Steve Sheinkin is the author of several history books for young people. His most recent is The Notorious Benedict Arnold, which is a finalist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction (winner to be announced on January 23), and winner of the 2011 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Nonfiction. Check out The Hub’s take on The Notorious Benedict Arnold. I talked to Mr. Sheinkin last week over email.
In your acceptance speech for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Nonfiction you talked about how nervous editors and publishers were at the concept of a book about Benedict Arnold. Now you’re winning awards and the book has been widely praised–are you gratified by the reaction? Surprised?
Yes, definitely gratified, and pleasantly surprised. I thought about and obsessed over how to tell Arnold’s story, literally, for ten years. The story makes other people nervous, but it made me nervous, too. I love it so much I was worried I’d mess it up, not realize the incredible potential of the drama. So of course it feels great to have the book out there, and hear nice things about it.
In that same speech, you talk about how Arnold embodies the kind of contradictions that both define America and make us very uncomfortable. Can you talk a little more about that? Do you think it is something unique about Arnold, or are there other figures you see as comparable?
Arnold is unique in that he’s so over-the-top in everything he does. As an American action hero he’s spectacular, and then when he turns traitor he goes all the way, and becomes pretty much the American devil. But I don’t think he’s unique at all in embodying contradictions. The Founders are the most obvious exampleâ€”and the one that makes many people the most uncomfortable to talk about. But look at Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Patrick Henry. These guys literally defined our nation’s ideals of libertyâ€”and they were all slave owners to the day they died. How much deeper can the contradiction get?
A commenter on my post about the book mentioned how accessible your writing style is–especially for young readers. Is that something you work at? Do you think of yourself primarily as writing for young people, or for a more general audience?
Actually, I never think about writing specifically for young people, unless I’m deciding whether or not a particular quote or detail may or may not be appropriate for a certain age. Mainly, I just try to write clear, fast-paced stories. If the style appeals to young readers, it’s probably because I remember so well being bored by history as a kid. So I guess I’m conscious of the constant danger of losing readers if I don’t keep things moving.
That’s funny that you were bored by history–when did you get interested in it? Was there anything in particular that brought you around?
The main thing, in my experience, that brings most kids aroundâ€”good teachers. I had a couple of great history teachers in high school. They challenged me see history not as something to memorize and regurgitate on a test, but as a living debate, and an ongoing exploration or who we are and how we got here. That’s when I really started to get interested. And then I looked around and realized, hey, there are a lot of cool non-fiction books out there!
You describe yourself as a “recovered textbook writer” and now you write about what “your schoolbooks didn’t tell you”–what differences do you see between textbooks and popular nonfiction for children?
There’s a million differences, but it all comes down to one fundamental difference: the goal of popular nonfiction for children is to engage and entertain young readers, whereas the goal of textbooks is to not offend adults. Textbooks start out with the best of intentions, as I know from experience, but they end up as these thick slabs of names and dates. I don’t think they’re well designed to actually teach anything. No adult would voluntarily pick up a textbook. Adult non-fiction is full of exciting, narrative-driven stories on every subject you can imagine. So I think non-fiction for kids should be the same way, and I think schools are coming around to this view.
What authors and books did you read as a young person–did they inspire the way you write for young people?
Looking back, I see that many of my favorite books were historical novels based on real events. At the top of the list, for example, is the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy, and Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery. I loved exciting stories set in far-off places and historical times, but I naturally gravitated to novels because I assumed that’s where the best, most fun books would be. Books like this definitely still inspire meâ€”I aspire to make true stories as exciting as those novels were to me as a kid.
That’s fascinatingâ€”I definitely read your book as being â€œnovelisticâ€ in its approach, which is fairly unusual for contemporary nonfiction. What do you think of nonfiction that takes the more common approach of lots of graphics, info boxes, etc.?
I have nothing against that approach, and I’ve seen it work really well. It’s just different from what I’m trying to do. I often tell kids that non-fiction can be as exciting to read as Harry Potter, or whatever novel they’re into. They usually don’t believe me, of course. But I feel like I have to prove what I’m saying by making my books fun to read in the way novels are fun to read. It’s a challenge to do that without being able to make stuff up, but at least I want to try.
Who are your favorite writers today? Nonfiction writers?
The main fiction I’ve been into lately is classic American noir, writers like Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain. But mainly I read non-fiction, both for work and after work. Popular topics right now include extreme outdoor adventure/survival storiesâ€”like disastrous Antarctic expeditions, shipwreck stories, that kind of thing. Also, I’m really into anything about the murky world of art theft/forgery, and pirates. My job is fun, because I come across so many interesting stories, and I end up tracking down obscure books about them and reading them in my spare time.
Those topics all sound fascinatingâ€”are you planning to write about any of them, or are they just for personal interest?
Every time I come across a new topic, I think, “Maybe I could do something with this!” I have to remind myself to calm down, and that it’s okay to read a book just for fun. But at the same time, yes, I always take notes and keep lists of the all the bizarre and interesting stories and characters I come across. I was sure one of my next projects was going to be a pirate story, you know, really dig into one of the big boys of the “golden age,” like Blackbeard or Bartholomew Roberts. But I’m just not sure the sources are there. We seem to know a lot about what pirates did and how they live, but no so much about any one person. I guess some topics still work best as novelsâ€”but that’s not to say I’m giving up on pirates!
Back to Benedict Arnold: one of the things I noticed was that at the crucial moment in the book when Arnold makes his decision to turn traitor, you stay pretty silent about his motivations–was that intentional? If so, was it because of lack of documents, or wanting the reader to think for herself? What’s your personal opinion of his motives?
Yes, I definitely wanted to stay out of the way at that critical moment. I tried to lay out the range of possible motives in dealing with his life/troubles in the years leading up to treason, so I think, I hope, there’s enough there for readers to draw their own conclusions. My own opinion? There’s no one answer. But he was clearly a brooder, a harborer of grudges, and had this tremendous ability to feel slighted. At the same time, he was not an introspective guy, not one to ponder his own role in creating his troubles. He had to act. So when he faced this crisis in his life, as military governor in Philadelphia, he felt compelled to actâ€”and he lashed out at his enemies with his usual overwhelming force and focus. And I suspect he genuinely convinced himself he was acting for the good of Americansâ€”at least, temporarily.
[In his Horn Book speech, Sheinkin mentioned that while he was working on writing about Benedict Arnold, he didn’t even know whether it would be nonfiction, or some other format] Are you done with Benedict Arnold–or do you still want to do that graphic novel/movie/novel?
Oh, man, I still want to do all of them! I honestly still think there’s something really interesting to be done with comparing the lives of Benedict Arnold and Lancelot, the knight of King Arthur’s Round Table, who also ended up betraying his boss. In one old notebook, there’s this idea of tellingArnold’s story as a graphic novel, but in the narrative style of a medieval Arthurian legend, and with illustrations in the style of those great, colorful, oddly stiff paintings of knights and battles and maidens from that time. It’s a totally impractical idea, and might be very annoying to read … maybe I better just move on.
— Mark Flowers, currently rereading Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming