Peter Cozzens '79 is the author or editor of 17 books on the American Civil War and the American West. He recently retired from a 30-year career as a foreign service officer in the U.S. Department of State, where he served primarily in Latin America. In 2002, he received the American Foreign Service Association's highest award for exemplary moral courage, integrity, and creative dissent. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he served as a captain in the U.S. Army, where his focus was on military intelligence.
His most recent book, The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, received the 2017 Gilder Lehrman Prize in Military History and was chosen by Smithsonian Magazine as one of the top 10 history books of 2016.
When did you start writing your first book?
I started writing when I was an army officer and completed it during my first tour of foreign service. It kind of languished because I didn't know what to do with it, but with the assistance of someone with publishing contacts, I was able to get it published in 1990. It was a Book of the Month Club selection and a History Book Club best seller. After that, contracts came sort of easily, and I either wrote or edited 16 books during the course of my foreign service career. When I had the opportunity to retire at age 55, I took a chance and was able to devote myself full time to writing and concentrate on moving to the next level in terms of getting an agent, getting a contract with a top publisher (Knopf), and securing a contract for a second book.
The subtitle of The Earth Is Weeping is The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West. Why is it an epic story?
The scope of the book covers three decades and ranges from the Canadian border into northern Mexico, and from California east to the Missouri River. It's a huge expanse in terms of the many different tribes and conflicts, so I think that qualifies as something epic in scope. It took two-and-a-half years of research, which included a month total in trips west visiting sites, many of which were on private ranches or public lands from the Texas Panhandle to the Northern Plains to the Pacific Northwest. I walked the ground at the majority of the sites about which I wrote. It's something intangible, in part, but it helps you add authentic color to the writing if you see the ground. The sites of the Indian wars that I wrote about are, for the most part, in as close to pristine condition as something can possibly be, so I was able to get a feel for what the areas were like, what the vegetation was like, what the terrain was like—to get the whole sensory experience.
Why have your books focused on the American Civil War and American West?
As a kid growing up, I always had an interest in military history, in particular the Civil War. At Knox, that interest took a back seat to my evolving interest in international relations and living abroad. My interest in military history re-emerged when I was in the army, which gradually developed into an interest in the American West, and, now the American Indian experience in general. My next book is a biography of Chief Tecumseh. I did not study American history at Knox, nor did I study Native American history. I'm self-developed in that respect. I did not go to graduate school in history, but my Knox experience and the emphasis on writing at Knox was more than sufficient to give me confidence and develop my skills in writing.
What part of the creative process do you enjoy most?
I love the research because it satisfies the detective in me. I do all my research myself, digging through obscure primary source material and making connections. From that, I develop a story and see where, perhaps, I differ from previous interpretations of events. That appeals to one part of me. The writing appeals to a very different part of me, the creative part. So I really enjoy both equally.
The funny thing is, once the book is published, it's something of a letdown, sort of like having a child that's going off to college. The book's published and it belongs to readers and is no longer yours. I'm already looking toward what I want to work on next. No sooner was The Earth Is Weeping published than I was already into my next book. It's the process that I enjoy more than anything else.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Even when I was in foreign service, I tried to keep the discipline of working a certain number of hours in the evenings and on weekends. If you're going to wait for inspiration, you're not going to be real productive, so you have to sit down and just plug away at it. There were days when, in the course of eight hours, I only put two paragraphs on paper, and the next day it would all come together. You have to treat it like a job and just plug away at it whether you feel inspired or not.
Peter Cozzens received an Alumni Achievement Award from Knox College in 1999.