By: Bryan Burrough
I started out like many of us do, an eager young journalism school graduate, in my case Missouri, then a good nine years at a strong newspaper, The Wall Street Journal. When I was 27, I took an eight-month unpaid leave of absence to try and write a book with a colleague. As luck would have it, lightning struck. The book, Barbarians at the Gate, about the bare-knuckles fight for control of RJR Nabisco, became a No. 1 bestseller. Applause, accolades and large royalty checks followed in the wake of its success.
Everyone said my future was assured. I certainly believed it. Magazines profiled me; everyone predicted great things. So, barely a year after Barbarians, I took a pot of money to write a second book, Vendetta, about a very complex and sordid corporate scandal at the American Express Company. Long story short, it tanked. Big time. I was thrown into a personal and emotional crisis. It was not, let me make clear, a fun time.
The only silver lining was that shortly after the book came out, in August 1992, I left the Journal for Vanity Fair magazine, where I still work today. Vanity Fair is one of the great gigs in modern journalism, let me tell you. You have the freedom to pursue virtually any story you want, anywhere in the world, and you still have the ability to pursue books and outside projects.
While I loved the new job, the damage to my book writing career bothered me no end. That’s when I made maybe the biggest mistake of my career. This time I took a really big pot of money, even bigger than the first, to attempt the biography of, well, let’s just say he was and still is one of the richest, smartest business titans in America. Eighteen months into the book, I realized it wasn’t going to work. It was bad enough that the subject wouldn’t cooperate. But the killer was that I just hated the material, hated his business and found the people in it boring. Very long story short, I limped back to the publisher and told them I would find something else to write about. This process led to a third book, Dragonfly, published in 1998, about the misadventures of American astronauts aboard a Russian space station.
Despite wonderful reviews, Dragonfly tanked even worse than Vendetta.
As far as I was concerned, my publishing career was over. If I was to write another book, everyone — publishers, agents, friends, family — felt I needed to get back to writing about Big Business, about Wall Street, as I had in Barbarians. The trouble was, I didn’t want to. I had been there, done that, and I just knew deep in my heart I could never be happy if I went back to it.
Two years passed, during which I glumly immersed myself in work for Vanity Fair. Writing books is my greatest joy, yet there were times where I felt certain I would never write another. I wasn’t sure a publisher would have me, for one thing. For another, I had no idea what on earth I wanted to write about. Nothing inspired me. I started losing sleep, a lot of it, as I recall. Then, late one night in 1999, I was surfing through the television channels when I stopped on one of those A&E documentaries, this one on a Depression-era gangster family known as the Barker Gang. I dimly remembered Ma Barker from a bad Shelley Winters movie I had seen as a boy. That, in turn, triggered another memory, a strong one, and it involved my grandfather.
John Vernon Burrough, who died in 1986, had been some kind of part-time deputy sheriff in northwest Arkansas during the Depression. The only thing I knew about his experience were the stories he used to tell me about Bonnie and Clyde. Every time this dreaded twosome drove through the Ozarks, my grandfather used to say, he and his pals would be called out to set up a roadblock. I remembered he always used to say how relieved he was that they never showed up at one.
Sitting there in the darkness of my den, I suddenly wanted to know: When was the Ma Barker Gang at large vis-à-vis Bonnie and Clyde? I trudged up to my office, flipped on the computer and started Googling. To my surprise, I saw the two gangs had operated during the exact same time period, 1933 and 1934. Intrigued, I began entering the names of every other old-time bank robber I could think of: John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly. What I found amazed me. All, it appeared, worked during 1933 and 1934.
I mulled this little discovery for weeks. Gradually I started picking up some books on the period. What became clear was that not only had all six of these gangs rampaged across the Midwest during the Depression, but that stopping them constituted a birth under fire for a fledgling government outfit called the Bureau of Investigation, later known as the FBI. Bringing in the likes of John Dillinger made an obscure bureaucrat named J. Edgar Hoover a household name. Yet while there had been books written on Hoover and on the individual gangs, no one had written a narrative history that told all their stories as one, that brought them all together as the single story staring at me.
It was an ambitious book, I could see, maybe too big for one volume. And I had never attempted to write history of any kind. Maybe I just didn’t have the confidence to tackle something this new and strange. Maybe it was because my sons were so young. But whatever the case, I didn’t relish the idea of five years crisscrossing the Midwest in a rental car with empty McDonald’s sacks piling up in the backseat. So instead of going to a publisher, I went to a friend of a friend and sold the idea to the HBO cable network. I didn’t know beans about TV work, but overnight, I found myself the executive producer and lead writer of a new HBO miniseries. Exciting stuff, right?
Wrong. Turned out I didn’t know the first thing about writing for television. After barely six months, in fact, I gave up, surrendering the storytelling duties to a professional screenwriter. By that time, however, the story had gotten under my skin. I had never attempted anything like this, and lemme tell you, no one I knew was all that enthused about me trying it now. The only book anyone wanted me to write was another Barbarians. But for the first time in my career, I decided to ignore everyone and try writing something I really wanted to write, something that actually interested me. As far as my publishing career went, hell, I really had nothing left to lose.
I accepted an advance far smaller than anything I had taken before, from a new publisher, which was fine. Which led to the most glorious experience of my professional life, the four years I got to spend writing a book that we ended up calling Public Enemies. What made the book possible was my discovery that since the 1980s, the FBI had been releasing the original case files on all these old gangs. An academic or two had nosed through them all, but no one had used them to forge fresh narrative history. There were over a million pages of documents, in fact, and I ended up buying them all, at 10 cents a page. It was a big expense, and as all those old FBI files started piling up in my garage, let me tell you, my wife was not too happy.
But I was. For the first time since Barbarians more than a decade before, I found myself immersed in subject matter I truly loved. For the first time in years writing became fun again, and if no one ever purchased a single copy of the book, it almost didn’t matter. I felt like a writer again. In an odd way, I felt free.
Public Enemies was published in 2004, to generous reviews. It was a nice little bestseller, making it up to No. 21 on The New York Times extended bestseller list, a modest achievement that nevertheless left me ecstatic. I managed to retrieve the movie rights from HBO — the miniseries had long since died a quiet death — and ended up selling them to Leonardo DiCaprio and the director Michael Mann. I didn’t actually think a movie would result — they almost never do — but the check didn’t bounce, and the deal did wonders for my ego.
No one was more surprised than me when, out of nowhere, the front page of Variety announced that not only was Mann actually going to film a “Public Enemies’’ movie, but that it would star Johnny Depp as John Dillinger and Christian Bale as its FBI nemesis, Melvin Purvis. I watched the production from afar for months, feeling like a genuine fanboy, until finally, in the last days of filming, the producers were kind enough to invite me to Chicago to appear as an extra.
The scene being shot was Dillinger’s death. Attired in 1930s-era clothing and a straw boater, I was directed to a spot right across from the famous Biograph Theatre on North Lincoln Avenue, which Michael Mann’s people had turned into an exact replica of that hot July night in 1934 when Dillinger met his fate. As a reporter, I was to be among the first to run up toward Depp/Dillinger’s fallen body, at the exact spot where Dillinger had died. We shot the scene over and over and over, me running past Christian Bale and then pushing up against a phalanx of young actors portraying FBI men. In the finished movie, I can catch three or four glimpses of myself, but candidly, no one outside my family is quite so certain it is actually me up there on the screen.
The success of the book and the movie made me re-examine my career. I finally realized what I wanted to do with the rest of my publishing life: I wanted to write popular history that meant something to me. Six months after Public Enemies was published, I signed to do what became my fifth book, The Big Rich, the story of the wealthiest oil families in my native Texas. This book, too, became a labor of love, allowing me to spend many long weeks of research back in my beloved home state. Once again I didn’t especially care if anyone read the book I was writing. What mattered was that I was genuinely happy to be doing it.
When The Big Rich came out last year, no one was more surprised than I when it vaulted up to No. 9 on the bestseller list. It was a rewarding year for me, 2009. To my amazement, Michael Mann had actually gone and made a movie out of Public Enemies, and a few months after The Big Rich came out, the Public Enemies movie followed, and a tie-in paperback, featuring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger on the cover, went to No. 7. I don’t mean to boast about any of this — I don’t — but at the age of 48, I had somehow managed to reclaim my publishing career. It felt like I was Bryan Burrough 2.0. And I had done it simply by writing about things I loved.
The lesson, at least for me, is that what I’ve always told my sons is actually true: Do what you love, and success will find you. This is doubly true for writers, I think. Books and articles written with a genuine love are almost always better than things written solely for money. That enthusiasm seems to infuse itself into the text. People can see it. They can feel it. So if I have any advice to impart — to any writer, at any stage of his or her career — it would be this. Don’t listen to the professionals. Don’t listen to that part of you that says you can’t take a leap into the unknown. You can. Find that thing you love and write about it. Even if no one ever reads a word of what you write, believe me, you will be much happier for it.