Author and Vineyard resident Tony Horwitz may have won a Pulitzer prize, written several best-selling books and worked for esteemed publications like The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker magazine, but clearly he is still warming to the idea of being somewhat famous.
For someone more accustomed to conducting interviews for one of his stories or books, it’s still a bit peculiar to him that somebody would actually want to write a story about him.
“Men’s Vogue magazine did this story on me recently — and don’t ask me why Men’s Vogue wanted to do a story on me — and they had their photographers come to the Vineyard to take pictures of me on the beach,” Mr. Horwitz said recently during an interview with the Gazette at his home on Main street in Vineyard Haven.
“So the magazine showed up with this box of clothes and had me try on all these different things,” the 49-year-old author continued, “from navy blue pantaloons to a sherbet-colored chemise; and they wanted me to go barefoot and run along the beach and jump in the water. And the whole time I was thinking to myself, how did I get myself into this? I’m not some fashion model . . . I’m just some nerdy writer.”
And while Mr. Horwitz may still be a little ambivalent, if not befuddled, by the torrent of attention in recent months that has come with the release of his latest book A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World, he is taking it all with a modicum of humor. He has no plans to parlay his writing into a career in modeling, and will not be appearing in any swimsuit editions in the near future.
“I think that is best for everyone,” he quipped. “I don’t want any lawsuits from tormented readers.”
This brand of humor and wit has come to define Mr. Horwitz’s writing style, which more often than not arises from his personal experiences while researching his books. Technically speaking, he writes history books, although they often read more like strange travelogues filled with misadventures and odd characters.
While some history writers simply study records or scour libraries for source material, Mr. Horwitz prefers to visit the actual places he is writing about and meet the people who live there. He is sort of a cross between David McCullough, another Pulitzer-prize winner and Vineyard resident, and famed gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson — of course minus the mescaline and cannabis.
For his previous book, Confederates in the Attic, Mr. Horwitz camped out at Antietam with a man whose specialty was making himself resemble a bloated corpse, and later participated in an event called the Civil Wargasm. For his current book, A Voyage Long and Strange, he joined forces with a troupe of conquistador re-enactors in Florida and even tried on their homemade armor, an experience he says was like wearing a car hood on a sweltering summer day.
He also spent time with the Micmac Indians in Newfoundland, Canada, where he literally baked himself for several hours in a tribal sweat lodge. And he explains how in an effort to survive the sultry climate of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, he basically spray-painted himself with Arid Extra Dry and dabbed his entire body with paper towels.
But while his experiences researching his book often veered toward the whimsical, on many occasions they were also poignant and revealing. While in the Dominican Republic, hoping to get a chance to view the alleged bones of Christopher Columbus, he said he came across a large and mostly empty museum that lies beneath a large lighthouse which remains dark at all hours.
While the museum and the beacon above were meant to honor the memory of Columbus, the impoverished nation could not afford to pay its own electrical bill, and instead it became a sad commentary on how troubled and divided the world remains 500 years after the famed explorer’s arrival. His travels also took him into darker chapters of American history, like a backwoods Florida swamp where the notorious conquistador De Soto erased an entire Indian tribe.
Speaking from the third floor of his home with views out over the Vineyard Haven harbor, Mr. Horwitz said he found during his research that most Americans have a wildly distorted view of their own history. And he readily admits he himself knew little about the Europeans who first discovered America before he started writing the book, a fact which became glaringly evident during a visit to Plymouth Rock several years ago.
“I heard all these people asking questions like: ‘Was it true the Mayflower crashed into the rock? And, ‘Did the Pilgrims serve Thanksgiving on top of it?’ And then I realized that I didn’t know much more [then they did]. I realized just how little I knew; or how much I had forgotten about American history,” he said, adding:
“Here I was a graduate of a private school and a university, and a history major no less, and there was this big void in my education from when Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 to when Jamestown was founded in sixteen hundred or something.”
This journey from ignorance to enlightenment largely served as the template for the book, as Mr. Horwitz set out to rediscover the history of his own native land. Sometimes what he found surprised him, he said, including the fact that many revered historical figures such as Columbus were more buffoonish then brave. To his surprise, he learned that the famous explorer did, in fact, think the earth was round, but also believed it was shaped like a woman’s breast and at one point he was nearing the globe’s nipple, whose tip was home to the Garden of Eden.
“Basically when it comes to Columbus, the more he saw, the less he learned,” Mr. Horwitz said. “The reality of his voyages do not come close to the storybook version most people know.”
Mr. Horwitz discovered the world we know was shaped in many ways by the mistakes of explorers like Columbus. Many lands were explored and settled by Europeans searching for mythical cities and rivers of gold that didn’t exist. Even the name America is a result of a historical inaccuracy, he said — it is taken from the name of Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci whose role in the discovery of the continent is highly suspect.
He is also blunt about the atrocities he became familiar with while researching his book. He estimated that between 75 to 90 per cent of all native populations died after coming into contact with European explorers. And while most of these people were killed by diseases like smallpox, many others died at the hands of conquistadors or soldiers who saw them more as obstacles then as human beings.
“The early history of America is filled with brutal and ignorant men [from Europe] who simply didn’t care about the people they found,” he said.
In many cases, Mr. Horwitz found that the wounds inflicted by European explorers and conquerors many centuries ago have yet to heal. He found, for example, that Dominicans still harbor a deep hatred for Spain that is rooted in that country’s crimes against natives several hundred years ago. From the deserts of Mexico to the tidewaters of Virginia, he found simmering resentment among native people toward explorers.
But he also managed to uncover atypical tales from natives with different points of view, including a Mexican man named El PatrÃ³n who vehemently argued the murderous conquistador Juan deOÃ±ate was not all bad because he introduced cabbages, chili and tomatoes to the region.
Mr. Horwitz said finding these out-of-the-way stories sometimes proves to be the most interesting part of the writing process. “That’s the best part: going somewhere and having no idea what you will find and just following the trail. You never know where you will find these great stories,” he said.
And while he is self-effacing to a fault, Mr. Horwitz’s own life has proven to be a pretty good story in itself. In addition to working for many years as a reporter in Indiana, he worked for almost a decade overseas in Australia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, where he mostly covered wars and conflicts as a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.
After returning to this country, he won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting and worked as a staff writer for The New Yorker before becoming a full-time author. He is married to Geraldine Brooks, an Australian-born journalist and author and winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. They have a son, Nathaniel, who is in sixth grade at the Tisbury School.
Mr. Horwitz and his family are now based here, although they still spend time at their homes in Virginia and Australia. Currently he is traveling across the country to promote his book. As part of the tour, Mr. Horwitz is keeping a blog for USA Today, which is filled with his trademark off-center observations.
After visiting the final resting place of Colonel Sanders in Kentucky, he writes: “Pilgrims often leave pieces of chicken or an entire bucket of KFC in place of flowers.” Crossing North Carolina produced this observation: “There are roadside signs depicting very big men clutching very big pigs. This state may be a Baptist stronghold, but its true religion is barbecue.”
He said he has yet to choose a topic for his next book, but is hoping to find inspiration as he crisscrosses the country, perhaps in the same way his visit to Plymouth Rock several years ago inspired him to write his current book. He said that although he enjoys fiction, he plans to stick with what he knows and continue writing nonfiction history books.
“One thing I’ve found is that history can be this living, breathing thing. It doesn’t have to be a stagnant retelling of the same story. It doesn’t have to be homework . . . it can be fun,” he said.