Saturday, June 25, 2022

William Martin

William Martin is the New York Times bestselling author of twelve novels, an award-winning PBS documentary, book reviews, magazine articles, and a cult-classic horror movie, too.

In novels like Back Bay, City of Dreams, The Lost Constitution, The Lincoln Letter, and Bound for Gold, he has told stories of the great and the anonymous of American history, and he’s taken readers from the deck of the Mayflower to 9/11. His work has earned him many accolades and honors, including the 2005 New England Book Award, the 2015 Samuel Eliot Morison Award, and the 2019 Robert B. Parker Award.

Martin's new novel is December ’41.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I toyed with many titles for my new thriller, in which a German assassin plans to kill Franklin Roosevelt as he lights the National Christmas Tree on December 24, 1941. But Killing Roosevelt sounded too much like other titles. Saving Roosevelt sounded too on-the-nose. And December 8, 1941, the day that the book begins, sounded too specific, especially since the book unfolds over 19 days. I almost called it 19 Days in December, but I didn't like that, and it could be any December. It could be a Christmas books. So I settled on December '41. There's not a lot of mystery in the title. It's telling you when the story is set, and since the whole month is filled with one earth-shaking event after another, a reader is likely to pick it up to see what it's all about, or what event will be the focus of this book. Then they read a about the plot, and I know I've got them.

What's in a name?

The main character is our anti-hero, the German assassin. He's a purposely non-descript individual who changes his identity four or five times in the book. His main identifying characteristic: according to a lot of the other characters, he resembles the actor Leslie Howard, best known for playing Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. His name in German is Martin Bruning, which translates to Martin Browning. Naturally, people ask me if I see something of myself in him because his first name is my last name. The answer is a resounding "No." I gave him that name because it's a good German first name, but not an obvious one like Hans or Wolfgang. It also suggests that he has a kind of single-minded intensity, like other German Martins... Martin Luther, for example. The last name? Well, for starters, I like the way "Browning" sounds. Secondarily "Browning" is the name of an American gun manufacturer, and this guy is very good with a rifle or a pistol. He'll be using a Mauser when he takes the shot, but I couldn't very well call him Martin Mauser. Again, too on-the-nose. So... Browning.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

My teenage self wouldn't be too surprised by any of my books. Today, I write the kind of books I've always liked to read. Back then, in high school, I loved Shakespeare's History Plays, and they're historical fiction. I loved World War II adventures like Sink the Bismarck! by C.S. Forester and westerns like No Survivors by Will Henry. And in the movies, I loved stories with larger than life characters who turned out to have flaws just like the rest of us. Lawrence of Arabia, for example. And all of those elements figure today in December '41.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I spend more time on the beginning. You need to get the first line right. Then the first paragraph. Then the first page. I knew from the beginning that I was writing a novel that might have been seen in the movies in 1941. So I originally envisioned a newsreel spinning around the globe, showing you what was happening in all the theaters of war before settling on the main characters. Too long. Gotta get to those characters more quickly. I knew it. So did my editor. So I shortened it, and shortened it some more, and finally got to the opening I have now, which plays very nicely. As for the end, I always have an idea of the location I'll use, and in the broadest terms, the characters involved, and by the time I get there, I'm writing so quickly that it seems as if the book is writing itself.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

At some level, all fiction writing is autobiographical. We are all drawing upon our own experiences and observations. And the fictional characters in historical fiction serve two important roles: they are foils for the historical characters and stand-ins for all the readers who've dreamed of looking a famous historical figure, like FDR, right in the eye. Beyond that, a lot of my heroes, like Kevin Cusack in December '41, have aspects of my background - Irish-American, Bostonian, would-be screenwriter, a self-sufficient guy who keeps getting involved even though he'd rather not be sticking his neck out. I don't see myself in Kevin, but my background makes him seem more alive.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

With December '41, I relied on 40s Swing Music to get me in the mood and help me to get back there to 1941. I watched a lot of 1940s movies to capture the sensation of being in those film, because it's a sensation I want the reader to have as they read. I also listened to the dialogue so that I could recapture it. And as I wrote, I always had this question buzzing in the background: how do those events in 1941 matter to us today in our personal and political lives. So politics and the future of our democracy are never far from my thoughts as I work.
Visit William Martin's website.

--Marshal Zeringue