I’d like to introduce you to the seventy-fourth interviewee in my ‘Meet the Author’ series. He is Steve Weinberg.
Hi, Steve! Welcome to Susan Finlay Writes blog site. Can you tell us a bit about your background as a journalism professor and as an author?
I’ve been a full-time writer since 1970, with part-time teaching at the University of Missouri Journalism School and other journalism-related efforts supplementing my income from time to time. I have written eight books for mainstream publishers, with numbers nine and ten under contract and in progress. I began my professional career as a newspaper reporter with occasional magazine freelancing on the side. Then I became a magazine staff writer. In 1978, I moved to magazine feature writing and book writing as a freelancer.
Your book, Taking on the Trust, a dual biography of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller, was published in 2008 by W.W. Norton. Can you tell us about the book? What inspired you to write it?
I have been cast as an “investigative reporter” for a long time. Also, I served as executive director of the membership organization Investigative Reporters and Editors from 1983-1990, and edited IRE’s magazine from 1983-1999. Because Ida Tarbell (1857-1944) was such a seminal figure in the creation of fact-based, narrative investigative reporting, I wanted to know everything I could about her life. The book began as a cradle-to-grave biography of Tarbell. Later, however, my editor at W.W. Norton suggested we focus less on the second half of Tarbell’s life, focusing instead on the time in the middle of her long life that brought her worldwide attention—her expose of John D. Rockefeller and his behemoth Standard Oil Company.
You must have done a great deal of research for the book. What was that like? Is there anything surprising that you discovered?
Every biography, every serious book, requires years of research. It’s what I love, it’s what I do. Research plays out differently, of course, if the subjects are alive rather than dead. Because Tarbell and Rockefeller were long dead, my research consisted mostly of visiting archives and libraries and museums. Almost every day yields surprises.
Your book, Armand Hammer: The Untold Story, is a biography of Armand Hammer. Who is he and what interested you about his life story?
Hammer (1898-1990) was alive when I started the biography. He had been controversial his entire life, and powerful, too. But no other author and no publisher wanted to attempt an independent biography because of that power and Hammer’s well-known litigiousness. I felt a biography about him was vital. Fortunately, a major publisher (Little, Brown) agreed. I delved into all his domains: oil tycoon, art collector, citizen diplomat, back channel liaison with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, seducer of U.S. presidents and foreign rulers, ersatz philanthropist, etc., etc.
Are you working on a new book or project?
I am working on two books simultaneously, both under contract to trade publishers based in New York City. One book is a biography of Garry Trudeau, creator of Doonesbury. The other is a narrative history of contemporary investigative reporting in the United States.
You’ve written one book about reading and writing biography, and two books about journalism. Can you tell us about those books?
As a biographer, I am obsessive about the craft. I wanted to share my obsession (and knowledge) with fellow biographers and lay readers. So I got that book out of my system and the publisher sent it out into the universe. The University of Missouri Press published it in 1992. The first book about journalism was commissioned by the National Press Foundation/National Press Club while I was a Washington correspondent. That book appeared in 1981 and feels outdated today. Later, I wrote what was meant to be the best tome ever about how to conduct investigative journalism. It grew out of my years running Investigative Reporters and Editors.
I heard you speak about your books and your career at a Saturday Morning Book Talk in Columbia, Missouri. Do you give a lot of book talks? How do you prepare for them?
When somebody wants me to speak about writing and publishing books, I almost always say yes. My career serves as my preparation. I do, however, think deeply about how I will tailor the remarks to the specific audience.
What books or authors have most influenced you in your own writing?
Great investigative journalists have inspired and taught me, starting with Ida Tarbell’s classic “The History of the Standard Oil Company,” published in 1904. Among contemporary investigative journalists, the duo of James Steele and Don Barlett have been especially influential. I read lots of narrative nonfiction, which combines depth reporting and composition that sometimes borrows from literary fiction. Some of the exemplars are Gay Talese, Madeleine Blais, Walt Harrington, Mike Sager, Katherine Boo and Wright Thompson (my son in law, married to my journalist daughter Sonia). The manual “Writing for Story” by Jon Franklin has heavily influenced my thinking and my techniques. I study fiction carefully, too, when I can find the time to parse novels.
You devote significant effort to several not-for-profit groups. What are the groups and what do you do with them?
I remain active in Investigative Reporters and Editors, the organization I used to direct day to day. I’m also active in the National Book Critics Circle, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
Please list any websites or social media links for yourself or your book. Thanks!
My author Web site is http://www.steveweinbergauthor.com. My photo can be viewed there.