Minnesota native talks about winning the Pulitzer Prizeby Cathy Wurzer, Minnesota Public Radio,
Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio
T.J. Stiles, a biographer who grew up in Foley, Minn., and graduated from Carleton College in Northfield, has won a Pulitzer Prize for his book about an American businessman who was influential in the 1800s. The awards were announced Monday afternoon.
Stiles, who now lives in San Francisco, said he was driving in the car with his 2-year-old son when his editor called and told him the news: Stiles' biography, "The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt," had won.
"My son was not impressed," Stiles said with a laugh. "He slept through the whole thing."
Stiles had earlier won the National Book Award for his work on Vanderbilt, who owned shipping lines and railroads in the 1800s.
Stiles, who has also written a biography of Jesse James and is currently working on a biography of George Armstrong Custer, said there are three stages to writing a biography -- research, analysis and writing the narrative.
"I really enjoy them all," Stiles told MPR's Morning Edition.
For the Vanderbilt biography, Stiles said some of the work was boring -- such as going through hits on electronic searches that turned out to be completely unrelated to the person he was researching.
"I literally went through thousands and thousands and thousands of pointless hits," he said. "That was awful."
But Stiles said he was able to glean all sorts of details about Vanderbilt's life, thanks to companies that had digitized old newspapers. For example, Stiles found in a newspaper article a story about Vanderbilt tackling a man who tried to rob him, and hauling the pickpocket off to the local jail on his own.
"Entire episodes of his life were opened up by being able to do these kinds of searches, which were unavailable to researchers up until just a few years ago," Stiles said.
Stiles said one of the most laborious tasks was cutting his manuscript down to fit into one book. He ended up cutting hundreds of pages.
But in the end, Stiles said he wants his final manuscripts to achieve certain goals.
"One of the things I try to do in a biography is give the reader a reason to turn every page," he said. "I like to set the subject in a rich context -- to not just describe the times in the world he was in, but to kind of ask fresh questions about it."
To Stiles, the Vanderbilt biography worked well because the details of his life were so interesting, and at the same time, his life and times told a story about the beginnings of big business in America that has relevance today.
"When it works right, that formula makes the book a pleasure to read and makes it about something big," he said.
Stiles plans to visit Carleton College, where he graduated with a history degree in 1986, on April 22 and 23 to speak about his book.
- Morning Edition, 04/13/2010, 8:45 a.m.
Cathy Wurzer is the host of Morning Edition for MPR News.