Candice Millard, the author of four New York Times best-selling books, is here to discuss her newest book, River of the Gods.
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This video was recorded on August 24, 2022.
David Gardner: Not every guest I have on this show has written a best-selling book. But of course with this Authors in August latest installment. this week's guest has, but even of those who have, who may have featured business or investing advice for the 2020s, few, if any, generated their best-sellers through featuring character-driven historical narratives from the 19th century. Well, this week's guest has, Candice Millard, most recent book has River of the Gods about the search for the source of the Nile, beautifully written and paced. It once again tells a story you may think you know at least something about, but it opens your eyes to see things you knew nothing about. But that thanks to this author that you learned, that you learn, remember, probably share with others with advice as well for new writers and other benefits of plenty, pull up a chair and join us only on this week's Rule Breaker Investing.
Welcome back to Rule Breaker Investing. I like books, I hope you do too. I know many of you do, which is why I hope you sign into this investing podcast one month a year to meet authors, authors of books that may as this week's podcast demonstrates may have little focus on business or investing, but some great focus and lessons on another field that we do play on this podcast, and that is the field of life. Well, two weeks ago was game design with Jesse Schell. Last week, it was rethinking what we really mean by leadership with Les Mckeown. This week, it's a return visit of one of my favorite living authors, Candice Millard. Candice Millard is the best-selling author of four wonderful books, all of which I've read, including of course her most recent and the subject of this Authors in August interview, River of the Gods about the race to locate the source of the Nile.
Her previous book, Hero of the Empire, tells the story of a young Winston Churchill's gutsy escape from South Africa as a young man embroiled in the Boer War. Candice and I talked about that book when she visited Fool HQ. Oh my gosh, September of 2016. You can listen to that by googling Foolish Heroes and Candice Millard. That podcast appeared on September 28th, 2016. Well worth a relistened. Her other two amazing books, they are both amazing are The River of Doubt. Still my personal favorite, Destiny of the Republic. I will leave you to explore those on your own dear listener. In the meantime, we have Candice back with us. So let me start by asking Candice how's life treated you since September 2016?
Candice Millard: Hi, David, thanks so much for having me back on your show. Everything has been great. I know I was just joking about how slow I am in writing books. It takes a long time. Unfortunately there's a long time in-between when I see you, but it's great to be back.
David Gardner: Thank you. Of course, somewhere near the end of this interview, I'll probably ask you what's the next project if you're even talking about that. But you are so painstaking, so careful, research oriented, of course, your background as a journalist playing into this, that it does take some time to write these wonderful books, maybe every five years or so. That's the rhythm I've gotten used to. Let me ask you Candice this to start with, when did the idea that you would actually write this book, River of the Gods first-come to you?
Candice Millard: It was about 20 years ago actually, I was working at National Geographic magazine and I heard the story of these two men, Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke. I was really struck by how incredibly different they were first of all, the story of their friendship and the betrayal of that friendship. All in the search for the source of Nile which was the greatest mystery of exploration at that time. It just stayed with me all these years. After I finished my book about Churchill, I wanted to write about Marie Curie, actually who has just an astonishing personal story. But the problem with that for me is that all the action took place in her mind. It's really hard to do with the narrative nonfiction I write. So I was having lunch with my husband and I said something about Burton and Speke and he said, you have literally been talking about that for 20 years. Maybe it's time. That's how it happened.
David Gardner: I think most of us when we think about the source of the Nile, at least for me, the phrase that immediately came to mind was Dr. Livingstone, I presume. That's the story I think a lot of us heard at some point and you and I have agreed ahead of time, and this is really my call most of all, but you approved of it, to not spoil this story. We're going to be doing a spoiler free interview. I want to tantalizingly dangle this book and some of it's amazing conclusions a couple of times during the interview. But the story is most of all Candice, it's fair to say Richard Francis Burton's and we're going to get to him in a moment. But first, arguably the most important character in River of the Gods is not a human character at all. Arguably the most important character is the source of the Nile River, pivotal. The whole tale that you spin revolves around that character. Candice why was the source of the Nile so important to locate?
Candice Millard: You use the word tantalizing and I think that's the perfect word when you think about the source of the Nile. This search for it had been going on for thousands of years. Ancient historians, Egyptian kings, great philosophers, they had all wondered what is the source of the Nile? Because obviously this is the longest and most storied River in the world. It brings to life one of the richest and oldest civilizations on earth, Egypt. There was always this question and it was so frustrating because obviously what they thought the natural approach would be, would be to start at the Mediterranean Sea and ascend it, try to reach the source just by following the river. The problem is you very quickly come upon something called the Sudd, S-U-D-D, which is a giant swamp. Nobody, but nobody could get past it. Then you fast forward to the 1800s and then this race to map the world and everyone is going to Africa, they're going to Australia, they're going everywhere. Again, still, the holy grail of exploration was a source of the Nile. Obviously, that's where the Royal Geographical Society, this old and revered institution in England wanted to send it to men.
David Gardner: Which still exists today by the way, which I didn't really know. As I read the book I see the Royal Geographical Society, which funded it and is certainly a central character as well. If you think outside of humanity and think of characters in this book. But I was like, are they still going today? [laughs] I'm assuming as part of your research, which has always extensive and involved. I know a lot of travel for this book. Did you hang out some and what's happening at the Royal Geographical Society in 2022?
Candice Millard: I did. I hung out there a lot. They have incredible archives. They've just been an amazing protector of those archives over the years and they still fund expeditions. They fund a lot of science. They're always having meetings, they are always trying to get young people involved. They're very, active and very cool. Also I want to give them credit. I always talk about the fact and it was important to me in this book to talk about the fact that Africans themselves played a huge role, an essential role in mapping their own continent. Obviously one of the main characters with my books Sidi Mubarak Bombay, the guide throughout history and involved with finding David Livingstone and all of that. He was, I think without question, the most accomplished guide in the history of African exploration. In the day, in the 1800s, the Royal Geographical Society and they're gentlemen scientists and armchair geographers didn't acknowledge that, but they are trying to make amends for that today. They have had exhibitions about guides and accompanying books and things like that. They're very active and really fascinating institution.
David Gardner: That's wonderful to hear and we'll certainly get back to Bombay in just a little while. Candice, when did you decide basically to ignore the Dr. Livingstone, I presume angle that many of us would have expected in favor of the story that you told here?
Candice Millard: Well, people have told the story of all the different people and the Victorian age who try to solve this mystery. But as I said, I was particularly interested in these two men Burton and Speke and their relationship and how it goes really, really wrong. This book is about exploration, but really it's about human nature. Everything else changes, but human nature really does not. You see it in full force in this story, you see courage, you see cowardice, you see friendship and betrayal and envy. Deep simmering hatred that erupts and destroys both of these men. To me, that was really the fascinating story.
David Gardner: Now, for many of us who may know a British actor, I think it's actually here as well-ish of the 20th century named Richard Burton way better than the 19th century explorer and linguist. Would you take a brush to canvas your paint a picture again of Richard Francis Burton?
Candice Millard: Burton was one of these just once in a century, characters who was really fascinating, incredibly brilliant. He wrote dozens of books, essays, translations, traveled journals. He was fascinated with different cultures. He was one of the early anthropologist.
Candice Millard: He was fascinated with sex and hallucinogens and trying everything which was very alarming to Victorian Britons, and he was incredible linguist. He spoke more than 25 different languages. He was also an incredibly accomplished explorer, even before he set out to find the source of the Nile. He was the first Englishman to enter Mecca disguised as a Muslim because he's Arabic was so incredible. He was an equal opportunity offender. He studied every religion and respected none. Whatever he was able to accomplish, he was always considered an outsider in England. He was always looked at with suspicion and distrust because he'd been more in England, two British parents, but he'd been raised in Europe, so he moved 18 times before his 13th birthday.
Each country he moved to, he would effortlessly pick up the language and pick up the culture, and so he was always seemed like an outsider. To Britons didn't look particularly British. He had this black hair and these mesmerizing incredibly dark eyes that he said he would use to hypnotize especially women [laughs] to get them to do his bidding. Even Bram Stoker, who would go on to write Dracula after he met Burton was obsessed with Burton. Interestingly, he talks about, he's steel. He'll go through a sword, but he in particular talks about Burton's teeth. He says we watches him talk and his canine shows the gleam of a dagger, so they think that he probably inspired Dracula. It's incredible.
David Gardner: I have to admit, I did go back and check this. I didn't realize Bram Stoker, first of all, was Irish. I had no idea that Irishman had written the 1897 Gothic novel Dracula. I was just picturing, surely the author of Dracula would himself sound and look like Dracula, but it was actually Richard Francis Burton who maybe sounded and looked like Dracula.
Candice Millard: [laughs] Who inspired that. Another interesting thing about Bram Stoker, his wife when he met her, was dating Oscar Wilde. Yes.
David Gardner: [laughs] Okay.
Candice Millard: Isn't that great? I know you're like OK, but he was. She was a famous Irish beauty. [laughs]
David Gardner: Richard Francis Burton, a central character, of course, and I love how you started the story by describing his stealing his way into Mecca. That itself could be, I don't know if you saw the movie rights just to that chapter, Candice, but I feel that was a great story lead off with. A little ways in, we're going to meet another character. I would like you to describe him now. It's not John Hanning Speke with whom Burton had the big rivalry. We'll get to him in a sec, but you mentioned him already, Sidi Mubarak Bombay, the African guide. Who was Bombay?
Candice Millard: Bombay was kidnapped from his village when he was just a child, his village in East Africa, and he lost everything that day. He lost his family. He lost his name. He lost his home. He was dragged hundreds of miles to the East African coast, taken to Zanzibar where he was sold for cloth. Then he was taken to Western India, where he was enslaved for 20 years. When the man who owned him died, Bombay was able to make his way back to East Africa and that's where he met Burton and Speke. It was fascinating to me and that's really when I knew for sure I wanted to tell the story because I didn't want to tell a story of, here comes some Europeans going into Africa, "Discovering", something where millions of people had lived for hundreds of thousands of years. But when I was reading, just doing research and I read about Bombay, I was just fascinated by him for many reasons. One is that if you read Burton and Speke's stories about their expeditions, it's fascinating what they say about Bombay.
Because here's a man who again lost everything, was enslaved for 20 years and he comes out of that incredible tragedy, not with bitterness, but with kindness. He was unbelievably kind, unbelievably generous, and cheerful and hardworking. He really was the linchpin for this expedition and he quickly became the hero in my mind, at least of this expedition and both men came to rely on him very deeply, and not just them. Bombay, he helped Burton and Speke reach the Tanganyika. They became the first Europeans to reach Lake Tanganyika, which is huge lake in Western Tanzania in which Burton hoped was a source of the Nile. Then he takes Speke in this horrible twist cruel to Burton to the Nyanza, which is the source of the Nile, which Speke named Lake Victoria. Then Speke comes back with James Grant again using Bombay and then Henry Morton Stanley comes and Bombay takes him to Lake Tanganyika where he finds David Livingstone, Dr. Livingstone, I presume. That was Bombay. Then with Verney Lovett Cameron, Bombay becomes the first to cross the entire continent from East to West, sea to sea and very few people know his name. I worked at National Geographic for six years. I was steeped in stories about Africa, about exploration, and I had never heard his name.
David Gardner: It's just wonderful then that you have written a book which puts history in a better place with a new story. Actually, I would say each of your books, part of the reason I love your work, Candice is that you're telling a new story each time. You may have thought you knew the source of the Nile. Well, I sure didn't and yet you learn and even the royal geographical society these days backpedaling a little bit. I'm honorably recognizing that there is a story that was true, that wasn't told. I think that's part, no false spoilers in this interview, but that's part of what's amazing about this book, River of the Gods. I see your work, Candice is most of all, of course, historical in nature, rooted in history, based on fact, researched. Letter by letter, and here I mean the ones that come in envelopes, which you cover so extensively. [laughs] History first and foremost, but I would also say history as character-driven narratives. We're not analyzing the four causes of the Boer War or the conditions in America that gave rise to industrialization per se. We're getting to know the people of the time. I was reading your book allowed in full to my wife, Margaret once again.
Candice Millard: Welcome.
David Gardner: She turned to me at one point and she wondered the following. How early do you Candice find yourself developing feelings for these humans, the heroes and the villains. Maybe even more, do you find you have to watch out for developing biases or your own blind spots regarding some of these people? Do you ever have to check your own emotions at the door as you tell their stories?
Candice Millard: That's an excellent question. Yeah it is difficult. You come into it knowing just the basics. Before I commit to writing a book, I have to know that I have just mind-bendingly huge amount of primary source material to work with. Obviously, that it's a good story and good tangential characters and things like that. But you never know what you're going to find, and that was definitely the case here. I had always been fascinated with Richard Burton in particular for obvious reasons. He was incredibly brilliant, strange, fascinating guy, but he was so prolific. He had written so much that when I started I hadn't read a lot of what he had written. Fast forward a couple of years, I'm deep into it and I'm like, no. [laughs] Like I said, he was an early anthropologist and some of it is really ugly. He gets to a point, again, no spoilers, but he's angry and he's embittered and he's been tossed out. All of that comes out in his writing and in his cultural studies and that's difficult. You've got to be honest about it, and the same is true for Speke's, so there's a lot of difficulty. Bombay, I just found absolutely he's too, [laughs] so there's just nothing not to like about the guy. It is always an issue. You mentioned my book about Garfield. When I started that I didn't know much about Garfield.
I knew enough to know that he was brilliant and just incredibly decent human being and would have, I think been one of our great presidents. But I went to the Walter Reed Museum, the Museum of Health and Medicine and I saw his spine. They have a section of his spine there that they used during the trial of his assassin show where they have this red plastic pen to show where the bullet went through. I remember seeing that early on in my research and thinking, what a fascinating artifact from our country's history. Then years later, I've finished the book and honestly have really come to care about him and just deeply admired him. All things considered has asked me to do an interview and they want to go there. Even though it's radio, they want to go and have them bring in that section of spine again and have me talk about it. They opened the door to bring in the spine and I was like, no, I'm going to start crying, because it's different now. It was like, this was just a good person. He was 49 years old. He had a family, loved him. He had a country that had so much hope placed in him, and it was just an unbelievable tragedy. Your wife is right. It's hard, but it's important. That's one of the reasons why, I have all my notes. I don't just say, I basically use this and this in this chapter. You can look and see I tried to quote extensively and I try my hardest to just lay it out there for you. This is what he said. This is what he did. You decide. You make the decision, but of course I'm human and I'm affected by it along the way.
David Gardner: Well, the rivalry and partnership actually co-opetition to use a portmanteau word familiar to many of my investor and business associates between Burton and, now, let's talk about John Hanning Speke. I would say that's the central thread of the book. It's a story most of us will be completely unfamiliar with. At what point, Candice, did you realize you had some storytelling gold here and how did you put the story together?
Candice Millard: Let me tell you about John Hanning Speke. He was Burton's complete opposite nearly every way, so he was what Britons expected their heroes to be. He was blonde and blue-eyed. He had been born into the aristocracy.
Candice Maillard: He was an officer in the British army. He loved to hunt. While Burton was spending all of his time reading, growing up, and learning languages, Speke was hunting and his big goal was to open a natural history museum in his ancestral home. He meets Burton in Eden when Burton is in his first expedition to find the source of Nile and he wants to go into Somaliland to hunt, but the British officials in Eden won't let him do it, it's too dangerous. He asks Burton if he can go along and Burton had just found out one of the members of his expedition had died suddenly. He does have an opening, but he has real reservations right away about Speke. First of all, he doesn't have any skills that Burton really needs. He already has most of them. He's concerned that Speke doesn't seem to have any interest in the people through whose land they are going, he doesn't speak any of the languages. He doesn't have any knowledge or interest in the people or the land through which they are traveling. But Burton says, I saw that he was going to lose his money and his life, and so I felt sorry for him. I took pity on him. He says later, bitterly, "Why should I have cared? I do not know."
David Gardner: Let's go right to the book because that's a key moment, page 40, I'm going to quote by taking Speke onto his expedition, he was Burton wrote "Assuming the fullest responsibility and giving a written bond for our blood." You go on, years later filled with bidder regret Burton would wonder what had moved him that day to make such a hasty decision. He brought onto his long-planned and hard one expedition, a man who seemed to have a little to contribute and whom he knew very little about.
Candice Maillard: That's right. That expedition would end before it even began, because they made it to Somaliland. But then they were attacked in the middle of the night. One member of the expedition was killed, Speke was kidnapped and stabbed 11 times. It's just incredible that he survived it. Burton had a javelin thrust through through his jaw, sticking out from cheek to cheek, side-to-side and left him with this great scarred on the side of his face and made them seem even more suspicious and sinister.
David Gardner: Hearing the physical hardship, being stabbed 11 times, I can't not think of another well-known writer of our time who was stabbed 10 times just a couple of weeks ago. Any quick thought that you'd like to put in about Salman Rushdie?
Candice Maillard: Yeah, it was shocking and just devastating. He's obviously been a hero to so many people, but also so many writers, just incredibly brave and strong, just such an inspiration. Definitely our thought are with him and I'm so sorry to hear what happened.
David Gardner: I will say having been to Chautauqua in New York myself in the summer and seeing the wonderful lectures, open-mindedness, open to all I thought, for those who haven't gotten a chance to see at the five-minute YouTube video of the President of Chautauqua later that same day speaking about the significance of that is well worth anybody's watch. Anyway, stabbing occurs because humans make a decision tragically. That was a brutal thing for John Hanning Speke to survive. But another thing that these gentlemen and they're heroic to most of us, I think along this dynamic, they were surviving disease constantly. I've traveled to Africa, I've traveled some of the world, occasionally I'll get sick or I'll be upset that maybe I got COVID. What was happening to these gentlemen as they were traveling through Africa?
Candice Maillard: I think people, first of all, I have to understand the distances that they were traveling. They're going more than a 1,000 miles into the African interior. They're spending years there and yes, and facing horrible diseases. Burton had such severe malaria that he was paralyzed, could not walk for nearly a year, couldn't even use his hands with which to write, he couldn't hold a pen. Both men were blinded at different times, had horrible eye infections. But poor Speke, he always had the strangest things that happened to him. One night in particular, he's in his tent, there's a big storm, it knocks down his tent. He lights a candle to erect his tent, and it attracts this horde of beetles, so his tent is filled with hundreds of beetles and he's flailing away desperately trying to get rid of them. But then he finally just gives up out of exhaustion any lies down. Then soon he feels a beetle crawling into his ear and burrowing deeper and deeper into his ear and out of desperation, he just tries everything. He tries butter and oil and salt, whatever you can think of to try to get rid of it. Finally out of desperation, he takes his pen knife and jabs it into his ear, and he does kill the beetle, but he deafens himself and not hear for the rest of his life. Over the next few weeks, bits of the beetle come out and his ear wax and there's a lag or whatever. Yeah, absolutely brutal diseases and accidents and attacks.
David Gardner: We certainly could just continue telling the story of the book, which you do so beautifully within the book. But if we did that, a, this interview would go way too long. B, we would start spoiling a remarkable story. I think I want to start dialing out a little bit Candice. One thing I was very conscious of, and you do this in all your books and you've already spoken to it in this interview once. But universal themes, themes that connect us to the 19th century and such a really any century themes of human character exploration and adventure encountering the other, I might say, ego, love, requited or on. But also, since you've now written each of your books, at least partly set in the 19th century themes that do not connect with us at all in the 21st century. Without much science back then and with some crazy notions that were almost embraced as universal human knowledge at the time, at least in the West not universal. Inherited traditions that we find anywhere from bizarre today, to downright offensive or even evil thinking here, of course, of slavery, which was a norm or polygenism. The idea that humans don't all come from the same DNA, but there are different races that are not related to others. Candice, how difficult is it for you to get into the mindsets of your characters?
Candice Maillard: Well, as I said, it's really important to me before I commit to a book that I know that I have a lot of primary source material to work with, and that's what I really rely on. That gives me dialogue, it gives me those little details I hopefully make you feel like you're there. But it also gives me a little bit of insight, a little entry into their minds to try to understand and sometimes that's a very uplifting, exciting, thrilling place and sometimes it's a very dark place. I certainly did go there with Burton and Speke at the end of his life, Burton is so angry and really struggling. As you said, he starts something called the Cannibal Club, which is just as horrible as it sounds. There's a lot of racism involved. Mostly they just want the freedom to talk about pornography and things that are illegal in England at that time. Then Speke himself, you talked about polygenism and monogenism. Monogenism obviously believe we all come from the same origins, which is obviously correct.
However, early monogenism before Charles Darwin, right before on the origin of species, it was a religious approach to it and thinking that we're all descendants of Noah. Unfortunately, what came out of that was a very twisted pseudoscience. Today we know it adds a hemolytic myth and Speke was an advocate of that myth and he didn't start it, it had been used for a long time to justify slavery. But he made it even more popular. What it is, its just says that Ham was the weakest of the sons of Noah, and these are Africans are the descendants of Ham. That's why they're doomed to serve the other branches of the family. Again, that's another thing that I didn't know. I never even heard of the hermetic myth until I started researching it and I certainly didn't know about its connections to John Hanning Speke, but you spin that forward and it had a real effect, and one of the worst genocides in history, the Rwandan genocide.
David Gardner: It was incredible that connection that you made and it's a real connection. Last year in August I interviewed Charles King, author of a wonderful book called Gods Of The Upper Air, which is basically about the founding, largely in the US really of anthropology as a discipline which is only about 100-years-old. But the way Charles and his book confronts just the rampant racism that was largely scientifically justified at the time. I think it's hard in a lot of cases for us even to adopt that as a default setting for our minds. Or I would say in this case the minds of the characters we're writing about. The 19th century, of course, rife with that, let's go with a whimsical next question Candice.[laughs]
Candice Maillard: Lighten it up a little
David Gardner: It's so obvious now seeing the biases of people from the past, their foibles, their ignorances, and yet, want the same thing be true people two centuries from now looking back at our life and times, Candice, I won't be around to hold you accountable for [laughs] this prediction, but if you had to make an educated guess as to what we today are doing wrong or getting wrong. Maybe even with the best of intentions, maybe we just don't have the science yet. What do you think Maillard fans of the 23rd century will also knowingly have to excuse about our own present- day foibles?
Candice Maillard: Very hard to say. Obviously I think it's clear to all of us we still have a long way to go when it comes to racism and comes to respecting each other, respecting certainly other races, but just expecting differences and not just respecting them, but really, truly appreciating them. I'm sure that there are all kinds of missteps that we've made along the way. For instance, when I worked at National Geographic and really even just from a few years ago, we would always talk about slaves. Instead of talking about enslaved people, it's not the slave [laughs]. The people have been enslaved. It's the people who are doing the enslaving, not the ones that have been slaves. Just language. Obviously, language is always changing and no one understood that better-than Richard Burton. But we just keeping our minds open and understanding the thing that I think is interesting to me today as we've come so far. What I hope is that there's not always shame. Because sometimes people intentionally hurt, or intentionally want to put themselves above others. But sometimes it's accidental, sometimes it's just out of ignorance. And so I think that if they're ashamed by mistakes that they've made, they're less likely to be open to listen and to learn and to get better to improve. So that's what I hope. I hope that people will say, how embarrassing for them or that was just painful to read this. But they didn't know and they were trying what matters is that they were trying to get it right there, they're trying to understand.
David Gardner: Very well said, thank you for that. Let's stick in the meta question atmosphere. I won't ask you to make any daring two century forward predictions [laughs] anymore, but how does Candice Millard write a Candice Millard book?
Candice Maillard: [laughs] It's interesting when I was writing about Winston Churchill, I was talking with, I had a publisher in London, and he said, "Do you think that you write like an American woman? I thought, I guess I'm an American woman, I guess, [laughs] but I think I write like myself. I think that's true of any field, any art, or anything you want to go into. It takes a while to figure out what is my voice, what do I want. Of course, we're all inspired by our heroes. Certainly for me, Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough, Doris Kearns. All those people I love reading them and I'm inspired by them. But I hope that I have my own voice and that's just a matter of what comes naturally to me or writing a story that I would want to read. My kids always make fun of me because I literally have zero hobbies. [laughs] I'm terrible at crafts. I have no hobbies except I just read. If I have a free minute, I'm reading because I love it. So I have an idea at the books I like to read the kind of books where you just totally forget where you are, who you are, what you're doing.
When somebody says, "Hey David" you're like "What?" You're ripped out by your caller. That's the kind of books I love to read. You just get lost in them. That's the kind of book that I tried to write. It takes a long time, it really takes five years. I spend the first 80 percent of the time doing research. First I cast a very wide net and just getting all the information that I can. Then I start organizing it. Because you can imagine it's a lot of things to remember. Because if you work on something for years, the worst thing is when you finally get to the point where you can write about it and you know you have this great bit of information that's great story or a great quote, and you can't remember where you saw it. That's the worst feeling. I always put in. I annotate and highlight everything but then I transfer, I actually type it in it's very old school. But it sets a story in my mind for me. Then I always put in exactly where I found it. I always say years later when I look at I say thank you passed Candice, thank you for [laughs] doing that for me. I spend a lot of time also on the structure at least a year outlining it, finding where I've holes in my research and doing more. It's not really till the last year that I start writing.
David Gardner: Thank you for that. Well, you mentioned you love to read. I love to read your books. Whose books do you love to read Candice?
Candice Maillard: Nonfiction. I'm a huge Erik Larson fan. I love David Grann. Like I said, Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough, Laura Hillenbrand, Stacy Schiff. Anyway, there are just so many great nonfiction writers. I read a ton of fiction as well. I'm more brutal when it comes [laughs] to my eviction. People will say, "Oh, if I start book, I feel like I have to finish it." [laughs] I don't feel like that at all. Especially I'm 55 and there's so many good stories out there that I'm not. With fiction and less I'm just like, love it and it's really beautifully written I'm going to move on. You know what? I've started reading more poetry lately. I had someone in my family, someone I love very much was very sick in the fall and winter and I just needed something. I remember I majored in English and I used to love poetry and I had just gotten away from it. I didn't know where to start again. I know a lot of people who love poetry and know a lot about it. But to me, poetry, especially is a very personal reading. So I just wanted to find my own way. You know what I did? I got a Poem a Day [laughs] book and I didn't really hold that much hope. I thought it might be cheesy, but the one I got, at least for me was perfect, is exactly what I need it. Not all the poems were for me. Some of them I have no idea what that means [laughs] but some just hit home. I just saw this Robert Frost quote about the immortal wound that you sometimes get when you read something and you're like, that's changed me and I'm not going to forget it. That's happened with me again and again lately with poetry. I'm so grateful for it.
David Gardner: Well, you have a gift for recognizing lovely phrases. I noticed that you will often entitle your chapters after that lovely phrase that you extracted from this or that person's poem, verse, or writings history. I really appreciate that. I have to stick just on the advice to new writers line just a little bit longer. Earlier Candice you mentioned find your voice and I certainly hear you there. We do have a lot of people listening right now who are writers or aspire to be writers, one or two more short course Candice Millard tips for new writers.
Candice Maillard: The best and it seems cliche, but it's absolutely true, you just have to believe in yourself. You think, if not me, who? Look, I grew up in this little blue collar town in Ohio. I didn't know any writers. It didn't even occur to me that I could be a writer. I just knew that I love to read and I just read and read and read. It wasn't until after graduate school I thought, well maybe I can write for a magazine or something like that. But I knew that I was fascinated by history. I knew after working at National Geographic, I knew that I wasn't good researcher. I knew that I could find those stories. I also knew that it doesn't just pour out of me. It's not like Mozart or something where it's like the first draft [laughs] as a genius. I always think when I'm writing something and I have to go and I haven't had a chance to work, I think please God don't let anybody see this because it is so bad [laughs]. But the one thing I do know about, my main thing is I work really hard. My second thing is I do know when it's not working at least for me and somebody else might read and think, "This is trash." But at least I can look at my own writing and say to me, and my opinion, I feel confident in it. It's not working, but I know how to fix it and I know that if I wrestle with it long enough I can fix it. Some of that is just experience. I've written four books now. But some of that is just knowing I love it. I'm fascinated by it, I'm fascinated by the subject. I don't know if anybody else is going to be, but I'm and so I don't ever resent the time that I put into it.
David Gardner: Beautifully said. Have you ever read Brenda Ulan's book If You Want To Write?
Candice Maillard: No, but I will now, would you have read it?
David Gardner: Yes. I first heard about it actually through guy Kawasaki, the entrepreneur and wonderful. He's also a past interviewee on this podcast, but it's really as much about creativity. For the makers and the creatives out there, it's a book she was teaching creative writing, I believe it was in Minnesota to adult education a century ago. The punch line of the whole book, and we will spoil this one is she basically it says at the end "If you want to write then just write". Get started. [laughs]
Candice Millard: Exactly. Just work hard to show up every day and write something. Again, it might be terrible, but then just keep working with it.
David Gardner: Let's stick on life advice just one more minute or so. Now having crossed the Hallett age of 55, you called yourself out there and actually, for the record, you did so on Twitter the day of which, by the way, it was June 16th of this year. I'm pretty sure I have that right. I edited your Wikipedia entry in advance of this conversation to put your official birthday. It wasn't there, but since you outdid yourself, I figured it was fair game, so I sure didn't know. You're welcome. I sure didn't know you were 55. What's a bit of advice you can give them much younger, Candice Millard now thinking back who's considering, let's say stepping away from National Geographic to go out on her own?
Candice Millard: Well, what I learned and I would tell her it's going to be OK because I remember the thing I worried about most when I last National Geographic is that I had learned how to research and I learned how to find the people who had spent years and decades of their lives really studying something. I knew that if I picked up the phone and called them and said, hey, this is Candice Millard from National Geographic, will you help me? I knew that they would say yes because it's National Geographic. What I didn't know is that if I picked up the phone and said, hey, this is Candice Millard, that's all I got. Will you please help me? I was really worried that they would say no. But what was has been incredible for the last 20 years at every single time, they said yes. I think that it's because people A, there obviously fascinated with their subject and they love to talk about it. But B, they appreciate somebody trying to get it right. We see arrogance again and again and you certainly see it in writing or someone thinks I can just step in. Oh, I get the basic idea. Describe it. No, it's always, always more complex and more difficult than you assume it to be. So you need to be modest and be grateful and to find the people who know and listen to them. That's been such a joy for me working with those. That's why, as you said, my acknowledgment sections are so huge because I've so many people to thank who have made it possible for me to write these books.
David Gardner: You and I talked about that before we came on the air. I always do read the acknowledgment sections of most of the books. I appreciate you do a beautiful job. One thing I did pick up more advice to not just any writer, but all of us. You really do call out that it's been the same team around you for really all four of these books. The loyalty, the longevity of relationship that you have, the support, the crew that you've assembled it seems like it's pretty consistent from one book to the next.
Candice Millard: Is the exact same agent, publicist, and editor, and they're the best. I'm so grateful. I think there are a lot of people who would love to have that continuity and just haven't been fortunate. I've just been so great. Every single time when I've come to them with an idea, they've been ready to go. My first book is about this adventure and there is this death and theater. Rosemont nearly takes his own life and then I come to him, say, now I'd like to write about James Garfield. [laughs] God bless them. They said, OK, go ahead. [laughs]
David Gardner: Well we're about to continue to its close my talk with Candice. But before I do, let me mention that next week is your Rule Breaker Investing mailbag. Through this month, authors in August, I hope I've occasions some questions or thoughts from you and you have an opportunity to let me know what those are. [email protected] is our email address. You can always tweet us @RBIpodcast on Twitter. So whether it's game design, leadership, or your personal search for the source of, I don't know anything. All are welcome and I look forward to joining with you for next week's Rule Breaker Investing mailbag. Three last questions for you Candice, so count them down. Third to last question. I've now read all your books. I feel both curious to ask, and I would say somewhat qualified now to ask, what are you doing in these books across all of them? Why so far these four books?
Candice Millard: Each one has been different, honestly, and I know it seemed like at first, oh, she must want to write about presidents or world leaders. But it's really finding a story that I'm personally fascinated with. I know that I'm not gonna get bored with it over five-years. Of course people will say, oh, I could never [laughs] write a book or certainly not work on the same thing for five-years, but it's really not the same thing. It's always something different and fascinating, and it's really is like a treasure hunt, and then putting it together is like doing a puzzle, so it's just pure joy for me. I really love it. To me, I didn't go into it thinking I want this story. I might say I want some science in there, I want a great story that I can really sink my teeth into.
David Gardner: Well said. Second to last question, maybe the same question over again. I don't know, I'm trying this one on precise. Speaking now to us, your readers, arithmetic question here as well, what ultimately do you want us to come away asking of ourselves after reading a Candice Millard book?
Candice Millard: Well, what I've seen again and again in these stories is the danger of arrogance like we were talking about before, and the fact that ignorance and arrogance always goes hand in hand and that was always what does the most damage. I think that's very evident in each of these stories. To me, what I always want to remind myself of again, like modesty is everything. Just just be modest. Just say OK and be honest. I don't know. Can you help me? Listen to other people. If there's any lesson in these books, that's the lesson I hope that someone would take from them.
David Gardner: I'm so glad you said that. I also think it's true and illustrative of your work. Since you're appearing on a Motley Fool podcast, and my brother Tom and I and our Mary Band and Fools are out there telling the world we're Fools. [laughs] It's right there in our name and our brand that we're totally aligned with that thinking. Thank you. My final question. It's the obvious one. What's your next adventure?
Candice Millard: I do have a next one. I've written the proposal and it's been accepted. I'm actually incredibly excited about it, but I haven't had a chance to really get going on it since I've been touring. I'll just say that the big thing for me and it's something that I've wanted for a long time, is that the central character is a woman in this case. It's a story about it, a group of people, but the person at the heart of it is a woman. I've wanted to write about a woman for many years. The problem, I think is that although women have done extraordinary things throughout history, not many people wrote about it at the time. What you want and these stories, I'm always looking for a story was like it was a huge deal at the time and it's been forgotten. You need people writing about it, not just the central person's writing in their diary writing letters, but other people paying attention and commenting on it and telling stories about it to make it really, really rich. That just doesn't really happen or it hasn't happened much in history with women. But I think I found one and I know I find like to me, I'm so excited about it. I really, really love the story and so you have to wish me luck with it.
David Gardner: Amelia Earhart.
Candice Millard: No, although, she's not. Your hometown is not far. I've thought about her before, but then everyone was like, you're going to solve the mystery, I don't think I can do that.
David Gardner: You already struck down, I think Marie Curie.
Candice Millard: Yeah. Marie Curie, it's in my back pocket. I still hope that I can find a way to make it work because she's so fascinating, but no, it's not Marie Curie.
David Gardner: I collect quotes and I occasionally dedicated a whole podcast, just a reading off some of my favorites and nothing in life is to be feared. It's only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more so that we may fear less. I think that is accurately ascribe to Marie Curie. It is true of our time today as it was when she first wrote or said it. Well, I guess we're going to have to wait another few years to hear the subject and then five or six years to talk about your next book, Candice, I preapprove you as a guest on this podcast six years from now. But if you have a chance to hang out in the meantime beforehand or if you want to come back and talk about something on this podcast, you have a red carpet anytime. Candice Millard, thank you so much for joining us on Rule Breaker Investing.
Candice Millard: Thank you so much for having me. I've really enjoyed the conversation.