About Steve

Steve Luxenberg

Photo Credit: Josh Luxenberg
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STEVE LUXENBERG is an associate editor at The Washington Post and an award-winning author. During his forty years as a newspaper editor and reporter, Steve has overseen reporting that has earned many national honors, including two Pulitzer Prizes.

His new nonfiction book, Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation, was published on Feb. 12, 2019. It was named a New York Times Editor’s Choice, as well as a Best Book of the Month by Amazon and Goodreads. It has been featured in The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and The Economist.

As a work in progress, Separate won the 2016 J. Anthony Lukas Award for excellence in nonfiction writing. The prize jury said, “Steve Luxenberg’s interwoven narrative takes the story in a new direction, providing illuminating answers to fundamental questions . . . a rich, complex and all too human story, replete with ironies and unintended consequences. This is ‘big history,’ deeply researched and well told.”

His first book was the critically-acclaimed Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret, honored as a Michigan Notable Book and selected as the 2013-2014 Great Michigan Read. During that year, Annie’s Ghosts was the focus of a state-wide series of events and discussions. It was featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and on the Diane Rehm Show. Other media coverage included articles or reviews in Parade, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, The Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, the Buffalo News, and many others.

Kirkus Reviews praised Annie’s Ghosts as “beautifully complex, raw, and revealing.” Noted biographer Walter Isaacson described it as “a gripping detective story and a haunting memoir. . . it will leave you breathless.” Bestselling author Melissa Fay Greene called Steve a “gifted storyteller in possession of the full arsenal of journalistic tools.”

Steve also has a TV “credit.” Look carefully, and you’ll see him as an extra in the fifth and final season of HBO’s dramatic series, “The Wire,” which aired in 2008. (Hint: Episode three.)

A frequent speaker, Steve has given talks and participated in conversations about his books, journalism, and nonfiction writing at conferences, universities, and book festivals, and has made occasional guest appearances on radio and television.

His talks about his research methods have become popular among audiences at genealogy and family history conferences. (If you would like to invite him to speak, contact info appears on the website’s Contact page. His direct email is steve@steveluxenberg.com.)

Steve’s journalistic career began at The Baltimore Sun, where he worked for 11 years. He joined The Post in 1985 as deputy editor of the investigative/special projects staff, headed by assistant managing editor Bob Woodward. In 1991, Steve succeeded Woodward as head of the investigative staff. From 1996 to 2006, Steve was the editor of The Post’s Sunday Outlook section, which publishes original reporting and provocative commentary on a broad spectrum of political, historical and cultural issues.

Steve is a graduate of Harvard College. He grew up in Detroit, where Annie’s Ghosts primarily takes place. He and his wife, Mary Jo Kirschman, a former school librarian, live in Baltimore. They have two grown children, Josh and Jill.

Q. How do you get your ideas?

A. I look for good stories, first and foremost. Usually, if I pay attention to what’s right in front of me, I can find one. My first book, Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret, fell in my lap. A letter from a cemetery, mailed after my mom’s death, revealed the existence of a hidden family member. Who doesn’t love a good mystery? Pulling on that thread led to a host of concoctions and falsehoods about my family’s history. I found it irresistible, but also an opportunity to write about several important issues in our nation’s history, especially treatment of people with mental illness.

Q. Okay, but what about the ideas that don’t fall in your lap?

A. I also like to get to the bottom of things. For my new book, Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation, one irresistible attraction was the story’s abundant contradictions. The justice who wrote the infamous decision endorsing separation of the races? He grew up in Massachusetts, around people who had pushed back against slavery. And the justice who wrote the ringing dissent decrying separation? He was a Kentuckian who had run for Congress as a proslavery candidate before the Civil War. I thought if I could follow their journeys, if I could explain their evolutions, I would have a chance at putting together a compelling narrative and learn something about racism in America, then and now.

Q. Which leads to the next question: Which do you find harder, researching or writing?

A. No contest! Writing is much harder than researching. Like many authors, I can immerse myself in the research forever. Give me a document that’s difficult to find, and I’m like a lion in the wild, stalking my prey. But here’s the good news: Good research makes writing easier, and more fun. It’s hard to write around the facts you don’t have. It’s a delight to write with a bounty of them. Then, the challenge is to focus only on the telling details and ignore the lure of the rest. It’s all wheat, but much is chaff.

Q. Any other writing advice? Secrets of the craft?

A. Uh, oh. Now we’re heading into Stephen King and John McPhee territory. They, along with many others, have written at length, and quite beautifully, on the subject.

Q. Don’t complicate this. Any tip will do, from a nonfiction perspective.

A. Okay. Often, I’m asked what to do about the “holes in the story.” It took me a long time to realize that all stories have holes in them. Missing or shredded documents. Incomplete diaries. Faulty recollections. Or, for historians of a bygone age, the unavoidable fact that everyone is dead, and you can’t interview anyone about their memories and motivations. You’re stuck with what you can find.

My solution? Look for the strength in these inevitable weaknesses. An example might help. Justice Henry B. Brown, the author of the Plessy ruling, kept pocket diaries as a young man. He left behind twenty years of them. Often, I would go to a certain time period, hoping to find that he had recorded his impressions in the six or eight lines allowed for each date. Frequently, I found … nothing. Not a sentence. But he jotted down plenty of notes about the weather, which was helpful, but frustrating when I wanted more. I would talk to the diary: “Please, Henry. Something more than the weather!”

At some point I realized that his entries were a guide to his personality. He felt comfortable saying some things, not so comfortable saying other things, even in the privacy of his pocket diary. He was obsessed with his health, a continuing issue throughout his life, but rarely said anything about his wife, his friends, or his colleagues. When he did, I felt as if I had unearthed a rare gem. I was irritated at him for not being more introspective, but his entries showed that introspection didn’t come naturally to him. These “omissions” in the diaries were telling me quite a lot, once I let them.

Q. Where do you write? Do you have a preferred spot?

A. At my desk in my home office. At the kitchen table. On our screened porch, in nice weather. On airplanes, if I have some momentum on a chapter and don’t want to lose it.

Fingers poised on the keyboard is my most preferred spot, I guess. My wife says I go into hyper-focus, ignoring the noise around me. Not quite as much as I might like, but it’s probably the result of years in newsrooms. Walk around The Washington Post on any given day, and you’ll see a lot of people tuning out the surrounding chaos.

Q. Any favorite books?

A. As our son Josh used to say, whenever we asked him that sort of question during his younger days, “I don’t have one favorite.” I’m overwhelmed by the volume of outstanding fiction and nonfiction. If I start naming names and titles, I wouldn’t be able to stop.

Q. Well, if favorites aren’t your favorite, how about the books you read in the last year? Not counting those you read for Separate.

A. All the ones for Separate are in the bibliography! As for my personal reading list, it’s an eclectic mix of new and not so new. I had a healthy pile of several recent books written by friends, and after finishing a draft of Separate, I decided to dive in. There’s Elaine Weiss’s The Woman’s Hour, a gripping nonfiction narrative of the last state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, extending voting rights to women. Mark Bowden’s Hue 1968: A Turning Point in the War of Vietnam, a masterpiece of reporting and synthesis that made me feel as if I were living inside the walls of that ancient city. Will Englund’s March 1917, about that momentous month in history, chronicling the U.S. entry in World War I and the first stage of the Russian Revolution. E.J. Dionne’s How the Right Went Wrong¸ an examination of the Republican Party since Goldwater. Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House. I also re-read Common Ground, J. Anthony Lukas’s remarkable 1985 account of Boston’s racial history as seen through the lens of school desegregation in the 1970s.

Q. Any fiction?

A. The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nyugen, a metaphorical story of Vietnam, with a main character caught between two worlds. Several of Philip K. Dick’s short stories, part of my science fiction education. Tana French’s The Trespasser. I love her police mysteries, set in Dublin. The Arms Maker of Berlin, by Dan Fesperman, a twist on the spy novel genre, featuring a history professor as the protagonist. (I wonder what the attraction is there?) I’m in the middle of A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles’s captivating and humorous microcosm of Russia’s transition from czarist regime to revolutionary rule. I rely on my wife, Mary Jo, to guide me in choosing fiction. She rarely steers me wrong. When we disagree, we’re surprised!

If I need a fiction recommendation, my daughter Jill and son Josh are founts of knowledge. Jill’s always ahead of me on what’s hot, what’s not.

Q. Last question. Do you ever have writer’s block? No lying, please!

A. I’m stumped. Let’s see…. nope, no idea. Empty.

Q. Seriously?

A. Okay. For me, writer’s block is a neon warning sign. It means that I haven’t done enough research or reporting to know what to say, or how to say it. When I’m struggling, I try to assess whether I need to do more reporting. Almost always, the answer is yes. I can’t write what I don’t know. Sometimes, though, it takes me a while to realize that I don’t know it. Once I concede that I need to learn more, I can usually find a path around the roadblock.