Q&A with Bruce Henderson

Q: Was there a particular moment when you knew you were a writer?
It rather snuck up on me. I started out as a newspaper reporter in my early 20s, and at some point down the road, amid all the interviews and deadlines and stories filed, I realized that I was becoming a writer. Newspaper articles led to magazine pieces led to books; for me, 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, over and over, the Times recorded message number to hear the weekly bestseller list: “And #1 is…” Low point: After delivering a book and I go more than a few months without a new deal. It always feels as if I’ll never work again. That doesn’t happen often, but when it does I get very antsy. I don’t play golf or make cabinets or tend a garden. Writing is my hobby as well as my career.

Q: Most unforgettable characters you’ve encountered through your writing? 
Vintners Ernest and Julio Gallo, and Mercury 7 astronaut “Gordo” Cooper are on 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 on an aircraft carrier, and we became friends after the navy. He was bigger-than-life and unforgettable, and one of my heroes.

Q: Was there a book that changed your life or career? 
There were two: In Cold Blood and The Right Stuff. Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe opened up to me the world of long-form 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. Other books of mine have been optioned and are in various stages of development as either a feature film or for television. Movie folks are always looking for good stories, and they particularly like true ones. Also, this brings us back to narrative nonfiction, in which we utilize the tools of a novelist; descriptive scenes, dialog and so forth, only every word is true. 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—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. For fun, I always jump on the latest Bosch title by Michael Connelly.

Q: If you were hosting a literary dinner party, what three authors, living or departed, would you invite?
Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson and Doris Kearns Goodwin. I’d just sit back and listen.

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 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 Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler. It’s my third consecutive World War II book. For them all, I went around the country interviewing members of the Greatest Generation, which turned into a labor of love. They are now nonagenarians, and we are losing them rapidly. They are an extraordinary generation who fought a good-against-evil war. Had they not been victorious, the world would look much different today.