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On May 6, Jonathan Eig won the Pulitzer Prize for his book "King: A Life."

The Pulitzer committee described the book as: A revelatory portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. that draws on new sources to enrich our understanding of each stage of the civil rights leader鈥檚 life, exploring his strengths and weaknesses, including the self-questioning and depression that accompanied his determination.

Eig is the author of five other biographies, including:

  • "Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig" (2005)
  • "Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season" (2007)
  • "Get Capone: The Secret Plot that Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster" (2010)
  • The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution (2014)
  • Ali: A Life (2017)

From 1986-1990, right out of college, he worked as a reporter at The Times-Picayune.

"What a great place to be a reporter," he said. "New Orleans is a great town for news and for young people to live in. I started out covering Gretna. Then, I moved downtown."

Eig now lives in Chicago.

Eig spoke with Jan Risher in April before the Pulitzer announcement.聽

Eig, Jonathan (c) Doug McGoldrick.jpg

Pulitzer winning author, Jonathan Eig

How did your time in New Orleans, working at The Times-Picayune, influence the trajectory of your career?

I was a young reporter figuring out what I wanted to write about. Back then, newspapers let you write about almost everything. I found myself gravitating toward feature stories. A lot of the biggest issues were around race. No one was covering public housing 鈥 so I carved that out as a beat.

That experience is partly why I got interested in race and public affairs. I grew up in the suburbs of New York City. I can't say my time in New Orleans is what led me directly to doing what I'm doing, but it played an important role.聽

What inspired you to choose biography as your genre?

That's a much more practical question.

Biography is easier to think about when it comes to writing a book. Biography seems more manageable.

Jed Horne, a former editor at The Times-Picayune, gave me the best advice I didn't take. I wrote a story about this corner where there were a lot of drug dealers. I knew everybody hanging out at that corner.

He told me, "You should write a book about it and call it "The Corner." I look back and believe it would have been an excellent book, but I didn't think I knew how to write a book at that point. Then, a few years later,聽Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon and former Baltimore homicide detective Ed Burns wrote a book by the same name.

Fast forward 10 years later, I had the idea for the Lou Gehrig book.

Biography is easy to think about. Childhood. Adolescence. Young adult and keep going.聽

The timeline felt like this was a project that was so much more manageable. Taking a leap into biography was less scary. The structure was self-evident.聽

What's your writing/research process like?

I start by reading, getting up to speed. I go from not being an expert at all to becoming what I hope is one of the world's leading experts. For the first year, I'm not thinking about writing at all.聽

Only when I believe I'm beginning to master the topic do I think about writing. A book takes four or five years because it takes a while to figure out what the book is about. With Ali, I had to ask: Is it about boxing? Religion? Race?聽

The process is about gathering, gathering, gathering.聽

As a newspaper reporter, I was always frustrated that I had to write stories so quickly. If I had a week to work on it, that was amazing. Now I have five years.

Any particulars you want to share about the research you do?

I interview a lot of old people, and I like to do interviews in person. Certainly, the important ones, I try to do in person. I go to the archives in person as well. That's partly why I take so long. I also do some interviews over the phone and via Zoom.

Often, you have to interview over and over again.聽

How do you balance the story and storytelling?

Everything has to be accurate. I treat this as seriously as working for a newspaper. I have an endnote for everything. I hire my own fact-checkers. At first, I thought, "You can say what Lou Gehrig is thinking when he steps up to the plate." Eventually, I understood that I couldn't because there's no way for me to know that聽鈥 and everything in the book is a fact.

I work really hard to carry the mood. I apply the same standards to biography writing as I did to journalism.聽

What books and authors influenced you?

In my reporting days, there were certain books I kept on my desk 鈥 a lot of sports books, including ones by Deford. I also had books by Susan Orlean. I would look at them all the time. They wrote beautiful sentences.聽

As a biographer now, I love to read TJ Stiles, Laura Hillenbrand and Joseph Epstein's essays.聽

For fun, I mostly read fiction. For escape, I read James Lee Burke. The old classics, I've been focused on all the great books I didn't appreciate when I was young. Tolstoy is my all-around favorite. Willa Cather is my favorite American writer.聽

Your next project?

I'm just getting started on it and realizing once again that there's no way to cheat the work. I think the reason I didn't write books earlier is I didn't know how to think聽鈥 and I'm not sure that can be taught by someone else.

An editor once said to me, "I think you need to take more command of your material."

I think what he meant is that I need to think more. Taking command of the material means you need to think about it. If you're going to tell someone's life story, you search for every document. You talk to everyone you can. You do everything you can to think as deeply as you can. That's why these people get in my head. I'm thinking about them so deeply, trying to understand.聽

I realize that we can't ever know anyone fully. Sometimes I think these guys I write about are laughing about me somewhere. All I know is that I'm trying my hardest.聽

I met Ali once really briefly. I told him I was writing a book. Later, his wife told me that he wanted me to come read him the book, but he died just before I finished the book. I don't know if I would have had the guts. It would have been uncomfortable.聽

I saw you wrote a children's book.

Yes, it was a total lark. I had nothing to do one day and was braiding my daughter's hair and said, "Hey, these are some pigtails." I wrote the story that day. I read it to her when she got home. She liked it. So I wrote more. It took me a couple of weeks to write the first draft. I found a tiny publisher in the Chicago suburbs. It sold dozens of copies.聽

Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.聽

Email Jan Risher at