by Christine Liu-Perkins
Peggy Thomas is the author of dozens of NF titles, but might be best known for her biographies published by Calkins Creek. The other day I asked her about her newest book coming out in January.
Q. What inspired you to write Lincoln Clears a Path?
A. I had written two other books about presidents and their agricultural legacies –Farmer George Plants a Nation, and Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation. It seemed logical to create one more to make a trilogy. I chose Lincoln because his legislation had the largest impact on American farming. Unfortunately, legislation sounds really boring. So, I had my work cut out for me.
Q. You went through different approaches in writing this book. What was your process like finding the approach that worked?
A. My process was trial and error because I had a goal -- to connect Lincoln’s personal farming experiences with his greatest achievements as a president – but no idea how to get there. I normally don’t work like that, but I wanted the book to be similar in structure to Washington and Jefferson. For example: Washington made his farm self-sufficient which mirrored his efforts to create an independent nation. Jefferson’s legacy revolved around growing. He grew crops, grew American farm trade, and literally grew the country with the Louisiana Purchase. These were my critical connections, my narrative threads, my “so whats?”
I usually start with a title. Playing off the other books I started with “Lincoln Cultivates a Union.” Then I dove into research looking for every word, thought, and deed of Lincoln’s that had anything to do with agriculture, and how it might connect to holding the Union together and writing the Emancipation Proclamation.
My first approach was chronological-- showing young Abe on the farm and progressing through his life as an attorney representing farmers and inventors of farm machinery, etc…. That didn’t work. There was a lot of content, but nothing connecting it all together – kind of like a layer cake without the orange curd filling and caramel chocolate ganache (Great British Bake Off anyone?)
For my second attempt, I zoomed in on the one short period of time during the summer of 1862 when Lincoln’s legislative acts took place. It was also the time he was drafting the Emancipation Proclamation. I loved this approach because it hummed with life in Civil War era D.C.—the smell of the bakery in the basement of the Capitol, the lowing of cows grazing on the mall, etc. But the connection was still not there. It was mostly fluff; all sprinkles and fondant roses without the cake. I had to go back to my research.
Q. How did you finally identify the narrative thread for the book?
After a bit of panic and binge-watching the soul-soothing GBBO, I went back to my research and this time really listened to what Lincoln was telling me. That’s when I noticed that he used the phrase, clearing a path, several times in his writing. Sometimes he meant it literally to clear a path to walk on. Other times it referred to clearing a figurative path to make life easier for others. That’s when the light bulb clicked on and all the pieces fit. That’s what Lincoln’s whole life was about. As a child he cleared a path in the woods for his father. As a young man he helped neighbors and other farmers. As an attorney he aided his clients. As a politician he cleared a path for his constituents. And with the creation of the USDA, the Homestead Act, Morrill Land Grant Act, Railroad Act, and the Emancipation Proclamation, he cleared a path for the future of America.
Q. Did you discover anything during your research that surprised you?
I discovered (or rediscovered) the importance of taking a step back and really listening to what my characters have to tell me. It's not about what I want to say. As a biographer, I can only write what is true to my subject, and to find that, I have to let them lead the way, and in this case Lincoln really did clear a path for me to tell his story.
Thank you, Peggy! I can't wait to see Lincoln Clears a Path!
To learn more, visit peggythomaswrites.com
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