Q: Was there a particular moment when you knew you were a writer?
It snuck up on me. I started out as a newspaper reporter, and at some point down the road, amid all the interviews and deadlines and stories filed, I realized that I had become a writer. Newspaper articles led to magazine pieces led to books; each step was a natural progression.
Q: Career high point and career low point?
The high point was when my book, And the Sea Will Tell, went #1 on The New York Times hardcover bestseller list. I kept calling the recorded message to hear the weekly bestseller list, over and over… “And #1 is…” Low point: After delivering a book and I go more than a month or two without a new deal. It always feels as if I’ll never work again. That hasn’t happened often, but when it does I get very antsy.
Q: Most unforgettable character you’ve encountered through your writing?
Vintners Ernest and Julio Gallo, and Mercury 7 astronaut “Gordo” Cooper are at the top of the list. If I had to choose one person, however, it would be the subject of my book, Hero Found. Dieter Dengler was a U.S. Navy pilot who was shot down during the Vietnam War, and led an organized escape from a POW camp in Laos. Against seemingly overwhelming odds, he made it out alive. I was his shipmate, and we became friends after the navy. He was bigger-than-life and unforgettable, and my true hero.
Q: From what work would you most like to remove your byline, and why?
Probably one of my articles in the National Enquirer, where I worked for six months in the 1970s before quitting and writing an expose about the place, which is the only newspaper in America that writes its attention-getting headlines before the actual stories are done. A strong candidate for denial: “Benjamin Franklin Forged All the Signatures on the Declaration of Independence!” by Bruce Henderson.
Q: Was there a book that changed your life?
There were two: In Cold Blood and The Right Stuff. Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe opened up to me the world of narrative nonfiction, which they almost single-handedly made commercial. They not only provided a bridge from journalism to books for writers like myself, but they created an entire genre—one in which I have made my living for the past twenty-plus years.
Q: You have sold several books for film adaptation. Some writers go their whole careers without having a book turned into a movie. What’s your formula for film sales?
And the Sea Will Tell was a four-hour CBS miniseries, and went to the heart of what television executives were looking for at that time: true murder mysteries set in paradise. They cast Rachel Ward, who got to wear a bikini on a sailboat, and we were off and running. Other books of mine have been optioned and are in various stages of development as either a feature or television network film. Movie folks are always looking for good stories, and they particularly like true ones. Also, this brings us back to narrative nonfiction, in which writers such as myself freely utilize the tools of a novelist; descriptive scenes, dialog and so forth. More than one filmmaker has told me that a book of mine is easy to visualize as a movie. Also, authors need to have specialized film agents or subagents—and good ones—to represent their work to Hollywood, just as writers need literary agents to submit their works to book publishers.
Q: What have you read recently that you couldn’t put down?
The Lost City of Z by David Grann.
Q: If you were hosting a literary dinner party, what three authors would you invite?
Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson and Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Q: What does it mean to you to be a writer?
That I have a platform to tell real stories about real people. A writer is a storyteller. Facts teach people, and “truisms” are so often arguable opinions. Tell a good story, however, and it will live in hearts forever.
Q: What’s new and upcoming?
My new book is Rescue at Los Baños: The Most Daring Prison Camp Raid of World War II. It’s my second book about World War II, and both have been set in the Pacific theater. I have just signed with my publisher, William Morrow, to write another WWII book — an amazing, never-before-told story — set in the European theater of operations. It will be published in 2017, and yes, the movie people are already hovering. I have been traveling around the country interviewing members of the Greatest Generation, which is rather a labor of love. They are an extraordinary generation who fought a good-against-evil war. Had they not been victorious, the world would look much different today.