The ProsenPeople

From Journalism to Publishing

Thursday, July 27, 2017 | Permalink

Bruce Henderson, the author of Sons and Soldiers, has been guest blogging this week as part of our Visiting Scribe series.

Q: Was there a particular moment when you knew you were a writer?

I started out as a newspaper reporter in my early 20s, and at some point down the road, amid all the interviews and deadlines and stories filed, I realized that I was becoming a writer. It didn't happen overnight, and I've told my writing students over the years (at Stanford and the USC School of Journalism) that writing is like exercising. The more you do it, the stronger you get. For me, newspaper articles led to magazine pieces which led to books; each step was a natural progression. My first book was published when I was still in my 20s, and it was an expansion of a newspaper article I had written. I didn't become a full-time book author until about 10 years later.

Q: Career high point and career low point?

The high point was when my third book, And the Sea Will Tell, became #1 on The New York Times hardcover bestseller list. I kept calling, over and over, the Times recorded message number to hear the weekly bestseller list: “And #1 is…” What a thrill!

Low point: When after delivering a book, I go more than a few months without a new deal. It always feels as if I’ll never work again. That doesn’t happen very often, as I usually am able to go from one book to the next, but when it does I get very antsy. I don’t play golf or work with wood or paint still lifes or tend a garden. Writing is my hobby, as well as my career.

Q: Most unforgettable characters you’ve encountered through your past writing?

Mercury 7 astronaut “Gordo” Cooper is one. After first reading about him in The Right Stuff, I was able some years later to work with him on his autobiography, Leap of Faith.

Also on the list is Dieter Dengler, the subject of my book, Hero Found. Dieter was a U.S. Navy pilot who was shot down during the Vietnam War, and led an organized escape from a POW camp in Laos. Against seemingly overwhelming odds, he made it out alive. We served on the same aircraft carrier, the USS Ranger, and were good friends for many years. He was bigger-than-life, unforgettable, and one of my heroes.

Q: Was there a book that changed your life or career?

There were two: In Cold Blood and The Right Stuff. Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe opened up to me the world of long-form narrative nonfiction, which they almost single-handedly made commercial. They not only provided a bridge from journalism to books for writers like myself, but they created an entire genre—one in which I have made my living for twenty-plus years.

Q: You have sold several books for film adaptation. Some writers go their whole careers without having a book turned into a movie. What’s your formula for film sales?

And the Sea Will Tell was a four-hour CBS miniseries, and went to the heart of what television executives were looking for at that time: true murder mysteries set in paradise. A couple of other books of mine are currently under option, and are in various stages of development as either a feature film or for television. Movie folks are always looking for good stories, and they particularly like true ones. This brings us back to narrative nonfiction, in which we utilize the tools of a novelist, descriptive scenes, dialog and so forth, and only every word is true. More than one filmmaker has told me that a book of mine is easy to visualize as a movie. Also, authors need to have specialized film agents—and good ones—to represent their work to Hollywood, just as writers need literary agents to submit their works to book publishers.

Q: What have you read recently that you couldn’t put down?

The Lost City of Z by David Grann. For fun, I always jump on the latest Bosch title by Michael Connelly.

Q: What does it mean to you to be a writer?

That I have a platform to tell real stories about real people. A writer is a storyteller. Facts teach people, and “truisms” are often arguable opinions. Tell a good story, however, and it will live in hearts forever.

Q: What’s new and upcoming?

My new book, Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler, was published on July 25. It will also be published in six foreign countries. It’s my third consecutive World War II book. For all of them, I went around the country interviewing members of the Greatest Generation, which turned into a labor of love. They are now nonagenarians, and we are losing them rapidly. They are an extraordinary generation who fought a good-against-evil war. Had they not been victorious, the world would look much different today. I am now writing a proposal for another WWII book set in Europe, a story I came across while researching Buchenwald concentration camps for Sons and Soldiers. 

Bruce Henderson is the author or coauthor of more than twenty nonfiction books, including the #1 New York Times bestseller And the Sea Will Tell, the national bestseller Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War, and Rescue at Los Banos: The Most Daring Prison Camp Raid of World War II. An award-winning journalist and writer, he has published work in Esquire, Playboy, Reader's Digest, and other periodicals. Henderson has taught writing and reporting at USC School of Journalism and Stanford University. He lives in Menlo Park, California.

Obituaries as Literary Inspiration

Tuesday, July 25, 2017 | Permalink

Bruce Henderson, author of Sons and Soldiers, has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series. Check back throughout the week to read more from him.

How we get ideas for a book is the one question most asked of authors. Given that I am a nonfiction writer, my subjects generally don't come from a daydream or bolt out of the blue. Often, I find the nuggets I'm looking for in a documentary or an article or book. I'll tell you this secret: a number of my ideas for books have come from obituaries, my favorite section of the newspaper because they introduce me to interesting people I never had the chance to meet. (The New York Times obits are the best.)

In early 2014, I was in the midst of writing a book about World War II in the Pacific when I read an obituary in my local paper about a German-born nonagenarian who had escaped the Nazis as a young boy in the 1930s with the help of a Jewish Relief Organization, was drafted into the U.S. Army during the war, and trained to be an interrogator of German POWs at a top-secret Military Intelligence center at Camp Ritchie, Maryland. Only a decade removed from his boyhood escape, he returned to Nazi-occupied Europe as a member of a special band of U.S. soldiers-most of them German Jews-known as The Ritchie Boys. My first thought was that his life story had an astonishing dramatic arc from nearly victim to liberator. As a voracious reader of military histories and the author of several books about World War II, I couldn't believe that I had never heard of the Ritchie Boys. Who were they? How many were they? What had it been like for them to go back and fight the Nazi evil from which they had only a few years earlier escaped? I ripped the article from the paper, looked at my wife, and said, "I think I've found my next book."

Six months later, I was ready to start answering those questions. First, I searched online for book titles on the subject, and found none. I did find and watch the documentary, "The Ritchie Boys," which was very moving. I was soon on the trail of retired Wayne State University professor Guy Stern, himself a former Ritchie Boy, who had curated a 2011 special exhibit called, "Secret Heroes: The Ritchie Boys," at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan. I telephoned Guy, and learned that the traveling exhibit had been up for a year but was now in storage. He told me that it was all digitized, however, and I could have access to it if I came to Michigan. I quickly packed my bag. I spent a week in Farmington Hills, going over oral histories, letters, official documents and wartime photos, and interviewing Guy, a warm, intelligent man blessed with a photographic memory. I returned home convinced that the story of the Ritchie Boys was one of the last great sagas of World War II that had not yet been the subject of a major book. An estimated 300 Ritchie Boys-all in their nineties-were alive when I began my research, and I went around the country interviewing dozens of them. When I was ready to start writing, I selected six German-born Ritchie Boys to follow in "Sons and Soldiers," beginning with their harrowing escapes from the Nazis, reaching their new homes in America, and their experiences in the war when they went back to their homeland in the fight against fascism. 

Although there were many more who could have been included, I didn't want the book to read like the Manhattan white pages; I decided on a infinite number of characters who were doing different things at different times and gave us complete coverage of a big theater of war. Also, I wanted the readers to remember the characters whenever we came back to them, and feel a bond with them. That would have been more difficult with a larger cast. The Ritchie Boys returned to the United States after the war, and many went on to stellar careers in a variety of fields, including science, politics, business, the law, the arts, and academia. Even more than half a century later, their surviving members vividly recalled fighting two different wars: the world's and their own. I am honored to tell the epic story of these little-known heroes.

Bruce Henderson is the author or coauthor of more than twenty nonfiction books, including the #1 New York Times bestseller And the Sea Will Tell, the national bestseller Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War, and Rescue at Los Banos: The Most Daring Prison Camp Raid of World War II, as well as Sons and Soldiers. An award-winning journalist and writer, he has published work in Esquire, Playboy, Reader's Digest, and other periodicals. Henderson has taught writing and reporting at USC School of Journalism and Stanford University. He lives in Menlo Park, California.