NOTE: This is the first of a series of interviews with local writers. The emphasis in the interviews will be on the writing, editing, publishing, and marketing process, the behind-the-scenes, rather than on the books themselves. How do their works get from their minds to you?
Our first writer is Derek Baxter, who's just found an agent for his first book. (Disclosure: Derek and I are both members of the critique group Arlington Creative Nonfiction Writers.) This interview was conducted by email in late September 2019-- and then again on 31 October 2019, when the author requested a correction.
KOCH: Where are you from, where do you live, and what do you do for a living?
BAXTER: Like Thomas Jefferson, the subject of my book—I’m an attorney from Virginia in his 40’s, roughly the same age when Jefferson explored Europe. The similarities only go so far, though—he accomplished more in a typical week than I do in a year. That’s one reason why I wanted to dig in and learn more about his life.
How did you come to be a writer?
I’ve taken classes on writing, read books on the subject, and gotten feedback from writing groups and peers. But the best way to become a writer is write: filling up page after page every day, then doing it again the next day, and the following. After a while, those words will show you what they have in common and that is your voice.
You’re currently working on, correct me if I’m wrong, your first book: The Pursuit of Happiness: A Jeffersonian Roadtrip. According to your web site, it’s about your “experience following the route through Europe that Jefferson set out in Hints to Americans,” a route which begins in Holland and ends in France. When did you first begin work on it? And what motivated you to write this particular book?
I’ve been working on the book for so many years that the title has had plenty of time to evolve. Now it decided to change its name to IN PURSUIT OF JEFFERSON: TRAVELING THROUGH EUROPE WITH THE MOST CONFOUNDING FOUNDER.
In 1788, Jefferson compiled what he discovered from his own travels into a guide—intended for two wealthy young travelers—which he called Hints for Americans Traveling in Europe, setting out a detailed itinerary and subjects to explore. I decided to follow it and see what I could learn about Jefferson, the places I visited, and myself. I’ve spaced the big trips out, generally one per year, which gave me lots of time to research, plot, and write in between them. It’s given me something to do.
On your web site you write: “Like Jefferson when he wrote [Hints], I’m 40-something, from Virginia, and searching for meaning in a life that’s stalled.” Can you talk a bit about this search and the role it played in developing your book?
No better way than to unstall a life than to go on a quest. In the course of my journey following Jefferson’s travel advice, I boat on the same canals Jefferson did, make cheese in the same Italian town he visited, and walk around the same Roman ruins he measured. I learn how to consult the genius of the place when laying out a landscape, how to catch a codfish, and how to quarry marble. If you read the book you can experience some of these adventures too—and see if your view on Jefferson changes like mind has.
You recently landed an agent, Amanda Jain of Bookends. Can you talk about how this came about? And did you consider self-publishing?
I reached out to Amanda with a query letter and she responded. She has an interest in Tony Horwitz and Bill Bryson-style books, of travel with heavy dose of history mixed in. Now she’s helping send this book out into the world and I don’t know yet where it will go from here! I’ll let my book choose its own path. I only hope that it’s happy.
With a fiction book you submit the manuscript, but with nonfiction you have to put together a book proposal. Can you talk about some of the challenges of putting a proposal together?
I actually enjoyed putting the proposal together: it forced me to tighten up the structure of my book and throw some extra polish on my sample chapters. Doing market research on comparable titles taught me what ground my book will occupy. I revised the proposal dozens of times, with tons of input from writer friends. I spent the bulk of my time on it reworking my chapter summaries, again and again, honing just what will and won’t go into them and how they connect together. That was a worthwhile process worth in its own right.
Writers today hear constantly about the importance of “platform.” What things do you do to build platform, and how do you feel about this aspect of the job?
Ah, the platform. In my case jerry-rigged with duct tape. Creating your own brand isn’t easy for a first-time author, but I have a Facebook author site and write blog posts regularly for my website and sometimes for Monticello.
Is there anything about living and working in the Washington, DC area that makes writing and marketing a book like this easier...or more difficult?
When it comes time to market it, I’ll have to find some particularly DC way to do so, probably with a lot of free bite-size appetizers. Maybe I’ll fill the Jefferson Memorial for my book launch with a crowd of interns who are there for the food.
The area does have everything I’ve needed and more: a great library system for research (and even the Library of Congress!), a thriving community of fellow writers to give advice, and a string of independent coffeeshops (the preferred habitat for my book while it grows up). And we’re within striking distance of Monticello, which I’ve traveled to dozens of times.
Now, that inevitable question: Why should people read this book?
My book invites you to join me on my travels. Through the pages of In Pursuit of Jefferson, you can vicariously experience some of the adventures I had: piloting a Dutch canal boat, tramping among French vineyards, making cheese in Italy, and hiking the Alps with Jefferson’s notes in my pocket. You can learn about subjects that intrigued Jefferson, like architecture and agriculture, and see how they’ve evolved since his day.
On my trips, I got to know Jefferson better, seeing him as more human. And, of course, flawed. I deepened my understanding of how owning slaves, an unpardonable failure for this man who knew it was wrong, was crucial to his travels and lifestyle. If you read my book you can reach your own conclusions.
But most of all, I hope that sharing the account of my journeys will inspire you to get out on the road yourself. His enthusiasm for travel, for putting himself out there and soaking in all the knowledge he could, is infectious. You, too, can follow pieces of Jefferson’s itinerary in Hints to Americans, or even just visit Monticello or Poplar Forest. Or make up your own route. And as you go, keep your eyes open for whatever you see on the road, just as Jefferson did all those years ago.
What’s next for you after Pursuit?
I have a few more book ideas up my sleeve, some more historical travel specials. But I can’t ruin the surprise!
PHOTO CREDIT: Photo courtesy of Derek Baxter.