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 pointdown the road, amid all the interviews and deadlines and stories filed, Irealized that I was becoming a writer. It didn’t happen overnight, and I’ve toldmy writing students over the years (at Stanford and the USC School ofJournalism) that writing is like exercising. The more you do it, the strongeryou get. For me, newspaper articles led to magazine pieces which led to books; eachstep was a natural progression. My first book was published when I was stillin my 20s, and it was an expansion of a newspaper article I had written. Ididn’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 #1on 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 afew months without a new deal. It always feels as if I’ll never work again. Thatdoesn’t happen very often, as I usually am able to go from one book to thenext, but when it does I get very antsy. I don’t play golf or work with wood orpaint still lifes or tend a garden. Writing is my hobby, as well as my career.
Q: Most unforgettable characters you’ve encountered through your pastwriting?
Mercury 7 astronaut “Gordo” Cooper is one. After first reading about him inThe Right Stuff, I was able some years later to work with him on hisautobiography, Leap of Faith.
Also on the list is Dieter Dengler, the subject ofmy book, Hero Found. Dieter was a U.S. Navy pilot who was shot down duringthe 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 thesame aircraft carrier, the USS Ranger, and were good friends for many years. Hewas 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 TomWolfe opened up to me the world of long-form narrative nonfiction, whichthey almost single-handedly made commercial. They not only provided abridge from journalism to books for writers like myself, but they created anentire genre — one in which I have made my living for twenty-plus years.
Q: You have sold several books for film adaptation. Some writers gotheir whole careers without having a book turned into a movie. What’syour formula for film sales?
And the Sea Will Tell was a four-hour CBS miniseries, and went to the heart ofwhat television executives were looking for at that time: true murdermysteries set in paradise. A couple of other books of mine are currently underoption, and are in various stages of development as either a feature film or fortelevision. Movie folks are always looking for good stories, and theyparticularly like true ones. This brings us back to narrative nonfiction, inwhich 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 ofmine is easy to visualize as a movie. Also, authors need to have specializedfilm agents — and good ones — to represent their work to Hollywood, just aswriters 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 Boschtitle 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 astoryteller. Facts teach people, and “truisms” are often arguable opinions. Tella 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 consecutiveWorld War II book. For all of them, I went around the country interviewingmembers of the Greatest Generation, which turned into a labor of love. Theyare now nonagenarians, and we are losing them rapidly. They are anextraordinary generation who fought a good-against-evil war. Had they notbeen victorious, the world would look much different today. I am now writinga proposal for another WWII book set in Europe, a story I came across whileresearching Buchenwald concentration camps for Sons and Soldiers.
Bruce Henderson is the author of more than twenty nonfiction books, including Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazi and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler, and True North: Peary, Cook and the Race to the Pole. He is the co-author of the #1 New York Times bestseller And the Sea Will Tell (with Vincent Bugliosi). An award-winning journalist who has taught reporting and writing at USC School of Journalism and Stanford University, Henderson lives in northern California.