Our guest today is Austin Washington, author of the historical nonfiction, The Education of George Washington. Austin is the great-nephew of George Washington. He earned his masters and did post-graduate research focusing on colonial American history, and is a writer, musician, entrepreneur and global traveler. He returns to an old Virginia family home whenever he can. Austin’s first book takes a common criticism of his academic writing – “You’re not writing a newspaper editorial, you know!” – and turns it into a virtue, taking a subject dry and dusty in other’s hands and giving it life. He has lived abroad much of his life, most recently in Russia, and visits friends from Sicily to Turkey to Bangladesh and beyond. His earliest influences as a writer were Saki, Salinger, and St. Exupery, although in more recent years he has got beyond the S’s. As for historians, he is partial to the iconoclast Gibbon, who wrote history to change the future.
Thank you for this interview, Austin. Can you tell us a little about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?
When I was fifteen I got a handwritten note from the editor of The New Yorker Magazine carefully explaining that something I'd naively sent to the magazine was not quite right for it. He did like it, though. I only noticed that part years later.
At the time, I was devastated, crushed, destroyed. I think I quit writing, for a while. But obviously, I'd already been writing for a while by then.
It was only recently I heard Garrison Keillor explain that, for years, his submissions to The New Yorker were replied to with pre-printed form rejections. He said he was elated when, after several years of dogged determination, the pre-printed form rejections started having a hand scrawled "Sorry" on them.
If I'd known that I when I was fifteen, maybe I'd be Shakespeare by now. Or at least I'd have more practice. It took me a while to get going again after that, seemingly, mortal blow. To get a personally written note from the main editor - the Editor - of The New Yorker just about crushed me. Stupid me.
Later on I was criticised when doing graduate studies in history for my essays sounding too much like "New York Times editorials." Not what I said - the way I said it.
This was meant to be a criticism. And although I kept writing, this time history, it kept me from writing the way I wanted to write.
But destiny had different plans.
"Providence" (George Washington's word for destiny) led me to the opportunity to write The Education of George Washington. It's based on a potentially world-changing discovery that shows, for the first time, how George Washington was, in a sense, a Horatio Alger character. With pluck, courage, and a guide to greatness he got from his cousin when he was fifteen - a proto-Tony Robbins book, albeit cast in a much higher form - he transformed himself from a poor boy, with no father, and a limited education, into the richest man in Virginia, a great dancer, and an amazing athlete and horseman. And of course President, and all that.
Here, now, was something to write about in the way I've always wanted to write. Something of substance - I mean, I didn't train my brain doing academic research in history for nothing, I hope. But now I could unashamedly write in the way The New Yorker's editor said he liked. Not for history nerds. For everyone.
Still, I have been, perhaps not surprisingly, wracked with insecurity that people will hate it. So you can imagine I am grateful to have heard things such as...well, the first reviewer said it was "The best book ever written about the Father of Our Country." But then...then...he wrote me a personal note saying "The review did not do the book justice. Great wit and style."
Take that, history nerds!
The great thing is, this is exactly what George Washington wanted. He tried to turn his life into a lesson for others, with the help of his former aid-de-camp, just after the Revolution. His writing project was derailed when he became President. He never had the time to finish it, as he died, unexpectedly, from a disease (along with the contemporaneous "cure" of bleeding,) a few years after resigning from the presidency.
I'm taking over the job George Washington started, but not to please scholars. To change lives, the thing my great uncle, George Washington, originally tried to do with his life story.
Can you tell us briefly what your book is about?
The Education of George Washington is about your life. Or at least George Washington wanted it that way.
More obviously, it is about the long lost guide that George Washington used to transform himself from a relatively uneducated boy (ironic title, yes?) into a hero who almost uniquely combined two attributes most often polar opposites - goodness and greatness. Often those with great power either start out bad, or become bad. George Washington, as an almost unique exception, became more noble as his power increased, eventually walking away from the presidency and ultimate power, for which he earned King George's accolade as the greatest man of his age.
George Washington's "education" didn't come from school. His father died when he was eleven, he didn't have the money to go to the English boarding school his older half brothers had gone to. He didn't think of himself as having much of an education at all. At least not as most people think of education.
What he did have was a guide to greatness that he bought from his cousin, when he was fifteen. This guide took the place of George Washington's deceased father, his lack of schooling, and his lack of role models, for the next several years. Of course it affected his entire life, too. It drew out of George Washington something that never would have happened had he been stuck in school. Greatness.
By the way, a reproduction of the book George Washington held in his own hands, and used as his guide to greatness, is included at the end of my book.
It's worth pointing out that The Education of George Washington is based almost exclusively on my great uncle's own words, along with family papers and memories. You'll find that most biographies of George Washington are based on other biographies, repeating the same stories again and again. My book, almost uniquely in two hundred years, is straight from the President's mouth.
I think the book also benefits from the fact that I'd done lots of research about colonial American history, really for years, before I started the book. Understanding the context really helps. I've seen lots of books that get that wrong.
Finally, as George Washington's life was an adventure, The Education of George Washington takes you on the adventure of his life, focussing, for the first time in 200 years, on how he "made it" in the world. This of course put him in a position to help re-make the world.
Why did you choose your particular genre?
What genre is it? George Washington-ism? Austinsim?
My goal is to take the most important ideas, really, ever, and make them sparkle and shine like Christmas tree lights. Ideas that, had I taken the advice of others, might be buried in a library somewhere.
I feel something like Gibbon, who, as you know, left his university for more inspiring climes, sauntering around europe somewhat pointlessly 'til he finally got inspired while drinking red wine and watching washerwomen dry their clothes in Rome's Colosseum. How did Rome come to that? Might England fall as far?
Gibbon's purpose was to change the future of his own country, with reference to the past.
Looking at England today, of course, you might argue that Gibbon failed. It is equally possible that he kept its glory alive for an extra century or so. Anyway, he tried.
My purpose, however, is bigger. My purpose is to change your future. Our country might be affected, too, along with the world, who knows, but my purpose is more personal, and therefore possibly longer lasting. No matter what happens to our country, there will always be people seeking greatness, and goodness. Maybe very rarely. But, at least now, they will have a guide, updated for our times.
What was your greatest challenge writing this book?
Getting the balance right between fact and sparkle. I don't mean that the more sparkling parts aren't equally factual. Just the balance, y'know?
Are you published by a traditional house, small press or are you self-published?
I'm about as naive about publishing as I was when I sent my story to The New Yorker at fifteen. I think my publisher publishes forty books a year, and about a third get onto The New York Times best seller list.
Was it the right choice for you?
Like George Washington, I let "Providence" guide me. It seemed like a complete fluke. It just happened. Specifically, I was introduced to them by the head of Mount Vernon, Jim Rees, who I'd known my whole life. They are the only publishers offices I've ever walked into.
How are you promoting your book thus far?
I think "promoting" is not the right word for what I'm trying to accomplish. I'm trying to impart wisdom, in whatever way I can. Not mine, incidentally, to be clear. George Washington's.
My publisher has sent radio shows lists of radio-friendly questions that they tend to ask. They want to be amused, and assume I'm going to be amusing. I feel this can degrade the book. I answer them, though. I'm a good sport. I play along.
Sometimes, on radio, you walk a fine line, though.
The best interview I did was by some guy who did it Larry King style - he just flipped through the book, asking me about what caught his eye. This gave me the chance to think on my feet, and have a genuine conversation. I liked that interview.
How is that going for you?
I did start to take more control after the first ten or so shows. I tried to get some wisdom thrown in, amongst the banter.
Can you tell us one thing you have done that actually resulted in one or more sales?
The Education of George Washington actually has really prominent placement at Barnes and Noble, but I think actually hearing about the book, probably - I'm guessing - was vastly more important to most readers than just seeing it there. People don't buy a book if they see it on a book shelf, I'm told. It is far better if they have heard about it, somehow, somewhere. I've heard that recommendations are the most important thing.
Do you have another job besides writing?
My favorite thing to do is speak to groups of people, all around the world. For example, last spring I spoke to all of the top graduating high school students in Moscow, at dozens of events. I've also done some stuff for cable television - mostly pilots, thus far. Maybe we can do something about this book, there.
I'm also hoping to do more of the sorts of shows where people argue (sorry, debate!) about topical issues. I really like doing that. Although I don't agree with him much, things like Bill Maher's show would be great to do.
I'm a libertarian, to an extent, and thus have a particular political perspective. I have been writing a few editorials for Human Events Magazine recently - but that still counts as writing, I suppose.
My hobby is music. I've got about 400,000 active fans on my mailing list, so it's kind of a big hobby. I'm going to start doing it another a different name, though. It's too different from my writing, and would end up confusing people.
If you could give one book promotion tip to new authors, what would that be?
I'm not the expert, I'm really not. And it probably differs for every book.
What’s next for you?
I want to expand The Education of George Washington and get it into schools, maybe in a different form. That's a big hope of mine.
As far as something completely different goes...
Well, I was working on a spec show for HBO a while back, where I went around the world asking people about "Love". That is what I'd like to turn into a book, next. "Love".
Thank you for this interview, Austin. Can you tell us where we can find you on the web?
(my newest music will be up, soon, at http://PopMusic.com)