Q&A: Reading and Writing with Lisa Lindquist Dorr

Lisa Lindquist Dorr is a Professor of History at the University of Alabama and Associate Dean of Social Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in 2000. Dr. Dorr is the author of several books on Southern and Women’s history, including A Thousand Thirsty Beaches: Smuggling Alcohol from Cuba to the South During Prohibition (University of North Carolina Press, 2018), and White Women, Rape, and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900-1960 (UNC Press, 2004).

Lisa Lindquist Dorr, PhD

What first got you interested in history?

When I was five, my parents took me to Colonial Williamsburg.  I was already fascinated by what we called “the olden days” and literally thought that the re-enactors were people still around from 200 years ago.  I remember being so excited that they were still here.  So I think I always was drawn to history, and when I told my childhood friends I was headed to grad school in history, no one was surprised in the least. 

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I read all the time as a kid, or as my mother expressed with much exasperation, I “always had my nose in a book.”  There was even a time when we were spending several days cleaning for a big party that she actually hid my book so I wouldn’t disappear to read.  I read books over and over when I was young; the Little House on the Prairie books, the One-of-a-Kind Family books, Madeleine L’Engle, E.L. Konigsberg, Lois Lenski.  That said, my own children turn up their noses at pretty much anything I suggest.  I just leave books around and let them find them on their own.

What book did you read in grad school that you never want to see again—and what book was most influential?

The book that nearly killed my cohort was Stephen Skowronek’s Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877-1920 (Cambridge University Press, 1982). Its cover design should have warned us; no one got paid to put any thought into that cover.  Of course, after I had taught the second half of the US survey a bunch of times, I was a little more appreciative of his contribution.  The most influential book is hard—it varies so much based on what I happen to be interested in at the moment.  But Carol Karlsen’s The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (W.W. Norton, 1987) is a contender.  It was a powerful moment when I realized how long it took historians to analyze why most people accused of witchcraft in the colonial period were women.  Astounding.

What’s the last great book you read, fiction or non-fiction?

Anxious People: A Novel by Frederik Backman (Atria, 2020)  I laughed, I cried, I was left gasping and gutted at one revelation late in the novel.  The book has so much warmth and heart, humor and kindness that it was the perfect book for this moment.

When you’re not reading for your particular field of history, what else do you like to read? What genres do you avoid? And what’s your guilty reading pleasure?

I am always reading and listening to fiction—I find I can weed my garden for hours or actually clean the kitchen if I listen to a novel.  I have been keeping a list of books to read since 2013 (it’s now seven pages long, with two columns per page), and have found that I don’t like epic multi-generational sagas or fiction about women in World War II.  I am also wary of fiction related to my area of expertise—too many irritating historical errors.  My guilty pleasure is a regular helping of thrillers.  I consider them the fast food of literature.

What do you read—in print or online—to stay informed?

I am a diligent reader of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker online as well as Tuscaloosa’s local paper, the Tuscaloosa News. I am mystified by the idea of getting my news through social media, which I think makes me old.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

I like nothing better than to curl up on my couch with a good book, with views of my birdfeeders in the back yard.  And nothing is more indulgent to me than reading a novel for three or four hours in the afternoon; I don’t let myself do it much.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

Rickie Solinger’s book, The Abortionist: A Woman Against the Law (Free Press, 1995).  It will blow your mind about how common and accepted abortion was well before Roe v. Wade.

What book or collection of books might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

I have several shelves of Young Adult historical fiction.  One of the most satisfying classes I ever taught was for secondary social studies education students on teaching history using historical fiction.  There are so many terrific books out there, and fiction can hook K-12 students in ways textbooks most surely can’t.

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

Since graduate school, I make a distinction between reading for work and reading.  Since I became a dean, I read less for work, which bothers me.  With fiction, when I was younger, I tried to read only “good” books, meaning critically acclaimed novels.  At this point in my life, I rarely want to work hard reading fiction.  I steer away from books described as lyrical or surreal or dreamlike.  I need a plot line I can follow.

When I was in my twenties, I was enthralled by stories of great and overwhelming love, which the protagonist dropped everything to pursue.  Two examples:  Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner (Doubleday, 1971) and Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith (Putnam, 1988).  When I read those books years later, I found I could no longer relate to dropping everything for love.  There were other loves that competed and outweighed romantic love, especially love for one’s children.  I realized how much where one is in one’s life shapes how we understand the characters in novels.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

Again, I have to go to fiction here.  I am much more diligent about reading all that I am supposed to when I read history.  I either mine it for what I need or read it all to consider it as an entire work.  Which novel have I tried to read twice and can’t despite a torrent of accolades?  The Overstory: A Novel, by Richard Power (W.W. Norton, 2018).  Everyone says it is truly a great book, but I find its stories so sad I can’t make myself finish it.

What book would you recommend for America’s current moment?

Something about the importance of thinking about the common good.  But other than that, I would refer you back to Anxious People.

What do you plan to read next?

Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic, by Richard A. McKay (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

What is the next book you’re going to write?

A book on abortion in the South from 1920 to Roe v. Wade. The history of abortion is a good example of how the past is not like people think it was. And my hope is that understanding the past better will help people think a little differently about the present.

When and how do you write?

Juggling scholarship and “deaning” is a challenge.  I have become completely tethered to my email calendar.  There are always small bits of time when I can think productively about research, so I make sure that there are small research tasks I can do when I have 30 or 45 minutes free.  My writing mantra is that you should always do several hours of your own work first, before you get distracted by students or meetings or life. So when I am writing, I write best in the first couple of hours of the day, which I religiously block off on my calendar.  When I feel like I have run out of things to say (or have a meeting approaching), I always leave a few notes about what should come next to make it easier to pick up and get back into the writing flow when I return.

With which three historic figures, dead or alive, would you like to have dinner?

Ella Baker, because I would want to talk with her about organizing and strategy for movements. And the Obamas, because I am really, really sure that if we met, we would all be best friends.

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