Golden: But to speak to your sort of approach to fiction, if it's true
that a novel can be about one of four things; an idea, a story, a character, or
a world setting, I think at a certain point they merge, and it ends up being
about all four of them.
Santiago: Yeah. It would have to, yeah.
Johnson: Yeah, a novel has to be all four.
Golden: And I think it's a question, you start with one. It sounds
like you start with idea; a lot of people start with character. But in the
end, you get to the same place.
Johnson: And it depends on the story. I mean, we don't write every
novel and story the same way. Some stories you start with an idea; some
stories you start with a character; some stories you start with a question.
But whatever the case is, I think that for the novelist, and I would certainly
hope this is also true for the historian, what dominates this whole process is
that it's a process of discovery. You don't go into, I believe, a historical
work with your mind made up. If you are, you're...
Miller: You shouldn't.
Johnson: It's like a scientist who goes in with a hypothesis. And the
end of the process, in the lab, may contradict your hypothesis, right? Same
thing with a novelist. It should be a process of discovery as we go along.
Golden: Don, in writing your history of Chicago, I'm curious what
brought you to the subject, and if you were surprised by what you learned along
Miller: Well I was surprised by the fact that I picked the book. I was
going to write a novel based in Florence on the Lippi brothers, the painters.
I had the novel all mapped out. And I came back, and was walking around
Chicago, and, I don't want to say I had an urban epiphany; but I was standing
on the Michigan Avenue Bridge, and just sensing the sunny day, the river's
flowing, the skyscrapers in the background, the lake behind me.
I just sensed the power of that city, the incredible power, and the fact that
how did this thing come to be? It's only 180-some years old. And it just grew
up like a mushroom out of that prairie mud. And wouldn't that be a great story
And I came at it, too, with a sense of humility about my own discipline,
because I have these real doubts about history. I think, I often call it a
crippled discipline, because it can't get at this elusive thing we call truth
in its completeness. Records are lost, libraries burn down, people forget,
people lie in their memoirs. How do you get at this stuff, you know? How do
you get at the truth?
Santiago: Why is truth so important?
Miller: That's the point. Why is it?
Santiago: I don't know. I don't know why we have this desire and this
need to constantly look for the truth.
Miller: I think as a historian I'm looking for understanding as much as
Golden: I think that's where truth ties in, is that it's not so much
that you want truth, as that truth is a stepping stone to reach an
Johnson: I just have to interject this too. There's another reason
about the truth that's so terribly important. If you've had negative histories
written of a people over 100 years, I'm thinking of black Americans again,
their contributions to this republic on every possible level, political,
economic, and cultural, having the truth that brings forth those contributions
is extraordinarily important, not just for the sake of building up egos with
young children; but for the sake of having a more accurate record of this
country's evolution and history.
Miller: Well that's what gets me angry. When the stories talk about
truth, oftentimes what they're saying is, what's important is true. And it
just so happened that what you're talking about right now, to historians 50
years ago was not so-called "important." But it's damned important to you right
Johnson: Well it's not just damned important to me. It's damned
important to anybody in a multi-racial, multi-cultural country. So that we
don't basically just have the history of those who won the wars, whether they
were the wars against the Indians, or whether they were the wars against the
Miller: Truth is a stepping stone to understanding.