Working by Robert Caro

Summary

  1. Caro recounts his writing and research process and also gives some additional background on his excellent biographies on Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert Moses. What Caro ultimately set out to do was explain how things really happened, shedding truth into political power, how it is amassed, and how it can be used

Key Takeaways

  1. Caro’s Writing Process
    1. Caro never discusses his work before he publishes or else he finds that he gets bored with it and loses his voice
    2. Caro never set out to write biographies of great men – he wanted to illuminate the times they lived in and the political power that impacts everyone and everything
    3. He always loved figuring out how things worked and explaining them
    4. Caro does all his research before he starts writing. He then writes by hand and then uses a typewriter to type it. He triple spaces though so he has enough room to make edits and at the end, often there are no typed words left.
    5. He starts each day re-reading what he wrote he day before 
    6. Some vital interview questions are “What did you see?” and “What did you hear?” He asked this question so often that people would get angry with him but eventually this helped him get a feel for their experience 
    7. Imagery is important, rhythm is important, word choice is important. You have to make the reader see and feel
    8. You begin researching first by reading the big books, then the big newspapers/magazines/articles, and then the small local newspapers and articles 
    9. He would always try to help the reader see what he was figuring out. For example, he heard that Johnson was the hardest working president of all time but in order to get that across to the reader, he figured out that the chauffeur spent the most time with him. It took months to track him down but eventually he did and this helped Caro get the details he needed – how long LBJ worked, what he did on the trips, who he talked to, what he did, etc. This helped the reader see and feel how hard Johnson worked 
    10. Caro says that he cannot start writing a book until he has thought it through and can see the whole thing in his mind at one time.  He turns the whole book into 1, 2, or 3 paragraphs and this can take weeks. That is the outline he uses to build the book out of. He then does an outline for each chapter, basically the message he wants to get across without any supporting evidence. He says this is a very nasty time and that he’s in a really bad mood in this process. When you distill down a book like this, it becomes a whole lot easier 
    11. He never knows when the writing is going well. He’s learned that it’s very dangerous to get confident
    12. He sets a 3 page quota per day. He doesn’t always hit it but he says that if you don’t have a quota that you’re just fooling yourself 
  2. Background
    1. Caro was hired as a joke at Newsday because the boss didn’t want to hire kids from fancy private schools (Caro went to Princeton). However, one day Caro got a lead about how some free land in New York would be used and did such a great job that his boss Alan Hathaway told him, “never assume anything and turn every page, every goddamn page”
    2. He learned that when you need some information you do whatever it takes to get it
  3. Robert Moses
    1. Robert started working on The Power Broker about Robert Moses when he was about 29. Money was really tight for about four years after that.
    2. He became intrigued by Moses when he was working on a paper about a new bridge that didn’t make any sense yet it was being built because Moses wanted it to. Moses had convinced the rest of the New York State government that it should be done this so amazed/disturbed/impressed Caro that he chose to spend his career writing about political power
    3. Goes deeply into his time and research on Moses. He spent over 5 years writing the book, speaking to everyone who was willing, reading everything available, and painting a true picture of Moses and time in office
  4. LBJ
    1. The Browns were key contributors to Lyndon Johnson and Caro needed them in order to make his book. The older Brown brother had died and the younger one was putting up monument in his honor. They were unwilling to give interviews but after Caro noticed all the monuments, he told the surviving Brown brother that nobody would ever remember his brother unless he talked to him about Lyndon Johnson and their involvement. This opened up the doors and gave Caro all the information he ever needed
      1. Talk about understanding human nature and incentives!
    2. Caro moved down to Texas Hill country for three years in order to show the residents there that he was serious. This helped open them up and gave him the details and context for Lyndon Johnson‘s youth that he never would’ve gotten otherwise
    3. Believes there is no truth only facts and the more facts you get the closer you can get to this ideal of truth
    4. LBJ was shaped by the Texas Hill country, the hard lifestyle, and by his father’s bankruptcy. The father overpaid for land, lost it all, and this sense of humiliation and insecurity really shaped him
    5. One of LBJ’s most vital skills was vote counting, knowing how the Senate would vote. He was willing to see reality as it was, not being overly optimistic 

What I got out of it

  1. Amazing insight into one of the best biographers of all time – his research and writing process and just how dedicated he is towards getting towards the truth. Turn every page, every god damn page!