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In the Shadow of Liberty: An Interview with Kenneth C. Davis


Written by Chelsea A. Hamlet

Mount Vernon Public Library’s writer and editor, Chelsea A. Hamlet, had the extraordinary opportunity to interview Kenneth C. Davis, acclaimed author of the Don’t Know Much About book series.

As a proud Mount Vernonite, Davis talks about how Mount Vernon influenced his writing career; the importance of history; why his new book, In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives, is so important to the present; and what writers can do to have a successful writing career.

Chelsea: How has Mount Vernon influenced your writing career?

Kenneth: Coming here as a child really shaped me as a reader and my reading changed my thinking about the world, [which]went into me becoming a writer. When I was young, certainly in high school and even in college, I did not think about becoming a writer. Even though I loved to read, the idea of becoming a writer was just not on my radar. It was like becoming a neurosurgeon or an astronaut. That was for somebody else.

Chelsea: Right.

Kenneth: I didn’t know any writers, first of all. I knew books, but I didn’t know writers. But reading makes writers and you can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader. So this library [had]such an important influence [on me]becoming a reader and then ultimately a writer.

I would say the other big influence was [that]Mount Vernon was a very, very unique place when I was growing up here. It was the late 60’s and the early 70’s. There were tremendous social changes going on in the whole country and certainly here in Mount Vernon. It was kind of the beginning of the African American pride movement… So Mount Vernon for me was a growing experience [because] it was a very very mixed place to grow up in and that certainly, I think, affected my attitudes towards people.

Chelsea: Mmmm. Well, speaking of being in Mount Vernon, can you elaborate on how Mount Vernon has changed since you were growing up?

Kenneth: You know, I moved out around 1976 and Mount Vernon had already begun to change a great deal by then. Certainly, you know, we saw white flight during that period in the early 70’s. We went from being a very mixed racial community to being a very different community. And obviously, that’s probably the biggest single change in Mount Vernon since I grew up here.

Chelsea: Since we’re talking about the past, I read in a previous article that you said “Americans don’t hate history just the dull version that they slept through in class.” How did you come to that conclusion and how do you plan to continue educating people about history to bring about awareness and change?

Kenneth: I tell this to people all the time that I grew up loving history. I was a kid who had history books in my bed [from]the library. I always read history, partly because [growing]up [my family and I]would go to places like Valley Forge, Gettysburg, Lake Champlain and Fort Ticonderoga. So from a very young age, I had the sense that history isn’t something [that]just happens in books, it is something that happens to real people in real places.

And I always tell parents and teachers when they ask me “what do I do to get my kids interested [in history]” to take them places. Get them out of the classroom. Get them away from the TV. Go and let them feel and smell and touch history because that’s the way it becomes much more real. So what I’ve tried to do in my books is share that enthusiasm and fascination with readers.

Chelsea: Mmmm. That kind of segues into the next question, what has influenced you writing historical nonfiction?

Kenneth: Yeah, I think the real answer is that writers should write about the things they love and know. That’s why I’ve never written books about the stock market or gardening. I like those things, but I don’t love them with a passion.

Chelsea: So, you’re known for your Don’t Know Much About History book series, but you now have a new book entitled, “In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives.” What is the book exactly about and what inspired you to write this book?

Kenneth: The book is simply telling the stories of five people who got left out of the history books. Five people who were legally the property of four of our greatest men: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Andrew Jackson. This story of what slavery has meant to our country; what it meant 400 years ago; what it meant 150 years ago, and what it means today are the most important stories that we all should learn. So if we [don’t] understand this, what slavery meant to our politics, our economy, the foundations of our government, race relationships and the legacy it left, we can’t possibly deal with the very real problems we have [which is]the REAL reason I’m writing this book – to try and create a conversation about what people went through 200 years ago and what that has to do with our lives today.

Chelsea: But what makes this book unique compared to your previous books?

Kenneth: Well, two important differences between this book and a lot of my other books. First of all, the “Don’t Know Much About” book series are written in question and answer format. This book is not written in that style. This book is written in what I call narrative nonfiction.

The other important difference is that this book is specifically written in a way that I hope will appeal and speak to young adults. It’s not a children’s book, but it is certainly a young adult book. I [also]think it’s a subject that so many adults don’t understand and don’t know about that there will be a great potential for crossover.

Chelsea: Agreed. As we’re talking about roots and history, going back your roots of being [from]Mount Vernon, what is some advice you can give to writers who live in Mount Vernon and want to pursue writing as a career?

Kenneth: I think that the question about how you become a writer is the same whether you’re in Mount Vernon or whether you’re in rural Maine. First thing is you have to read. You have to read, read, read and learn from other great writers that have preceded you.

You have to write. You can read all sorts of books that tell you how to structure things, but you have to write every day. Ideally, you find somebody who can read your material and then give you good editorial advice because most great writers will tell you they’re editors have a great deal to do with what their ultimate success.

And finally, I would say write about what you love and care about, not what you think other people are interested in or might sell. Write from the heart. Write from the soul. Write because you love to think about it, explore it and you’re curious about it yourself. That’s where I think great writing comes from, that really passionate desire to either tell a story or reveal something that is important to you.

Chelsea: Okay. Last question. If nothing else, what is one thing you want the reader to remember from this interview and from the book?

Kenneth: I think the thing that I want readers to take from the book more than anything else is that these are real people and we have to see people in history as lives, not just stick figures or facts in a list or numbers. That’s the most important thing in any history book check here.

From this interview, I hope they’ll take the fact that I really love this subject. I’m very passionate about it myself and I want to share it. That’s what I love to do. I thought I would be a teacher growing up and I’ve always felt that my books are my extended classroom, so I hope this book will be something that people can learn from.

If you’re interested in learning more about Kenneth C. Davis, visit http://dontknowmuch.com/ for more information. If you’re interested in reading his previous books, please go to the library’s reference desk to inquire.

This interview has been modified for the Mount Vernon Public Library’s website. Listen to the full interview here.

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