At age 66, David Maraniss has a lot of colorful miles under his belt, from hitchhiking with his toddler son, Andrew, around Madison in the early ’70s to overcoming a fear of flying while traveling with the pope in the ’80s and going anywhere and everywhere his subjects take him.
“That’s my motto,” the writer said. “Go there. Wherever there is.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning political journalist has done research all over the world for his seven major books, the latest of which, “Detroit: Once in a Great City,” just went to its third printing.
Maraniss, who splits his time between Washington, D.C., and Madison, has been surrounded by writers since his childhood, when he would accompany his father, Elliott Maraniss, to the Capital Times newsroom where Elliott served as editor in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
“There were books and classical music all over our house” in Madison, Maraniss said from his house on the Near West Side that he and his wife, Linda, share for half of the year. “Whatever I picked up was by osmosis, not by application. I wanted to play shortstop for the Milwaukee Braves. I was a borderline juvenile delinquent dumb jock.”
An early exit from college
Maraniss was born in Detroit, the third of four children. He said that he grew up around scholars and literary types, moving to Madison as a boy with a mother who served as a book editor for the University of Wisconsin Press and a father with newspapers in his blood. He said he remembers hanging out with his father at the newspaper when it was on Carroll Street, “where there were cigarettes on the linoleum floor, pneumatic tubes, copy editors in suspenders – it was right out of ‘The Front Page.’ I loved it.”
Maraniss grew up with a natural affinity for writing, entering UW-Madison after graduating from West High School. At West, he met his future wife, Linda, and his plans changed when they welcomed their first child at age 20.
“We’ve been together for 48 years,” David said. “The odds were totally against us, but it’s worked great.”
Their firstborn, Andrew, recalled what it was like growing up with two young, broke parents in the early 1970s in Madison.
“We hitchhiked to preschool when I was a kid,” Andrew, now 44 and a recently published author, said from his office in Nashville, where he works in public relations.
David recalled that era with a laugh. “We lived on Doty Street and his preschool was in the Mound Street area, so we’d hitch rides. It was pretty easy with a little kid.”
Andrew “has always been more mature than Linda and I,” David said. He told of buying his young son M&Ms every day after school, expecting Andrew to tear into the candy and share with his dad, which he never did.
“My 3-year-old self had willpower,” Andrew laughed. “I wouldn’t let him eat any of them.”
He called his parents by their first names, parroting the way they’d communicate with each other. “He called me Linda Honey because that’s what David called me,” Linda said. “When you’re 20 years old it doesn’t seem odd,” she said.
Just after Andrew’s sister, Sarah, came along, the Maraniss family moved to New Jersey as David’s career as a reporter began to take off.
Years away from Madison
Around 1974, the young Maraniss family left Madison when David began working as a reporter on the East Coast. Andrew still tagged along with Dad, sitting in on press conferences as David worked for the Washington Post in the late ’70s. The lack of a college degree didn’t keep David from rising up the ranks at the newspaper, where he covered politics, eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.
While David’s writing career flourished, his wife, Linda, was attending classes to finish her college degree.
“Every time we moved I’d enroll in another school,” she said, stating a determination to get a degree. Her young children saw Mom as a student (Andrew eventually began calling his parents Mom and Dad somewhere around middle school, he said). Linda graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in elementary education when she was 32 years old.
Andrew offered a bit of Maraniss family trivia: Despite his father’s prestigious career as an author, his mother was actually the first one to have a book published.
David’s job at the Post led him to Austin, Texas, to serve as a bureau chief when Andrew was in high school. There, Linda became involved in beach cleanups.
“She’s the godmother of the International Coastal Cleanup,” David said of his wife. She wrote a book for children about the Gulf of Mexico, “which came out before any of my books,” he said.
“The Gulf of Mexico: A Special Place” is a paperback full of learning activities for kids that was published in 1991.
She credits her environmental activism to her upbringing in what was called Monona Village in the ’50s, where she enjoyed swimming in Lake Monona.
“I totally believe that everything I did was because I grew up in Madison,” Linda said.
Around the world
David’s career as a biographer took off after winning the Pulitzer for his Clinton coverage; his first major book, “First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton,” came out in 1996. His next subject, Vince Lombardi, would bring him and his wife back to Wisconsin for one winter.
“I remember David asked me how I’d like to move to Green Bay for the winter,” Linda said. “I really don’t like being cold, but I loved it.”
David joked that he’s spent the rest of his career making up for that one winter. Subsequent trips would take the couple to Hawaii and Kenya for David’s biography of Obama, and to Italy for his book on the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.
David’s seven major books include a trio about the 1960s: the latest one on Detroit, “They Marched into Sunlight” about the Vietnam War, and “Rome 1960,” plus biographies of Clinton, Obama, Lombardi and Roberto Clemente. It’s been reported that the Clemente bio may make it to the big screen.
“All of my books are in various stages of not being made into movies,” David laughed, “but Clemente has the best shot.”
In 2003, David and Linda bought a house near Monroe Street and began spending their summers in Madison. “I realized that we could come home again,” he said. His parents were aging and living in Milwaukee, where they spent their final years until their deaths in 2004 (Elliott) and 2006 (Mary). Now, the couple spend half of the year in Washington, D.C., where David continues in his role as associate editor for the Post, (“Which just means I don’t have to associate with editors,” he joked), and half of the year in Madison. Another motto of David’s: Leave town before the geese leave.
Though Andrew spent only a few years of his young life in Madison, he speaks about the influence the city has had on his family’s life and his dad’s writing.
“There’s a Madison mindset behind all of it, in terms of the subjects Dad picks for his books,” Andrew said. “He loves underdogs, he loves the ’60s. Growing up in Madison was an influential time in his life.”
The Maraniss family will be back for the Wisconsin Book Festival Thursday through Oct. 25, where David and Andrew will discuss their latest books at separate events. Linda, who serves as an early reader and editor for both of the men in her family, is quick to point out the writing that her daughter, Sarah, is doing from her home in New Jersey. Sarah, 41, writes about parenting on her blog, Lunch Box Mom, and contributes essays to the Washington Post’s On Parenting section.
When asked if he’s planning on retiring to Madison, David shook his head. “I don’t have to retire, that’s the beauty of it. My whole goal in life was to get the freedom to do what I wanted to do, and that’s what I’ve always kept my eye on.”