Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Novel Road Interview: James Hornfischer

   Think of the momentous events in the history of humankind and how they changed the course of civilization. Then consider that one of these events happened less than eight decades ago and many of the people who lived through this time of world upheaval, transformation and tragedy are still living.  Now consider that the chance to talk and learn from these amazing people is slipping away with each passing moment.
  My guest today on The Novel Road has written a number of bestselling books chronicling moments from this incredible time. He plucks a star from the long, dark night sky that was World War II and reveals it to us, as few authors have ever been able to do. James D. Hornfischer brings us to pivotal events through interviews with those who lived through them. The reader can feel the heave of a Navy ship’s deck and smell the smoke following the shattering din of her guns. It’s as if you are standing at a ship’s rail looking from the Pacific blue sky, down to the small green island erupting in flame and carnage, then off to the ocean’s horizon to an unseen foe. Then to the night, and the flashes and booms of great ships seeking each other’s end.
  What I know about reading his books, is that at the turn of the last page of each, I seem to quietly utter the word…Damn
  Now a bit about my guest from his website:
  “James D. Hornfischer is the author of three books, most recently Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal."

   "Hornfischer is the author of two other acclaimed works of World War II naval history: The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour and Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR’s Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors, both published by Bantam."

   "Hornfischer’s writing career has grown out of a lifelong interest in the Pacific war. He has appeared on television on The History Channel, Fox News Channel’s “War Stories with Oliver North” and C-SPAN’s “BookTV.” A frequent speaker on the subject of the war in the Pacific, the U.S. Navy, and the experience of America’s sailors in World War II, he frequently addresses veterans organizations, youth and civic groups, and professional naval organizations on the inspiring stories found in his books."

   "A native of Massachusetts, and a graduate of Colgate University and the University of Texas School of Law, Hornfischer is a member of the Naval Order of the United States, the Navy League, and was appointed by Texas Governor Rick Perry as an “Admiral in the Texas Navy.” A former New York book editor, Hornfischer is president of the literary agency Hornfischer Literary Management, located in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his wife and their three children.”

   I am pleased to welcome bestselling author James Hornfischer to The Novel Road…

James Hornfischer
Me: Your book, “Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S Navy at Guadalcanal”, is an incredible look at the time and circumstances of the six month battle for a spit of land. How much did we learn about fighting the Pacific war from this battle?
Jim: How much the U.S. Navy learned about warfare at Guadalcanal is encompassed in a single statistic: Three sailors died in the seas around the island for every Marine who died ashore. Most World War II readers I talk to, even the well-informed ones, don’t know this. The greater the expertise of the reader, the greater the surprise. NEPTUNE’S INFERNO narrates the story of the road the Navy followed to master the ancient art of the ship-on-ship fistfight in the age of steam.
   The book drives home the fact that Guadalcanal, not Midway, was the Pacific War’s turning point. In the seven sea battles that make up the campaign, America broke Japan’s will to fight. Midway was an important victory, delivered in a single day. But only at Guadalcanal—a sustained, bloody contest of wills—did the U.S. prove could match the Imperial war machine blow for violent blow.

Me: In doing your research, were you affected by the knowledge that the veterans you were able to speak to, are a part of our living history that is about to vanish?
 Jim: I was. The window is closing on the age when historians can draw on the living experiences of veterans, meeting with them at reunions, hearing their stories, and watching them interact with each other. All three of my books have been informed by the living textures of their eyewitness. NEPTUNE’S INFERNO draws freshness and immediacy from its reliance on forty-six interviews with well-situated Navy men from the lowest to highest ranks, and dozens of unpublished or privately published personal accounts. Many of these interviews I conducted myself. Others are transcripts of interviews that writers haven’t seen or drawn from before. They’re the essence of my narratives.
Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR's Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of her Survivors

Me: You get to go back in time to a place or event of your choosing. What would it be and why?
 Jim: I’d use that time machine to transport myself back to early 1945 and have dinner with Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz. A courtly Texan with fine manners and a ferocious sense of will, he was the Pacific War’s essential man, as I write in the book. I’d ask him for his reflections on the tough decisions he made in the war’s early going, and ask him to project how the war would end. I would ask him his views on General Douglas MacArthur, and Admirals King, Halsey, and Fletcher. But I’d wait till he’d finished his third gin and tonic first.
Me: Admiral Hornfischer? Talk about your speedy rise through the ranks of the Texas Navy.
Jim: Thank you, sailor, that will be all. Interesting things tend to happen to you when you know your governor.

Me: World War II is a passion for you, and countless others. How hard is it to pull yourself back out of a subject you’ve written about and move on?
Jim: The process of researching a subject to death and then distilling that research into a readable narrative requires total immersion. I want my books to bring readers into their historical moments. That requires that I go there myself. That said, once my editor and I have finished beating those pages into submission, I’m very relieved to be done with it. It’s usually not until a book has been published in paperback that I’m willing to read it again.

Me: History appears low on the priority list of today’s youth. What can we do to change this?
Jim: Actually I’m not discouraged at all. My son and many of his 8th grade peers are utterly consumed with the history of World War II. That’s right where I was when I was that age. There’s never been more good documentary history shown on television. The caliber of new books seeing print remains high, and of course the old ones never go away.

The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy's Finest HourMe: Publishing is going through an evolution right now. Talk about how this has or will affect you.
 Jim: Aside from writing three works of World War II naval history, I’ve spent my whole career in book publishing, working as an editor in New York and representing authors as a literary agent, so I’ve seen this evolution from several sides. Publishers are under pressure not only from stagnant growth in the market for books, but technological innovations such as e-books too, which is changing the economics of the business. As a result, it’s getting harder for an author to get a contract with a major publisher today, and harder still for him to get a second contract if his first book doesn’t sell well. However, it’s also true that publishing is becoming “democratized” by the Internet and e-book publishing. It’s never been easier for an author with something to say to find people willing to hear it. Publishing without the support of a major house requires an author to be very entrepreneurial and audience-focused after the book has been released.
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A review of "Ship of Ghosts":
“Vivid and visceral…. Hornfischer masterfully shapes the narrative…. breathing life into an unforgettable epic of human endurance.” — USA Today
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Me: The way you pieced together your research, taking information gleaned from interview and official and private records, is remarkable. I’m curious how much you left out of your books? There had to be vast amounts of data and stories told to you that must have been wrenching to leave out?
Jim: Every interview I’ve ever done with a veteran yields nuggets that are interesting and publishable, but the discipline of building a readable book from a large trove of research always requires me to send a lot of good material to the proverbial cutting room floor. The process of revision is one of constant whittling and shaping so that the final product is as tight and compelling as possible. There is never room for everything.
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Praise for "Neptune's Inferno":
“Extremely readable, comprehensive and thoroughly researched.... In the end what one takes away from Mr. Hornfischer’s vivid and engaging account is a feeling for the uncertainty, complexity and extreme physical and psychological demands of war at sea in 1942.” —Ronald Spector, The Wall Street Journal

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 Me: “Neptune’s Inferno”, “The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors” and “Ship of Ghosts” have great reviews and vaulted you into the ranks of authors Ambrose and Foote. When can we expect your next book?
 Jim: My next project will be a departure from World War II and bring me closer to the modern era, but I’m not ready to announce it just yet.

Me: Your “day job”, as founder of Hornfischer Literary Agency, must make for an interesting personal tug of war. You have an impressive list of non-fiction clients and an impressive sales record. How do you balance your time between Bestselling author and agent?
 Jim: A lot of literary agents I know go to Vegas in their spare time or spend a lot of time at bars. I write books. There are a lot of hours in the day. The time I spend writing sharpens the editorial reflex that I turn to the benefit of my clients, as I help them develop their book proposals.
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I'd like to thank James Hornfischer for doing this interview. He reminds us of our chance to learn first hand. All we have to do is ask questions and listen.
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