Austin Washington is the great-nephew of George Washington. He earned his masters and did post-graduate research focusing on colonial American history, and is a writer, musician, entrepreneur and global traveler. He returns to an old Virginia family home whenever he can.Austin’s first book takes a common criticism of his academic writing – “You’re not writing a newspaper editorial, you know!” – and turns it into a virtue, taking a subject dry and dusty in other’s hands and giving it life. He has lived abroad much of his life, most recently in Russia, and visits friends from Sicily to Turkey to Bangladesh and beyond. His earliest influences as a writer were Saki, Salinger, and St. Exupery, although in more recent years he has got beyond the S’s. As for historians, he is partial to the iconoclast Gibbon, who wrote history to change the future.
His latest book is the nonfiction/history book, The Education of George Washington.
Can you tell us who or what was the inspiration behind your book?
That’s easy. It was literal inspiration.
It’s a long story, but there’s a short answer.
Is this your first published book and if so, can you tell us your experiences in finding a publisher for it?
Well, that’s the thing. Between my first and second meeting with the publisher, I happened to have lunch with someone who tipped me off to the clue that led to the book. I talk about it in the Introduction of The Education of George Washington, by the way.
It was a complete and utter fluke. Never in a million years would I have been led to what is, really, the most important discovery about George Washington in 200 years without meeting with “Dr. X”, as I call him in the book. At the same time, had I not just come from the meeting with the publisher, my conversation with “Dr. X” might not have turned the way it did, and the long lost secret to how George Washington turned himself from a mostly uneducated and relatively poor boy who wrote dorky love poems to unattainable girls, into…well, into the greatest dancer in Virginia, its best athlete – as well all the parts of his life you’ve heard about, of course – might never have been found.
Where do you live and if I were coming to town, where would we go to talk books?
Well, I’ve lived in Moscow most recently. Y’know, Socialism is really bad, unless you’re on the receiving end, in which case it’s the best thing in the world.
Right near me is a palatial cinema that only plays good films, foreign films, art films, that sort of thing, and thus, you usually get an entire hall to yourself if you want to see a movie. Also, there is an amazing restaurant there, with about two dozen workers, and, simply, no customers. But you can get breakfast there – late – and it’s open ’til midnight.
They don’t need to make money. The government pays.
It rocks, really (unless you’re thinking like a tax payer, I suppose.) It’s such a cool place, and surreal, too, as you have it all to yourself.
That’s the place I’d pick. Also, as I could walk there. You’d probably have to fly, but then that’s your problem (!)
When you’re not writing, what do you do to relax and have fun?
I write to relax and have fun, actually.
In your opinion, what makes a good book great?
What an ironically worded question.
The fundamental point of my book is that it is rare for anyone to be either great, or good. But both together? C’est incroyable! Doesn’t happen as often as once in a lifetime, I don’t think.
Well, it didn’t before now. In the back of The Education of George Washington is George’s own guide to greatness, seen for the first time, anywhere.
Still most people are like those people who don’t come to my cinema. It’s a rarified group who will “get” my book.
Is that a good enough answer? Well, maybe it’s not great. I told you that was rare.
Can you give us a short excerpt from your book?
“I Cannot Tell a Lie”— the Cherry Tree Story Is True (but Different from How You Heard It)
“What shall I say of the Nobleness of his Mind; and of that Character of Honor, Truth and Justice, which was so Natural to him . . . incapable of the Dissimulation, and other sordid Arts of Court. He could not promise what he did not intend to perform.” —H. de Luzancy, A Panegyrick to the Memory of His Grace Frederick, Late Duke of Schonberg
Parson Weems was married to the wife of a cousin of George Washington’s close friend, Dr. James Craik. Parson Weems knew George Washington. Parson Weems preached at George Washington’s church. So why all the hating? The tale of George Washington and the cherry tree has been mistold for two hundred years—and thus mistakenly criticized, as people have been criticizing a story that Parson Weems never told. Still, despite all the debunking, the story of George Washington and the cherry tree is almost as iconic in America as Santa Claus and his elves. It therefore seems worthwhile to spend a little time explaining how we can say with certainty that yes, Virginia, the story of George and the cherry tree is true (but no, it’s not the story you’ve heard).
For those non-Americans out there, the story, in essence, is this: George Washington, when he was a small child, chopped down a cherry tree with a hatchet. When confronted by his father, he confessed, “I cannot tell a lie. I did it with my little hatchet.”
That’s the story. (Not much of a story, is it? But the story of the story could change your life.)
No one in America believes it any more. We’ve all been told ad nauseam that the whole story is a pious fable—a confabulation invented by Parson Weems.
What’s wrong with the story? Why can’t we trust Parson Weems?
We obviously can’t trust him because he admired George Washington. No, honestly, that’s a big part of the argument. Parson Weems is a fanboy and therefore can’t be trusted. The generally accepted idea, expressed by Wikipedia, is this: “Weems also called Washington the ‘greatest man that ever lived.’ This degree of adulation, combined with the circumstance that his anecdotes cannot be independently verified, demonstrates clearly that they are confabulations and parables.”
But wait just a minute.
1. I’d always thought ad hominem attacks were a logical fallacy.
2. If something that cannot be independently verified is, ipso facto, not true, then all trees falling in all forests are always silent. That’s just silly.
3. Actually, the story can be independently verified. Beyond that, it passes the sniff test. Pretty clearly.
Well, all the people promoting it want to focus on a bit at the start, where I talk about how the famous cherry tree story may have a basis.
Copyright © Austin Washington 2014
That’s not entirely representative of the whole book. It’s deep and profound at points. It’s an adventure, too. That’s just the glib bit at the start, to draw you in.
What’s next for you?
I’ve got a book about Love, around the world. I worked for ages on a spec thing with my Emmy winning friend for HBO, going around the world talking to people in different cultures and places about love. I’m turning that into a book. It’s too personal for video, really.
That’s a book I’d want to read, but I’ve got to write it, first.
However, being good and great is vital, so please read The Education of George Washington.
And sign up for my list, and all that. Thanks.