Page Turner / Edited by Peter McDermott
If you’ve never heard of the leading 19th century industrialist John William Mackay, it’s because he never lost his good name and therefore wasn’t in need of a posthumous philanthropic makeover to restore it.
Unlike Carnegie, Rockefeller, Stanford and some others, the native-born Dubliner “never chiseled on his employees’ wages – he enacted company policies that improved the lives of his employees.”
That’s according to author Gregory Crouch, whose “The Bonanza King,” published this week, tells the remarkable story of an immigrant who had a decades-long friendship with Mark Twain and was appointed U.S. representative to the Russian czar’s coronation.
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This is as close as one gets to a literal rags-to-riches tale, for Mackay (pronounced “Mackie”) was born into dire poverty in 1831 and lived with his family from age 8 just a stone’s throw from the heart of lower Manhattan’s Five Points district, which was notorious for its squalor, and then as an adult “outwitted, outworked, and outmaneuvered thousands of rivals to seize control of Nevada’s Comstock Lode, the rich vein of gold and silver ore so immensely valuable—equivalent to about a $600 billion slice of the modern economy—that it changed the destiny of the United States.”
Crouch told the Echo, “Both professionally and personally, the things that compel me the most blend history and adventure.” And so in Mackay’s life, he’s found the perfect story, one that shows, too, that immigrants are a “fundamental American strength.”
That life had several interesting dimensions – not least that provided by his wife, Louise Hungerford Mackay, a poor Catholic widow when he met her who after they established a family home in Paris rose to become the first rich American to be accepted into European society.
Date of birth: March 31, 1966
Place of birth: Colchester, England. (My dad was running for Parliament and lost—on the day I was born. Thus rejected, my parents emigrated to the United States. I’m really a Californian.)
Spouse: Artist Tina Rath. www.tinarath.com
Children: Ryan, a senior in high school
Residence: Walnut Creek, Calif. (10 miles east of Oakland in the San Francisco Bay area)
Published works: “The Bonanza King,” “China’s Wings,” “Enduring Patagonia.”
What is your writing routine?
I try and get after it early and keep after it until late. I usually take about 20 to 30 minutes to conjure up a vision of that long-vanished world I’m trying to recreate and settle into the writing. Once I’ve gotten into that world, I try and stay there as long as possible. I resent getting pulled out.
Are there ideal conditions?
Morning. Alone in the house. Two cups of coffee down. A fresh third one in the cup. Telephone ringer turned off. The cats on patrol outside. The sources I need spread on my desk or in open browser windows. The scene I’m writing visible in my mind, the sound of the language in my head, words flowing from the ends of my fingers.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Before anything else, I always ask, “Are you a reader?”
You are? Good, you’ve got a chance. If you’re not, you’re going to have a hard time competing with those of us who are. So read. A lot. Read everything you can get your hands on.
Second, don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs. Ass in seat. Grind. It’s the only way. Writing is like digging an endless ditch. You’ve got to love the process, and you’ve got to work at it.
Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure.
That list is essentially endless, but three I’ve loved in recent years are “Empire of the Summer Moon” by S. C. Gywnne, about Quanah Parker and the Comanche nation; “Into the Heart of the Sea” by Nathaniel Philbrick, about the epic tragedy of the whaleship “Essex”; and “Astoria” by Peter Stark, about the failure of the first American attempt to colonize Oregon.
They’re all narrative nonfiction, true stories well-told with historical accuracy. That has been my favorite genre to read ever since I was a kid. It’s no accident that’s the type of book I’m trying to write. History and adventure.
What book are you currently reading?
“Grant,” by Ron Chernow. General Grant makes a few cameo appearances in “The Bonanza King.” I consulted Chernow’s bio at the points of intersection and gleaned a few excellent details. I told myself I’d reward myself by taking the time to read it all the way through when I finished “The Bonanza King.” It’s superb. I graduated from West Point 145 years after Ulysses S. Grant. Ever since I was a plebe, he has been the West Pointer I most admire.
Is there a book you wish you had written?
“Seabiscuit,” in a runaway. That book is brilliant. In my opinion, a great piece of narrative non-fiction cracks open a world you previously didn’t know that much about and introduces you to memorable characters who inhabited it. I didn’t know anything at all about Depression Era horseracing before I read “Seabiscuit,” and Laura Hillenbrand made that world absolutely fascinating. And then she launched another deep centerfield homerun with “Unbroken.” I really admire the quality of her storytelling. I’ll read everything she writes for the rest of her life.
If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?
Can I cheat and take a man and a woman in each category?
Dead? Beryl Markham and Antoine de St. Exupery. “West With the Night” and “Wind, Sand and Stars.” I’ve always loved flying stories, and those are two of the best. Flying and Africa? Even better. Both lived such fascinating lives. I’d mix martinis and listen to their stories.
Alive? Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough. Aside from admiring Ms. Goodwin’s books, I’ve had a massive crush on her ever since the baseball documentary. I’ve read every book Mr. McCullough has ever written. I’d have them both over for dinner and keep them up late asking questions about books, research, and process. In truth, dinner wouldn’t be enough. Could I have them over for a long weekend?
What is your favorite spot in Ireland?
Tragically, I’ve never been. With luck, I’ll rectify that before too many more years pass. I’ve been a surfer since I was a teenager. I’ve always wanted to surf in Ireland.