It may be unfair to classify any writer as a superstar, but Tony Horwitz comes pretty close.

Horwitz will give an illustrated talk on Friday night in Portland to kick off the annual Maine Festival of the Book. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winner and best-selling author of such books as “Midnight Rising,” “A Voyage Long and Strange,” “Blue Latitudes,” “Confederates in the Attic” and “Baghdad Without a Map.”

A journalist and former war correspondent, Horwitz has carved his niche as an interpreter of history and contemporary culture. He weaves his reporting skills with deft writing, blending humor, insight and perspective to tell stories that exist before our eyes but that often go unnoticed.

His latest book is “Midnight Rising,” which tells the story of John Brown’s pre-Civil War raid on Harper’s Ferry, and does so by probing Brown’s troubled soul and the passions of his followers.

An abolitionist, Brown led armed insurrections in hopes of abolishing slavery. He was executed after his unsuccessful raid on Harper’s Ferry, but became a national hero in some circles because of his actions.

Many historians say the Civil War began because of Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry.

Horwitz, who lives in Massachusetts, began his career as reporter, ascending to the ranks of foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting, and worked as a staff writer for the New Yorker.

His Friday-night talk will include a road map of his career. He will accent the obvious highlights, but rather than fill the time with self-serving words about himself and his books, he wants to leave as much time for the audience Q&A.

Particularly with “Midnight Rising,” people seem to have lots of questions, he said.

“This topic incites strong passions and opinions,” Horwitz said in a phone interview. “I had written about the Civil War before, and knew about John Brown and his raid. I had mulled the idea of writing about it over the course of several years. I thought I had something new to say, particularly about the raid itself and the characters apart from Brown who were involved.

“There have been biographies about Brown, and while my book is partly biography, it is in a sense a biography of an event and not a man.”

Choosing a topic often is the most challenging task for any writer, Horwitz said. The writing is not necessarily easy, but it sometimes comes fast after a subject becomes focused.

The hard part is finding a subject that “is big and important enough that I won’t feel I am wasting my time,” he said. “Life is short. There are millions of great topics. All of us want to feel we are doing something of broader significance.”

The opening-night party is the only ticketed event at the festival. Everything else is free. If purchased today, tickets to Horwitz’s talk and party cost $25. Tickets for the talk only are $5. After today, they cost $35 and $10.

The evening begins at 6 p.m. in the Abromson Center at the University of Southern Maine. Horwitz will be on hand to chat before his talk, which begins at 7:30 p.m.

Horwitz is currently writing a regular column for Smithsonian Magazine. He is between books, and unsure of his next topic.

“Every writer is different,” he said. “In my own case, most of my ideas have really arrived out of nowhere and bonked me on the head, and I thought, ‘Wow, that would be interesting to write about.’ And since I generally mix travel and history, I prefer to set off without a clear notion of where I am headed.

“I like to have an idea but not be locked into the details. I find a topic I know something about and want to explore, but for me, the discovery is part of the suspense and adventure, as I hope it is for the readers as well.” 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes