Interview Series: Doug & Anne Brinkley

Doug Brinkley is an American author and history professor at Rice University. The Brinkleys are some of our favorite people in Austin.

The portraits from Red Bud Isle are so beautiful. You both care a lot about the environment and public land. Can you tell us more about your writing on this matter?

Growing up in Georgia and Ohio I camped a lot. My parents had a 24-foot Coachman trailer and we’d disappear for two months every summer discovering America. At an early age I fell in love with the Grand Canyon. There is still, to me, no better place to hike. So now, as a history professor, I’ve mixed a love of the Great American Outdoors with writing books on US environmental history. I am the most proud of Rightful Heritage: Franklin D Roosevelt and the Land of America. It is the one book I wish more people would read.

Doug, we hear you’ll be interviewing Sean Penn at the Central Presbyterian Church in Austin tomorrow night, tell us more about that:

Sean Penn is a dear friend. We’ve traveled together to Haiti, Venezuela and Cuba. We like many of the same novelists – Jack Kerouac, Kurt Vonnegut, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Fante and William Saroyan to name a few. Sean is very brave. The kind of guy that shaves with a blowtorch. Hopefully I’ll get him to tell stories about Marlon Brando, Madonna, Bono and Roy Orbison at the Central Presbyterian Church event. They’re priceless. His nonprofit J/P HRO is doing fantastic humanitarian work. Donate to it!

Your new book, American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race, is set to come out very soon. What is the book’s focus and how did you go about the research? 

Back in 2001 NASA had me conduct the official Oral History Interview with Neil Armstrong. That got me started. It seemed to me the time was ripe to write a definitive history on why JFK put 25 billion dollars on going to the moon. My book will be published in early 2019 to help commemorate Apollo 11. I’ve spent a lot of time at Cape Canaveral, Washington DC and Houston conducting archival research on this one.

Being transplants, what was the main reason you moved here to Austin? What inspires you most about this city? 

Anne: So we were living in New Orleans when we met. Then Doug got a great offer from Rice University, which is an amazing, gorgeous school – and he wanted to take it. Doug knew I was in love with California so he said – best of both worlds – lets move to Austin and I will commute. You get the nature in the middle of a cosmopolitan city, dry weather, progressive attitudes, great for raising kids…13 years later, it’s been wonderful.

Doug: My entire life has been the saga of a transplant. Austin is where I decided, with Anne, to settle down and raise kids. Big attractions like urban kayaking and Hill Country hikes at places like Pedernales Falls State Park, The Blue Hole and Hamilton Pool hooked me in. The birdlife in our back yard near Red Bud Isle is exquisite. Plus you can’t beat Salt Lick Barbeque; I’m addicted to the sauce.

You have three children together: two girls and a boy. What do you do as a family for fun and do they hold similar interests as you with regards to writing, reading and politics? 

CNN and NPR are on 24/7 in our home. So the kids can’t help but know what’s going on in the world. And yes. It inspires conversation. But no matter what – Doug is always an optimistic about this great country so the dialogue is always healthy. I mean Doug has written and teaches about all America has gone through to create this amazing democracy. He explains that we went through a civil war, two World Wars, Civil Rights, on and on…and that when the news sounds bad about what a divided country we have right now – he explains we have gone through so much and come out stronger. Our vacations always include history sites, museums, and the best darn teacher there is. We hike, kayak, fish, visit our National Parks, and hit a lot of roller coasters. No doubt protecting the outdoors will be a big part of our kid’s life – they walked in both Roosevelt’s footsteps and understand it is our great resource. Books…Doug reads all day, I read every chance I get. But the cell phones eat up too much of our kids time. But we are working on them to read…read…read. Nothing better for kids (and adults) then reading – never too much.

The next project the two of you are working on is a Bob Dylan biography. How did that come about? 

Bob Dylan has never let me down. I’ve been listening to him since I was fourteen years old. This April 24th I’ll be lecturing on him in Tulsa, Oklahoma at the Gilcrease Museum – all are welcome!! Over the years I’ve interviewed Bob a few times. Wrote a Rolling Stone cover story about him. Among some of my favorite songs of his are Mr. Tambourine Man; Across the Green Mountains; Blind Willie McTell; My Back Pages and Scarlet Town. His current guitar player — Charlie Sexton of Austin — is just tremendous. If Dylan comes through Texas soon don’t miss the chance to see him perform.

Anne, you’re one of our favorite people who shop with us! We know you’re a Co lover, what else is there that keeps you coming back to see us at ByGeorge? 

So I love that you are not in a mall. Love the location. Downtown Austin with parking…how do you beat it. You guys have always had the best taste. Classic, edgy, sophisticated, truly beautiful clothes. And you can really wear what you guys sell. We are all over the place and you guys have lovely, elegant, but really wearable things. I walked in after going to the gym 12 years ago and still wear what I bought on that day. And you guys are so nice. My main problem is that I want everything in there and I must use utter constraint.

What would you recommend us read this year if you could each only recommend one book? 

Doug: One book – too hard. These days I’m in a Texas frame of mind. Read Larry McMurtry’s Rhino Ranch and pre-order my friend Lawrence Wright’s God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State. The best recent novel I read is Luis Alberto Urrea’s House of Broken Angels, which honors Mexican-American traditions.

Anne: I would say the 2017 Pulitzer Prize Winning novel Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead because I think people need to be reminded how evil hatred and bigotry is. And that the dark history of the South is something to learn from and never honor. But I just finished the novel Pachinko. I heard the author Min Jin Lee speak at a Texas Book Festival fundraiser. She was so wonderful I had to read the book. It is well written and it was fascinating to read about the colonization of Korea by the Japanese.

Doug, when can we catch you next on CNN? 

Just watch for breaking news! I usually end up once or twice a week or so on AC360 and Don Lemon depending on what’s happening. Right now I’m taping a CNN documentary on Trump’s rallies. And, on April 6, I am serving as the impresario for a Texas A&M program on the dangers of North Korea with General Robert “Doc” Foglesong, Ambassador Chris Hall, and Ambassador Nicholas Burns. Hope some Aggie exiles in Austin attend.

Doug is wearing Brunello Cucinelli. Anne is wearing Marni and Co.

Interview by Brittani Lepley