Interview with Eric Jager (Part 2) Author of The Last Duel and Blood Royal

Here is part 2 of my interview with author Eric Jager. (Missed part 1? Go here first.) Will add link to first post

(HNU) As I mentioned, The Last Duel is becoming a movie with some real star power behind it. How does that process work? I suspect it is a long road from writing the book to having a movie deal for it.

(EJ) Thanks to my wonderful literary agents, the book was optioned three consecutive times, first by Paramount for Martin Scorsese, then for Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence, and finally for Sir Ridley Scott. (It seems fitting that a man with a knighthood would direct a film about knights in combat!) From the first option to the planned release later this year, fifteen years will have gone by. Authors eager to see their books adapted should not hold their breath. As to how the process works, it remains almost a complete mystery to me and seems to depend largely on serendipity. The producer who brought the book to Matt Damon, who in turn enlisted Ridley Scott, told me he found the book on a library table. Another producer once said to me, “You have managed to transfer your obsession with this story to us.” That was a telling remark. As an author, you’re understandably obsessed with your own book. But for it to become a film, others must become obsessed as well.

(HNU) Will you invite me to the premiere? Related question, why not?

(EJ) Ha! I have no idea whether I’ll be there myself. It may premiere overseas, in France, before it hits the theatres here. Given what the pandemic has wrought, I’ll just be thankful if the film enjoys a semblance of what we used to think of as a normal theatrical run.

(HNU) Obviously, a book needs to be tweaked to fit into a movie, but then there are movies like Braveheart which eschew accuracy to an extreme degree. Do you worry about Hollywood playing loose with historical facts or do you see the medium as something completely different?

(EJ) Books always have nuances and details that do not survive screen adaptation, and I knew this would be true for my book from the first show of film interest years ago. Each time it was optioned, I sat down with some of the people involved, and I was fairly confident afterwards that the resulting film would capture at least some of the book’s spirit. In two cases, I also read multiple versions of the script, allowing me to see the blueprint for the film. After reading the nearly final script for Sir Ridley’s production, I was thrilled that it caught not only the spirit but a great deal of its substance as well. The writers — Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener — did a great job.

(HNU) If you could win either a Pulitzer for History or an Academy Award for a screenplay, which one would you choose?

(EJ) I doubt that my straight-forward prose will ever win prizes. And screenwriting is way above my skill level. But I’d love to see Sir Ridley and his cast and crew of more than five-hundred people walk away next year with some Oscar gold. They all worked really hard, and brilliantly, through a pandemic no less, and any awards or accolades they receive will have been richly earned.

(HNU) Who are your favorite authors? Are you reading anything right now?

(EJ) Oh, I love this question! Because at the end of the day, I’m sick of my own writing and grateful to be able to sink back into a great book or an absorbing story. I read more nonfiction but love well-wrought fiction, too. Chekhov is a favorite, and the master John McPhee, and that genius Margaret Atwood. Besides literature, as you might expect, and history, for obvious reasons, I also read popular books about anthropology (e.g., Ian Tattersall, Masters of the Planet), paleontology, and historical artifacts or ancient languages (e.g., Margalit Fox, The Riddle of the Labyrinth). Recently I read a superb book about the Shakespeare author controversy, Contested Will, by my good friend and former Columbia colleague, Jim Shapiro. I like good writing on just about any subject, and I’m always studying how other writers practice their craft.

(HNU) You are an extremely accomplished individual, but the pandemic has caused people to do things they would not normally do. One of those things is trashy TV. Will you admit to watching trashy TV and reveal to the world which shows are your guilty pleasures?

(EJ) Peg and I love to stream from Netflix or Prime and watch film classics on Criterion. Among recent series, The Americans was superb, while The Blacklist (with an ebullient James Spader) has been a guilty pleasure. We’re now watching J. K. Simmons in Counterpart, a dark Cold-War sci-fi thriller. Anything adapted from the brilliant Kate Atkinson is a must. So, too, with the late John le Carré — e.g., The Night Manager. We’re also big fans of Robert Glenister (Prime Suspect, with Helen Mirren), who years ago read an abridged version of The Last Duel for BBC Radio’s “Book of the Week” and kindly came back to read the unabridged audiobook.

(HNU) Speaking of TV, a stereotype is always that majoring in English or anything of that ilk will only lead to being an English teacher. Are you proof that those people are stupid and need to update their material?

(EJ) I keep hearing (and reading) that various professions and industries are always looking for smart people who can read critically, write clearly and speak persuasively. I can’t think of any professional line of work where none of these things matter. In recent years, I’ve written letters of recommendation for UCLA English majors who’ve gone to law school, med school, and also into publishing. They’re all flourishing, not because of my letter but because they’re smart, talented, and they worked hard acquiring and polishing certain skills, including the ability to work well with others. I’m not interested in creating clones of myself, which is one reason I enjoy working with undergrads more than grad students, because undergrads are still considering a world of possibilities and often show more intellectual curiosity than older students who have already chosen, or resigned themselves to, a certain path.

(HNU) Your next book is Duke John’s Skull: The Murder that Made the Hundred Years’ War. When can we expect that or does putting a time out there put too much pressure on you?

(EJ) I’m glad to say it’s pretty close to being finished. But I keep wondering: who wants to read a book about yet another dead French duke? (Author’s Note: Me, Eric. Me.) American readers are fascinated by just two historical assassinations: Lincoln and JFK. Two other presidents were assassinated, Garfield and McKinley, but you hardly ever hear about them. That leaves very little room for murdered Frenchmen, no matter how important in their time! Still, I had great fun researching this 1419 murder mystery, studying signed depositions by eyewitnesses and getting curators to show me plaster casts of the murdered man’s skull, massively fractured by what was probably a heavy ax blow from above. That was a blow felt by millions, since it changed the course of a whole war, enabling Henry V to conquer much of France and setting the stage for Joan of Arc.

Interview with Eric Jager (Part 1) Author of The Last Duel and Blood Royal

I don’t have much of an ego when it comes to this site (in my actual life, people may disagree). This is niche blogging to say the least and I am okay with it. Every now and again, however, something happens which makes me think maybe this whole thing isn’t me screaming about history into the void.

A while back, while cleaning the spam folder (which fills up much faster than the comments section), I saw an email from what looked like an actual person. Reading further, I realized it wasn’t just a fellow nerd. It was Eric Jager, whose book The Last Duel I had just reviewed.

Many thoughts went through my mind at once. Thank God I check this filter. Why would a published author give a damn what I think of his book? Why would he also take the time to tell me thank you? And he thinks the History Nerds United name is great!?

One more thing. Isn’t The Last Duel about to become a movie with people I’ve actually heard of? (Spoiler alert: Hell yeah.)

When my hyperventilating stopped and I called my mother to tell her I finally made it in this world, I came up with a plan. I must take advantage of this man’s kindness and selflessness for my own purposes. Luckily, he played along. Here is part 1 of my interview with Eric Jager.

(If you want to know more about Eric before starting, head here.)

(HNU) Eric, thank you so much for taking the time to answer questions for my tiny blog. You are an accomplished professor, author, and your fantastic book The Last Duel is becoming a movie. You wear many hats, but did you always want to be an author?

(EJ) Thank you for your kind words, Brendan, and for having me as a guest on your wonderful history site.  Writing books was not actually one of my childhood dreams. I wanted to be a major league baseball player or an astronaut. Still, I loved reading, and there were lots of books in our home, plus weekly trips to the library. Books have always been a big part of my life, and I’m usually reading three or four concurrently.

(HNU) Do you see yourself as a professor who writes on the side or a writer who teaches? Am I being completely reductive?

(EJ) Teaching at a large research university, I’m expected to publish. And I published my first two books, very scholarly ones, to earn tenure and a full professorship. Then I began working on The Last Duel, a story I’d been mulling over for nearly a decade, hoping it would appeal to a more popular audience. So, I guess I’m a professor who writes, but not exactly “on the side,” since research and publishing are central to my work. That said, I really enjoy writing. And for the past few years I’ve also enjoyed teaching a nonfiction workshop in my department alongside my usual courses in medieval literature — Beowulf, Chaucer, etc.

(HNU) How do you possibly find the time to do everything you do?

(EJ) I’ve been fortunate to have reasonable teaching loads and regular teaching leaves, and a few years ago I gave up summer teaching to free up more time. Also, my wife, Peg, has joined me on my research trips to France over the years and has been a big help in reading my work critically, suggesting revisions, and also strategizing about book promotion. In fact, it was thanks to Peg that The Last Duel got its first major review shortly after publication.

(HNU) The Last Duel and Blood Royal, both of which I read and loved are books about very little-known historic events. Do you find these events because you are a scholar of medieval literature or do you stumble on them by going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole late on a Saturday night like me?

(EJ) Thank you, I’m so glad you enjoyed them! Years ago, I stumbled across the 1386 duel in the well-known chronicle by Jean Froissart, and I went looking for a book that would tell me more about this famous, controversial trial by combat. But no such book existed. So, I decided to write one myself, in part to answer my own questions about the case. As for Blood Royal, the impetus lay in the final chapter of The Last Duel, where the young king who witnessed the duel goes mad a few years later. This brings to power his widely hated brother, who gets himself brutally murdered one dark November night, plunging France into civil war. When I learned that a detailed police report on the murder investigation had survived, that clinched it.

(HNU) Both of these books ultimately hinge on the way crimes are dealt with during their time periods. Did you ever stop and think about how insane the methods (or lack thereof) of the time were? It seems amazing any crimes could be solved.

(EJ) You’re right. It seems crazy to us today to settle a rape accusation with a duel. But in trying to understand this story during my research, I learned that the purpose of trial by combat was to test the competing oaths sworn by the two combatants just prior to fighting. Of course, today we expect judges or juries to decide between the competing stories told in court. But if you take the view, as many did back then, that God oversaw a duel and would assure a just outcome, you can begin to think your way back into a medieval outlook. As for the murder mystery in Blood Royal, I saw the courageous investigator, Guillaume, as one of history’s first detectives, and the almost scientific rigor of his methods as a glimmer of modernity in that dark medieval city.

(HNU) A historic event may be very interesting, but it does not necessarily have enough content to be a full-length book. How do you decide what is book worthy? Do you start writing about something but find there isn’t enough material to work with?

(EJ) You’re right that some fascinating moments of history are only thinly documented. I was fortunate with The Last Duel that so many sources had survived, including detailed records from the Parlement of Paris and even one of the lawyer’s private notes on the case. And I never would have been able to write Blood Royal without the thirty-foot parchment scroll left behind by the chief investigator, complete with an autopsy and eyewitness testimony. Such a thing is incredibly rare from that era. It enabled me to track his inquiry in detail and even to figure out how he cracked the case. Such records are essential. Without them you hit a brick wall or opt to write historical fiction.

(HNU) How much time writing a book is devoted to research as opposed to actual writing?

(EJ) It’s hard for me to say, since I don’t strictly separate the two. Still, there might be several years of collecting and studying sources, then drawing up outlines or timelines, and so forth. Also, the archival research often punctuates the writing. With my current project, I’ve been to France several times since starting it, bringing back more material each time. The Last Duel came out only four years after my previous book, but as mentioned, I’d been thinking about that story a long time. Blood Royal took another ten years. And for the past seven years I’ve been working on my “new” project. Clearly, I’m not a fast worker!

For Part 2, come back to the site on Thursday!

Interview with Larry Loftis Author of CODE NAME: LISE

It still amazes me how generous history authors are with their time. I read CODE NAME: LISE a few months ago and absolutely loved it. The book is about Odette Sansom (or Hallowes or Churchill) who was World War II’s most highly decorated spy. Anything more starts to verge on spoilers, so I won’t say any more. (FYI: For non-history nerds, SOE is the Special Operations Executive. Think spies.)

Since I am wonderfully free from shame, I decided to reach out to Larry Loftis and ask him some questions I had about the book and a few other questions about being an author. Larry got right back to me (which is amazing because he is really busy, just check out his bio) and was happy to answer them. Enjoy our (email) interview below and then go buy Larry’s books!

(Note: Larry says he doesn’t watch TV. I don’t know, sounds like a Real Housewives addict to me but I digress…)

(HNU) We definitely need a movie about Odette, right? The last one about her was in 1950 as far as I can see.

(LL) That’s correct.  We’ve actually been contacted by five or six groups from Hollywood, with three offers.  We’re waiting for the right person to do it, though (Steven Spielberg, if you’re out there….).

(HNU) Odette can often be characterized in different ways. Some have portrayed her as a bored housewife who wanted to have an adventure and get away from her husband. Your book shows her as deeply conflicted between patriotism and her children. What do you think about her characterization as someone just looking for a change?

(LL) Indeed, many have raised that question, and people are often shocked to hear that Odette left three young children at home to go on a very dangerous mission (the fatality rate of SOE couriers was 42%, second only to Bomber Command’s 45%).  No one can read Odette’s heart, of course, but it very well may have been a combination of both. 

(HNU) Additionally, George Starr, another SOE agent described her as, “a dreadful lady,” and called her out for seductive behavior. Her affair with Churchill would suggest there may be some truth to that. However, do you think it may be more due to her stubbornness and determination to get the job done? (I personally feel her withstanding later torture says more about her iron will than anything else.)

(LL) Odette had an intense personality, no doubt.  After meeting her, Peter   described her as an “angry gazelle.” But he and Arnaud (their radio operator) loved working with her.  But a clarification is in order: there is not a shred of evidence in any primary source that suggests she had “seductive behavior,” or that she had an affair with Peter during the war.  I address this in one of the end notes, I believe.              

(HNU) The SOE has a somewhat muddled legacy. While dealing with highly complex challenges, there was also massive lapses in judgment and security. Looking at the full scale of SOE operations and numerous successes/failures, do you think it should be seen as a successful wartime organization? Or does the fact the Allies won the war cover up the myriad mistakes they made?

(LL) Every operation incurs mistakes, and any operation in any war by any country would provide ample evidence of this.  Absolutely, SOE had their share of mistakes, the Dutch (Operation North Pole) fiasco being at the top   of the list (where the Abwehr’s Hermann Giskes turned an SOE radio and some 50 SOE agents were dropped into waiting German arms), but to suggest that the organization and its operations as a whole were unsuccessful is grossly inaccurate. On the whole, the SOE was very successful, and was of tremendous help in Operations Overlord (D-Day) and Anvil (later, Dragoon, the invasion of southern France).

(HNU) It seems like you have to love researching to be an author. Do you agree?

(LL) You have to love research if you want to provide a quality nonfiction book, and the best way to see how thorough an author has been is to look at the end notes and bibliography.  With a novel it’s not required since all of it can be untrue. That said, the better fiction writers do some research so that  their story sounds believable. 

(HNU) What is the best part of the entire writing process for you?

(LL) Turning in the manuscript. 🙂  No, the really fun part is finding nuggets of gold during research.  In all three of my books (Into the Lion’s Mouth, CODE NAME: LISE, and The Princess Spy, which hits Feb. 9, 2021) I have found the most incredible things in the archives (US or UK).  For example, with ILM, I held in my hands the very document Popov gave to the FBI on August 18, 1941 (his translated German questionnaire to investigate the defenses at Pearl Harbor), which Hoover held in his hands the following day. With LISE, I had tremendous joy finding on GoogleMaps the exact spots of landings or drops in Bassillac and Mt. Semnoz, France, both of which look exactly like they did in 1943.  And with The Princess Spy, I discovered a murder (addressed in a memo in the OSS files) that has been lost in history and was quite incredible.

(HNU) Is there anything you wish you knew ahead of time before you started your writing career?

(LL) Yes, the time involved in everything is much longer than you expect.  It took me longer to find an agent, for example, than it did to write my first book. It took my publisher 16 months to publish my first book after I turned in the manuscript. And an author’s “advance” is typically spread over four years.

(HNU) How do you balance the various jobs you do? One at a time, little bit of everything all at once?

(LL) With nonfiction, you really have to spend at least six months doing research before you even think about writing.  When I wrote Into the Lion’s Mouth, I spent a year doing full-time research, and then another six months spending half the day in research, half in writing, followed by six months of pure writing. 

The killer with what I do is the end notes.  During my pure writing time, I might spend an entire day working on one end note (which doesn’t count toward your contract “word count” length).  And invariably, that end note will require additional research, or spot checking.

(HNU) What are your favorite guilty pleasure TV shows while on lockdown?

(LL) I don’t watch TV, so the lockdown is no different for me from any other day; I read instead of watching TV.  And my pleasure reading right now is The Winter Fortress, the excellent WWII book by Neal Bascomb on the Vemork (Hitler’s heavy water production facility) attack. 

(HNU) Thanks again to Larry for taking the time! Go read CODE NAME: LISE, Into the Lion’s Mouth, and then get The Princess Spy as soon as it comes out!