Robert Sullivan's books include The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of a City (a New York Times Notable Book of the Year) and the best-selling Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. His latest book is My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78.
From his Q & A with Matthew Fleagle at January Magazine:
Matthew Fleagle: In My American Revolution, you quote the 19th-century author Thomas F. DeVoe as saying that his fascination with history is a “dreadful disease” and you refer to his “history problem.” When did you realize that you, too, had a history problem? Was history your thing as a kid, or did the love of it dawn on you gradually?--Marshal Zeringue
Robert Sullivan: I always remember liking history, or what I thought of as history, as a kid. Specifically, I liked watching old World War II movies with my pop. He was in the army; I got to hear a little critique of how things were in the army in the movies versus in real life. I think asking about history and politics was a way to sit at the table, to talk with older relatives. When I was a newspaper reporter, after college, I got to cover small towns and then big cities in New Jersey, and the history of these places was not just interesting but important, crucial to understanding what was going on at the moment.
I would hate to think how many dozens of bad “Talk of the Town” pieces I submitted to The New Yorker before having my first one accepted a little over 20 years ago, but I know that most of them were obsessive looks at the history of people and places in the city, things that seemed to be fading away -- and now of course are gone. I remember a guy from North Carolina who raised chickens in an automotive garage in Hell’s Kitchen, all the birds sleeping in the rafters, as protection against roving bands of rats. He was a wonderful guy, gentrified away -- even the name Hell’s Kitchen is gone -- and the garage is gone, replaced by a mania for locally harvested eggs.
MF: I’ve had the pleasure of reading two of your previous books, The Meadowlands and Rats. The former book found you digging for Jimmy Hoffa’s body in a garbage dump, while Rats had you spying on rodents in a Lower Manhattan alley for a year of nights. Before this new book is over, you’ve retraced a 30-mile rebel march from Princeton to Morristown, New Jersey, in freezing weather, aggravating your back in the process. You do history with your boots on. What pushes you outside?
RS: Probably typing pushes me outside. I would rather be out walking than trying to come up with a paragraph -- until that is, I have a paragraph, and I begin to rework it, an act that causes me to...[read on]