After spending years unsure of her career path, alumna Candice Millard found her calling when she received her first book deal at 33-years-old.
Looking back, Millard said she never thought she’d become a writer.
“I’d always loved reading and language and ideas,” Millard said. “It never occurred to me that I could be a writer because I didn’t know anyone who was.”
However, Steve Gerson, Millard’s english professor, was there to help her along the way.
“[The most effective class at the college] was my composition class with Steve Gerson,” Millard said. “He was just a really dynamic teacher. He made [writing] fun and interesting. I really learned a lot and I just really grew in my confidence in writing.”
Gerson, now retired, said he knew Millard was going to be exceptional the moment he met her.
“I remember the second Candice Millard walked into my … class,” Gerson said. “I knew in that moment that she was special. I honestly did not know how special she was. I certainly did not envision that one day she would become an internationally renowned bestselling author.”
Even after Millard left the college, she and Gerson have kept in regular contact.
“His whole family has just become lifelong friends,” Millard said. “It’s … an important friendship in my life. It’s reinforced my love of reading and writing.”
According to Gerson, the friendship has also been vital in his life. Millard has even babysat for his family before.
“Candice wasn’t just my student,” Gerson said. “She became a beloved member of my family. She babysat my daughters 30 years ago … Our families are enmeshed in respect, admiration, friendship and love.”
It was years later when Millard knew she wanted to write. She was finishing up her masters degree in English Literature when she realized she wanted to write for a magazine. However, it wasn’t until later that she decided on becoming an author.
“I didn’t want to deconstruct work,” Millard said. “I wanted to just immerse myself in it, lose myself in it. It was then that I thought that maybe I can write but even then I wasn’t thinking about books, I was thinking about magazine writing.”
Once she finished her degree, Millard ended up moving back to Kansas City. She spent her time looking for jobs but it wasn’t until she was 27 years old that she caught her big break working for National Geographic Magazine.
Before that, she had various jobs she found valuable lessons in.
“I had a million different jobs in between the time I was a student at JCCC and the time that I got my first book contract,” Millard said. “There wasn’t any wasted time. All of those jobs that I had taught me something and they all made me tougher and they all made more informed and a more interesting person.”
This past weekend, Millard spoke at the Society for Features Journalism (SFJ) conference in Kansas City. With the theme being success stories, Kathy Lu, SFJ board president, wanted to bring Millard in because of her knowledge of extensive research.
“It’s fascinating to me that she’s able to delve in so deep into a story,” Lu said. “She’s able to tell a story with great detail but show no opinion.”
When it came to her speech for SFJ, Millard knew exactly what she wanted to talk about.
“It’s going to be about research actually,” Millard said. “I write biographies but they’re not cradle to grave. They’re looking at one moment, one extraordinary moment in an extraordinary person’s life. I spend years researching them and writing [the books].”
When preparing for the conference last Friday, Millard said she was eager to meet the journalists.
“[I’m excited to] meet the journalists,” Millard said. “I really have a lot of respect for them and I have a lot of respect for what they do. I really value it, especially now. I’m really looking forward to meeting them and hearing their stories.”
Through all of her experiences, Millard has learned that the best advice for students is to meet as many different people as they can.
“They need to … find out what the story is,” Millard said. “Find out what their paths are because [the more people you meet], the more resourceful you will become. The more determined you will become and the more you’ll realize that there’s no dream or ideal that’s too far. You just have to be willing to work.”