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A Few Bookish Questions With Garrett Graff
Garrett Graff’s books and other journalistic projects have been some of my favorite pieces of media from the last few years. The Only Plane in the Sky was one of my favorite reads last year, his WIRED article about March 11, 2020 is as memorable a piece on the pandemic as I’ve read, and Long Shadow (a podcast) explored the nuances of 9/11 in ways I hadn’t previously considered. It was real treat to interview him and find out about some of the books and authors that have influenced him.
1. Your new book deals with speculation, paranoia, government secrets, and terrorism. Which is really what most of your writing has been about. How did you land on that particular constellation of subjects?
You're right that much of my writing is what I call "conspiracy adjacent," but that's less because of my own interest in conspiracy theories and more because of the types of subjects that interest me. Most of my daily journalism—for WIRED, POLITICO Magazine, and elsewhere—as well as my books have always focused at the intersection of technology and national security. There's a common theme among a lot of my writing in how technology changes institutions. My FBI history, The Threat Matrix, is really the story of how globalization transformed a domestic law enforcement agency into an international intelligence agency, and my Doomsday history, Raven Rock, is the story of how a new technology—nuclear weapons and, specifically, ICBMs—compressed time and space and forced the presidency to change. My next book Watergate is also about the presidency and media in a huge moment of transition. And this new Scribd Original, Dragonfire, is about how the danger of trickle-down technology—the idea that a transnational terrorist group could possess technology that until the 1990s had only been the province of superpowers.
2. Besides your own books, what are a couple must-reads about our government and modern era?
Most government and political memoirs are a waste of time, in my opinion. They're self-serving and disappear in relevance almost immediately. Plus they're mostly pretty poorly written; I've slogged through probably hundreds of terrible memoirs by former spies, FBI agents, politicians, and White House aides over the years. There are two, though, that I really recommend to people interested in understanding the grand sweep of modern history: Robert Gates, long before he became Bush and Obama's defense secretary, wrote a memoir about the end of the Cold War called From the Shadows that explains the Cold War better than almost anything I've ever read. More recently, James Clapper—the nation's longest-serving Director of National Intelligence, who oddly became something of a #Resistance hero in the Trump era—wrote a memoir called Facts and Fears that was an amazing history of the rise and maturation of US intelligence. For anyone seeking to understand the brokenness of American foreign policy right now, I recommend Rosa Brooks' How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. She's one of my favorite thinkers on modern government.
3. You have a new book coming next winter about Watergate. I have Nixon's memoirs on my shelf; worth reading? I've heard it's a surprisingly good, albeit self-serving, read.
Nixon's memoir actually is pretty readable—it's just a doorstop of epic proportions. I spend a lot of time in my forthcoming book Watergate mining the mind of Richard Nixon, and it's important to understand that the White House taping system he installed really came about because he was afraid he wasn't going to get credit for all he was doing as president. His presidency is this incredible mix of hubris, accomplishment, and paranoia. Given that, it's not really a surprise that his memoir clocked in at a gazillion pages with particularly dense type. He actually wrote a lot of it with a team that included a young Diane Sawyer, who was a press aide, and there are some actually pretty entertaining books written about him writing the memoirs, like Robert Sam Anson's Exile. I recommend flipping through Nixon's memoirs and reading the parts and moments that interest you; I'll confess that I didn't even read the whole thing while I was researching Watergate.
4. Your writing style is incredibly readable. Are there writers who have especially influenced your own style and approach to the craft?
That's incredibly kind of you to say; I've always tried to write for a very general reader, so that if you come to my articles or books without much background you can still enjoy them, while sprinkling in enough detail and depth that if you do know something about it, you'll still get a kick out of it. I grew up in the height of Tom Clancy fame, so his way of writing so colloquially with such a heavy sprinkle of insider secrets definitely rubbed off on me, but the writers I'd most like to be when I grow up are folks like Doris Kearns Goodwin, James Fallows, and Evan Thomas, amazing analytical journalists who are deeply steeped in history.
5. I imagine most of your reading is non-fiction. Reports, histories, memos, etc. What do you read for fun (when you have the chance)? Do you read much fiction?
Part of the issue of being a writer is that it turns a great pastime, reading, into one long busman's holiday. When I'm writing a book, I'll generally read 100 to 150 other books for reference and research, so I read fiction really only in spurts on vacations or in between book projects of my own. I'm generally pretty author-focused. Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh are probably my favorite authors, and I read a lot of espionage thriller authors like John Le Carre, Gerald Seymour, and Alan Furst. But for "fun" I really just read other random history — probably the three best books I've read in recent years are Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing, Casey Cep's Furious Hours, and Adam Higginbotham's Midnight in Chernobyl. I just stand in awe of those three as writers.
6. What are you reading and enjoying now? What's next on your list?
The technical answer to your specific question is that I'm reading John McPhee's Alaska book, Coming Into the Country, but that's because I'm exhausted from parenting and the pandemic and have been in desperate need of a book that didn't feel like work. The broader answer is that I — like many American readers I think — have spent a lot of the last two years reading this incredible wave of American history books reckoning with the much more complex realities of our history and particularly our racial history than the story we've been typically taught over the years.
Stories like Jia Lynn Yang's One Mighty and Irresistible Tide, about America's history of racist anti-Asian immigration policies, and Heather McGhee's The Sum of Us or Clint Smith's How the Word Is Passed, both of which force you to rethink a lot of what we've been led to believe about how benevolent and munificent America has been and even is today.
Writers like Heather Cox Richardson, with How the South Won the Civil War, or Megan Kate Nelson's The Three-Cornered War are rewriting our understanding of how race was at the center of westward expansion.
I'm also reading Adam Cohen's Supreme Inequality, about how the Supreme Court, which supposedly has this grand history of pushing American rights and liberties forward, actually has spent the last half-century retrenching power for the white elite.
I think a lot about how historian Eric Foner said, “This history we were taught could not have produced the present we were living in,” and it's awesome to see so many authors right now having a moment to reframe our understanding of ourselves. The work that Ibram X. Kendi and Nikole Hannah-Jones are doing right now is just so fascinating and admirable.
7. Any all-time favorite books that have especially stuck with you and/or shaped your thinking over the years? Books that you think about a lot? Fiction, non-fiction, whatever it is.
I feel like I quote Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird more than almost anything; it's packed with wisdom about writing, life, and the uncertainty of both. When I was a magazine editor, I literally kept a shelf of a dozen or so copies in my office that I would hand out to writers passing through my office struggling with one question or another. There's a passage about how writing a book is like driving at night — you can only see to the end of your headlights but you can make the whole journey that way. When people ask how I write a book, I explain that there's never a moment you sit down and write a "book" — you sit down and write scenes and moments and thoughts, which grow into chapters, which grow into a book. You write a book page by page, bird by bird.