Robert Caro is my hero. He's a masterful biographer, skilled storyteller, and while he's earned and won every prize under the sun, some of them twice, you never get the sense he's all that full of himself.
I had the great pleasure of hearing him give the keynote address at the Biographers Int'l Organization conference in 2011. On May 2, 2012 I shelled out actual cash money to hear him at the 92YTribeca. Tonight you can hear him at Barnes and Noble Union Square at 7pm, for free.
When he spoke last week he said a couple things that I didn't even have to write down to remember.
He said the Lord Acton quote we all learned in college ("Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely") wasn't right. He thinks power reveals character. You see what a man (or woman, I presume, although both Mr. Caro's great subjects were men) is all about when he has power. When LBJ became President, Mr Caro pointed out, his goal was to eradicate poverty. That's the thing we all forget now, was that LBJ wanted to use the power of the presidency to end poverty.
And when asked about his writing habits, Mr. Caro said he outlined everything at the start of the actual writing. He'd also get "what this book is about" down to about two paragraphs. Those two paragraphs helped him focus; helped him remember what to put in, leave out, and what to make a footnote. (There was an odd watery sound as the QueryShark literally leaped for joy hearing THAT let me tell you.) Then he told us how long it took him to get the book down to those two paragraphs. Would you like to guess what he said?
Here are the choices:
1. Two hours
2. Two days
3. Two weeks
4. Two months
5. Two years
Let me know in the comments column what you think the correct answer is. No fair if you attended the event and heard the answer, ok?
I think Robert Caro is one of those writers you should hear and read no matter what you read or write. He's very simply a master of the craft and there just aren't that many of them.