Books interview: Elizabeth Cobbs

The novelist and historian, whose latest book is The Hamilton Affair, says the best stories are those that make you care. Her summer plans include lying in a hammock, and reading the perfect number of books – five

August 4, 2016
Elizabeth Cobbs, Texas A&M University, Hoover Institution, Stanford University
Source: James Shelley

What sort of books inspired you as a child?
Growing up at the end of a two-mile dirt road in rural California, I loved stories of faraway times and places. Our small town library allowed children to check out five books a week. I prowled the stacks for fiction on ancient Egypt, the intergalactic future, Plantagenet England, the Wild West and spunky, non-conformist girls saving the world. When I got my quota, I lugged the books home, flopped in a hammock with a peanut butter sandwich and read straight through, blissfully deaf to my six noisy brothers and sisters.

You have written both scholarly works and novels on historical themes. What kind of fiction do you like reading – and how has this fed into your work as a historian?
Before graduate school I went through a Howard Fast period that stimulated my love of American history. Fast was a member of the Communist Party who refused to name names during the 1950s Red Scare, served three months in prison for contempt of a contemptible Congress and wrote page-turners such as Citizen Tom Paine, Spartacus and Freedom Road. My inspiration as an academic originated in my prior career as a journalist (just the facts, ma’am!), but my inspiration as a historical novelist comes from Fast. Today, I like reading almost anything well written. I admire craft, and am always hunting for better ways to structure stories and shape sentences.

What are the different challenges of dealing with similar material in factual and fictional form?
Historians are like dogs, novelists like cats. As a professor, I feel my job is to help readers by making every fact and theme as clear as possible. I bark, plead, whine and make puppy eyes. Anything to facilitate happiness and understanding. When I began writing novels after my third non-fiction book, I had to learn how to pretend not to care if readers were following, dropping clues as light as shredded bird feathers.

Your new novel, The Hamilton Affair, is about Alexander Hamilton. What makes a historical character suitable for fiction?
I find my best stories arise from teaching. When I want to convince students that they should care, I start by digging into why I care. Before I know it, I’ve whipped myself up. This, I realise, is a tale everybody ought to know. I especially felt that as I told, retold and researched the tumultuous, remarkable story of Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Schuyler. Revolutionaries who have been tragically misunderstood make the best novels.

What books are on your desk waiting to be read?
I’m working my way through an eclectic summer stack that includes Janice Steinberg’s Tin Horse, Margaret Dilloway’s How To Be An American Housewife, Jennifer Coburn’s We’ll Always Have Paris: A Mother/Daughter Memoir, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s libretto to the musical Hamilton and Geraldine Brooks’ The Secret Chord. Five books. The perfect number. Serendipitously, my husband just came home with a new hammock.

Elizabeth Cobbs is Melbern G. Glasscock professor at Texas A&M University and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. Her latest book is The Hamilton Affair (Arcade Publishing).

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