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December 14, 2018

Q & A with author Scott Martelle


Scott Martelle’s new book William Walker’s Wars depicts the dark history of William Walker’s campaigns in Mexico and his attacks on governments in Nicaragua and Honduras, all in a quest to establish a slave-based American empire to the south. Read below as Scott discusses his fascination with forgotten historical figures and the writing and research process he uses to uncover their stories.

William Walker's Wars

Many of your previous books have been about men whose deeds—whether good or bad—shaped American society, but whose stories are largely forgotten today. Since there are countless forgotten figures of history to choose from, how do you decide which stories to resurrect and which to leave in the abyss?

I’m a journalist at heart, so I’m drawn by a mix of surprise—how did I not know about this?—and a good story. Of my six books, only Detroit: A Biography breaks that mold, and there my intent was to offer something of a Detroit 101 course for folks who knew little about the city’s remarkable history—its rise to become an industrial powerhouse, and then its staggering decline. My first step in these projects is, once my curiosity is pricked, to see what has been written about the subject, and if it’s not been overexposed then I do a cursory dive into collections and archives, usually online, to see what sorts of source materials might be available. The hurdle here is to see if something I find interesting as a topic can be fleshed out into a book that others would find interesting. Then I bounce the topic off my agent, Jane Dystel, and if she and her partner Miriam Goderich find it interesting and think they can sell it, I begin working in earnest on the full proposal.

What first drew you to William Walker’s story?

I had finished The Madman and the Assassin, which, incidentally, arose from a suggestion by Jerry Pohlen, my editor at Chicago Review Press. Jerry knew I had recently dropped a possible project because it was going to be too expensive to do the research—a lot of travel would have been involved. He asked me if I had ever heard of Boston Corbett, the man who had castrated himself and later killed John Wilkes Booth. I hadn’t, began exploring, and voila! With Walker, I stumbled across a mention of him somewhere, and had never heard of him. I was vaguely aware of the filibuster movement, American men trying to take over foreign territory in the decade or so before the Civil War, but I didn’t know many details. When I discovered Walker had made himself president of Nicaragua, and lost that position in part because he had ticked off Cornelius Vanderbilt, I decided his was a story worth unearthing. And then it just kept getting more and more interesting—a precocious intellect, wanderlust, tragic love, New Orleans and San Francisco, then the military adventurism, with the evil of slavery and the struggle for the nation’s soul as an undercurrent. He was a fascinating figure.

How was the writing process of this book different from your previous books?

It wasn’t. I follow a routine. Once Jane thinks she can sell an idea, I do an initial round of research, usually light on travel (I’m working on a project now in which I did some substantial travel research before finishing the proposal), then I write the overview and an annotated table of contents. Those two steps are crucial; they take the idea and the narrative arc out of your head and put it on paper, which is the first test—for me, anyway—of whether there is a full-fledged story to be told, and sufficient material to drawn on to tell it. This is where I also map out my research—what items are where, how much time it will take to do the legwork, etc. I also do a chronological collection of media accounts, and a separate folder of academic research on the topic. Once Jane sells the proposal I do the travel research, collecting tons of material from libraries and archives and semi-curating it as I work, then get it all organized. And I’m searching out books on the topic or biographies of people related to the topic. Then I start writing. As I near the end of the books I usually revisit key archives or order copies of things I missed to fill the holes that emerged through the writing, or to answer questions about event or characters that took on added significance as the story emerged. So it’s a rather organic process, the research feeding the writing, the writing feeding the research.

What do you think are the catalysts in William Walker’s life that led him to become a notorious conqueror?

After all the time I spent with him, it’s still a bit murky, but I think it traces back to the male figures from his mother’s family in Nashville. There were newspapermen, politicians, folks who went to fight in Texas, a grandfather who was a Revolutionary War hero. Walker’s letters as a teenager to his best friend were filled with a romantic view of the world and a precocious affectation of worldly intellectualism. He started out studying medicine but then lost interest and decided to become a lawyer, but that didn’t work out either. He then became something of an activist newspaper editor in New Orleans and then San Francisco, and as the filibuster movement grew, he decided this was where he would find his glory, and off he went. The remarkable aspect to me is how so many rough-hewn adventurers—miners, con men, the financially desperate—fell under the spell of this wisp of a man, smart but soft-spoken with no military experience, and risked their lives to invade other countries. Even after his first fiasco invading Baja.

What five people—living, dead, fiction or non-fiction—would you have over for your dream dinner?

James Baldwin, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Eugene V. Debs and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They all did remarkable things in their lives. It would be fascinating to hear Douglass and Baldwin discuss racism, to hear Anthony and Debs talk about politics and forcing change on a capitalist patriarchy, and to hear FDR on how he navigated the politics of the Great Depression and World War II, both domestically and with our allies. And Debs, a noted pacifist, and FDR talking about the morality of pacifism in the face of the rise of Nazism would make dessert really entertaining.

What do you hope readers take away from reading your book?

History consists of more than just big men, as it were, and big dates; minor characters from the past can be fascinating. I’ve long been taken with the notion that history unfolds much like our lives do. We mark the big events—graduations, marriages, births, new jobs—but life is lived in the small moments that define us as people and as a society. It’s endlessly fascinating.


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