Q&A With Craig Nelson

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Q&A With Craig Nelson 


Craig Nelson is the New York Times Bestselling author of many histories. His list includes Let’s Get Lost: Adventures In The Great Wide Open, The First Heroes: The Extraordinary Story of the Doolittle Raid America’s First World War II Victory, The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise And Dramatic Fall Of The Atomic Era, Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations, Pearl Harbor From Infamy To Greatness & his recent release V Is For Victory: Franklin Roosevelt’s American Revolution and the Triumph Of World War II. Craig has been profiled in Variety, Interview, Publishers Weekly, & Time Out. Craig has had work featured in Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal, Salon, Soldier of Fortune, National Geographic, Popular Science, Readers Digest & many other publications. In a past life Craig was the vice president & executive editor of Harper & Row, Hyperion, & Random House where he oversaw the publishing of twenty New York Times Best Sellers!


Q: Craig would you like to talk about your recent release V Is For Victory: Franklin Roosevelt’s American Revolution and the Triumph Of World War II? 


A: Anything you like, B. 


Q: You’ve written books about the Doolittle Raid, Thomas Paine, the First Men on the Moon, the Atomic Era, and – most recently – about Pearl Harbor. What led you to write a book that’s focused on Franklin D. Roosevelt and World War II?


A: I suddenly realized that my mother and father’s life as parents, and grandparents, and professionals who’d achieved the height of their careers, was not the most significant thing that had ever happened to them. The most significant thing that had ever happened to them. The most significant thing that had ever happened to them —and the very best years of their lives—was World War II. 

At the same time, I was randomly browsing through articles on military history, and came across some surprises. One said: “In wartime, logistics eats strategy for lunch,” which is pretty much the opposite of everything we’ve ever been told. Another mentioned Lincoln and Grant’s awful arithmetic: That, no matter how many battles the Confederates won, the Union, with its great advantage in supplies, would win the war.

All of this went into what turned out to be my third book on World War II, and it’s filled with things I never knew. The secret weapon to winning that war was the arsenal of democracy, which had many of its roots in the New Deal and became the most successful union of U.S. government and enterprise in history. It’s the story of how Franklin Roosevelt’s policies (alongside his Great Debate with Charles Lindbergh) turned the United States upside down to create a wholly new country that would become both the lynchpin to defeating Hitler and Tojo, the leader of the West, and the global force that ensured that there would be no World War III. V is for Victory is the story of how, by transforming what Americans thought of themselves and what they could achieve, FDR ended the Great Depression; defeated the fascists of Germany, Italy, and Japan; birthed America’s middle-class affluence and consumer society; and turned the U.S. military into a worldwide titan—with the United States as the undisputed leader of world affairs.


Q: Your book ends with a quote from FDR in which he warns of “the road to a third world war.” What would President Roosevelt make of the state of the world today?


A: I think he would be sorry that the United Nations hasn’t been more successful mediating such conflicts as Russia in Ukraine or Israel in Gaza, and the various outbursts of ethnic cleansing; and disappointed that the economics of the American middle class has been diminished. But he would be proud that the New Deal’s safety nets were still in effect, and that his post- war foundations have so far kept World War III from happening.


Q: What is the research process like when writing history? 


A: Since almost all a historian’s key figures and witnesses are dead, the main rule is to use primary sources such as archival documents and to never write anything as a fact that you can’t prove with a piece of paper. However, since I write for the American public instead of for academics, I also read the previous mainstream books on the subject, mostly so I can make sure to offer something fresh and new. 


Q: What advice would you give to anyone wanting to write great history as you have?


A: You need to get ready to research until your eyes bleed. Robert Caro, the great biographer, said that the secret to research is to turn every page. You also have to figure out how to budget your life so that you can live on what writing history pays. I’ve had some commercial success, so I am paid reasonably well, but since the books take an average of 5 years to write and another to publish, the pennies get stretched thin …. 


Q: So far out of all the books you’ve written, which ones were your favorite ones to research and write about and why?


A: The research is pretty much the same in every book, so I’ll just mention the highlights. For Thomas Paine, I was told to put on white cotton gloves and then handed a white cardboard box. Inside was a copy of Common Sense handwritten by Paine. 

          For that book, I got one of the big history awards, the Henry Adams Prize. That ceremony is in the basement of the National Archives in Maryland, which is home away from home for all of us in attendance. 

          And for Pearl Harbor, I went to the DC branch of the Archives. The front of that building is where you can see the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and in the back is a very limited selection of holdings, which includes the 9 Federal investigations into Pearl Harbor. Those files are 48 feet long, and arrive on a motorized trolley. 


Q: What was it like being profiled in Variety, Interview, Publishers Weekly, & Time Out? 


A: When Rocket Men hit the bestseller list, my life was turned upside down. It was the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing on the moon, and the press was intense. I had to do interviews on a primitive cell phone in a taxi to fit them all in. The Wall St Journal called and said they were doing a piece on the moon landing, and could I do background, meaning, help the reporter and don’t expect to even be quoted, and I said OK. So the call comes in and I put it on speaker and do my ironing for the tour while saying pretty much anything that pops in my head, since it’s in the background. A week later, the entire maniacal interview is printed verbatim in the Journal


Q: If it’s not too early to ask, what is the topic of your next non-fiction book?


A: It’s a secret.