What I’m Reading: An Interview with Gregory A. Freeman

tags: interview, Gregory A Freeman

Erik Moshe is a freelance writer and an HNN features intern.

Gregory A. Freeman is a narrative nonfiction writer who has authored works like The Gathering Wind: Hurricane Sandy, the Sailing Ship Bounty, and a Courageous Rescue at Sea (2013), The Last Mission of the Wham Bam Boys (2012), Troubled Water: Race, Mutiny and Bravery on the USS Kitty Hawk (2009), Fixing Hell: An Army Psychologist Confronts Evil at Abu Ghraib (2008), The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II (2008), Sailors to the End: The Deadly Fire on the USS Forrestal and the Heroes Who Fought It (2004), and Lay This Body Down: The 1921 Murders of Eleven Plantation Slaves (2002). Freeman's work also appears in Reader's Digest, Rolling Stone, World War II, American History, and many other publications.

What books are you reading now?

I’m currently reading Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself--While the Rest of Us Die by Garrett Graff; The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny by Michael Wallis, and The Donner Party by George Keithley.

What is your favorite history book?

That’s nearly impossible to answer, but one that comes to mind is Manhunt: the 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson. A tremendously readable, well-researched account of an incident that was far more complex and fascinating than most people realize.

Why did you choose history as your career?

I didn’t. It chose me. I set out to be in advertising, then fell into journalism, and then began to specialize in writing history. I gravitated to writing nonfiction narrative history because I’m drawn to good stories, and history is chock full of them. No need to make them up in my mind when so many great historical accounts are still left untold.

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

Two of the most important when writing about history are a sense of perspective and empathy. Perspective is important so that you can look at a distant event and try to understand it in the context of the times rather than how the same thing would be viewed today, but also so you can see the bigger picture and not just what the participants saw at the time. Empathy is a critical tool when gathering information from people involved in an incident I’m writing about.

Which historical time period is your favorite?

I’m fascinated by the early to mid 20th century, particularly the Cold War. My books have covered stories from the 1920s through the last few years. My preference is for stories recent enough that participants are still around to talk to me, because those firsthand accounts are key to my style of writing.

Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?

I have a number of old and rare books related to the research for my own books, and an extensive collection of Cold War memorabilia related to civil defense in the 1945-1962 era.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

The most rewarding part of my career is seeing how my books affect people involved in or related to the stories I tell, or simply those who read the book and relate in some way. The effects can be profound, humbling even. The stories I tell often are life changing for the participants, and the books sometimes help them deal with trauma in a way they were unable to previously. Plus family members often get a much better understanding of their experiences.

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

The research process has changed dramatically. I began my career just as the Internet and the information age were blooming, so I had experience in the old school methodology and then saw that evolve. The difference is night and day. Mostly for the better, though the comparative ease of information access also can make you lazy and sloppy if you’re not careful.

If you could sum up world history in one word, what would that word be? Why’d you pick it?

Important. If you don’t understand history, you have no perspective from which to assess your current situation.

What are you doing next?

I’m working on my first novel and finding that writing fiction is quite different from narrative nonfiction. It is the story of a slave who goes to war with his master in the Civil War and promises to take his master’s body home if he is killed in battle. It’s about very complex relationships and a man struggling with internal conflicts. The premise is based on actual incidents during the Civil War.

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