1. How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
I guess I have always been what they call an "old soul." I knew that my mother had suffered through the Blitz as a little girl in London, so I felt drawn to the period of World War Two at an early age. After all, had Hitler hit the mark, I would not have been born. Plus, our area of Bergen County, New Jersey, is quite rich with Revolutionary War history, and I felt as if George Washington was around any given corner, as the signs pointed to his Retreat Route all along my daily routes.
I attended Lincoln School in Bergenfield, New Jersey, for Kindergarten through sixth grade. I remember looking at the Great Emancipator's craggy, resolute but sad face and wanting to learn more about him. Our school song, incidentally, was written to John Philip Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever, and I still hear the words in my head all the years later, even when playing it myself back in my marching band days at Cresskill High School and at Rutgers University.
2. What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
As I grew older, I saw history as a great road map to life, almost like a secret store of knowledge that only I possessed. The people who came before us lived lives. They made mistakes and failed. They worked hard and had great triumphs. Why stumble around in the dark and suffer the same pitfalls when we could learn, say, from Theodore Roosevelt or Winston Churchill what not to do? At different times in life, I've looked to different historical figures for inspiration, to take the best parts of them and try to improve the worst parts of myself.
For example, William McKinley, our 25th president (1897-1901). After the assassin Leon Czolgosz shot him, the crowd at Buffalo's Temple of Music began to beat Czolgosz and call for his lynching. McKinley had taken bullets to the chest and stomach, so he had to be in great pain as blood spread across his shirt. But he used what little breath he had to command his guards, "Go easy on him boys," and then to say, "Don't let them hurt him." His next thoughts were of his wife, Ida, telling his secretary, "Be careful how you tell her."
I am often humbled by that moment in McKinley's life, and how he faced death in his final hours, saying, "It's God's will, not ours. God's will be done," and how that moment inspired the shocked and heartbroken nation. He had been, after all, the most popular president since Lincoln. I know that if I was in McKinley's shoes -- shot twice after surviving four years serving for the Union in the Civil War -- I'd be very different. Who wouldn't be? Most people would be mad at their guards (the Secret Service only took over protection of the president after this incident), mad at the assassin, and mad at God.
But McKinley had a modest, quite temperament. Even when shot and bleeding, he thought only of others. Examples like that inspire me to be a better person.
3. How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
Well, I'm hosting The History Author Show, and I've done other history-related writings, including for my day jobs. In the news business, I'm always there with this or that reference to the past -- or correction when some politician gets a fact or a quote wrong. Once, when I worked for a pet TV show, I did a segment called Breed of the Week, which I would always start off with a short package on the history of each dog or cat. My degree, by the way, is in Animal Science, showing that you can use and benefit from history in any field.
4. Why is studying/knowing history important?
I can expand on my answer above, I guess, and the metaphor. I recently interviewed Rinker Buck, author of The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey. Literally nobody alive could tell him how to make that trip. Nobody could tell him if he'd get over some rough patches of mountains, or how often to shoe the mules, or how many spare brake pads to pack. So he had to relearn all those things along the way -- with the help of his brother Nick, who is fortunately a mechanic.
If there had been pioneers alive that Rinker Buck could have asked for advice, he'd have certainly taken it. As it was, he read all the trail journals and diaries he could. Imagine how much easier the trip would have been had he had first-hand advice, or how much harder it would have been if he'd skipped all the material written by people who'd gone over the trail in the mid-1800s.
Well, wherever we aim to go in life, there's someone who has traveled that trail before us. Read and learn from their lessons. Let them make mistakes and solve problems so we don't have to struggle quite so hard.
Supreme City by Donald L. Miller and Madison's Gift by David O. Stewart are also great examples of what you can learn in history. I asked Don Miller if he had given our current New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio, a copy of the Supreme City, because de Blasio is infamously, chronically late. You see, Mayor Jimmy Walker was also always late back in the Jazz Age, but he had such charm and good humor that everyone forgave him.
In Madison's Gift, David O. Stewart discusses how the 4th president honestly evaluated his weaknesses and sought out people like his wife Dolley or George Washington who had what he lacked. Those are great lessons for anyone.
Without history, we're driving to a place we've never been without reading the owners manual of the car or using any sort of road map or GPS. Sure, you can do it, but it's a lot harder.
5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
I can sit looking at old pictures of New York City or reading archive news stories about it all day, specifically William McKinley's era. Here I can mention another book: New York City in the Gilded Age, by my friend Esther Crain of Ephemeral New York. That period is not too terribly far from ours, or so different. At least when I was growing up, it still seemed recent. Plus, you can still see so many of the legacies of those days today.
It's after the Civil War, but before the World Wars, so the Gilded Age sort of gets lost. Again, I guess it's part of my quest for secret or forgotten knowledge. People tend to look at the U.S. presidents between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt as a blur of bearded, mutton-chopped faces. But they are quite interesting, and there's a real tug-of-war between the executive and legislative branches during that time, as Congress tries to draw back some of the power it lost to Lincoln when he was fighting the rebellion.
6. What is the premise of the History Author Show?
Well, as we write on iTunes and elsewhere where people find us: "A special book, person or place has the power to transport us into the past, to times and moments long before we were born. You may reach the last page of a biography and mourn a person who died a century ago, or meet a fictional character so vivid, you become lifelong friends. The History Author Show vaults beyond the usual layman's questions, and offers a show by history lovers for history lovers. Enjoy fascinating guests who write history in their daily lives, including award-winning writers from publishers like Simon & Schuster. These are the people who build time machines with their words."
7. What can listeners expect to hear in your shows?
You're going to hear more from Pulitzer Prize-winning authors like Michael Hiltzik ("Big Science") and New York Times best-sellers like the other authors I've mentioned. But my correspondents and I are also going to cast a wide net for people who may never write their experiences in a book, but who are the keepers of history just the same. For example, you'll hear my interview with Dan Demiglio from Callahan’s Hot Dogs.
Dan's grandfather bought a simple hot dog stand in New Jersey after he returned from serving in World War Two (Dan always wears his dog tags), and it endured for over half a century at the same location, growing into a legend. Dan made a deathbed promise to his grandfather that he'd take over the business, which is all he'd ever dreamed of doing. Even when his family sold the original restaurant (where my parents had their first date), Dan was undeterred. He resurrected the business a few years ago, and it has exploded across northern New Jersey as people race to taste a bite of the past. I like to say Dan is writing history with ketchup and mustard, just as his grandfather did in 1950.
You'll also hear us on location at places like the James A Garfield National Historic Site, or talking to people with famous ancestors like Jonathan Sandys, the great-grandson of Winston Churchill -- who has an upcoming book called God & Churchill: How the Great Leader's Sense of Divine Destiny Changed His Troubled World and Offers Hope for Ours. Generally, you're just going to hear some real conversations with passionate people, excited to share the stories of people who passed this way on the trail before all of us.