Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Millard’s alma mater as Baker State University. The school is Baker University. This version has been updated.
Some writers are made by sheer dint of desire. Even so, aspiration is never quite enough. There is the sense that you have no choice — that the gift comes with an overwhelming need. You don’t just stumble into this line of business.
She is the author of two books on very different American presidents: “River of Doubt” is about Teddy Roosevelt, a daredevil who tested his fate in the Amazon. “Destiny of the Republic” focuses on James Garfield, a far quieter man, who ended up in the crosshairs of an assassin’s gun.
If, as a child, Millard had been asked whether she was destined to write, the answer would have been a plangent No. She came from a working-class family in small-town Ohio. Her father climbed telephone poles for a living. Her mother had office skills. Eventually, they got desk jobs in Kansas City.
Millard, who claims she “was never a standout student,” attended Baker University, worked on the school newspaper, and surprised herself with a flair for writing. She went on to get a Masters in English at Baylor, then odd jobs at magazines. Her real break came when she met her future husband, Mark Uhlig, a former New York Times correspondent who had started a publishing company in Kansas City. He gave her some freelance work. More important: He told her she had talent.
That was all she needed to know. She traveled to Washington, got an entry-level job as a researcher at National Geographic, and paid attention to how good writing got done. Eventually, in a blind test with 300 other candidates, she applied for a writer’s position. She got the job and, within a few years, became a junior editor. But marriage and motherhood changed her horizons. She was soon looking for work she might do at home in Kansas City.
Her books, which she graciously credits to luck and the generosity of friends (the historian James Chace virtually handed her the Roosevelt idea), are a winning amalgamation of history and adventure. They exhibit a keen eye for human frailties.
Writing, as Millard proves, is the greatest of meritocracies. You can either do it or you can’t, and the evidence soon becomes excruciatingly apparent. No amount of education will give you the gift or drive; you cannot be born into it or bequeathed it. But if it’s there, you’ll chase it until it finds you.