out to other topics and different historical periods. I have some ideas about different people, most notably John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the US, who is one of the most impressive and fascinating people in American history, in my opinion. I also am a poet (published in multiple magazines) and would like one day to publish a book of my poetry. I may try my hand at fiction in the future, but not sure on that. It is admittedly my weakest genre of writing.
Butland: You’ve written many articles about the Lincoln family as seen on your website. Do you favour one in particular and why?
Emerson: That’s a difficult question! I love them all, and am proud of them all for different reasons. Off the top of my head, without thinking too deeply, I’d say my favorite is “Avoiding the Gilded Prison: Robert Todd Lincoln for President.” This is a great piece of American history that is quite unknown: the Republican party tried five times – unsuccessfully – to run Robert Lincoln for president. The first few times it was merely because of his surname. The last few times were because by then Robert—as secretary of war, minister to Great Britain, president of the Pullman Car Company, and true American captain of industry—was truly his own great man. It fascinates me that Robert never for one second ever considered running. He saw what the office had done to his father and wanted no part of it. He said, “The presidential office is but a gilded prison; the care and worry outweigh, to my mind, the honor which surrounds the position.”
Butland: We connected through Facebook. Do you find the age of social networking helps you in your writing career or only depletes the time you have in a day to write and research?
Emerson: A bit of both actually. I do waste a lot of time online, especially on Facebook (playing Frontierville mostly), but I’ve met a lot of people – and as many people know, in life it’s almost all about who you know. But technology in general is an amazing asset for a historian: to search through multitudes of databases by keyword, rather than, in newspapers for example, searching through hundreds or thousands of pages of hard copy text, saves time and allows for great discoveries.
Butland: Jason, you obviously spend a lot of time researching; which do you enjoy more – researching or writing the findings into your own words?
Emerson: The great historian Barbara Tuchman once wrote, “Research is endlessly seductive; writing is hard work.” I agree with her. I love both facets of the job, but I could do nothing but research and be nearly content. To look through dusty, disused archives and find facts and items previously unknown or long ago forgotten is the ultimate thrill. Luckily I have been able to make many such discoveries. I’ve done this not only by going to the archives around the country and digging through the primary materials (rather than taking things out of previous books), but also by researching topics not often done.
Butland: Have you given any thought to your own history being written about? If so, what do you want to ensure is included? Maybe offer us a peak into something you want left out? And do you know who you want to write it?
Emerson: I would love one day to be a historian of such magnitude that someone would write my biography…It is a bit to early to say whether it can happen. I would want my professional life and achievements to be covered, and my personal life – especially my awkward childhood! – to be left out. My criterion for any future biographer of mine is honesty, integrity and a faithfulness to the facts rather than to certain historical philosophies, such as revisionism.
Butland: I see you’re fairly busy with traveling to various speaking engagements this year as well as in the past. Do you suggest all authors do this and do you seek out the events or do they invite you?
Emerson: Speaking events are crucial for authors; writers who refuse to go out on the road to speak and sign books sell far less books and receive fewer reviews and word of mouth recommendations than those who do. It’s all about personal contact. But more simply, speaking about your book informs potential readers of its subject in a deeper way than the book jacket can do. One of the best occurrences so far in my career has been my two appearances of TV: Book TV and the History Channel. Every time I am replayed my book sales get a nice spike.
I try to go out and speak as often as possible, wherever possible. I was actually speaking so much in 2009-2010 that my writing fell far behind, so for the past 8 months or so I have been focusing on my writing rather than speaking. The publication of Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln (in February 2012), my Robert Lincoln biography – my magnum opus, on which I spent nearly 10 years – will see me relentlessly and shamelessly on the road.
Butland: I saw on your website that you’ve worked as a costumed interpreter in the past. Do you find this ignites your passion for history when you see your audience visit and ask questions?
Emerson: The costumed interpreter job was not as enjoyable for me as being an NPS park ranger. I dislike getting “in character” and am honestly not good at it. I am a good third-person interpreter, however, and there is rarely a greater thrill than when giving a talk and seeing that fire of passion and interest suddenly spark in someone’s eyes because of your words. This is also why I love giving book lectures and author events: I am passionate about history and sharing pieces of the past.
Butland: Do you feel you were born in the wrong decade since you’re so interested in the lives of such historical icons?
Emerson: Sometimes I do feel I was born out of time. I wish I could live in the 19th century when there were no TVs, no radios, internet, computers, cell phones, etc., etc., all these noisy, annoying, distracting items we have today. Life then was more social, more intellectual, more meaningful and less self-absorbed than it is today. I also think people dressed better back then. Of course, back then I’m sure many people wished they were in the previous century, or even in the 21st century where machines do everything for us – I guess the grass is always greener…
Butland: Is there anything else you want to leave us with, Jason?
Emerson: Only to shamelessly recommend my books to all your readers!
Thanks for reading,
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