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Five questions for Steve Sheinkin

Steve Sheinkin 2.13Steve Sheinkin’s young adult history books — including Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon (a Newbery Honor Book, a National Book Award finalist, and the winner of both the Sibert Award and the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults) and The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights (a 2014 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winner and also a National Book Award finalist) — are acclaimed for a reason. They are meticulously researched nonfiction books written with the pace, drama, and suspense of fictional thrillers. His latest, Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War (Roaring Brook, 11–14 years), is no exception, as Sheinkin spellbindingly unfolds the entwined stories of the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers — “seven thousand pages of documentary evidence of lying, by four presidents and their administrations over twenty-three years.”

1. What originally drew you to Daniel Ellsberg’s particular story, within the larger narrative of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal?

SS: The very first thing that grabbed me was that a team of secret operatives, under direct supervision of the Nixon White House, actually broke into Ellsberg’s doctor’s office in search of information they could use to destroy him. I didn’t know the story well at that point, and wondered: what could this guy have possibly done to provoke such an incredible — and incredibly illegal — response from the president and his top advisors? Also, Ellsberg is one of those people who is considered a hero by some and a traitor by others, and that has always fascinated me.

2. President Johnson emerges as a particularly tragic figure, almost Shakespearean in his ego, in the cruel subversion of his ambitions (the War on Poverty, etc.), and in his inability to escape the quagmire that was the Vietnam War. I ended up feeling (conflictedly) sorry for him. Did you?

SS: Yes, very much so. You can really feel his agony as he makes these decisions, and the most unsettling part of all is that he seems to know all along that he’s heading for disaster. There’s a great line in his memoir about the presidency being too big for any one person to handle — there’s just no way to control events the way Americans seem to expect their leader to be able to do. But while I sympathize with him, I always end up getting angry at him, too, because I think, ultimately, his fear of political consequences was the main reason he escalated the war.

3. This story is a study in contrasts. On the one hand it’s loaded with farce. All the wigs and disguises; the botched burglaries (those conscientious employees re-locking doors!). But of course it’s a serious and important story of a defining era in our nation’s history. How did you hit upon the right tone?

SS: This story has a lot of you-can’t-make-this-up situations and characters, which makes for great material to work with in nonfiction. And I think the darkly comedic moments of bungling and farce are really essential to the overall story. It would probably just be too depressing without that stuff. It’s a matter of taste, but to me the best comedy is usually found in very serious stories — Breaking Bad did that brilliantly, to give one example. So I tried to keep the tone even, and hopefully the reader is pleasantly surprised by those comic moments.

sheinkin_most dangerous4. You make the point that Ellsberg’s legacy is as a First Amendment hero, while Edward Snowden, for example, has been lambasted by President Obama and Secretary Kerry. How do you think today’s political climate compares to that of the 1960s and 1970s?

SS: Maybe the most amazing photo I came across in my research was in a 1971 newspaper article showing Daniel Ellsberg shaking hands with a young anti-war veteran named John Kerry! And now, as you say, Kerry calls Snowden a traitor. In Kerry’s case, I think the main change is that he was an outsider then and he’s an insider now. Overall, while our country’s political discourse does seem to have gotten stupider, I’m not sure the political climate has changed that much. When the Pentagon Papers story first broke, the response was mainly along partisan lines — Ellsberg’s leak was praised by one side and blasted by the other, exactly like Snowden’s. I think it’s mainly time and distance that have tipped the scales in Ellsberg’s favor, in terms of public opinion. I suspect the same will eventually happen with Snowden, but we’ll see.

5. What do you hope readers will come away with after reading this book?

SS: I always start with the same goal: to tell a good story. So I hope teen readers are engaged with the drama and action and moral dilemmas in this one. Beyond that, I hope they come away thinking about how alive and current this story is, how much we’re still wrestling with the same kinds of questions. And of course the best result of all is for a reader to finish the book and be unsatisfied — that is, inspired to find out more.

From the August 2015 issue of What Makes a Good…?: “What Makes Good Narrative Nonfiction?”

Martha V. Parravano About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.

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Comments

  1. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Okay, here’s a bonus question for Steve! What I want to know is this: Do we know how Robert McNamara–he who commissioned the Pentagon Papers–ever felt about the leaking of them?

  2. McNamara happened to be having dinner with Scotty Reston, one of the top Times editors, the night Attorney General Mitchell sent the telegram to the Times demanding they stop printing the Pentagon Papers. In his book “In Retrospect,” McNamara says he advised Reston and the Times to continue publishing the papers, unless ordered otherwise by the Supreme Court. This is one of those great details that I just couldn’t fit into the book without it ballooning to 1,000 pages – thanks for the great question!

  3. So glad to see this new Horn Book light shning on narrative non-fiction, and thank you, Steve Sheinkin, for another wonderful book. As someone who lived through the whole Ellsburg investigation and the bungled Watergate mess, I have to say you hit the nail on the head when you say it was a you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up period of our history. I have yet another question for you: Do you think we have the same level of investigative journalism in the USA today that we had then? Without it, will we get to the true story of Snowden and/or other political scandals?

  4. Steve Sheinkin says:

    Things have changed for sure, but it seems to me there still are journalists digging for the truth. Interestingly, I’ve heard Ellsberg say the Internet has made getting information out there much easier, and that if it had existed back in 1971 he simply would have put the entire Pentagon Papers online. Would it have made the same impact that way? I’m guessing probably not.

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