Interview with Dr. Jay Winik

By: Anna Zheng

On October 14th, the Buckley Program hosted Dr. Jay Winik, a New York Times best-selling author for a discussion over dinner at Union League Cafe. He is one of the nation’s leading public historians and is best known for his book April 1865: The Month that Saved America. 15 Buckley fellows who attended the dinner also received a free copy of the book. 

Buckley Fellow Anna Zheng was given the opportunity to interview Dr. Winik prior to the dinner, and he reflected on his experiences working in the U.S government’s foreign policy, before transitioning to writing history full time. He also spoke about his time at Yale, and gave advice to students. 

What activities during your time at Yale helped shape your future career interests?

I guess one of the first things I did was play on the tennis team. When it was clear I wasn’t going to be a tennis pro, it became an impetus for me to explore other interests. I took a semester off, went down to Washington, and worked for a Congressman. When I returned to Yale, I became a senior columnist for the Yale Daily News. It was clear that was something for me to do. I came to believe that I was fated to be a writer.

Could you tell us what the difference between a historian and public historian is, and what impact that makes? Do you think it is more difficult trying to write for a larger audience?

I am writing for the American people, whereas many historians and academic historians write about much narrower subjects. I love writing for the American people. My fans range from the Bush’s, Bill Clinton, Mitch McConnell, to Antonin Scalia. And as Tom Hanks even said, he’s my biggest fan. When I write, I try to write about big events, and not for an agenda. 

Is there anything that we should keep in mind going into the next election?

On one hand, I try to stay out of political affairs. I always say that I want both Republicans and Democrats to love my work. However, I do events where I am in part set to make political judgements. I say a little bit for the right, and a bit for the left. There is a lot of bickering. My message is our democracy is very strong, and institutions are very strong. This isn’t the first time in history where we have had internal chaos. We survived the Civil War, with 625,000 people killed. We survived the 60’s. The genius of democracy is that we get through it and become stronger. It is an experiment that has gone on for a long time. We have made our mark and we will continue to get through this. 

Where do you see yourself in the next ten years?

Hopefully above ground. I have written books that are big best sellers. I have won prizes, and helped connect people. A life well lived is a lucky life. Things don’t always go according to plan. I don’t know what more I can do. 

How do you write about so many different topics?

I don’t just try to find a nugget of information. I look at things others have seen many times, and look at it differently. I did it with all my books. These books are very difficult to write. To write a great book takes an awful lot of time. Every time I write a new book it is like writing a new language. I immerse in one world, and then another world. One of the things I find is that I have a great perspective on history’s greatest leaders. 

How did Yale help you find your path?

Yale provided me a rich education. I worked pretty hard. I benefited from being around other students who were smart. The faculty gave me the knowledge to acquire other knowledge for a lifetime. I still think in this world, that humanities is deeply deeply important. I urge everyone to know some history. History is a story of who we are, and where we are going. 

At Union League Cafe, students had a lively conversation with Dr. Winik about his latest book, the current state of foreign affairs, and reflections on the past and future. He taught us the importance of learning from history, and not to utilize it for a political agenda.

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