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An Interview with 2014 Nonfiction Award Finalist Neal Bascomb

2014 January 21
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The Nazi HuntersNeal Bascomb is the author of The Nazi Hunters, a finalist for YALSA’s 2014 Award for Excellence in Nonfiction. The book is a rewrite of his 2009 book for adults, Chasing Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi, and tells the story of the effort to capture Nazi Adolf Eichmann after he was discovered to be living in Argentina. The book is a work of narrative nonfiction, and also includes throughout archival photos and objects, like passports, travel documents, and more. 

Congratulations on your nomination! I understand The Nazi Hunters is an adaptation of your previous work, Hunting Eichmann. What prompted you to approach this subject again? How did you go about creating this new work from the old one (i.e. how much is new, how much is reshaped, etc)?

While researching the story of Eichmann’s hunt and capture, I came across a statement by David Ben Gurion, the leader of the Israeli State, on why he ordered the dangerous operation to seize the Nazi war criminal and bring him to Tel Aviv to face a trial. It would have been much easier—and much less risky on many levels—to simply have Eichmann killed quietly. But Ben-Gurion wanted Eichmann captured alive for two reasons: 1) To remind his country’s youth why the State of Israel needed to exist; 2) To remind the world what happened in the Holocaust.

At its heart, this secret operation was about education, about informing the world of deeds past. In that sense, the story was tailor-made to be written for a younger audience. Unfortunately, I was too dim to see it myself, but then I received a call from a wonderful editor at Scholastic, Cheryl Klein, who had read Hunting Eichmann and saw its potential for this audience.

To adapt the book for younger readers, I focused more on the narrative of events than the layers of history that surrounded it. I wanted to get to the center of who these individuals were who captured Eichmann and explain why they risked their lives to bring him to Israel. Everything else hit the cutting room floor. One could say that Nazi Hunters is truer to the events than the much longer adult book!

I loved how much archival material was used in the book. Did you do additional research and find new items that you hadn’t seen when working on Hunting Eichmann? More generally, can you tell me about some part of your research process and archive visits that really fascinated or excited you?

I love writing my books—but I derive just as much satisfaction from the months/years of research in advance. In the course of my research for any book, I always unearth about five times more material than makes it into the final publication, so I didn’t need to do any additional research for Nazi Hunters.

I found the research and investigation into this particular part of history to be fascinating—perhaps even more than any of the other topics I’ve written about. I spent months in Israel, Germany, and Argentina, both burrowing into old archives and interviewing individuals who were involved in the operations. I met the Mossad agents and the El Al crew who brought Eichmann to Israel. I discovered the passport Eichmann used to escape Europe and troves of other primary materials.

This is your first YA book, though the subjects of your previous books would surely fascinate younger readers. What discoveries have you made since entering the YA lit world, and what have you been reading lately? Do you plan on staying here?

Short answer: yes. I will definitely be staying in the YA field. I’m in the middle of researching my next book with Scholastic, Sabotage, which recounts the secret operations conducted by British and Norwegian spies that stopped Hitler from getting the atomic bomb [and] will be published in both adult and YA versions. Knowing this from the start, I find myself hunting down elements of the story that might be fascinating for a younger audience, for instance, the stories of the children of the operatives in Nazi-occupied Norway. They’ve given me a whole new perspective on the overall narrative.

Since I’m at the start of my research, poring through book after book on subjects surrounding this world (atomic physics, Norwegian history, British secret services, Gestapo tactics, and lots of biographies and memoirs), there’s not a lot of time for reading anything else. But my eight-year-old daughter is now on a hot streak with non-fiction (mostly biographies), and she’s making her father very happy.

Thank you!

–Hannah Gómez, currently reading Starbreak by Phoebe North and Never Have I Ever by Katie Heaney

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