Stolberg, Mary M. 1956–
STOLBERG, Mary M. 1956–
PERSONAL: Born September 8, 1956, in Denver, CO; daughter of David (in newspaper business) and Anne (Brand) Stolberg; married Lynn Doyle (a poet), January 18, 1986 (divorced, 2000). Ethnicity: "White." Education: University of Chicago, B.A., 1977; University of Virginia, M.A., 1986, Ph.D., 1991. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Episcopalian.
ADDRESSES: Home and office—P.O. Box 90, Vilas, NC 28692; fax: 828-297-3401. Agent—David Hendin, P.O. Box 990, Nyack, NY 10960. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Southwest Times Record, Fort Smith, AR, reporter, 1977–78; Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA, reporter, 1978–84; writer and historian, 1984–.
MEMBER: American Historical Association, American Society for Legal History.
AWARDS, HONORS: Award of excellence, Little, Brown, 1995, for Fighting Organized Crime.
Fighting Organized Crime, Northeastern University Press (Boston, MA), 1995.
Bridging the River of Hatred, Wayne State University Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.
(With Otis Milton Smith) Looking beyond Race: The Life of Otis Milton Smith, foreword by Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., Wayne State University Press, (Detroit, MI), 2000.
WORK IN PROGRESS: It Takes a Change of Heart (tentative title), "a book of essays and ruminations about prejudice and the ways in which writers and their subjects have approached it."
SIDELIGHTS: Mary M. Stolberg once told CA: "To the extent that genetics is destiny, I write because it is in my genes. My grandfather, Benjamin Stolberg, came to the United States from Germany in 1908, when he was sixteen years old. He reportedly knew but one word of English: apple. Still, he went on to become a well-known writer and thinker—one of those remarkable New York intellectuals of the 1930s and 1940s. My father, David Stolberg, is another wonderful writer; he enjoyed a forty-five-year career in newspapering.
"I keep writing because I cannot imagine doing anything else. I began working as a newspaper reporter when I was twenty years old. When I decided in my late twenties that I wanted to shift to writing something that would last longer than the next day's newsprint, I studied history. Good history writing, at its core, is really about the same kind of storytelling as newspapering. It entails asking good questions, digging into the facts, making sense of them, and relating them in an engaging way. Like all good writing, both should strive to inform, delight, and amaze.
"The kind of writing I do is not lucrative, but it is very rewarding. I love primary research. Much of it is tedious, but then there are moments when some new idea or insight pops up. Those times, when I actually feel that I am conversing with the material, are wonderful. I find it is the same with the writing process. When I find a creative way of fitting together the pieces in a passage, or come up with the right word, or see chapters finally emerging as a book, it is a satisfying feeling that more than compensates for all of the frustrations.
"I follow two basic writing methods. My essays tend to come out fully formed. I write them down, then add details and check facts. In my books, I begin with a chapter outline. I know it will be changed and modified, but it provides an initial organizational pattern. After each research trip, I return home and print out two copies of my notes. The first I keep in a master file; the second I rip apart and put into chapter files. I do the same with material from secondary sources and with small sections I have been inspired to write along the way. When it comes time to write, I pull each chapter out, write a more specific outline, then attack each section separately. This sounds very mechanical, but I find that it spares me the anxiety that afflicts my friends who want to write books but cannot seem to get started.
"Perhaps because of my newspaper background, I believe the key to all good writing is editing. I am compulsive about it. I polish and polish and repolish. I go over every sentence at least twenty times. To me, it boils down to a reverence for the written word and a matter of pride. Why should I expect anyone to pay attention to my writing, if I don't? My biggest complaint with publishing in general is the lack of editing. Many books are too long and contain too many factual errors. Some mistakes are inevitable, but too many signal laziness on the part of the writer and the editor.
"The best advice I ever received about choosing book topics came from a sage historian, Robert Cross, a former president of Swarthmore College and a chair of the history department at Columbia University. He advised young scholars to pick research topics that they cared about passionately enough to live with for several years. I think he honed in on one of the major problems in most academic writing today. Many of my friends in history choose topics they think are publishable or that their advisors suggest. Books, to them, are merely a means to an end—a way of getting a doctorate, a job, or tenure. No wonder they get bored, and, if and when these tomes get published, it is not surprising that their readers also get bored.
"I have been very fortunate in my first three books. They have been quite different, but all reflect my basic belief that books should offer compelling stories with interesting characters, provide insights into current situations or problems, and when possible, be inspiring. Luckily, for me, each book has led to the next.
"My first book stemmed from two longstanding interests I had as a newspaper reporter. The first, which came from covering the federal courts in Pittsburgh, was how the grand jury system had evolved from a protective shield of citizens to its current state as a prosecutor's tool. This dovetailed with my interest in how politicians—especially overly zealous prosecutors—exploit fears about crime to further their own ends. I focused on Thomas Dewey, who shared more than a few traits with Ken Starr. My second book, about Detroit, picked up on the theme of politics and justice to explore the difficulties that a liberal police commissioner had convincing his officers to treat blacks fairly. My third book, also set largely in Michigan, focuses on the career of the first African American elected to statewide office since Reconstruction. Otis Milton Smith was a remarkable man, a quintessential Horatio Alger character. He was a real inspiration to me and to almost everyone who knew him. He also had compelling insights about race relations. He mentioned a vignette about his youth in Tennessee that haunted me for years.
"In summary, I believe that all reporting and history writing begins with a good story and good questions. The story and the questions may change or expand once you begin the research and writing—in fact, they should—but the basic foundation has to be there. The research becomes a matter of allowing yourself to be delighted and intrigued. The writing is a matter of communicating your enthusiasm and polishing your prose."