Q&A With Craig Nelson
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With Craig Nelson
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!
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?
Anything you like, B.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
is the research process like when writing history?
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.
advice would you give to anyone wanting to write great history as you have?
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 ….
far out of all the books you’ve written, which ones were your favorite ones to
research and write about and why?
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
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.
was it like being profiled in Variety, Interview, Publishers Weekly, &
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.
it’s not too early to ask, what is the topic of your next non-fiction book?