The Writer

Creating Heart-Pounding, Narrative Non-Fiction

July 2011

Very few non-fiction books seize your attention from the first sentence, take you on a wild rollercoaster ride and don’t let go until the last word. After all, it can be difficult to buy into a suspenseful scene when you already know the ending. Neal Bascomb proves he is a master at accomplishing this seemingly difficult task with his five narrative non-fiction books, all focused on vastly different topics. The father of two daughters lives in Philadelphia and at the age of 39, has an impressive resume.

Bascomb was born and raised in Denver, went to school in Ohio and then worked as a journalist in London, Paris and Dublin. Upon returning to the States, he settled in New York City and landed an editorial assistant job at a publishing house—a career move he recommends to budding authors. “You’ll learn more about writing in a year of getting someone’s coffee and opening mail than writing non-stop for three years,” he says. “You also get access to important people in publishing.”  

The grunt work paid off and by 2001, when he was just 30 years old, he broke free and starting writing his own books—with a nice Rolodex to boot.

“When I took the leap of faith, I wish I could say I had this great struggle, but I don’t have that story,” he says. “I already knew the people I needed to know. It wasn’t easy. I wrote a lot of bad books prior to showing them to anyone, but when I wrote something worthwhile, it was able to be seen.”

Bascomb broke onto the scene in 2003 with Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City, detailing the 1929 race between two architects to build the tallest skyscraper in the world. He followed it up in 2004 with The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less than Four Minutes to Achieve It, which earned a spot on The New York Times Best Seller list and garnered a healthy amount of positive attention from critics. In 2007, he came out with Red Mutiny: Eleven Fateful Days on the Battleship Potemkin, detailing a revolt that inspired the Russian Revolution.

Two years ago, Bascomb turned heads again with the release of Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi. The book gives a minute-by-minute account of the multi-year search for Adolph Eichmann, one of Hitler’s top men. The book took longer than Bascomb’s traditional 18 months to write, mostly because he had to gain access to members the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency; sift through mountains of data on Eichmann in different countries and in different languages; and track down the Nazi’s exact path through the backcountry of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In March, he came out with his fifth book, The New Cool: A Visionary Teacher, His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts. The book, again a page-turner, supports the idea that children can achieve respect and success in something other than sports. It takes the reader through the challenges and triumphs of one California-based high school team, led by mentor Amir Abo-Shaeer, as they compete in a FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) competition.

All of Bascomb’s books except Red Mutiny have been optioned for film. “The screenplay for Hunting Eichmann is being written right now,” Bascomb says. “It’s been optioned by Anthony Bregman and Brett Rather. I’m excited. The New Cool has been optioned for Scott Rudin, the same person who did The Social Network.”

Did you always want to be a writer?

I’ve always had an intense desire to write and see my work published, even when I was young. I remember writing reviews for computer games in seventh grade and getting them rejected by magazine editors. I also had one English teacher in high school that recognized my talents and was adamant that I should pursue writing.

Have you always wanted to write books?

I wanted to be the next great American novelist and never really thought about writing non-fiction. I read constantly, but most of the books I read were fiction. Then, in 2001, I was talking with an agent friend about skyscrapers and the race to build the tallest one. It seemed like a novel to me, except that it was true. I started researching and wrote my first book, Higher.

Your five books have explored vastly different topics. How many ideas do you have going at once and how do narrow them down?

I am constantly coming up with ideas and constantly throwing them away. I read a lot of magazines and newspapers and look on the Internet to find interesting stories. I look for stories that captivate my interest.

To be honest, I don’t think doing five different books on five different topics is a great career move because I have to reestablish a new audience every time. But it doesn’t interest me to write five books just about architecture or just about running.

How do you know if your idea will be marketable?

Part of it comes from being on the other side of the table as an editor and part of it is gut instance. Also, I think about who would read the book. Is the audience passionate and do they talk?

You have to have a yes to those two questions or you might find yourself with an audience that doesn’t read or isn’t big enough.

With The New Cool, I thought if just engineers, science types and educators read it, than I’ll be fine.  

What advice can you give to starting authors on selecting a story that will fly?

You really have to think it is the best idea in the world; that it is absolutely brilliant. It needs to hit you on a personal level. With The New Cool, I knew that there was nothing that could stop me from writing the book.

That said, everyone told me not to do it. Even so, I knew it was a great subject and a good book to write. You can’t think of the story as just a middling idea that someone will pay for. You have to think it is a fantastic idea.

You write in a way that gets hearts pounding—whether about robotics or a WWII enemy chase. What is your secret to including such painstaking detail while maintaining a captivating flair?

A lot of it is in the research. I try to tell stories with as much visceral detail as possible—what people are thinking and feeling, if the room is hot or cold, if it is sunny or rainy. All of these details bring fiction alive, but are sometimes absent in non-fiction.

A lot of these details come through exhausting interviews, looking through archives and pounding the pavement to find out what is happening. I am not only interested in what transpired, but what motivated an event. And I always think of scene as a dramatic movie scene, with a dramatic beginning, middle and end.

What attracted you to writing The New Cool?

My nephew participated in FIRST and I’d also seen an article in the newspaper about Dean Kamen (FIRST founder). Soon after reading it, I went up to New Hampshire to watch a competition. It was January 3, 2009 and from the second I got there, I saw so much passion in the competition that I knew I wanted to write a book about it. It was instantaneous. I came back and called my agent and publisher and told them what I wanted to do.

The book starts out with detailed descriptions of things happening simultaneously on the East Coast and West Coast, but with incredible, emotional detail. How did you accomplish this and what was the research process like for this book?

I had three teams when I started writing the book. I had reporters working for me and started off following three high school teams. There were about 30 kids on each team and I tried writing about 25,000 words weaving in the story of the three teams, but it was a disaster. I was vomiting information. At that point, I decided on only focus on Amir’s team, cut things and went from there.

In Hunting Eichmann, you distill a mountain of historical information into an easy to understand format. How do you manage that much information?

I have a technique that some people would call nuts. I create a huge spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel and tag each section of the book. So lets say I read a book where I think page 28 through 31 would be good for my chapter one, section three. I will put those pages into that section of the spreadsheet so that when I start writing that specific part, all I have to do is search for the tags, and I will have that information in front of me.

My spreadsheet for Eichmann was about 2,000 lines long with all of the info coded in there. It saves me an enormous amount of time.

How long did Hunting Eichmann take you to write?

It took me about two and half years because I had to get access to the Mossad. Getting to talk to them was tough. It took a lot of phone calls, sometimes paying people who know people.

I found that the most important thing was when you are finally in a room with them you need to know your stuff. Once they knew that I was taking things seriously and knew the story, they would open up. Then they would get their friends to open up. I had to research for months to interview them. I ended up spending six weeks in Israel and six weeks in Argentina.

How did writing Hunting Eichmann affect you personally?

It was a hard book to write. The first fifth of the book concentrates a lot on Eichmann and that was very hard to do because it was so gruesome and horrid. And not just the terrible things he did, but his twisted mentality made it tough. My wife can attest that I was having nightmares that whole fifth of the book when I was writing it. Later, when I moved more into the story, it was easier to write.

After I finished it, people would come to me with their WWII ideas for future books and I always said no. I couldn’t do it; I wanted to write about robots. I’m glad I wrote Eichmann, but it was very hard. The most rewarding part is that I’ve given a lot of speeches at a lot of Jewish Community Centers, which have been great.

How do you organize your writing time and what does your typical day look like?
 
I am pretty regimented and not one of those writers that smokes and drinks and writes at 2 a.m. I am at the coffee shop every day at the same time, 8:20 a.m. I read newspapers until 9 a.m. and then I write in two-hour batches. I do three of those batches over the course of the day. Then I’m done.

I will read at night to research and then, when I get to the coffee shop in the morning, I will know what to write.

I treat it as a job. It is a great job, but it’s a job. I write most of my books in Philadelphia coffee shops. I like the ambient noise.

What inspires you?

Great narrative non-fiction books inspire me. Stories inspire me, too. I will read a New Yorker article and get just blown away, think I wish I could write like that and try to write like that.

Also, the desire to tell a story inspires me. I am predisposed to feel-good stories. It inspires me to write them.

What are you working on right now?

I am starting a screenplay for Higher. I am going to take a year or two and try my hand at screenwriting, preferably my own stuff. I think I need a break from book writing. I’ve done five books in nine years and it’s time for me to flex my muscles in a different way.

That said, if I read a great non-fiction story tomorrow, you never know…

What advice can you give to unpublished authors?

Keep writing. Get a great writing group that can help you critique. Do some journalism. Work in publishing. Read the writers that you admire and try to practice in their style, then find your own. For a lot of people, it won’t be easy like it was for me, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be more successful than me.

Most of all, just keep writing. I am also a supporter of self publishing and e-publishing. Try writing your own stuff and publishing it.

THE NEAL BASCOMB FILE

• Neal Bascomb was born and raised in Denver, Colorado. He attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
• If he wasn’t writing non-fiction books, Bascomb says he would likely be working in publishing or economics.
• Bascomb's hobbies include scuba diving, skiing, adventure travel, and spending time with his two daughters and wife.
• His biggest writing pet peeves are coffee running cold and the blank page at the beginning of the day.
• Writers Bascomb admires include David Remnick, Laura Hillenbrand, Michael Lewis, and Jon Krakauer.
• When asked about his favorite books, Bascomb answers, “Impossible to limit a list, but I recently loved Freedom. I also like Stieg Larsson books and Edmund Morris’s new Roosevelt. I read an absolute range of commercial/literary fiction, same in non-fiction. My only rule is not to read narrative non-fiction while I’m writing my books. Don’t want to steal tone.”

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Katie Morell specializes in feature writing, breaking news and corporate communications.