Monday, June 10, 2013

Author Spotlight: Steven Watts

The Magic Kingdom sheds new light on the cultural icon of "Uncle Walt." Watts digs deeply into Disney's private life, investigating his roles as husband, father, and brother and providing fresh insight into his peculiar psyche-his genuine folksiness and warmth, his domineering treatment of colleagues and friends, his deepest prejudices and passions. Full of colorful sketches of daily life at the Disney Studio and tales about the creation of Disneyland and Disney World, The Magic Kingdom offers a definitive view of one of the most influential Americans of the twentieth century.

Q. How have Walt Disney’s contributions to American culture influenced you personally?
As a child in the 1950s and early 1960s, I grew up when Walt Disney was a pervasive influence in American life.  I watched his various television shows ranging from Disneyland and The Mickey Mouse Club and Davy Crockett to Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.  I’m sure those images embedded themselves in my mind, and later on when I began to think about Disney’s significant impact on modern American values they rose to the surface.

Q. Did you choose to write about Disney simply because of his huge influence on American culture or was there more to the decision?

I wrote about Disney not only because of his enormous impact on American life from the 1930s to the 1960s, but because of the controversy surrounding him.  Most serious evaluations of Disney by scholars and writers had been rather negative—some extremely so—and I thought they shortchanged his influence.  So I attempted to write a more dispassionate, balanced assessment that tried to figure out why he was so popular, rather than simply denouncing him for being childish, syrupy, and reactionary.

Q. We tend to see you drawn towards a diverse subject range in your writings, from Walt Disney to Hugh Hefner. What is it about these people that makes you want to write about them?

In my biographies on Disney, Henry Ford, Hugh Hefner, and most recently Dale Carnegie, I have treated people who have shaped mainstream, popular values and attitudes among Americans in the twentieth century.  Their impact was enormous and all of them, in my view, had received rather shallow examinations from previous writers.  I attempted to rectify that.  Moreover, they were all fascinating, complex personalities and that attracted my by biographical interest as well.  Finally, they were all Midwesterners, and as a dyed-in-the-wool Midwesterner I have always suspected that figures from the middle of the country have been shortchanged in favor of those from the coasts.  So the books reflect my pride of place.

Q. Since you wrote this book several years ago, much has changed in the world of Disney. How do you think Walt Disney would feel about the changes the company has seen?

I think Walt would be largely pleased.  The company since his death, of course, has had a number of ups and downs over the years, but mostly it has presented a great many creative movie productions and developed the theme parks to reach an ever expanding audience.  By and large, the company has balanced genuine creativity with vast popular appeal, which was Walt’s formula from the beginning.

Q. Did you find any unexpected information about Disney (the man, the company, or both) during your research?

The unexpected information came with regard to his personality, which was something I had known little about before, having mainly a series of images of the kindly “Uncle Walt” from television and publicity.  I quickly discovered that he was a very complicated individual with an array of facets to his personality: not only a kindly, avuncular figure but a demanding taskmaster, a hard-driving creative figure, a cranky “wounded bear,” and a larger-than-life studio head who could be equal parts domineering and inspirational to the great many artists and staffers who worked for him.

Q. What would you like readers to take away from this book?

I would like readers to come away with, first, a greater appreciation of how and why Walt Disney became such a popular figure in modern American life; how and why he reflected mainstream American values so brilliantly; and how and why his unique personality contributed to his great success as a major cultural figure.

Q. Are you currently working on any projects?

I have just finished a biography of Dale Carnegie, which will be appearing in early fall 2013, and am just embarking on a cultural biography of John F. Kennedy.

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