Friday, December 8, 2023

7 Questions with M.B. Zucker, Author of The Middle Generation


M. B. Zucker has been interested in storytelling for as long as he can remember. He devoted himself to historical fiction at fifteen and earned his B.A. at Occidental College and his J.D. at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. He lives in Virginia with his family. He is the author of four novels. Among his honors is the Best Fictional Biography Award at the 2023 BookFest.  Website 

1.      How and when did you get hooked on history?

I’ve been interested in storytelling for as long as I can remember. I wrote “books” about dinosaurs at age seven and discovered superheroes at nine. I learned about World War II at 15 in history class, and my interests mapped onto that real-life conflict between heroes and villains for the fate of civilization. Eisenhower became my favorite “character” from the war, which spurned my reading about all of the Presidents and American history.

2.      What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?

There hasn’t been a part of my life that history hasn’t touched. Eisenhower became a third parent, as I used to joke, shaping my values and worldview. I saw everything through a historical lens, including my own life, which I analyzed the way historians would American and world history, dividing it into different periods and predicting how I would remember specific events over time.

3.      How does history play a part of your professional life/career?

History has been part of my professional life ever since that initial spark 13 years ago. I wrote a World War II novel titled A Great Soldier in the Last Great War while in high school and founded my school’s chapter of the Veterans Heritage Project, which interviewed Arizona veterans and catalogued their experiences in annual volumes. I majored in history in college and wrote my thesis on how Charles de Gaulle inspired Nixon’s opening to China. I received a concentration in National Security Law in law school and interned with the Navy and Coast Guard JAGs and with the Residual Special Court of Sierra Leone. I became a professional historical fiction writer in 2021 and recently published my fourth novel.

4.      Why is studying/knowing history important?

It’s a cliche for a reason to say that you can’t understand the present without studying the past. History informs us how the modern world came to be and is also what policy makers and learned people look to for guidance. It also is the ultimate source of knowledge about human nature and all of its contradictions and nuances. It tells us how people become good, evil, or in between, and how individuals and groups rise and fall in a competitive and vicious world.

5.      What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?

Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency. It was my dominant obsession in college and I read 35 nonfiction books about him. I’m particularly interested in his foreign policy legacy. I synthesized the analyses of various historians and credit him with stabilizing the nuclear age. He did this by designing the nuclear deterrent, an affordable way to contain communism until the USSR collapsed, and also defused repeated crises in Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Suez, Hungary, and Berlin where his advisors and the Joint Chiefs advocated a nuclear strike. He refused each time while preventing communism’s spread. Doing this set a global taboo against using nuclear weapons. I think this is one of the greatest achievements of any leader in world history and it inspired my first novel as an adult, The Eisenhower Chronicles.

6.         Your books are incredibly diverse and unique. Your most recent book, The Middle Generation, is a political thriller centering on John Quincy Adams.  How does that idea even start?

The Eisenhower Chronicles was a learning experience and I knew I’d grown as a writer through the process of assembling it. Upon completion I wanted to pick a similar topic to test myself. I see Eisenhower as the greatest American foreign policy practitioner of the 20th century and so Adams, the greatest Secretary of State and practitioner of the 19th century, was a logical follow-up. I started researching him and, once I realized that the Monroe Doctrine, which he wrote as Secretary of State, was the winning chess move in his showdown with Europe over South American independence, I knew I had my story. I was all the more excited because Europe at the time was controlled by the Holy Alliance, a group of monarchies who kept the peace in the continent through force after Napoleon’s defeat. Their leader was an Austrian diplomat named Metternich, who was arguably the greatest diplomat in European history. That meant the story could be framed as a clash between Adams and Metternich, which interested me and, I hope, interests readers. Writing it as a political thriller gave the piece a distinct flavor and also an irony that I enjoy since the period is known as the Era of Good Feelings. Finding such a story in such a period is something I’d like to think only I would have done.

7.         What do we have wrong, in your opinion, about John Quincy Adams and how should he be remembered?

I’m not sure Adams’ role in historical memory is “wrong” as much as it’s incomplete. His showdown with the Holy Alliance over South America’s independence is a large oversight that I hope my novel helps to correct. We should also view him as the primary bridge between the Founders and Lincoln. He was not only the second President’s son, but his career started with George Washington appointing him minister to The Hague and ended as Lincoln’s mentor in Congress. He even prophesied how a future President would end slavery with an executive order during a civil war. Finally, his story should be a warning of how parents pressuring their children into fields not of their choosing and to be very ambitious can negatively impact their mental health, which in turn can harm their own families.

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