An Interview with David Laskin (Guest Contributor)
Wonders & Marvels: What role did history play in your relationship with your family?
David Laskin: Growing up, I always assumed history happened to other families not ours – families whose ancestors had fought at Gettysburg or had crossed the Atlantic in chains in the holds of slave ships. It wasn’t until I began researching The Family that I understood that history made and broke my family as well. I came to realize that my relatives, who had always struck me as tense people with accents who got together at holidays to eat too much and talk too loudly, embodied the three great currents of 20th century Jewish history: immigration to the US, the founding of the state of Israel, and the Holocaust.
W&M: What are some of the rewards and challenges of writing family history?
David Laskin: When you write family history, one fundamental question always gnaws away at the back of your mind: why would anyone care about my family? Making your own family story universal – and widely compelling – is the great challenge of this genre. This is also one of the great rewards since the deeper you delve into your ancestors’ stories, the more you see how historically significant their lives were. Ordinary people live and make history – our task as family historians is to connect the dots between their daily lives and the epoch-making events of the day. When we do our work well, we create the most accessible, compelling portals into the past
W&M: Can you tell us about your major resources and sources of information?
David Laskin: My primary resources for the narrative nonfiction books I write are family stories – either revealed to me in interviews or recounted in letters, diaries, journals, court records, police files, etc. In my previous two books The Children’s Blizzard and The Long Way Home, I had to make a big, time-consuming investment at the start in tracking down families who had lived through the historic events I was writing about (a killer winter storm in the former; the immigrant experience in the First World War in the latter). I advertised in local newspapers and solicited stories through the immigrant press. I delved into archives all over the country. I followed up promising leads from friends and acquaintances. But with The Family I had a big running start since my cast of characters (my mother’s family) was already in place. In fact, in the course of my research, I discovered many wonderful relatives I had never met before.
W&M: What is the most unexpected thing you’ve learned as a writer?
David Laskin: I know this sounds corny, but I wrote the final pages of The Family with tears in my eyes because I had come to feel so close to my ancestors. I am descended from a long line of scribes – back to my great-great-great grandfather and probably farther – and I came to realize that I am a kind of scribe as well, even though the texts that I write and redact are not sacred. This realization filled me with pride and wonder.
W&M: What is the most important piece of advice you have for researchers or new scholars beginning a new project?
David Laskin: The Internet is a fantastic resource and our work as historians is incomparably easier because of it – but your computer is only the beginning, not the end of historical research. There is a ton of fantastic material out there that has not yet been digitized, starting with the stories told around kitchen tables or whispered in cafes or the back of churches or synagogues. Wonderful as Google mapping has become, there is no substitute for walking the walk in the places you are writing about. Travel with your eyes and ears open, talk to as many people as you can, do your homework (along with your online surfing) – but then get out there and see and feel what you are writing about.
David Laskin writes suspense driven narrative nonfiction about the lives of ordinary people caught up in the crises of history. His recent titles include The Children’s Blizzard (Harper Perennial, an award-winning national bestseller), The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War (Harper Perennial, winner of the Washington State Book Award) and The Family: A Journey into the Heart of the 20th Century, just out in Penguin paperback.