He grew up in Waynesville with a mountainside view of the old drive-in movie theatre. His father was the county surveyor and his mother worked for the Barber Orchard office. In third grade, the family moved to Ft. Myers Beach, Fla., where his mom got a job working as a newspaper reporter and his father worked as a draftsman.
After Taylor graduated high school in 1963, he moved back to Western North Carolina to attend Western Carolina University. It was his only choice for a college because, he says, at $300 a quarter, it was “dirt cheap.”
The plan was to transfer after a few years to UNC-Chapel Hill, but in that time, he found himself meeting new friends, writing for the student newspaper (later becoming its editor), taking part in student government, and earning a degree in English and professional writing.
By the late-1960s, Taylor was working his way up the newspaper ladder — Shelby, then Charlotte, then Dayton, Ohio, (where he covered the aftermath of the Kent State shootings). Eventually, he moved back to the South to work for the Atlanta Constitution and the local TV station, WQXI. Jimmy Carter was governor then, and Taylor wound up working on Carter’s presidential campaign. When Carter won, Taylor helped set up the press coverage for the inaugural events.
After working on an unsuccessful primary campaign for a would-be Atlanta congressman, Taylor took a job in public affairs with the Georgia Department of Human Resources.
“The DHR job had the unexpected benefit of leading me back to writing,” Taylor explains on his Web site biography. “I rediscovered why I had loved writing in the first place, knitting facts into a narrative. I wrote about orchid growers and obsessive collectors and baseball’s spring training. I began to think that I could do this all the time. That chance came in 1980. I haven’t had a regular job since.”
When his second wife, Barbara, took a job as a reporter for WCBS-TV in New York City, Taylor’s Southern roots were transplanted to Greenwich Village in 1984, and the couple has lived in the Big Apple ever since.
“At first I felt very far from home,” he recalled. “Over time, however, I realized that New York isn’t such a big place after all. It’s a lot of little places, one of which was the neighborhood where we lived.”
Eight books later, Taylor is as prolific as ever, writing a New York Times bestseller on the life of astronaut and senator, John Glenn, and plenty more magazine articles. There’s a novel “waiting to be dusted off and explored,” as he puts it, but non-fiction captures more of his attention.
Taylor recently offered up some insights as part of an email interview with Smoky Mountain News.
SMN: You’ve written about a wide variety of topics from tournament bass fishing to neo-Nazis in Germany to the story of the man who invented the laser. How do you get the ideas for these stories and what inspires you to want to turn them into books?
I always want to learn new things. It never occurred to me to write about bass fishing until I read in the newspaper that the winner of a tournament would make $100,000, and when I went to check it out I discovered this fascinating world with heroes and fans that had been invented by this really smart insurance salesman. The result was Bass Wars. Laser wasn’t just about the man who invented the laser, which would have been a chapter in a science history textbook. The other part of the story was his having to fight for 30 years to win his patents and millions of dollars in royalties. It also helps to have great characters. The idea for my book about my parents in their final years, A Necessary End, came from swapping stories with my friends about how exasperating our parents were becoming. I realized that their struggles against old age may have been exasperating, but they were also sad, funny and heroic. We children were laughing through our tears as we watched them aging, and our concern and care for them is the story of my generation.
SMN: Your latest work aims to chronicle and pay tribute to the legacy of the Works Progress Administration. What have you discovered about WPA projects in Western North Carolina?
The WPA did more road building than anything else, and Western North Carolina was no exception. My book includes an interview with Johnny Mills, who lived outside of Sylva and worked on WPA road crews in Jackson County. As far as buildings, I’m mostly familiar with Jackson County and specifically, Western Carolina. Breese Gymnasium, built from native stone, Hoey Auditorium, and the McKee building were all built by the WPA. So was the old school at Webster — out of stones hauled from the Tuckasegee River. If you look at any of these, but particularly the Breese Gym, the craftsmanship is just incredible.
SMN: Some of the topics you’ve chosen to write about in your books shed light on the unsung heroes of our time or perhaps overlooked stories that other writers might shy away from (i.e. the Mafia or neo-Nazis in Germany). What experiences in your career in public affairs and journalism prepared you for writing these kinds of stories?
Journalism prepares you to ask questions, and it’s questions that help you find the story. When I wrote Sins of the Father, Mafia stories were all over the place. But as I talked to Sal Polisi, whom I met when he was testifying against the famous mob boss John Gotti, I learned that the story was really about Polisi’s sons. Both were top college football prospects, but their identities and records were erased when they went into the Witness Protection Program with their parents, and they had to reinvent themselves. So a Mafia story turned into a story about two teenagers who had to pay the price for their father’s sins.
SMN: How has journalism changed over the past several decades as you’ve worked for newspapers and magazines?
The biggest change is that it’s become a lot more celebrity-oriented. Stories are shorter, too, because all forms of journalism — newspapers, broadcast, the Internet — are competing for people who are really busy and don’t have a lot of time.
SMN: What were some of your memories of being a student at Western Carolina University?
You mean aside from the beer runs to Clyde’s drive-in in Waynesville when Jackson County was still dry? I remember that it had a cohort of professors who were pretty good at nurturing the talent they encountered. That it was isolated from a lot of the turmoil of the 1960s and largely apolitical. That it integrated peacefully, which makes me proud. It was a great value; around $1,000 a year covered room, board, books and tuition, but you learned enough where you could compete with anybody. It was a place where you could find your wings, and I wouldn’t trade my years there.
SMN: What first inspired you to become a writer?
My mother was a newspaper reporter; my father wrote a column. I had no gifts for business, math or science. Writing was the only thing that made sense to me, and it gave me the opportunity to pursue my curiosity in a lot of areas.
SMN: What advice would you pass along to those wanting to become a professional writer?
When I graduated from Western in 1967, writing meant journalism. The advice I’d give now is to look at the whole spectrum — newspapers, magazines, books, blogs, fiction, non-fiction. And to sit down and do it. There are a lot of would-be writers in the world because the hardest sentence to write is always the first one.