Wednesday, January 23, 2013

An Interview with Jim Schmidt

Q: When did you decide to become a writer?

A: Well, I think it must always have been itching to come out!  I remember as a kid, 7 or 8, growing up in Joplin, Missouri, that I wrote a poem about Independence Day.  My mom drove us down to the Joplin Globe newspaper offices and I think she tried to get them to print it.  I'm not sure they did.  In 8th grade I remember writing a short story about a class that went on a ski trip.  It started with the teacher asking for everyone to turn in their money...they go on the trip...terrible things happen...they survive...most of them anyway...the story ends back at school a year later with the teacher asking everyone to turn in their ski trip money...(see what I did there? oooooooooooh!).  And that was probably the last story I wrote...for twenty years.  In the mid-1990s, I got bit by the "Civil War buff" bug during a business trip to Virginia.  I read everything I could, including some of the (many) magazines on the stand at the bookstores.  Something inside me said "I can do that."  I didn't know where or how to start; fortunately I had a good mentor who knew the process, encouraged me, and whom I trusted to review my work.  My first magazine article was published in 1999, I think.  They even paid me! It's been fun ever since and I've always had something in the works.  After getting several articles published, I started working on my first book as the next step.  It was published in 2008.

Q: Who has been the biggest influence in your life, so far?

A: That's easy: Terry and De Schmidt. Because, parents.  And good ones, too.

Q: Tell us a little about your books.

A: I am the sole author, editor, or contributor to five books on the Civil War.  Each one is special in their own way to me.  My first, "Lincoln's Labels: America's Best Known Brands and the Civil War" (Edinborough Press, 2008), is about companies that we all know today that also played an important part in the Civil War (Brooks Brothers, Tiffany & Co., duPont, American Express, and many more) and how the war affected or even "made" them.  It's special because it was my first and I learned a lot about the process and myself.  My second, "Years of Change and Suffering: Modern Perspectives on Civil War Medicine" (Edinborough Press, 2009) is a collection of invited expert essays that I co-edited with a good friend and collaborator; we both also contributed chapters.  I'm really proud of it because there is some exceptional scholarship - and good writing - in the book.  It was a special challenge soliciting contribution, managing deadlines, editing, etc...kind of like a movie director! We're also proud that all the royalties from the book have been donated to historic preservation efforts.  My next book, "Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory" (The History Press, 2010), is about the epic story of the university in the war: the dozens of students and alumni who served as soldiers in the Union army; priests who served as chaplains; sisters who served as nurses; and the important effect the war had on campus.  It's been my most successful by far, and is now in its third printing.  My latest book is "Galveston and the Civil War: An Island City in the Maelstrom" (The History Press, 2012), which describes the story of the island in the war, including slavery, secession, the blockade, the New Year's Day 1863 Battle of Galveston, the effect of the war on civilians, and finally the surrender of Galveston and emancipation of its slaves.  This book has been so much fun because of the great stories I have heard from people that have read the book about their ancestors.  Late in 2012, Routledge published "Civil War America: A Social and Cultural History"; co-editor and professor Zoe Trodd extended me an invitation to contribute a chapter on "Civilian Medicine."

Q: You obviously love history, where do you get the inspiration for you stories?

A: Even though I have only been writing the past 10-15 years, I've loved history since I was a kid, either from my own reading or from family stories.  When I became interested in Civil War history, my initial attention was drawn naturally to the great battles and such, but I quickly became interested in either special subjects - medicine, for example, which fits well with my day job as a biotech scientist - or to the home front, which inspired my interest in the companies covered in Lincoln's Labels.  I'm a firm believer in "bottom-up" history, and so I delight in reading accounts written by the common soldier or - especially - by civilians, especially letters which have an intimacy and immediacy that cane be very inspiring.  I also love to "mine" footnotes and endnotes in books that I read; often authors of scholarly works will only give a brief mention or reference to a letter or diary, just enough to support their thesis.  For me, though, those are "voices" that need to be heard for their own sake.  I have my own collection of 19th-century correspondence and love visiting archives to see material myself.  Period newspapers are also excellent inspiration. 

Q: How long do you spend researching your book topics before actually beginning to write?

A: It's been different for each project.  The Lincoln's Labels and Notre Dame books grew out of research and article writing I had been doing for 5 or 6 years, so I had quite a bit of material accumulated.  For the Galveston project, I basically started from scratch (although I was of course familiar with the basic aspects of the island's war story), but I also had a word count limit, which kept my research from getting to far afield, an lasted about a year.  I think the actual writing for each book was 12-18 months.  I'm a terrible procrastinator, so it helps me to be a dedicated outliner, to do some writing while I research, to break the research and writing into defined sections, and to remember that this is supposed to be enjoyable.  I have many "vertical files" started on a number of projects I can write in some time - 19th century quack medicines, Spiritualism, phrenology, crime, and more.  Even when a book is done and published, my interest in the subject continues.
Q: What do you like to read? Do you have a favorite?

A: For someone who has been firmly entrenched as a nonfiction writer, my reading tastes have changed dramatically in just the past couple of years.  My reading until then was 90-100% nonfiction, usually background reading for whatever book project I might be in, as well as new works that appealed to me.  In the past few years though more than half of my reading has been fiction.  I specially enjoy literary fiction, thrillers, and mysteries set in mid- to late-19th Century America or England.  My absolute favorite is Louis Bayard, whose "Mr. Timothy" and "The Pale Blue Eye" are easily two of my favorites of all time.  Also: Matthew Pearl, David Liss, Lyndsay Faye, Will Thomas, Stephen Gallagher, and others.  At the same time, I'm making my way through Dickens.  I love interviewing authors as well, and have featured several on my blog ( Writers that I admire for their genius in narrative nonfiction include David McCullough, Stephen Sears, and Tony Horwitz, and many others.

Q:  How important do you think being a reader is to the writing process?

A: SO IMPORTANT!  In my earlier answer about the twenty year drought in writing between an 8th grade short story and my first article is an important clue: I wasn't reading, either, apart from assigned reading in high school and college.  My immediate increase in reading after becoming interested in Civil War history not only gave me the courage to try and write myself, it gave me models to emulate (especially McCullough and Sears) as I tried to find my own voice, such as it is.  The same is happening as my fiction reading has increased substantially: it's inspired me to at least want to try and write historical fiction, although I still worry that I don;t have the imagination to craft a story or the courage to send it out, but that is my goal for 2013.  Writers like Louis Bayard make my mind and heart soar; I just admire storytellers so much.

Q: If you had to grab three things (and ONLY three things) from your house to evacuate due to a zombie invasion, what would they be? (Our standard question, we HAVE to ask! LOL)

A: 1) My Kindle Fire - it has my music, Bible, and Spider Solitaire...oh, and books, including all of Dickens; 2) The charger for my Fire; 3) A 12-pack of toilet paper; 2 for me and the rest to trade.  That should keep me, I think.  Sorry, someone is knocking at the door (opens door). Yes? "Grrrrr...Me need need toilet paper...Grrrrrrr" Okay, what do you have to trad...aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!

Q: What advice do you offer to someone who wants to write non-fiction?

A: The good news is that there are so many avenues in which to have your work published; it's never been easier, I think, as long as you know the process and follow some simple rules.  As for advice...First, decide what your goals are. Second, write about things that you are passionate about. Third, first write shorter articles rather than books; it helps you build a platform of readers and contacts and - more important - it develops a discipline in keeping your stories focused. Fourth, do it: don't read about writing...write! Fifth: find a person or persons you can trust to give you honest feedback. Sixth - to borrow from the carpenter trade: "Measure twice, cut once." That is, don't be in a hurry to send your work out without checking it for quality in grammar, punctuation, etc.

Q: Anything else you would like the readers to know?

A: The only thing I like as much as writing myself is seeing other people achieve their goals.  I'm giving a writing/publishing workshop at the South Branch library on Saturday, January 26, 2013.  I hope it will be the first of many opportunities to give back great advice that I received myself.  You can also keep up with my other writing and research projects by visiting the blog address above.
Thank you Tabatha!!!!!!

Thank you so much for your time, Jim! We look forward to seeing you at the festival!

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