Q&A with NEH Public Scholar Judith Dupre

One World Trade Center: Biography of the Building by Judith Dupré
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One World Trade Center: Biography of the Building by Judith Dupré (Little, Brown and Company, 2016)

Courtesy Little, Brown and Company

(January 20, 2016)

Name:  Judith Dupré | @OneWTCBook Facebook | Instagram 
City and State: Outside New York City
Book Title: One World Trade Center: Biography of the Building
Publication date: April 26, 2016
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Agent: Cathy Hemming
Amount of Public Scholar grant award: $37,800 (9 months)

Judith Dupre
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Judith Dupré, recipient of NEH Public Scholar grant for a book on the history of One World Trade Center

Joe Woolhead

  1. Tell us the first thing you did when you learned you received an NEH Public Scholar grant. I was in my studio, no doubt thinking about getting another cup of coffee, when I received a congratulatory email from someone who wanted a press statement from me on the grant. I did a double take, since this was the first I was hearing about it.  Luckily, the NEH email arrived moments later. Happy dance. Then I called my mother.
  2. What’s your writing or academic background?  I hold a Master of Divinity, a three-year terminal degree, from Yale University, where my studies focused on how communities could and should be built to uphold the public’s highest good. My undergraduate degrees (Studio Art and English Lit) are from Brown University. I also attended the now-shuttered Open Atelier of Design and Architecture in lower Manhattan, an extraordinary school run by Italian architects who encouraged us to take an experiential approach to design, a sensibility I bring to my books. One World Trade Center is my fifth book on architecture. 
  3. How did you find your book project? I have been writing about the World Trade Center since 1993, covering the Twin Towers first in Skyscrapers (1996) and, in subsequent editions of that book, Ground Zero and plans for the new One WTC. For Monuments (2008), I wrote extensively about the temporary memorials of 9/11, which moved me profoundly since early commemorations express visceral emotion that is often lost by the time a permanent memorial is built. The new book examines the nine major structures at the Trade Center.  I leapt at the chance to write this book and to participate in the creation of a historical narrative that, in time, will flatten into a single narrative.
  4. What sources are you using for your research? I have conducted and distilled 70+ interviews with those intimately involved at the World Trade Center, from designers to developers to laborers. I have examined thousands of photographs and drawings. To a lesser extent, the text also relies on construction documents, meeting minutes and other Port Authority reports, and newspaper accounts. While it was thrilling to write a book based almost entirely on eyewitness accounts, it was daunting not to have the safety net that the passage of time and the opinions of earlier scholars provide.
  5. Why do you want this project to have broad appeal? I hope to respond to the world’s great curiosity about the new World Trade Center and to affirm the profound connection to the site that many feel, even if they have never visited it. I wanted to clear up the many misunderstandings about One World Trade Center, easily the most closely scrutinized building project in memory. On a more personal note, having lived in lower Manhattan for two decades, I sought to ease some of the lingering heartache of my fellow New Yorkers and acknowledge the superhuman effort that has gone into the site’s rebuilding by creating a historically accurate, physically beautiful book.
  6. What is the biggest challenge of writing a scholarly book for a general audience? Narratives written for the general public must be accessible and presume the reader has interest in a topic, but little if any specialized knowledge. It requires humility—you must write to communicate, not impress—and making artful choices that will spark the reader’s imagination. Writing about architecture, a highly visual and physical art, compounds the difficulty of explaining in words what is best experienced in person. Photographs can approximate that experience, and help transport the reader from a textual to a contextual understanding, but cannot replace presence itself. 
  7. Do you have a model or a favorite popular scholarly book? I admire the work of many nonfictionists, particularly those grappling with hybrid genres, as I do.  A short list would include Stacy Schiff, for brilliantly weaving fact and imagination; Erik Larson, for his plotting and sense of drama; Simon Winchester, for his elegance and breadth; and David Grossman, for his fierce belief in art’s redemptive power. Sally Mann’s Hold Still, which intertwines narrative and imagery, set a new benchmark for me. Poets provide more fundamental inspiration: always Whitman, but also Louise Gluck, C. D. Wright, Hafiz and other Persian mystics. 
  8. How has the Public Scholar grant award made a difference in your project? Thanks to the grant, I am finishing the research and writing for the book and also developing a website that will include materials (photos, interview excerpts, videos, links, etc.) beyond what could be reasonably included in it. This will allow readers to more fully explore the topics that most interest them. More generally, the grant has provided a much welcomed respite from having to seek other work to support the writing of a number of related articles and other activities necessary to promote the book and ensure that it has the widest possible audience. Thank you -- I am deeply appreciative.

The NEH Public Scholar program for well-researched books in the humanities for a general audience is open for a third round of applications. Click here to learn more about this grant opportunity and here to download the .pdf with the Public Scholar application guidelines. The application deadline is February 1, 2017. Contact @email with questions.

Test your knowledge of One World Trade Center with this crossword puzzle.
Video of Judith Dupré introducing her book.