An Interview with François Furstenberg (Guest Contributor)
Wonders & Marvels: What role does your childhood play in your current writing and research interests?
François Furstenberg: I grew up in the United States with a French mother and an American father. That heritage played an obvious role on my second book, which explores a forgotten French past in American history.
W&M: Could you tell us a bit about the authors or texts that have influenced you?
Furstenberg: It’s awfully hard to say, but I think that Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom and David Brion Davis’s Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution are two of my all-time favorite books. Both, coincidentally, were published the same year, when I was only three years old. Yet they continue to offer insight after all those years and all those readings.
W&M: How would you describe your process on a day of writing?
Furstenberg: I wish I could say that I have a writing process that works for me, but the truth is far less structured. There is only one constant: it starts with coffee. (Hot in the winter and iced in the summer.)
I tend to write in bursts – usually between painful bouts of responding to e-mail. Sometimes, when the writing gods smile down on me, it just magically comes together, and I can work for many hours straight. I can forget to eat lunch. I can come back to my writing after dinner and stay up working deep into the quiet of the late night. There is a quality to the silence that helps me focus. I’m truly alone, awake while the world sleeps, just me and my writing.
At other times the writings gods are crueler, and I work on the same unfinished paragraph over and over again. Repeated trips to the espresso machine fail me. The New York Times website beckons. My inbox overflows. Frustration ensues.
W&M: Aside from including a cup of coffee, what does your workspace look like?
Furstenberg: I don’t have a fixed workspace per se. Sometimes I write at home, in my pajamas, slouched on my couch, my computer in my lap and my fingers twisted over, practically begging for carpel tunnel syndrome. Other times I write in my office, dressed more professionally, where my posture is better too. At other times still I go to a coffee shop in my Montreal neighborhood until I’ve had so much that my heartburn tells me it’s time to go home. I change locations as my productivity declines. I usually get a temporary boost until it’s time to move again.
W&M: What advice do you have for writers who deal with history?
Furstenberg: One of the hardest things to know is when to stop researching and start writing. The truth is, the research is never really finished. There are always more leads to track down, archives to visit, books and articles to read. And the research process can be so much fun, so full of delightful surprises and wonderful little nuggets that it’s hard to let go.
I don’t think there’s a very good rule on this issue, unfortunately. One way to assess when you have enough material is to note when you stop being surprised by what you dig up. When it starts to feel like just more of the same – when you are transcribing the seventeenth quotation you’ve found to illustrate a point that, in truth, only needs one, perhaps two at most – well, it might be time to start writing.
François Furstenberg is a professor of history at Johns Hopkins and is the author of When the United States Spoke French.