Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving, nerds!

Wherever you are I hope it is with people you want to be with doing things you love to do.

My day will be filled with food, football, reading (of course), and probably just a wee bit of scotch.

What? You came here for your history fix? Well, of course, I won’t let you down.

Don’t feel like reading? Saints & Strangers is an amazing miniseries which chronicles the first Thanksgiving. How good is it? Mama History Nerd and I re-watched it again yesterday.

Feel like reading (I mean, of course, you’re here aren’t you)? Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick.

Oh, and a nap. Definitely taking a nap today. Happy Thanksgiving!

Museum Review: Manassas Museum

Museum Focus: The museum for Manassas, Virginia.

Where is it: 9101 Prince William St, Manassas, VA 20110. I used to live here! No, not at the museum. In the city.

What does it cost: Free!

How long should I plan to stay: Not a very long time. This is a small museum which is only the size of a few rooms. They still have great stuff, but not much of it. 30-45 minutes should do.

Best Exhibits: As you may expect, the Civil War features predominantly. Unlike a lot of other places, the museum does not try and gloss over the slavery issue and goes a long way to show the life of African-Americans post-Civil War.

For the kids, they get to do a scavenger hunt! My daughter got them all. No, I didn’t help, what are you insinuating?  

The gift shop is small but has some great stuff. A lot of their books are signed by the authors.

Is it worth it: You know it. Go Manassas!

Author Interview: Mike Dash (Part 2)

(Read Part 1 here.)

Brendan:              This is an interesting question for you, especially talking about your process and everything, and doing this for so many years, and your life’s work. As you talked about, you’ve done a lot of things, blog posts, journalism, being an author. How do you balance those things? Are you the type of person where it’s I’m writing a book now the blog posts go away? Or do you use blog posts as a break from writing a book?

Mike:                     Interesting. I’m not a typical author and I’m aware of that. I meet a lot of people who want to talk to me about being a writer who essentially they believe that they live to write, they couldn’t be the person they want to be if they’re not writing, I guess I’m not saying they’re not telling me the truth, I’m just not like that. I started off as a journalist, I take ultimately a journalist perspective on this in the sense that I think I ought to get paid for what I’m doing pretty well, if I’m doing it pretty well. And one of the reasons I’ve stopped publishing books is that I was essentially faced with a choice. The time of the last financial crisis all those advances went to the floor throughout the world, and literally to the point where you would probably be earning somewhere between 5% and 10% of what you were earning before. So I was faced with a choice of either churning stuff out incredibly quickly and sloppily to try and maintain my income, or stop writing books, and I chose to stop writing books because I didn’t want to write terrible books.

Mike:                     But I also didn’t want to spend two years of my life writing something that I would have to self-publish or get a … I could probably find some tiny publishing house and put it out and it would go down a large well with a small pop at the end and a few hundred people would read it. But ultimately I just perhaps in a sense I’ve been almost spoiled by my experiences in journalism because when you’re writing for a magazine, or more recently for the Smithsonian, which is putting the blogs I write up on its website, you get really quick and substantial response. You put something out, within a couple of weeks or a few months you’ve got people writing about it, sending you comments on it. In the case of the … I wrote this thing for the Smithsonian about a family of Siberian hermits who escaped into the Tiger before World War II, and were found in 1978 not knowing that World War II had happened, and that went viral, and over 20 million people read it.

Mike:                     And it was a really rewarding experience. People were commenting on this saying, “This has changed my life the spirituality of these people’s experience.” And stuff. And when you’ve had that it’s hard to go back to writing a book in two years and putting it out there at a time where now there are very few outlets that would even review it. And you know you’re going to get a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand sales unless you’re very lucky. And the reality is, especially when you’re me and you’re writing stuff about things that don’t catch people’s attention because they’re about really obscure topics, you need to have a bit of really good luck to be successful. It’s not a function of if you write a really good book it will be successful. I put a lot of effort, for example, into my Mafia and it, for whatever reason, I don’t know, it wasn’t commercially successful. So I just felt a bit like I wasted quite a large amount of time relative to what I could’ve got at spending those same two years writing a bunch of blog posts with the Smithsonian, for example.

Mike:                     I was lucky with the Batavia because at that time the biggest newspaper in the UK, it was a Sunday paper called the Sunday Times, which had a big book review section every week and for reasons that … It was nothing to do with me, they assigned this book to somebody who was very enthusiastic about it and wrote a two page review. So suddenly it was a big hit in the UK, which then encouraged my American publisher to put a lot more weight behind it. And that was just happenstance. If the Sunday Times had not published that one review then the Batavia, the book would’ve come out, but it would’ve been a much smaller book than it turned out to be and I’d probably be feeling even more jaundice about writing books. So I’m a bit … I don’t know how people are going to respond to me saying this. It makes me sound like a total mercenary I suppose, in a sense, but I honestly don’t really any longer see the point of spending a large portion of what’s left of my life writing for a few hundred people.

Mike:                     Maybe that makes me a bad author, but that’s the way I am. And I think it was journalism that did it.

Brendan:              I don’t think so at all. I think it, not to get too heavy or anything, but it highlights a lot of the way that more people read nowadays is that I started a blog about history books mainly because I knew it’s very niche society where you talk about stuff from history and most people just totally glaze over. And for me, my site is … I’ll probably never make money off of it because there will probably never be enough people on it for that, but my thought was if I find 10-15 like-minded people who start sharing, “I love this book. I didn’t love this book. I want to discuss this with somebody who actually cares.” I think what you’re talking about is just highlighting that you want to get the information out there and it’s hard to have a book right now. If you go on Amazon, you look under history, there is the 10 biographies of Churchill, and Napoleon, and things like that, but finding these little obscure things like Batavia’s Graveyard, which I only found because I was looking for shipwreck books, I love shipwrecks, saw this, and I’m like, “Oh yeah, definitely.”

Brendan:              But no one’s ever heard of it that I have talked with. You have to have that connection that’s society that says, “Here’s where we are, here’s what we like to talk about.” And that can sometimes be a pretty small group of people.

Mike:                     And I’m curious on this. Were you at all put off by the idea of the fact that it’s a Dutch shipwreck at that not particularly sexy time period, 1629. Did you hesitate at all before you decided to buy it?

Brendan:              Not at all just because I do love reaching back historically. I think the fact that you’re learning so much more the further back you go just about how things have changed and how things are still the same. And yet you can get strange crazy people into situations and they become mass murderers. It happens. And for me, I looked at it and it was … I don’t care what nationality, I like it a little bit the older the better in my perspective. For me it was there was just and amazing story here. Just actually crashing the ship, planning to crash a ship on the Western Coast of Australia, just how did anyone under ordinary circumstances think that was going to work out very well. And then just the short blurb on it says, “This is an amazing story.” And it definitely turned out to be. And especially the way you set it up where you really get a flavor for the culture that they came from before they hit the rock.

Brendan:              So it felt almost like two books to me, but first is that set up to understand the psychology of these people, and then when all of these crazy things start happening after the wreck you say, “Well, Mike explained to me where they’re coming from so now all of this absolute insanity makes sense and I believe it.”

Mike:                     Okay. You have responded to that book as I hoped readers would and I’m delighted to hear you say that. One of the things I think you very quickly realize whenever you publish a book is that you absolutely can’t satisfy everybody, and for every person who’s responded to any of my books the way you just have there’s another one who goes online and posts a review saying, “Why is the first off so boring? It’s full of …” It’s not full of bloodshed and murder, but it sets up. How could anybody want to read 150 pages about Dutch ship building or whatever. So there are a lot of people out there who just want something that I don’t particularly want to give them in terms of the writing and there are people who do appreciate it. And the way I look at it, as I said, one of the things that I do know is that if I don’t do a good job on this chances are that nobody’s going to do a good job on it because not many other people know the story or care enough to spend time writing about it.

Mike:                     And in the case of the Batavia in particular where 125 people were murdered one by one by a gang of cutthroat mutineers, most of them we don’t even know the names of. I actually thought it was very important to give these people back some of their human dignity by telling their story properly, by humanizing them. There are far too many books, and I don’t really enjoy for this reason actually reading most true crime books, although some of the stuff I’ve done could be labeled I guess true crime. In a sense it’s a true story about a crime, but a lot of books in that field I find are too much obsessed with the murderer and tend to glamorize that person as a result, and the murder victims are there as means to an end, means to make this murderer more interesting, more horrible, more glamorous sometimes. And they get very short shift in far too many books in my opinion.

Mike:                     There was a book actually that came out literally a month or two ago in the UK written by, very tellingly, by a female author about the victims of Jack the Ripper, making more of exactly this point. Of course, I can’t remember the name unfortunately.          

Mike: She starts the        book by saying essentially, “I want to write a book about who these women were because I’m not interested in Jack the Ripper.” Apart from being a deeply unpleasant person he’s probably not nearly as interesting as all these books assume he is. And when you read the corpus of literature on someone like Jack the Ripper one of the things you notice apart from the fact that every author seems to think that it’s their job to come up with a new suspect, which gets very boring after a while, the suspect themselves has to be usually somebody who is in themselves interesting. The most obvious case being fingering the eldest son of the future Edward the seventh. So remember the royal family was Jack the Ripper. That stuff happens all the time and have no idea that Jack the Ripper was probably a deeply uninteresting, boring, inadequate, absolutely almost certainly inadequate person runs very contrary to the whole tenet of this massive publishing industry that has erupted around this one rather unpleasant, seedy, and as I say, probably inadequate and rather boring in person murderer. And I find that pretty distressing actually as a human being.

Brendan:              And the book is actually called The Five. I just handed it to my mother last week and said this is just a complete 180 of what you’re saying most true crime books are. It’s going through and looking in all these women’s lives, which you wouldn’t think in just a very poor time in England that there would even be that much history to write down, and then the way she just completely cuts the narrative as soon as Jack the Ripper enters it. It would probably drive a lot of people nuts if they don’t read what the book’s about, but my mother and I, she’s a huge history reader too, she was a history teacher, she also thought just how fantastic it was because it was the focus on the women who were murdered, but also to put them in context of their time without, for lack of a better term, trying to make it sound too much like Oliver Twist and just keeping to the history and making sure you get that across.

Mike:                     Yeah. And I implore them, I implore anybody who puts that sort of effort into it because I know how hard it is. But ultimately as a historian I’m firmly in the camp for people who believe in writing what’s called history from below, in other words the social history that 95% of the people who very rarely get written about by historians who are obsessed by great men, and it usually is men as well, isn’t it? And the whole crux of the way in which history was researched and written up until the 1950s at least, was almost entirely that sort of history, and thank God I’m young enough to come along at a time when other sorts of history writing was possible because ultimately history is supposed to be the story of us and we’re not mostly Kings, and Generals, and Prime Ministers, and Presidents are we? So it should be about other things than that I think.

Brendan:              And you’ve given me a master class of just looking at being an author from a lot of different perspectives. And one of the questions I have, and it’s cliché and cheesy, but for a young Mike Dash, everything that you’ve learned, what would be that one lesson that you’d go back and tell him? Would it be the, “You’re not going to be able to make everyone happy with what you do.” Or is there other lessons that you wish you could’ve told yourself from day one?

Mike:                     Well I suppose there’s a philosophical take on that and there’s a practical take on that. The philosophical take on that would be to say, “You’re probably going to be happier writing more shorter stories because you will reach more people and ultimately you can do more history.” And I just love history. It’s pretty much all I read and it’s all I write about. And I guess one of the things I’ve learned is I would rather write 20 pieces at a shorter depth. As you very kindly pointed out my idea normally is not the same as writing 600 words because I’ve read one source on it, it does involve a fair bit of work. I personally find that more satisfying because the more history I do the wider I want to do it. And since I stopped publishing books I’ve discovered times and places in history that have completely compelled me.

Mike:                     Right now, my main obsessions are with the Swahili Coast, little merchant city states, although the East Coast of Africa that used to trade up and down the Indian Ocean before the Portuguese got there, and the Maritime Trade with Tang China in the ninth century. So things like that I’d never even really knew existed I’ve become completely obsessed with. And I enjoy finding a new obsession and throwing myself into it. And if I can only do that once every two years then I as a historian am being impoverished in my view. So that’s the philosophical take. And the more practical take, I guess is to say that, “I discovered it was worth waiting for technology to catch up.” I mentioned earlier, this project I’ve been working on for years and years. So this is a story about a … Let’s not … It’s a research project on that. A Victorian urban legend Spring Heeled Jack, he’s a demonic leaping boogey man figure who terrorized early Victorian London.

Mike:                     And it’s very hard to research, and I spent literally six to eight months of my life sitting reading old Victorian newspapers on micro film, which is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do because in that period newspapers didn’t have headlines, they didn’t have illustrations. Micro film’s a terrible way to read in this stuff. And it’s all in six-point print and there no way to do keyword searching it so you’re reading micro film after micro film hoping to find words, scanning pages, hoping to find words. And I spent, as I said, six to eight months reading that stuff and I ended up with 45 thousand words of transcribed original source material when I first published a paper on this back in 1996, and now with digital newspapers and the digitalization programs that are going on, I’ve got well over 350 thousand words in a very much less painful way of extracting information as well. So, in a sense I wasted my time back in 1996, a large amount of my time, when I could’ve done it really easily if I had waited 10 years. But I wasn’t to know that.

Mike:                     That’s what I would tell myself if I could go back, I would save myself that pain.

Brendan: It is      very interesting thing that I saw on your personal website, that you have about 3000 books in your place. Now I only have 600, but big question from me is how much of that is … Do you have a bunch of different genres? Because even though I’m not a snob in any sort of way, mine are only history books. I tell my wife, “Keep the fiction somewhere else.” Everything’s history where I am. Do you have different genres or is it all history?

Mike:                     We are exactly the same. I freely admit that probably my biggest weakness as a human being is I don’t really read literature. And I’m sure that impoverishes me all sorts of ways, I’m scarcely aware of, and almost everybody I know who reads seriously reads a bit more literature than anything else, but essentially there is so much history that I want to learn that I don’t have time for it. So all of my books are history books. My wife is keen on literature and we have a separate set exactly as you’re describing of books on poetry, the works of Dickens, Thomas Hardy, people like that, which don’t mix. And I had a conversation actually once about this with a friend of mine about what happens when you marry somebody? Do you combine your libraries or do you keep them the same, and most people I’ve met actually don’t like combining their libraries no matter how much they love their wife or husband, or partner of any sort, because libraries are so deeply personal. And I’m not saying whether it works, may I keep mine absolutely separate. And I need to extend my house actually, it’s more than 3000 now.

Mike:                     But I haven’t got room to display that many so actually the whole thing is double stacked. I’ve got shelves of books with other shelves of books arranged in front of them until I can build another story on my house.

Brendan:              Well this is very good because now when my wife rolls her eyes at me about how finicky I am about the books I can say there is a very good published author who said that I’m supposed to be this way. So that’s good.

Mike:                     Call me. I’ll drop her a line if you need me to.

Brendan:              I would appreciate it. So what I’d like to do, I’d like to ask one more question. It’s a bit more hard hitting than the other ones. Now when you’re not reading, and researching, and writing, do you watch trashy TV like the rest of us, and if so will you admit to what show’s your favorite?

Mike:                     Yeah. I suppose I should say there is another element to history I spend more time doing than watching trashy TV and that’s I teach history as well now. And I spend a lot more hours of the week day in that than I do … I normally watch maybe one hour of television a day on average. I’m not that surprising. I use it actually as a way of making up to my wife the fact that I spend far too much time sitting alone in a room reading or writing. So we share things. We just finished Stranger Things 3. Before that we just finished Killing Eve 2. So it’s mainstreamy and slightly shocky entertainment actually. What I remember when I first got cable TV I was very excited by the idea that I was going to get access to the History Channel because I might watch some history programs on it, and boy was that disappointing.

Mike:                     So the reality is that the stuff I do is fundamentally absolutely doesn’t make good television so I guess that’s where I part ways with history when it comes to television I just watch the same stuff as everybody else. And being a Brit I’ve actually just enjoyed watching the Cricket World Cup Final, which is one of the most amazing games there’s ever been. Ended in a tie, which is pretty rare in Cricket. And so that was my most recent TV session. But realistically I don’t watch a lot of television. Maybe as I said, five or six hours a week or something like that. Not a huge amount. And I’m glad because frankly I get a lot more out of reading original stuff than I do after watching the same television as everyone else. I’m sure that makes me a snob, it probably does.

Brendan:              No, not at all. It’s actually funny, especially Stranger Things is more paranormal. I want to prepare people in case they read this and they’re like, “Oh I got to look at Mike Dash’s books.” Are you also the Mike Dash who is apparently a paranormal investigator?

Mike:                     I am. Yeah. That sounds weird maybe at first glance, but it isn’t really because two things. Firstly, the stuff that interests me in both these fields is the really obscure oddities of human behavior. I’ve always thought as a historian that it’s the extreme stories that tell us most about what it is to be human, and fundamentally the stuff I do in what’s called the fortune area, which you call strange phenomena, is similar. The one thing I would stress to people out there is that although when I was maybe 10 or 11 I took a lot of this stuff a bit more seriously, now I’m fairly … Because I research this stuff and because I understand as a historian maybe a bit about humans as well, I’m interested in it more from the socio cultural point of view. In other words, why are people interested in, and tell, and claim these amazing things rather than literally believing stuff. And one of the curious things about this actually, and it’s something you can try on people, is that more than even most history this subject comes laden with a gigantic vast quantity of presumption.

Mike:                     So, someone will say to you, “Do you believe in UFO’S?” What they mean by that question is, “Do you believe we are being visited by aliens?” They say, “Do you believe in ghosts?” Well what they mean by that, “Do you believe that the spirit of the dead can survive death, and remain on the Earth, and be seen by us?” People report this stuff. They do see it. They do interact with it. That doesn’t have to mean that there are spirits of the dead or alien spacecrafts out there. Most of this stuff is coming from inside their own heads, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting to me.

Brendan:              And I think it’s probably easier when you’re in London, we’re Americans, we think that the entire island is just ghosts and graves because it sounds like every time you guys tear up a street or something you find out that there’s a King underneath it or something.

Mike:                     Pretty much, yes.

Brendan:              So, it’s very interesting to see how that would be. And then you also were just talking about Cricket. It’s very funny, I was thinking about my first fear for actually this interview was looking up and seeing you’re from Wales, is I met a few people from Wales and sometimes I can’t understand a word that they say.

Mike:                     My parents moved away from Wales before I was born so I have the very unthick Welsh accent that you can hear. I have a Southern English accent in fact, so probably more intelligible. I’m glad to see that point of view.

Brendan:              Yes, I definitely got a good 90% of the words you’ve said this entire time so I think we’re on solid ground here.

Mike:                     Excellent.

Brendan:              But it was very funny you saying the whole Cricket ending in a tie and I just, with my American brain, it just immediately broke it, I’m like, “Ties shouldn’t happen.” We don’t believe in ties over here.

Mike:                     Exactly. That’s one of the things about our two cultures. I guess you’re right. Yes.

Thanks so much to Mike for his time. Hope you enjoyed this, nerds!

Author Interview: Mike Dash (Part 1)

One of the great gifts of being the youngest of three boys is a total lack of shame. It was beaten out of me years ago. This allows me to do things without having that little voice in my head that says, “are you out of your mind?”

What does this have to do with a history blog? Well, one day after launching the blog, I decided to email published authors and see if I could interview them. Yes, the man with a one-day old blog decided to just email people who usually have 3-5 jobs and have much better things to do than spend their time answering inane questions.

I emailed 5. I got 3 responses. Amazingly, 2 of those responses were acceptances! (The third was a very nice rejection by the author’s publicist. She’s writing a new book and even if that’s a lie, the publicist was super nice about it.) Anyway, two interviews are already done! And the first one is Mike Dash!

Who is Mike Dash? This guy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Dash. You know when you have your own Wikipedia page, then you are officially legit. Not only is Mike a published author, blogger, and all around super smart PhD, Mike is also the first author to respond to me!

Mike actually got back to me the next day after I sent emails asking for interviews. For someone who didn’t even think he’d get one response, this was a huge surprise which also made me nervous as all hell. Apparently, my shame is not completely gone yet.

The most important things to know about Mike? It’s not that he wrote one of my favorite books of all time (and another book I had no idea I could possibly like). I reviewed them last week. Besides being an incredible author, it’s that he is a super nice guy, quite hilarious, and probably the easiest interview in the world. Before we even started recording, I asked him to forgive me if I sucked at interviewing. He said the only thing I needed to worry about was not letting him talk to much. He could not have been more wrong. He just let loose and gave amazing insight into being an author, how the process has changed, and how he loves blogging these days.

I think you’ll enjoy the hell out of it! And I can’t thank Mike enough for all he’s done for a complete stranger with a blog. Let’s get to it!

Brendan:             All right Mike, there’s a question that I have wanted to ask you specifically since I first put down Batavia’s Graveyard, which is how is this not a Hollywood movie yet?

Mike:                    Because it has a lot of Dutch people with unpronounceable names in it. I think if it had been an American ship it would’ve been filmed at least five times by now. I’ve often said that actually. It’s a shame because the story’s a very human one, it’s not particularly one of any particular nationality, and I think it indeed does deserve to be filmed. And the reality is that since the book was published in 2002 I sold the film rights at least five times. So it’s not like people haven’t tried to do it. Paul Verhoeven, the guy who filmed Total Recall for example, he was Dutch, had for several years and made the attempt to film it through channel four in the UK. So I think there’s that, it’s the fact that the names and the people are alien to the majority of the film going audience. But also, films that are made on water are just really expensive things to make and that’s also a disincentive. The other thing that’s part of this thing, I taught the screenwriter that Paul Verhoeven brought in, he was struggling because he didn’t think there were enough heroes.

Mike:                     Fundamentally most of the people in the book are villains. There is an obvious hero, Wiebbe Hayes, he’s the guy who escapes to a little island in the Archipelago after the Batavia’s been wrecked. And the screenwriter’s perspective on this was that he’s not heroic enough. In a Hollywood movie he would go and rescue the women and children on the mutiny’s island at risk of his own life, and that would be a great action sequence as well. The fact that they just sit on their own island and let the mutinies come to them and defeat them when they do is not really a Hollywood style of dealing with the fact that you’ve got 20 women who are being raped on a daily basis by a bunch of vicious mutineers. So there’s that as well I think.

Brendan:              And we all know Hollywood, they would just change the history so maybe we actually dodged a bullet that the story can just be the history that you gave us as opposed to what Hollywood does with various historical things and just changes it into something that is not even anywhere close to what the actual history was.

Mike:                     I struggle with all the historical films as a historian for that reason. I do understand similarly as someone who writes stories of sorts the necessity of making the story a good one, but the reality is the reason I chose to write the book about the Batavia is that it is by a very long way the greatest story I’ve ever read. Historically it’s really unusual to find a story that works as well as this in the sense that when you’re a writer of historical nonfiction you come up against publishers who essentially are pushing you to make your book as much like a novel as possible. And that includes having a beginning, and a middle, and an end, a good bit of pacing, and heroes and villains. And the Batavia story does in fact have all those things in more or less the likes of the proportions for an ordinary novel.

Mike:                     You can compare that to the book I wrote about the foundation of the American math here, for example, which is similarly thrilling in many ways, but the main villain gets captured by the Secret Service and locked up in prison for 10 years during which there’s a giant hole in the story. And from a purely pacing point of view, that book never worked nearly as well as Batavia’s Graveyard did for that reason and so I think of all the stories I’ve ever investigated and told, the Batavia story is the one that is least in need of Hollywood intervention.

Brendan:              I absolutely agree. And then you have something like Batavia that’s just perfectly encapsulates the story, but then you also write a book about tulips, which is just … I finished it this week, I read Tulipomania this week, and it’s almost you’re reading it and it’s very interesting, and it’s moving along, and then sometimes you snap back and you realize I’m reading an entire book about tulips and being interested in it. How did this happen? And my biggest question here is how do you even get to the point where you say, “Yeah, I can write about tulips. That can be a book.”?

Mike:                     Good question. The tulip book was by far the hardest to write in terms of the structure of it because I started off hoping I would find one or two people who had been involved in the story from the time that it started after the 1580s, and the tulip mania proper doesn’t really happen until the 1630s, and in fact there’s no such thing. There’s no one who can take the story through all those periods and so I ended effectively saying I’m just going to have to make the flower the hero in a narrative sense. I don’t know how well that worked. It was a slightly different form of book. When I wrote that book, which was in the 1990s, there was a big vogue small books on one small subject, micro history you might call it. Mark Kurlansky’s Cod or Dava Sobel’s Longitude are good examples of books in that area.

Mike:                     And so, in fact, in that particular case, that particular story came to me in the sense that my literary agent was looking for a historian capable of doing a book about the tulips and I said, “Okay, I’ll give it a go.” I slightly regretted it after. The reality was at that time I wasn’t a full-time writer, my profession was a magazine publisher, I ran a division of a medium size magazine publishing company in Britain, and one of the titles that I had in my portfolio was a magazine called Gardens Illustrated. And the main consultants, so this is a fantastic upmarket gardening magazine, we always used to joke it was written for the sort of woman who gets their butler to renew their subscription. And the consultant we had was a woman called Anna Pavord who was quite a well-known gardening writer in the UK. And so having landed the contract and signed it I immediately rushed off to the editor to find out who I could talk to about tulips, and she was aghast because she then told me that Anna has spent her entire life writing a book about the tulip, it was her life’s work, and she’s going to be very upset about this. And in fact she was because she tried to get me sacked. She was very annoyed.

Mike:                     So I posted back saying I shouldn’t be working on this because I couldn’t do this sort of thing to her and she was dying from cancer. Which in fact she hasn’t done, she’s still alive now, but so it was all a bit unpleasant and I ended up having to sign an agreement with my British publisher that I wouldn’t publish the book until after her book had come out in order to quiet things down, which meant it wasn’t very successful in the UK. It came out first in the US and it did very well there so I guess it wasn’t the fault of the book. So it was a really weird situation. I guess I wish I had a better story for you which shades me in a better light as a historian than just I was asked to do it and managed to find my way through attempts not to let me do it. But after that I became a bit more professional. That’s the long and the short of it, I did start writing books full time from the Batavia for a bit.

Brendan:              That’s actually a great story to this whole thing. I was very much afraid that the answer was going to be, “Well I got drunk one night and kept going on Wikipedia, and I just followed the path until I came to tulips, and I said hey, why not.”

Mike:                     Yeah interesting question. The point I think was that it turned out, it was lucky in a horrible sense, that the book actually was written at a time when there was quite a boom in the economy, and by the time I finished it and it was published there was a fairly major financial crash that happened almost immediately afterwards, and suddenly … And this has happened multiple times actually to me since then. 2008 obviously, in the sense that this becomes topical every time there’s a financial bubble happens and people start wanting to know about Tulipomania at that point. So it became more topical in a sense than it was. At the time I think it was just literally somebody casting around for another small book on a very odd subject having heard somewhere about the Tulipomania. The frustrating thing about it, to be honest with you, is I did do quite a large amount of research because it really wasn’t a very well told story at the time I was writing it in 1997. Virtually the only subject that had been published in English had been a tiny book that came out in 1950.

Mike:                     And most of the materials were in Dutch, which I don’t read or talk comfortably, had to get a Dutch research assistant to help me with some translations in fact. And of course what happens after the book comes out, and Anna Pavord’s book come out, is that people started writing reviews saying, “Oh this old story again. Haven’t we already heard it?” Because suddenly Anna’s book had made it fairly fashionable. And this book was about the tulip generally, but the most interesting thing about it the tulip is that tulip mania, so that everybody had reviewed her book ended up writing about her Tulip mania chapter although it’s only one chapter in a much longer book. So yeah, I had these responses saying, “What an old story.” Which is extremely frustrating. There are only so many good stories in fact out there, and in fact I think the Batavia is an example of the only book I’ve ever written where I didn’t discover half way through somebody else was working on the same idea. That seems to happen an awful lot when you’re writing history and there’s only so many interesting historical stories you can tell.

Brendan:              And that was actually a great spot for my next question. Which I’ve seen some interviews that you had done and one of the things you talk about is that you really don’t want to write a story that’s been told over, and over, and over again. So obviously then you’re going to look for the bit more obscure things. For every great idea that you get and you dig into, do you just have a ton of false starts? Like, “I think this story’s here.” And then you find out there’s not enough for it. “I can’t turn it into a book.” Or do you find that you have a pretty good sixth sense about something that has enough for you to write a book out?

Mike:                     Well there’re several things to say. The reason I’m no longer a full time author of books is that I have sacrificed my career effectively on that particular bridge that you described. Me fighting a battle in the sense that if I really wanted to be a professional author that badly I would be writing about Churchill, Napoleon, and Hitler like everybody else. I just literally couldn’t do it. One of the things you mentioned when we started talking was the question of how long it takes to do one of these things. In my case the answer is usually about two years, sometimes as many as three or four years. I just could not imagine wasting that much of my life on something that is essentially a rehash of somebody else’s work. So that’s why. And my natural psychological tendency has always, ever since I was first interested in history when I was in school, has always been to go for the most obscure least known bits.

Mike:                    So I have a massive pile of stories I find completely fascinating and a couple of them I usually end up writing them up for my blog or for the Smithsonian magazine I contribute to. Whereas you say, you realize that there’s just not enough in the story to make a whole book out of it. That’s true 95% of all the stories I’m interested, and there’s only a relatively small number which can be made into good stories. So the answer to your question I guess is that these things don’t go to waste because I do research them, I do write them up, and they’re just in a shorter form. They’re essays rather than whole books. And that has advantages in the sense that you can get in and out a bit more quickly and interest yourself in something massively for a few months rather than having to drag through it for several years.

Mike:                     And it’s an interesting problem I think a lot of authors struggle with, that having committed so much time to something and time distorting the way in which you first approached it, people who spend five or 10 years on the biography of somebody either end up loving their subject or loathing them. But as long as you’re very much neutral ground in between, and the same thing does tend to happen with histories. I think that ultimately in the case of the sorts of books that I have done the most thing I’ve struggled with most has not been the history or the research, but to do with satisfying publishers with regard to stories. And my impression is that has got a lot worse since I started doing it. Batavia’s Graveyard, which has been easily my most successful book in terms of critical response in terms of sales, would never be published today. It’s no question about that. You could not persuade a publisher today to publish a book about a bunch of Dutch people that no one’s ever heard of which is 1/3 footnotes.

Mike:                     I had the luxury of no one expecting to do very well at a time when publishing was still doing quite well. Now publishing isn’t doing as well and there’s a lot more pressure on authors to come up with the goods and definitely to the number of non-mainstream books that have been promoted heavily has fallen dramatically. So I think that publishing is not in such a receptive state for the things I do as it was when I was doing them 15 or 20 years ago either, sadly.

Brendan:              That’s really interesting. And it’s also very interesting hearing how long it takes even to do a blog post, which yours are, especially anybody reading this will think, “Oh, a blog post.” The ones that I’m throwing out there are 500-600 words. But yours are in depth. I really enjoyed the show Vikings and I saw that you did an article on the blood eagle and whether or not it’s historically accurate and things like that. And it’s very funny just watching, for the lack of a better term, trashy TV, and then seeing the history next to it and saying, “Dear God, that must have taken a really long time just to research all of that just to be able to write a blog post for it.”

Mike:                     Yeah. It varies. I went through a period where I was writing for the sake of the Smithsonian essentially, and the stuff on my blog for that period was restricted. They wouldn’t take anything from me that was more than 4000 words, and they were fairly reluctant to take 4000 words. And I had to do one in a fortnight so in fact I was researching really quickly. One of the great advantages of studying history at university in the way I did is it does teach you to get to grips with a subject really quickly. So, I guess I can do that. But my natural tendency is to write long, and I do often wonder if I’m just writing for myself in fact because when I’m not publishing in the Smithsonian. I’m writing blog posts that can be anything up to 15 thousand words long. And I kindly appreciate that probably not many people are getting through 15 thousand words on that obscure topic that they’re not sure they’re very interested in.

Mike:                     But I do think, my basic position on this is maybe because I am such an obsessive for really unusual stories ultimately nobody else is going to come along and write about this stuff so I better do a pretty good job of it. And I also like diving into things that have never been properly researched and actually coming to grips with a subject and trying to make sense of it. And in fact, now that my daughter’s finally graduated the university literally a couple of weeks ago after a two year hiatus I’m getting back to writing. And I have a pile of literally somewhere between 35 and 40 blog posts I have fully researched and haven’t got around to writing yet. So there will be a flood of material appearing all of which will be at least as obscure as anything you’ve read from me before, and probably twice as long.

Brendan:              Fantastic. I’m looking forward to it. And that’s interesting too, one of the things is I’ve been just getting ready for this interview and some others that I’m lining up, is when I see the process that authors are writing about it seems like you absolutely have to be in love with researching topics. What’s the proportion to the research time versus the actual writing time? It almost sounds like the writing is the easy part, it’s the getting all of your thoughts together first and having all of that historical back bone, so to speak, is the really hard part. And then all you have to do is just put it on the page.

Mike:                     Yeah. That’s a really interesting question. The answer is in the case of most of my books it’s been pretty much a 50/50 split. If i spend two years writing a book I would spend a year researching it and a year writing it. That’s a slightly misleading answer though. I’m sorry if I sound arrogant on this one. I’m a really good researcher, I’m a better researcher than most historians, and I’m a better researcher than I am a writer in my opinion. So although I say I can do the research in a year, that because I’m good at research. Most people would take longer than that. And some people would probably be able to write books more quickly than I do as well. I just enjoy the research a lot more than I enjoy the writing side. So it has been a largely 50/50 split. But it slightly depends. Some of the books I did, the tulip book is a good example, that ultimately is not a huge amount of prime research material available even if you wanted to use it.

Mike:                     Whereas with others the worst example is the book I wrote on the thugs, the strangling gangs of India, where I discovered there was something like 60 thousand pages, 60 thousand manuscript pages, in the Oriental archives office in the British library and that took me much longer than I had hoped to get through. The result was I nearly ended up having the book canceled because it ran so far past the actual dead line that had been assigned to it in my contract. So research can take over your life if you let it. And I often do that. Actually the worst case is a book I’m hoping to finish next year, which I started work on in 1983 and I’ve been researching ever since. And that will in fact be my life’s work and it has been something I wanted to research properly therefore. But even I wonder sometimes why I bother because I know that nobody else in fact cares that much about the massive work of it, actually done work.

Brendan:              I’ll read it Mike; I promise.

Mike:                     Okay. I’m not sure about that. We’ll see.

(Part II on Thursday)

Tulipomania by Mike Dash

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: A book. About a flower. And I liked it.

Quick synopsis: The history of tulipomania. What the hell is that? In 1630s Netherlands, they really liked tulips. They liked them so much, people lost fortunes. ON TULIPS!

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: This is just a great line. This is about Dutch taverns (pg. 138): “These gentlemen have so many rules and ceremonies for getting drunk that I am repelled as much by the discipline as by the excess.” Of course, a Frenchman said it.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: In 1539, people in Europe were just getting introduced to the potato. They also thought it was poisonous.

My Take: So, here’s the deal. I was going to have an interview with author Mike Dash. I figured, I read one of his books, and loved it. It’s one of my all-time favorites (Batavia’s Graveyard). It turns out, Mike is super accommodating and gave me a date only a week out from when I first emailed him. Now I’m in a rush. I buy a couple more of his books and have them rushed. I’m short on time, so I pick the skinniest one. Lo and behold, I’m reading about freaking tulips.

The stranger part? It was interesting! There’s the history of how the Ottoman Empire made tulips a “thing.” Then a lot of years pass, they start making different color tulips, and then…. tulip mania. What is tulip mania? It’s when you start speculating (like the stock market) on tulips. Which they did for obscene amounts of money. And then like any stock market, they crashed hard.

I’m still amazed someone wrote a book about tulips that didn’t make me want to immediately fall asleep. Mike knew what he was doing and litters the book with hilarious (or gruesome) anecdotes. And then those crazy Dutch get drunk in taverns and start spending money on tulips.

People will spend money on anything.

Verdict: Against all odds, a really fun book. If you are not a history nerd, you probably will not go for it. But if you are, there is a lot to love here.

Or also if you’re a tulip nerd. Is that even a thing?

If You Liked This Try:

  • Anything by Mike Dash

Batavia’s Graveyard by Mike Dash

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Well, this escalates quickly.

Quick synopsis: The story of the Dutch ship, the Batavia in 1628. Oh, that doesn’t sound interesting? How about the subsequent mutiny, murder, and final battle on the beach for the lives of all who still lived?

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Do I need to repeat myself? Mutiny, murder, and final battle on the beach for the lives of all who still lived.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: There was a woman named Lucretia Jans, who was an object of affection for the mutineers. Later, a law was passed which referenced the Batavia incident limiting woman’s access on long voyages. I don’t know how attractive Jans was, but I have a feeling the mutiny and murder was going to happen either way.

My Take: Holy hell this escalates quickly!

Seriously, this book (and Joan Druett’s Island of the Lost) made me fall in love with reading history again. What you have here is one of the craziest stories you have never heard before. I honestly googled as soon as it was done to check that it actually happened.

The basic story is this heretical psycho named Cornelisz (not a typo) hatches a plan to wreck the ship off Australia and start a new life. Oh, he also foments mutiny, rape, murder, and various other horrible things when the survivors get stuck off shore.

Mike Dash does an amazing job with the subject. For non-history nerds, the first part may seem a little slow. Dash takes his time setting the stage and explaining the major players. For history nerds, you know the information is so important in understanding the entire scenario. And then it’s as if the book completely turns 180 degrees and becomes an adventure book the likes of which are not replicated anywhere else. It is crazy, brutal, and reads like a Hollywood movie.

Verdict: READ THIS BOOK. Disclaimer: Mike Dash is a friend of the blog who did an interview with me. However, I reached out to him because this book is amazing. So there.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Peter Stark, Astoria
  • Michael Wallis, The Best Land Under Heaven
  • Caroline Alexander, The Bounty
  • Alfred Lansing, Endurance
  • Jennifer Niven, The Ice Master
  • Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea
  • Joan Druett, Island of the Lost
  • Stephen Brown, Island of the Blue Foxes
  • Buddy Levy, River of Darkness

Random Musing: On Dating

What’s this musing about: Dating used to be a lot less complicated.

I got separated recently (sad trombone music). It is a traumatic experience for a lot of reasons. The one I’m currently tackling which is a bit overwhelming is…. dating again.

What does this have to do with history? This is a history blog isn’t it? I will tell you how this ties in, dear reader! I want to go back in history and try dating because it is freaking ridiculous right now.

There are a million applications (“apps” for you youngins). They range from apps which are very broad like Tinder to apps which are very specific like Farmers Only, J Date, Christian Mingle, and one that caters to people who like books. Did I look into that one? You bet I did. It was weird and I refuse to discuss it any further.

Which brings me to my (history) point. Can we pleas rewind time? In my 20s, you had Match and eHarmony. That’s it! Not only that, the English language was not turned into a bunch of acronyms. I consider myself an intelligent person (stop laughing) and I have no idea what anyone is saying.

In fact, let’s just rewind a few hundred years. All I’d have to do is live into my early teens and someone else would tell me who to marry. We’d have 47 kids and get on with our lives. Which were usually pretty short and brutal.

Yeah, let’s only rewind to the 2000s. I think that’s the sweet spot.

The Man Who Caught the Storm by Brantley Hargrove

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Don’t go into a tornado. It’s a bad idea.

Quick synopsis: The story of Tim Samaras who was a famous tornado hunter and inventor.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Frequency of a tornado coming through your living room? Once every 4,000 years. This number won’t make you feel better when the roof comes off your house, but that’s science for you.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Tim Samaras wanted to put a probe in the path of a tornado. Of course, you are thinking the same thing I am. That thing will go flying, it’s a tornado, dummy. Yes, unless you are Tim Samaras. He studied physics to create a probe which would use the wind of the tornado to hold the probe in place. Sometimes science is fun.

My Take: Science often bores the hell out of me. This book didn’t!

First, Tim Samaras was a great example of American grit. He didn’t go to amazing engineering schools. He just got old equipment and tinkered endlessly from childhood to adulthood. He was one of those guys who just didn’t quit. And then, he starts chasing tornados and it just becomes a cool adventure story.

Besides Tim, the book is helped significantly by Hargrove’s writing. First, he doesn’t “science nerd” us to death. (Read his bio, he could have.) He gives a science/math dumbass like me enough science to know how super cool everything is without bogging down the story. He gives enough personal details about Tim to help the reader understand him and his family but doesn’t revel in family drama.

You are left with a sleek book that would make a lot of people pretty interested.

Verdict: Great book which will scratch the science and adventure itch.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Eric Jay Dolin, Brilliant Beacons
  • David Mearns, The Shipwreck Hunter