Q&A with Robert Kanigel

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Get to know Robert Kanigel, author of Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs and seven other books…

What author or book inspires you most, now and/or at any time in your career?

When I was 15, I read John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy and its evocative, sometimes almost poetic vignettes of people like Henry Ford and Rudolf Valentino drove home the idea that you could be just as dramatic in writing about real people as fictional ones. Other favorites over the years, fiction and nonfiction, include John McPhee, John Updike, Virginia Woolf, Robert Caro, David Quammen, Jane Austen and, very recently, Anthony Trollope, my latest main squeeze.

What is your favorite part of participating in book festivals?

Talking with readers.

When did you realize you wanted to write this book?

I started work on Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs in 2010. I had first read her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities back in the 1970s and Jane has a way of sticking with you; she did with me. And an initial foray into the Jane Jacobs Papers at Boston College told me that it would be a delight to spend so much time in her company, as indeed it was.

Which part of the book are you most proud of?

Her childhood was such a revelation. And how she formed her ideas, and struggled over them as a writer, was very exciting to me. And of course how a woman, in a man’s world, without a college degree, could achieve so much. I suppose I would be most proud of the book if what readers came away with was a deep appreciation of what it means to be a completely independent spirit, as Jane Jacobs was.

What are you working on next?

I am working on a biography of Milman Parry, the Greek scholar who overthrew prevailing ideas about Homer and the creation of the Iliad and the Odyssey. And I am working on a memoir.

Don’t miss Robert Kanigel at the 2017 Virginia Festival of the Book in Eyes on the City: Planning and Power with author Richard Schragger (City Power: Urban Governance in a Global Age).