S3-EP23: Bestselling Author Thomas E. Ricks on His Writing Process
Debbie Weil talks to bestselling author Thomas E. Ricks about his writing process, what really goes into writing a book, and what drives him to write. He’s working on his eighth book. The last five, including “Churchill & Orwell” and “First Principles,” have been New York Times bestsellers.
The Gap Year Podcast is about making the most of the collective gap year we’ve all been living through. But as it’s Debbie’s show, she also gets to talk to cool people about things she really cares about. High on that list is the topic of writing.
Today, Debbie talks to good friend and bestselling author Thomas E. Ricks about writing. This episode will appeal to listeners even if you’re not a word nerd or don’t have writing a book at the top of your bucket list.
Tom is a military history columnist for the New York Times and author of seven books, the last five of which have been New York Times bestsellers. His best known book is “Fiasco: the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 – 2005,” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. His most recent book, published in November 2020, is “First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned From the Greeks and Romans, and How That Shaped Our Country.”
He was a war correspondent and a member of Pulitzer Prize-winning teams covering the military for both the Wall Street Journal (2000) and the Washington Post (2002).
As Debbie puts it, he’s the “real deal” when it comes to writing serious books. Tom is currently working on his eighth book, a military appreciation of the Civil Rights Movement. Tom and his wife Mary Kay Ricks, also an author, are Debbie’s good friends and neighbors in Maine.
Today, they talk about what drives Tom to write: is it for money, for recognition, to win another Pulitzer prize, to connect with his readers, the writing itself? His answer is a good one. They address the big questions: how long does it take him to write a book, how does he choose his topics, what is his advice for would-be book writers, and more.
Debbie and Tom also get into the nitty gritty of his writing process. He takes us through a day in the life of Tom Ricks which includes bringing tea to Mary Kay in the morning and making lunch most days for the two of them. Despite how prolific he is, Tom does not write for 8 hours a day.
He is witty and passionate on the topic of writing, as well as being honest and revealing, and this is a wonderful conversation.
Mentioned in this episode or useful:
- Thomas E. Ricks bio
- Fiasco: the American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2006)
- The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin 2013)
- Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin 2017)
- First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country by Thomas E. Ricks (Harper 2020)
- Tom’s 28 appearances on C-Span (videos)
- In and Out of Time in Iraq by Thomas E. Ricks (The New Yorker, December 5, 2014)
- The Secret Life of a Book Manuscript by Thomas E. Ricks (The Atlantic, August 22, 2017)
- How to write a damn book by Thomas E. Ricks (Foreign Policy, May 8, 2014)
- Escape on the Pearl: the Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad by Mary Kay Ricks (William Morrow, 2007)
- The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White (Pearson, 4th edition, 1999)
- Politics and the English Language by George Orwell (Orwell Foundation)
- Blue Hill Public Library in Blue Hill, Maine
A bit of backstory on the episode here.
Note from Debbie
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