I don’t know what I was expecting when I went to see national best-selling author Candice Millard of Leawood in her big-window corner office suite in Overland Park, but it wasn’t this: a waifish figure with the posture of a dancer sporting a faux-suede safari shirt, skinny jeans and chestnut brogues with sexy side-cutouts.
Millard frequently begins sentences with “I’m so lucky” and punctuates them with a wide, easy smile.
Her resume is so good it sounds made up: After several years writing and editing for National Geographic in Washington, D.C., Millard decided to try writing books. Her first two efforts, nonfiction page-turners about Theodore Roosevelt’s expedition up the Amazon and the assassination of President James Garfield, scaled the New York Times best-seller list and bagged several prizes.
“The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey” was a Quill Awards finalist, and “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine & the Murder of a President” won an Edgar Award and a PEN Center Award.
Her third book, “Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill,” comes out Sept. 20, published like the first two by Doubleday in New York.
And she’s not even 50.
If Millard has an outsized ego to match her outsized literary accomplishments, I couldn’t find it.
She tells me she’s “lucky” to have this third-floor office with pretty views because her husband, Mark Uhlig, a Wichita native and former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, leased the building for his communications and publishing company, Uhlig LLC.
There are a pair of gray couches, a large white desk with three wide-screen monitors behind a keyboard and lots of built-in bookshelves, brimming with books. She loves to read, especially history.
“Every day I come in here and I think, ‘I can’t believe this is my job.’ It’s amazing,” she says.
Because she has three kids, ages 8 to 14, her writing hours are basically school hours. “I drop them off at school, I come in here, close the door and I’m in another world and another time,” she says.
She flips open a paperback book festooned with colorful page flags. Words are underlined, highlighted, annotated.
“I have a little system,” she says, “When I find something that’s pretty good, I’ll put a little star by it. If I see something that’s really good, I’ll put two stars by it — like, don’t miss this. If it’s something amazing — like, you would absolutely be a fool not to use this — it gets three stars.”
She admits she cleaned up because the photographer showed up. “I’m usually pretty messy, and there’s stuff the nighttime cleaning crews won’t touch because they’re so dirty.”
Mementos related to her three books dot the shelves directly above her desk: an 8-by-10 photograph of Garfield and his young daughter less than a year before he was assassinated, and a brass button from his army uniform, given her by one of Garfield’s descendants; a doll of Teddy Roosevelt in a Rough Riders uniform; and a tin of chocolates from 1900 embossed with an image of Queen Victoria, one of 123,000 the queen sent to soldiers at Christmas during the Boer War — a surprise gift from her husband, who bought it when the couple visited South Africa.
There is also a shelf with foreign language versions of her first two books: Mandarin, Portuguese, Japanese, and a British edition.
Millard has created a niche category for her nonfiction that is different from traditional biography.
“What interests me is finding an event that I think is illuminating about this person and their time, and that is a great story,” she says. “With Roosevelt, I got the chance to talk about the Amazon, which is endlessly fascinating. I have a ton of books about the Amazon. With Garfield, it’s a lot about 19th-century medicine and a crime.”
Her new book recounts a relatively unknown chapter in Churchill’s life, when he went to South Africa as a young journalist to cover the Boer War and was captured and taken to a POW camp in Pretoria and escaped.
Millard becomes animated recounting details of the true tale, adding pauses for dramatic effect: “He made it across nearly three … hundred … miles … of enemy territory … by himself. It’s astonishing, and it’s telling.
“If you look at him at that time — he’s 24, he turns 25 in the POW camp — and you see pictures of him, and he’s thin and he’s got this red hair, but inside, in his mind, he’s already fully formed. The brilliance, the wit, the arrogance, the ambition, it’s already there,” she says.
Another “lucky” thing is that Millard has had the same agent, editor and publicist for all three of her books.
“With my first book, I researched and wrote a proposal, and that helped me get an agent. Then she sent it out to a bunch of publishers and — because it was Theodore Roosevelt and the Amazon and murder and drowning and all this incredible stuff — it sold pretty fast, and I got assigned an editor. He’s been incredibly supportive.
It takes Millard three to four years to write a book.
“I’m always late, always. Not a couple of days, or a few weeks, but like a year late. (My editor) has been great about it. He’ll check in and say, ‘I’m just trying to figure out my fall line up; where do things stand?’
“I’ll be like, ‘I will have it done in three months.’ Three months later, I’ll be like, ‘I will have it done in five months.’ But he’s great. When I say, ‘Three months’ he hears, ‘Next year, maybe.’ ”
A national book tour kicks off in Kansas City on Sept. 20, the book’s release date. So for now, Millard is focused on her talk about the “Hero of the Empire.”
She has three ideas, she says, for her next book. After the book tour, she will dig into the research and settle on one of them. She doesn’t want to reveal her possible subjects but says the book will definitely be historical in nature.
See the author
Candice Millard will speak about her new book, “Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill,” at 7 p.m. Sept. 20 at Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th St. The $30 tickets include a signed, hardbound copy of the book and admission for two. Details at rainydaybooks.com/CandiceMillard2016 or call 913-384-3126.