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Author Profile: Biographer Mike Lankford takes a unique look at Leonardo da Vinci

Iowa Writers' Workshop alum takes a different look at Renaissance man

Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette

Visitors to the National Mississippi River Museum look at reproductions of paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, including “The Last Supper,” on display at da Vinci: The Exhibition on May 23, 2018.
Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette Visitors to the National Mississippi River Museum look at reproductions of paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, including “The Last Supper,” on display at da Vinci: The Exhibition on May 23, 2018.
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Mike Lankford, author of “Becoming da Vinci,” doesn’t always follow the well-worn path. For example, he first applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with a non-fiction piece.

“It was explained to me you had to write fiction to get into the fiction workshop,” he said.

Eventually, Pulitzer Prize winner James McPherson invited Lankford to attend his classes in the workshop, and when Lankford’s applications still weren’t accepted, McPherson took it up directly with Jack Leggett, head of the program at the time.

“Jim got me in the Workshop,” Lankford said. “He just literally carried my application into Jack’s office, closed the door, talked 10 minutes, walked back out with the thing signed. It’s a very unusual event.”

Equally unusual, said Lankford, was his backpacking trip around the world. “I did it as stupidly and as ignorantly as it is possible to do,” he said with a laugh.

Traveling westward, he visited many sacred sites from a variety of religions throughout the world. His perspective on those sites was often much different from other visitors.

“So what I’m looking at is a sacred site without any religion. I saw the world of sacred places and religious observance absent that critical element of religion. I saw a lot of sacred sites and worshipful people and saw them entirely from the outside,” he explained. “As a consequence, there are things that I admire and have tremendous reverence for and I know that when I see them I see more than is there. I also know that when I don’t have that kind of reverence and I see that exact same thing, I see it very differently than everyone else sees it.”

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That insight informed his writing about the life of Leonardo da Vinci that lead to the book “Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci,” named the Wall Street Journal 2017 Book of the Year. He also wrote “Life in Double Time: Confessions of an American Drummer,” a memoir about his years as a white drummer in a black R&B band.

“I come at Leonardo like I come to a sacred site without religion. What have we actually got here? And what we have is an extraordinarily talented person who was a fascinating person at a fascinating time,” he said.

The artist was the most recent of a series of fascinations with writers and artists.

“It was Leo Tolstoy who first turned me on to writing, and it was his novel ‘War and Peace.’ It just seemed to me such a tremendous accomplishment. For years, I tried to figure out where it came from and how someone does that kind of work,” he said. “There’s not really a single answer to that, but it was through fiction that I first viewed this world of narrative and point of view and all of that. It was a combination — fascination with literature, and fascination with writers, and then fascination with art in general that led me into more of a human investigation. It’s not the art so much, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, it’s the person that fascinates me.”

As he was reading extensively about Leonardo, he found himself frustrated.

“The thing with Leonardo is that so much has been written about him and almost nothing is understood about the guy, and I couldn’t figure out why ... After a couple years of intensive study, I knew less about Leonardo ... The more I’d read the more mysterious he got.”

But once a subject catches his eye, Lankford sticks with it. “I’ve always had these fascinations ... Why did this person do what they do, and further, where did it come from once they committed to doing it? What is this creative interior space all about?”

He believes many historians ask the wrong questions or approach their topic with too much reverence, contributing to a legend rather than looking at a person as his contemporaries would have seen him.

“The secret sauce here is causality,” he said. “It’s one thing to say Leonardo did this followed by this other thing. But what caused the bridge from this to that?”

Mike Lankford imagines his way into the day-to-day life of one of the world's most beloved artists in 'Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci.' Lankford, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, is committed to introducing us to da Vinci the man rather than da Vinci the legend.

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Most books about Leonardo tackle the topic thematically, which breaks the cords of causality that interests Lankford.

“That’s what hides the person,” he said.

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After a couple of drafts, Lankford sent his book not to an agent but to Iowa City writer Larry Baker.

“I realized if my place burns down, all of this is going to go up in smoke. I’ll send a copy to Larry to store on his computer,” Lankford said.

But Baker did more than simply protect the file — setting Lankford on yet another unbeaten path, one that circumvented the usual publishing process involving agents shopping a book around.

“Larry sent it out to Dennis Johnson at Melville House. Dennis read it, instantly liked it and said, ‘I want the book.’”

For all the unexpected turns in Lankford’s story, the author sees equally unpredictable moments in his subject’s life. In fact, he said Leonardo reminds him of Thelonious Monk and other jazz musicians “reaching into the dark, hunting notes.”

“They’re listening and playing at the same — and that’s very much Leonardo’s entire life ... He was like the original bebop guy. He had a certain improvisational quality of mind.”

Public readings

Dubuque

• What: Alan Garfield, chairman and professor of digital art and design at the University of Dubuque and director of the Bisignano Art Gallery, will moderate two Q & As with biographer Mike Lankford

• When: 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. Sept. 8

• Where: National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium’s Journey Theater, 350 E. Third St., Dubuque

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• Cost: $5 members and $10 non-members; includes admission to da Vinci: The Exhibition in the museum

• Extras: A book signing will be held from 2 to 3 p.m. at the Museum Store

Iowa City

• What: Mike Lankford will read and talk about his new book “Becoming Leonardo: An Exploded View of the Life of Leonardo da Vinci”

• When: 5:30 p.m. Sept. 11

• Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City

• Cost: Free

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Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.