Richard Halliburton: Some objects from an extraordinary life.

I recently returned from a research trip to Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. My next book is about Richard Halliburton who was born in Brownsville but grew up in Memphis. After Halliburton’s untimely death at the age of 39, his parents donated personal correspondence, photos and scrapbooks to the college. They also donated many of the objects that Halliburton collected during his travels.

The Firestone Library at Princeton, from where Halliburton graduated in 1921 and the Lilly Library at University of Indiana also contain a trove of information.

For me going to the archives for a book project is like going on a treasure hunt. I hope I’ll find something, but I don’t know exactly what that something will be. It’s always been that way – whether it was finding a pocket watch from a US B-17 crewman interned in Switzerland during WWII or the diary of a Union soldier from the Civil War. In Memphis the treasures came in many forms, including Richard Halliburton’s first passport and one of the only known surviving cameras that he used.

In that spirit I’ve put together this pictorial post – I thought it would be fun to show some of things I’m finding as I research Richard Halliburton’s life.



The only known surviving camera that belonged to celebrity adventurer and journalist Richard Halliburton.

The only known surviving camera that belonged to celebrity adventurer and journalist Richard Halliburton.



Richard Halliburton and his parents often joked about the number of foreign stamps they acquired in the more than 15 years of his career.

Richard Halliburton and his parents often joked about the number of foreign stamps they acquired in the more than 15 years of his career.

In 1933 Richard's parents celebrated his accomplishments at the historic Peabody hotel and presented him with this gold watch.

In 1933 Richard’s parents celebrated his accomplishments at the historic Peabody hotel and presented him with this gold watch.

Richard received two carpets from students in Tehran. He sent one to his parents in Memphis and kept this one under his feet while traversing the world in The Flying Carpet.

Richard received two carpets from students in Tehran. He sent one to his parents in Memphis and kept this one under his feet while traversing the world in The Flying Carpet.

Richard Halliburton's extraordinary life touched many. Here one game designer decided to base a computer game on Richard Halliburton. Lots of poetic license here.

Richard Halliburton’s extraordinary life touched many. Here one game designer decided to base a computer game on Richard Halliburton. Lots of poetic license here.


Strong Language.

Awesome! Heart-stopping! Gaga! Meshugga!

They’re just words. Or not. The Jewish Museum’s exhibit “Mel Bochner: Strong Language” explores the meaning of words. More than 70 works fill the first floor gallery space. Each one explores the tension between the visual and the verbal through the words themselves and the colors Bochner chose to paint them.

"Amazing" Mel Bochner (2010)

Born in 1940, Bochner is considered a pioneer of incorporating language into visual art. Growing up in an observant Jewish household, Jewish thought, wordplay and the way in which text can be manipulated have long intrigued Bochner. For Bochner, the thesaurus is a “warehouse of words.”

Visitors to the Fifth Avenue museum don’t have to wait to enter the exhibit space to see Bochner’s work. An L shaped canvas titled “Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah” hangs in the museum’s marble lobby. The words, painted in bold, thick, rainbow hues jump from the black canvas.

In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell  wrote about letting meaning choose the word rather than the reverse. Bochner plays with that concept in the way he uses color and words – where the colors themselves have meaning. “The tone of these paintings has a lot to do with devolution of contemporary language, its corruption in public and political discourse in ways that even George Orwell could not have imagined,” Bochner said in museum literature.

"Language is Not Transparent" Mel Bochner (1970)

In “Die” (2005) Fruit Loop colored words jump off the Bubble-gum pink background. “Die. Give up the Ghost. Bit the Dust.” The colors seem to be the opposite of the meaning. Then there’s “Obscene” (2006) where words such as “Racy. Randy, and Hard Core” are painted in pastel hues against a cream colored background.

But it is perhaps “Jew” (2008), which commands so much attention. The list of derogatory words includes “Hebrew. Kike. Jewboy. Hook nose” Each one is painted in yellow on black background. The canvass evokes the yellow stars the Nazis forced Jews to wear. Bochner painted it after stumbling on a racist Internet site. He explained that anti-Semitism thrives in the dark but that “by shining a light on it, I intend to expose how pervasive it remains and how inextricably it is tied to language.” Words are weapons, he goes on, and the abuse of power necessarily entails the abuse of language.”

The exhibit runs through Sept. 21 at The Jewish Museum. Norman L. Kleeblatt, the Susan and Elihu Rose Chief Curator of The Jewish Museum, organized the show together with Stephen Brown, Assistant Curator at The Jewish Museum.



New book, new horizons.

Richard Halliburton is the subject of my next book AMERICAN DAREDEVIL.

Richard Halliburton is the subject of my next book AMERICAN DAREDEVIL.


It’s official!
My next book is: AMERICAN DAREDEVIL, an account of the short life of Richard Halliburton, dubbed “the swashbuckler of storytelling,” a best-selling author in the 1920s and ’30s and the first celebrity adventurer who embarked on a series of outrageous feats, including swimming the Panama Canal and circumnavigating the globe in an open cockpit biplane, and inspired the likes of Paul Theroux, Susan Sontag, and Walter Cronkite.

In the 1920s and 1930s Halliburton’s lust for adventure carried him from one quest to the next. Long before adventure travel became a multi-billion dollar a year industry, with people paying exorbitant fees to “rough” it and backpacking became “exotic” Halliburton offered a view into a time when it was still possible to stand before the Taj Mahal alone at midnight. In a time of economic and military uncertainty hundreds of thousand of Americans escaped between the pages of Halliburton’s seven bestsellers. He appealed to women bound by societal expectations to keep hearth and home. Adolescents seeking independence admired his daredevil persona. Men read him as a way to travel without ever having to leave their armchair.

I’ve been spending lots of time at the Firestone Library at Princeton University. As always the thrill of the hunt – finding letters, documents, photos, telegrams and more – doesn’t get old. Last week I pored over letters from Richard Halliburton to his parents; letters written from Rabat and Aleppo and from Paris and Timbuktu. The week before that I was able to read the Flying Carpet‘s log book – the very book that went with Richard Halliburton and his pilot Moye Stephens as they flew around the world. Of course many more boxes, interviews and visits to various towns and cities await as I follow in the footsteps of one of the most prolific adventurers.

The bulk of Richard Halliburton's papers are here.

The Richard Halliburton Papers are here.

I’m looking forward to working with Chicago Review Press and my agent Laurie Abkemeier of DeFiore and Company.


POW Medal Bestowed on WW2 US Aviators Imprisoned in Switzerland


Jack Dowd. Dan Culler. David Disbrow. James Misuraca.

These are just a few of the men who will receive the Prisoner of War Medal, posthumously or otherwise, today at the Pentagon for their time in the Wauwilermoos Camp in Switzerland.

In 2003 my editor at the US Naval Institute Press suggested the title for my first book: Shot From the Sky: American POWs in Switzerland.  I remember thinking what a bold statement this would make. Because while the US government didn’t recognize the men as such (and the Swiss most certainly did not) it was absolutely accurate.



From 1943 through 1945, 1,516 American airmen were imprisoned in Switzerland in internment camps after being shot down or forced down by Swiss fighters or antiaircraft batteries. Some were captured after intentionally landing. The Swiss claimed they honored international law in their arrest of POWs, but they applied the law in a grossly unfair manner to the benefit of the Nazis. No German airmen were interned, and Nazi aircraft were allowed to land safely at Swiss airfields, refuel, and depart.

Conditions in most of the internment sites were generally adequate for Americans who obeyed their captors’ orders – but it was a far different story for those who did their patriotic duty and attempted to escape. American servicemen who ventured past a camp’s posted limits, or tried to get across the border into occupied France, risked being shot by Swiss guards and sent to penitentiary camps commanded by Nazi sympathizers. The treatment there was as harsh – in some cases harsher – than at POW camps across the border in Germany.

Wauwilermoos, in Lucerne, Switzerland, 50 miles from Germany, was violent and rampant with disease. Double rows of barbed wire and guard towers surrounded the prison compound; barracks built to hold a maximum of 20 men usually held 90.

American airmen who were caught trying escape from Switzerland were imprisoned here for as long as seven months – a clear violation of international law, which limited such sentences to 30 days. It even violated the Swiss military code, which mandated maximum sentences of 20 days.

These men were truly prisoners of war, but their story remained in darkness for nearly 60 years. These men, who answered without hesitation or reservation when their country called, found themselves maligned when they returned home.

Today the US government officially recognizes these men and their next of kin.


On the book shelf:


Several noteworthy novels have emerged from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: The Yellow Birds, Fobbit, and Jonah’s Book to name a few. However, few have addressed what it’s like for female soldiers upon their return. Be Safe, I Love You, a beautifully written novel by Cara Hoffman, does just that. It tells the story of Sgt. Lauren Clay’s journey back into civilian life after returning home from a tour of duty in Iraq.

Clay comes from a rural town in upstate New York Her family delights in her return but they initially ignore the warning signs of her behavior and repeated phone calls from an Army psychologist.

For centuries, combat veterans have had to reconcile two very different – and, in their time and place, very correct  – codes of conduct. As Karl Marlantes wrote in What It’s Like to Go to War many veterans struggle to rejoin a society that often seems to want its warriors to keep quiet and carry on. From that aspect Hoffman’s novel is not unique. What does set it apart is that it offers readers a view into the world of a returning female soldier. It allows readers to see the way war transforms women physically and emotionally.

Women comprise nearly 15 percent of active duty forces, according to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. They are the most rapidly growing segment of the veteran population and like the fictional character Clay they’ve guarded Forward Operating Bases, gone on patrol, gathered intelligence and commanded battalions.

While reading the novel I often thought about a relatively new organization, Female Soldier: Forgotten Hero – Connecticut’s only solely female home transitional housing. The home is a haven for veterans recovering from physical or emotional combat scars. More than 8,000 women veterans are homeless in the United States, estimates the Veterans Administration. Female veterans are 3.6 times more likely to be homeless than the average woman. Nationwide, fewer than a dozen veterans’ facilities are devoted to women. While Clay is not literally homeless, she nevertheless suffers from a homelessness of spirit.

Hoffman has created an powerful character in Sergeant Clay that readers will long  remember after they turn the last page.




The Little Prince in America

This anniversary edition is one of several copies of The Little Prince that sits on my bookshelves.

This anniversary edition is one of several copies of The Little Prince that sits on my bookshelves.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince was published 70 years ago. It’s one of my three favorite books, a book I return to time and again. So it was a joy to spend an afternoon at The Morgan Library and Museum in New York City to see its exhibition “The Little Prince: A New York Story.” I no idea Saint-Exupéry wrote and published his book in New York City during the two years he spent in the U.S. at the height of World War Two. Twenty-five manuscript pages are on display as are original drawings, personal letters and photographs.

It was a rare treat to see a beloved work riddled with coffee stains, scribbled out words, and notes in the margins. I loved seeing the list of possible word choices for one of the books most famous lines: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” It showed how meaning could shift, ever so subtly with a word here or a word there. Authors make countless creative decisions while writing. Being able to see one of the best-selling books ever to be publishes as a work in progress was valuable and, I think, allows readers and writers to appreciate Saint-Exupéry’s work that much more.

The Little Prince has been translated into more than 260 languages. That’s more than any other work of fiction. Indeed it is one of the best-selling books to ever be published. So I was quite surprised to learn the book was not an immediate blockbuster. While it spent two weeks on the New York Times bestseller list May 1943 it took quite some time to build an audience. The book defied conventional marketing labels and left people scratching their heads: Was it juvenile literature? Was it an adult fable? How those questions would have bemused Saint-Exupéry. It was so grown-up-like to have to categorize the work.

As he wrote in Flight to Arras: “I know that nothing which truly concerns man is calculable, weighable, measurable.”  One of the many things I adore about The Little Prince, with its poignant and ambiguous ending, is it defies categories – it just is.  Saint-Exupéry trusted his readers.

On July 31, 1944 Saint-Exupéry flew from Corsica alone. He was on an Allied reconnaissance mission. He never returned. A fisherman found this bracelet off the coast of Marseille in 1998.

On July 31, 1944 Saint-Exupéry flew from Corsica alone. He was on an Allied reconnaissance mission. He never returned. A fisherman found this bracelet off the coast of Marseille in 1998.

The exhibition continues until April 27. Aside from the manuscript draft there are 43 early drawings for the book as well as rare printed editions from the Morgan’s collection.

Start Here


The Start

Up close and zoom out. Character. Place. Time. Wide view and zoom in.

Choices, choices, choices. Every time I sit down to write I deliberate. Do I start with the place? Should it be an action scene? Or maybe just the setting.  Whether I’m writing about a quest to locate lost Holocaust-era art, or the worst maritime disaster in peace or war I struggle with this question. There are just so many possibilities. Sometimes it feels like the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books I read in elementary school – if you start wrong you get mired in the muck. As Jeff Vandermeer explains in “Wonderbook” the “How and where you start your story is critical to the reader’s reaction, the effects you can achieve, and how successfully you reach that vision in your head.”


Fair enough. Still, easier said the done. That’s why so much of writing is rewriting.

Getting the start right means getting the rest of the work right.  Starting at the right place, with the right person, or the right setting allows the reader an idea of the tone of the work, it’s proposed pace and essence. A good start offers the reader promise.

“Beginnings are an exercise in limits. You can’t make the reader love you in the first sentence or paragraph, but you can lose the reader right away,” Tracy Kidder writes in “Good Prose.” I tell my journalism students the same thing students about the function of a lead.  You need to hook the reader. You want to persuade them to stay – not just for moment, but for the whole journey.


I’ve started my books in many different ways. “Shot From the Sky” started with place. “Death In the Baltic” started with people. “A Professor, A President and a Meteor” started with the event itself. When you do finally figure out where to begin it should feel that no other choice would possibly work. The opening of “Death in the Baltic” allowed readers to first stand alongside the East Prussian refugees as they first gazed upon the Wilhelm Gustloff. Then, as the lens pulled back, the start allowed the readers to see the larger, basic context in which the tragedy of the sinking played out.

“You can’t tell it all at once,” Kidder writes. “A lot of the art of beginnings is deciding what to withhold until later, or never say at all.”


Three WW2 Stories Keep History Fresh

In the space of just a couple weeks a trio of incredible World War Two stories surfaced. There is no deep meaning to these discoveries. However, it shows the importance of persistence in ferreting out stories thought to be forgotten, be they from WW2 or any other period in history. It shows there is still  “breaking news” when it comes to history.

1. The screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s “lost” Holocaust documentary.

Alfred Hitchcock

For the first time an Alfred Hitchcock documentary about the Holocaust will be screened in full. After the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was liberated in 1945 Hitchcock was asked to put together film shot by a British army film unit. However, the film was not shown for political reasons until 1984, when an incomplete version was shown at the Berlin film festival, according to The Guardian. The film will soon be screened in its entirety.

2. An 88-year-old German man charged for participating in one of worst Nazi atrocities in France.

The man, identified only as Werner C. was charged for allegedly taking part the WWII massacre of 643 men, women and children in Oradour-sur-Glane, a small French village in southwestern France.


3. A guillotine used in numerous executions during the Nazi era was found in a museum in Bavaria.

According to a New York Times article, the Nazis executed thousands of people by guillotine during WW2. According the Bavarian National Museum, the guillotine that was used to execute White Rose members Hans and Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst,  on Feb. 22, 1943 by guillotine has been in storage since the 1970s. Now there is debate over whether to display the artifact.



What Fiction Can Teach Nonfiction


Advice for Writers. Nonfiction and Fiction.

When author Jeff Vandermeer wrote Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction he probably didn’t realize that nonfiction authors might find the book incredibly useful and educational.

Gorgeous, intricate illustrations fill the advice book. Each drawing, a world unto itself, buttresses Vandermeer’s work. Chapters analyze plot points, scene creation, narrative arc and characterization. In addition, there are writing prompts and essays by authors including Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. Le Guin and Karen Joy Fowler. It’s all very practical advice for aspiring fiction writers. So why did I, a nonfiction author, buy the book? Simply put, I’m open to learning. I figured Wonderbook to be another avenue to learn.

Nonfiction authors can learn from fiction writers

As I read through the book and dissected the drawings, I realized how useful the book would be to nonfiction authors. After all, we too want to lure in our readers. We too want to captivate our readers, hold their attention and deliver a story they’ll not soon forget.

Of course nonfiction has certain inviolable rules: material gets sourced, there is no room for conjecture and quotes must be attributed. There is no poetic license in nonfiction. However, many elements of fiction work quite well in nonfiction. Be it history, biography, travel or memoir – a nonfiction book requires smooth transitions between scenes, context, and different levels of characterization. Nonfiction books need tension, a well-realized setting and a strong narrative arc.

Wonderbook offers an in-depth analysis of the writing process. It takes one from inspiration to revision; and that’s something that can benefit all writers – regardless of genre.


Size Matters.

As an author and a journalist I work in both long and short form. I write short 500-word to 700-word pieces for The Christian Science Monitor and several regional magazines. My books average between 65,000 and 80,000 words.

During a recent Q&A about Death in the Baltic I was asked how I know when the material I’m working on is better suited for an article or whether I think it has book potential?

An article has a narrow focus. It’s self-contained, much like a short story. Or if you prefer a visual metaphor, it’s like a snapshot or a Norman Rockwell painting. In one frame the reader will get enough backstory to get a sense of the person or issue. There will be enough telling details to anchor the story and the person or persons. An example of this can be found in a recent article I wrote for The Christian Science Monitor about Edward Zellem and his book of Afghan Proverbs.

A book is still self-contained in that it follows a narrative arc. It has a beginning, middle and end, but it’s more like a film or a play. It develops the principals and gives their backstory, but it will also develop the secondary people as well. For example, in Death in the Baltic the survivors drive the narrative. They are fully realized on paper, and their backstories are fully developed. However, the “secondary characters”  – various military leaders and civilians – are also developed. The landscape and the ship itself, the Wilhelm Gustloff also become “characters.” It also has to speak to a larger theme. Personally, I’m drawn to those stories in history that have been absent from the narrative.  I am drawn to events I would have wanted to cover as a reporter.

I know something has the potential to be a book when I realize I can’t stop thinking about the subject. I know that I will be able to commit to that time period, those people and that place – whatever “that” may be – for more than a year. Although I don’t write fiction, I live so closely with the material that I have to be prepared to (figuratively) plunge into the icy Baltic Sea, try and burn down a Vermont town or crash land a B-17 on a Swiss field.

In other words, the subject and its people have to be something so compelling that I want to live with it and let it inhabit me for quite some time.