Baylor alumna writes bestselling books

Candice Millard, author of three New York Times bestselling books and Amazon’s best history book of 2016, is a Baylor alumna. Photo credit: Courtesy Photo

By Amanda Hargett-Grandato | Reporter

Every day after she drops off her three kids at school, author Candice Millard gets to become a detective at her desk. Delving into lost details of history, Millard has worked to bring light to fascinating, forgotten stories, and her work has paid off.

Millard has published three New York Times bestselling books, and her most recent work, “Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill,” was named Amazon’s best history book of 2016.

Millard completed her undergraduate degree at Baker University in Kansas and then spent two years at Baylor to earn her master’s degree in literature.

“Working on my thesis and taking my final exams are what I remember the most [about Baylor],” Millard said. “It was great because everybody in the program came together. I’m pretty much a person who works on my own, and it was a really great experience for me, working closely with other graduate students all in the same boat.”

Entering the Baylor graduate English program on a full scholarship, Millard worked in the Writing Center and as a teaching assistant during her two years on campus. Wanting to immerse herself in literature rather than critique it, Millard said the emphasis on literary criticism pulled her away from wanting to teach and toward writing.

“[Baylor] really launched me into writing,” Millard said. “I had gone in thinking I was going to be a teacher and came out wanting to see if I could write.”

After receiving her master’s degree in 1992, Millard went on to work for National Geographic magazine in Washington, D.C. While at the magazine, writers were divided into specialties, and Millard worked with a handful of others looking for and vetting stories about history and biography.

“I feel that was my real education for what I do now,” Millard said. “I spent a lot of time thinking about the subject, so I had all of these ideas swirling around in my head.”

Millard married Mark Uhlig in 2001 while she was still working for National Geographic. Uhlig, a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, owns his own publishing company in Millard’s home state of Kansas.

“I didn’t want to leave my job because I loved it, and I worked really hard to get it,” Millard said. “I couldn’t think of anything in Kansas that would be as interesting and fun, and then I thought of the idea for my first book.”

Millard’s three books focus on interesting and little-known tales in history. Although her books tell stories of Theodore Roosevelt, James Garfield and Winston Churchill, respectively, Millard said it was never her intention to write stories about world leaders.

“It was just coincidence, honestly,” Millard said. “I was looking for great stories. With Roosevelt, I was interested in writing about the Amazon, and I came across this interesting story that had drowning and murder and Roosevelt almost losing his life.”

The coincidence would eventually turn into Millard’s first book, “The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey.” She said she doesn’t write full biographies but prefers to focus on slice-of-life stories that illuminate a person’s character. With her second book, she intended to write about Alexander Graham Bell but stumbled upon the mostly obscure life of U.S. President Andrew Garfield.

“I started researching [Garfield] and couldn’t believe how extraordinary he was,” Millard said. “Brave, kind, decent and completely forgotten.”

Rockwall senior Anabel Burke, a history major, said there is a debate among historians in the academic world about the merit of writing “popular history,” or history written for an everyday audience.

“I think everyone should be reading history books,” Burke said. “History contextualizes the world that you live in, and it’s all related.”

Burke said she thinks writing about novel historical events is a worthy endeavor and may be an entry point for the average person to learn more about history.

“A lot of getting people interested in history is pointing out fun and interesting things that happened,” Burke said. “It can get people’s interest at first and then they might be prompted to explore the topic further and learn more.”

Millard said the research that yields such interesting stories is her favorite part of the book writing process.

“It’s really a bit of a problem. I have to stop myself, or I’ll never get the book finished,” Millard said. “It’s like detective work; you pull on a string and you keep pulling, and sometimes there’s nothing there, but sometimes you find these fascinating stories. I always find so much more than I could possibly put in the book.”

Despite her success, Millard says the process of writing is not always easy.

“The first few drafts are going to be awful. I’m not Mozart, and it doesn’t come out a symphony by any stretch,” Millard said. “Getting the rhythm of it and the pacing and word choice is difficult. You just have to start and pound it out and then the fun comes in shaping and editing it and spending time with it.”

All three of Millard’s books have been received positively, and not only with the New York Times. She has won six awards, and her books have been translated into four different languages.

“I’ve learned that you don’t go at it thinking, ‘I want to write a New York Times bestseller,’” Millard said. “You have to think: ‘I love this story and I can work on it for three, four, five years, and I can’t wait to work on it.’ If you don’t, it’s never going to come across to the reader.”

Millard spends her days researching and writing in her office at her husband’s publishing company. She and her husband have three children, aged 14, 11 and 9. She travels often, doing book tours and going to places like the Amazon and South Africa on research trips.

“It’s gratifying to think that what I write is interesting to other people; it’s a very human connection,” Millard said. “Even though I spend years in my office without really working with other people, once it’s out there I get to go on book tours and meet people. That’s really kind of the best.”

Millard just sold the idea for another book and is beginning the four-year-long process of researching and writing it. She said that every book feels like a new adventure before her.

“Every day I come to work and I can’t believe this is my job,” Millard said. “I’m being paid to read. I’m going to keep doing it as long as they’ll let me.”