By Jessica Cuevas
Today we had the honor of hosting a LEAP LIVE with NY Times best-selling author, Jeff Guinn. Guinn began by telling us that he had hoped to be an author since he was 8 years old, and that he considers himself fortunate to able to work as a full-time author.
Guinn began his career at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as a journalist, where he learned how to properly conduct research, draw out the most relevant objective facts, and meet deadlines–traits that all contributed to him becoming a successful author.
He proceeded to discuss a few of his books: Sometimes a Fantasy, Autobiography of Santa Claus, The Vagabonds, Manson, The Road to Jonestown, and Go Down Together. The diversity of topics in these books is remarkable, and Guinn handled questions with ease, toggling between a broad-scoped view and intimate anecdotes that humanized his subjects.
Several of the biggest takeaways for us as students was an appreciation of Guinn’s intellectual curiosity, his perseverance, and his participatory way of getting to know his subjects or topics. In his newspaper days, for example, he worked as a migrant worker in the Rio Grande Valley, he lived in a (high-crime) public housing project, and he went homeless for nine days–during which time he was attacked by a drug dealer. This type of participatory journalism allowed Guinn to understand the topics about which he was writing.
This is a method he has used in his non-fiction works as well. For his work on Bonnie and Clyde, he traveled to the locations Bonnie and Clyde did; he slept in his car, as they did; he even swam a river they swam, all for the sake of better understanding their experiences. For his book on Jonestown, he traveled to the jungles of Guyana, cutting through area that marked Jonestown, now overgrown by jungle. He discussed, too, some of his work on The Vagabonds, which covered the annual travels of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. (LEAP students were fortunate to have assisted in some small ways with the research for this latter work.)
Following the FB Live session, Mr. Guinn generously agreed to spend time with a handful of students, answering more in-depth questions about his career. This, too, was revealing and interesting, allowing us to see the research habits and techniques of a major writer. He told more about the friendships he has made in writing, including friends who are survivors of Jim Jones’ church; he went more in depth about his experiences interviewing the Manson women in California prisons; and he discussed his favorite artifact he’s seen while research his books (Thomas Edison’s original light bulb).
For me, the best advice he gave to us was that, no matter what our future careers are, we need perseverance. The bumps in the road are normal and everyone encounters them at a certain point. The successful fight through those bumps in the road.
Thank you Jeff Guinn for taking the time to speak with us about the experiences and encounters you have had, as well as sharing the knowledge and wisdom you have gained while researching your books.
The LEAP Center would like to thank the Sam Houston Memorial Museum and the Old Town Theater for allowing us to broadcast on their FB Channels. We’d also like to thank Sarah Faulkner for joining us in the post discussion.