Historian and Zócalo Book Prize Winner William Sturkey

If I Wasn’t a Historian I’d Be a Novelist

Historian and Zócalo Book Prize Winner William Sturkey | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Photo by Grant Halverson.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Assistant Professor of History William Sturkey is the winner of the 10th annual Zócalo Public Square Book Prize for Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White. Before the 2020 Zócalo Book Prize Lecture—presented for the first time via live-stream—he visited our virtual green room to talk about the ideas that he gets while exercising, the writers who inspire him, and Hattiesburg’s three best dishes.

Q:

Where do you come up with your best ideas?


A:

Usually while I’m lying awake in bed trying to go to sleep, or while I’m exercising in some fashion.


Q:

If you were a salad dressing, what would you be?


A:

Some sort of citrus-y vinaigrette. I think they’re pretty tasty and exciting—and they’re never boring.


Q:

What historians have most inspired you?


A:

Robin D.G. Kelley and Kevin Boyle are the two big ones. The book Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas is the most important piece of creative nonfiction to my style and my career. John M. Barry, who wrote Rising Tide and The Great Influenza, has also been very influential to me, as well as a couple of fiction writers. Tim O’Brien and Cormac McCarthy are really big inspirations for me, too.


Q:

What was the best thing you ate in Hattiesburg?


A:

There are three main dishes that were the best: I think I have to go with the pulled pork at Leatha’s Bar-B-Que. The others were a blackened catfish dish and a seared tuna salad at Keg & Barrel.


Q:

What is your worst habit?


A:

Probably looking at Twitter too much while I’m trying to write.


Q:

If you weren’t a historian, what would you be?


A:

A novelist. I know it’s boring, but it’s true.


Q:

What do you wake up to?


A:

The thought of what I want to do on the book I’m writing; the three or four things I want to accomplish during the day. It’s not always healthy to wake up immediately and think about work, but that’s the only thing occupying my mind all the time like that.


Q:

What’s your hidden talent?


A:

I’m becoming a very, very good cook in COVID, so you can go with that. And I was an all-conference baseball player in high school.


Q:

What is the best thing you’ve cooked in isolation?


A:

Either a grilled filet mignon or pulled pork. We take our pulled pork pretty seriously, and I’ve been experimenting with some new sauces, and that’s really worked out well. Also crab cake. It’s soft shell crab season out here. It’s really good.


Q:

Where are you finding community in this time of isolation?


A:

Mostly through Zoom meetings with people I work with. And I’ve been talking to my relatives a lot more than I usually do.