Writing Routines

Robert Caro’s Writing Routine: “I don’t know how good a writer I am. But I’m a very good interviewer.”

Robert Caro is an American journalist and author best-known for The Power Broker, a biography of New York urban planner Robert Moses, and The Years of Lyndon Johnson.

I don’t know how good a writer I am. But I’m a very good interviewer. I tried to learn how to interview from two characters in fiction. One is Inspector Maigret and one is George Smiley.

The Man Who Never Stops | Texas Monthly

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When Robert Caro was asked by Stephen Harrigan during a Texas Monthly interview on why his biography of Lyndon B. Johnson was taking so long, Caro replied, “I believe that time equals truth.”

It would seem that Caro’s entire writing career has stuck closely to this belief. The former journalist and author has earned the reputation as one of the greatest biographers to have ever lived, due to his exhaustive research, pain-staking detail and riveting narrative themes weaving through the factual research, setting his work apart from other biographers.

“What’s most remarkable about Bob Caro is the depth, the obsessiveness, the accuracy of his research,” said Robert Gottlieb, who edits Caro’s books. “He simply never stops. He simply finds out more than anybody else finds out about anything. And then, out of the infinite detail he accumulates, he creates real drama.”

Caro’s 1974 book on New York public official Robert Moses, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, remains one of the most highly regarded and influential biographies of all time, and was written over a 7-year timespan, in which Caro almost went bankrupt and was forced to sell his house to continue writing. He is currently finishing the fifth and final volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, which he has been working on for over 40 years — the first volume, The Path to Power, was published in 1982.

Initially starting off as a journalist for the New Brunswick Daily Home News, then later as a investigative reporter with Newsday, Caro gravitated more towards longer, more detailed forms of writing. “I like being a reporter, but there was one aspect of it that I truly hated,” he said to Texas Monthly. “I never had enough time to really find out everything I thought I should know. I wanted to explore something all the way to the end.”

Since starting his work on The Power Broker in 1965, Robert Caro’s daily writing routine hasn’t changed all that much. Save for a few low points in his life, when he couldn’t afford his own office and had to write in the basement of his Bronx apartment, and then later in the Allen Room of The New York Public Library, Caro has spent most of his career working out of an office at Columbus Circle in Manhattan. More recently, after the office landlord had sold the building, Caro moved to a new office close to Central Park on the Upper West Side.

Robert Caro’s daily writing routine

Caro usually wakes up at 7am every morning. “If things are going well, if the writing’s coming along, I jump out of bed happy,” he told The New York Times. “And if the previous day has been bad, I get out of bed disgruntled.” Between 7.30-8am, Caro walks from his Upper West Side apartment to his office and starts his work. Even though he’s the only person in the office — there’s no secretary getting him coffee, he makes his own in the kitchen — and rarely receives visitors, Caro prefers to wear a suit and tie while working.

Whenever I go to work I wear a jacket and a tie, because I’m inherently quite lazy, and my books take so long to do, and my publishers don’t bug me, so it’s so easy to fool yourself into thinking you’re working harder than you really are. So I do everything possible to make myself remember this is a job I’m going to, and I have to produce every day. The tie and the jacket are part of that.

Rising Early, With a New Sentence in Mind | The New York Times

Despite the advances in publishing technology over the past 50 years, Caro likes to keep things old school, storing and indexing all his research in file cabinets in his office, as well as sticking with a Smith-Corona Electra 210 typewriter. But even before he touches the typewriter, Caro starts his work by writing in longhand on yellow legal pads.

In an interview with NPR’s Dave Davies, Caro explained his method, which started when he started working on The Power Broker, designed to intentionally slow himself down. “I began to realize how complex the story of Robert Moses was, I said, I must make myself think things all the way through,” he explained. “And the slowest way of committing your thoughts to paper is by writing in hand. So I write three or four or more – sometimes I write a lot of drafts in hand. Then I go to my typewriter. And that’s how I write.”

While Caro’s work often involve endless hours poring boxes of documents and conducting hundreds of interviews, he doesn’t employ a team to assist him. It’s just him and his wife, Ina, an author and historian on medieval and modern French history, who helps him with all his research — when he finished the book, Caro dedicated The Power Broker to Ina. “We were married in 1957. She’s been the researcher on all of my books,” Caro told the Wall Street Journal. “I call her ‘the whole team.’”

In an interview with The Paris Review, when asked whether he aims to hit a writing quota every day, Caro replied, “I have to produce. I write down how many words I’ve done in a day. Not to the word—I count the lines. I do it as we used to do it in the newspaper business, ten words to a line. I do a lot of little things to try to make me remember it’s a job. I try to do at least three pages a day. Some days you don’t, but without some kind of quota, I think you’re fooling yourself.”

Caro doesn’t have a set schedule for stopping his work, although he does tend to follow Ernest Hemingway’s advice for writers, “always quit for the day when you know what the next sentence is.” While he used to work very long days, Caro has learnt to pare down his hours after realising most of the stuff he wrote in the late afternoons were no good and had to be thrown out.

After leaving the office, Caro will meet up with Ina and they’ll either stroll through the park, or walk home together. On most nights, they’ll have dinner with another couple and catch up on their TV shows — in 2012 it was Mad Men and The Killing.

In a 2009 profile for Newsweek, writer Jonathan Darman revealed that Caro likes to maintain a separation between his work life and home life, “though they have each devoted their lives to him for more than three decades, the Caros have a policy of not discussing Lyndon Johnson, at dinner or anywhere else.”

The power of the historian is the power of the truth, a very basic thing. You have the hope that you can bring out exactly how things were done; that’s why I concentrate so much on mechanics. How did Moses get power? How did Johnson get power? The power of the historian, is the power of the truth.

Writers at Work: Robert Caro Talks About His Art, His Methods and LBJ | Publishers Weekly

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