Of Blackguards and Blatherskites: An Interview with Simon Read

Simon Read has a gift for bringing the past to life. His most recent book, War of Words, harkens back to the thrilling—and violent—days of yesteryear. Meticulously researched, this work of narrative nonfiction recounts the murderous late-nineteenth-century conflict between San Francisco Chronicle publisher Charles de Young and the scandal-plagued minister Isaac Kalloch. Poetic at times, humorous at others, and always engaging, War of Words offers a window into a world that time has forgotten and proves the old saw that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

When I finished reading War of Words on Thursday, I couldn’t resist dropping Read a line to pick his brain about how the book came into existence and about writing in general. Barely twelve hours passed before he got back to me with the following…

What drew you to the events depicted in War of Words?
I had long wanted to write a book set in the Wild West.  My previous non-fiction books are set in 1930s New York and 1940s London, so I thought it was time to look at the American west.  Initially, I researched various cowboy outlaws, hoping to find something that would grab my interest.  While researching 1800s San Francisco, I stumbled across a brief story about Charles and Michael de Young and their founding of the San Francisco Chronicle.  I lived in the Bay Area at the time and had no idea just how bloody and violent the paper’s early history was.  We’re talking various murder attempts, gunfights in the street, race riots, public hangings, and the near burning of San Francisco to the ground.  There was a lot of action—and, of course, the larger-than-life characters.  You have Charles de Young, a teetotaling mama’s boy colliding with Isaac Kalloch, a disgraced Baptist minister whose lust for the ladies equaled his desire to be mayor.  The hatred between these two was intense and nearly tore the city apart.

War of Words is meticulously researched.  Can you describe your research process?  How did you know when to stop?
War of Words entailed the greatest amount of research I’ve ever done for a book.  It took more than a year to get the bulk of the research done and another year to write the first draft.  Newspaper articles from the period comprised the primary source material for the book.  In the process, I think I read more than 500 articles.  Researching a book is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.  One piece of research turns you onto another.

All of San Francisco’s old newspapers can be viewed on microfiche at the San Francisco Public Library.  I spent many weekday evenings and weekends there, scrolling through the various publications.  When I found an article in one newspaper detailing some event in the Kalloch-de Young feud, it gave me a point of reference for searching other newspapers from the period.  It was through this method I was able to piece the story together.  Some research was also done at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.  Michael de Young wrote a summarized history of the Chronicle’s early years, which is archived there. The library also has quite a few items relating to Isaac Kalloch, a figure largely forgotten today.

As for knowing when to stop . . . it was simply a matter of determining whether I had enough material to do the story and its participants justice.  Both Kalloch and de Young were very large characters, so I had to be sure that came across in the book.  Failing in that regard would result, I think, in the reader being seriously shortchanged.

 Along similar lines, how did you decide what to include and what to leave out of the narrative?
It came down to deciding whether a piece of information served the story well.  When you write nonfiction, it’s easy to get carried away with research and to slap every bit of information you stumble across into your manuscript.  This, obviously, bogs down the narrative and diverts the reader from the main story.  If I came across something I liked, but didn’t think it would add anything to the reader’s understanding or the narrative flow, I tossed it on the scrap pile.

As you did your research, were you surprised by the similarities between the nineteenth century and today’s world?
One thing that stood out while writing the book is that people in the 1800s were just as hungry for information as we are today.  Modern society, of course, has the benefit of instant gratification. We can get news on our computers, radio, television, and cell phones 24 hours a day.  Back in the 1800s, newspapers were the primary delivery system for news and editorials.  This meant some people out on the hinterlands of civilization had to wait weeks before finding out what was going on in the rest of the country.

The corruption of politicians certainly didn’t come as a surprise—nor did the uncivilized nature of political discourse.  And back then, just as today, political sex scandals were big winners for media outlets. Indeed, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  It was surprising to see how San Francisco’s many newspapers savaged one another in print.  The Call and the Chronicle were merciless towards one another.  It kind of reminded me of pundits on MSNBC and Fox News sniping at one another on their various programs.

There are certainly some poetic and descriptive turns of phrase in the book—and there’s also some dry humor. How much of the book would you describe as your voice, and how much is simply the voice of history? How do you strike a balance between the two?
Although War of Words is at times a violent tale, it’s also a darkly comedic one.  There’s almost something absurd in the battle between Kalloch and de Young.  The fact it reached explosive proportions after Kalloch publicly insulted de Young’s mother struck me as particularly funny (though I certainly wouldn’t want my mother referred to in such a way).

The tone and subject matter of the story dictated my writing style.  To present War of Words in a serious manner devoid of any humor would have failed the story, so there was a conscious effort on my part to inject dry humor into the telling.  I’d say most of the book is in my “voice.” The voice of history comes through in the newspaper excerpts I quote, which definitely influenced how I wrote the book.  One reader sent me an email and said they found the writing at times to be “sensational,” but the story by its very nature is a sensational one—and there was nothing modest about nineteenth century journalism.  The writing style has to compliment the overall tone of the subject matter.

When it comes to striking a balance, I think you let the story do that.  There are passages in the book that call for humor, while others—such as the Chinese race riots—require a more serious tone.  When you’re “in the zone” and tuned into the subject matter, you know what emotion to convey on the page.

I love some of the nineteenth century insults that you mention in War of Words. In particular, “blackguard” and “blatherskite.” Have either of these words made their way into your casual vocabulary since you wrote the book?
Yes, the insults in the book are wonderful!  I have dropped both “blackguard” and “blatherskite” into casual conversation on several occasions to good effect.  I also like the word “mountebank,” which is still used today.

 What are you working on now?
In October, Penguin will release Human Game: The True Story of the ‘Great Escape’ Murders and the Hunt for the Gestapo Gunmen.  This details the Allied manhunt for the Gestapo death squads who executed 50 participants of the famed Great Escape, which is depicted in the classic Steve McQueen movie.  The book is scheduled for a UK release early next year.  I’m also in discussions with UK Publisher The History Press to write a book detailing a curious case that happened in 1940s England.  I’m always planning ahead and pondering my next project.

Speculation on the Origins of Santa Claus, Part Four: Coca Cola

(Continued from yesterday.)

No discussion of Santa Claus would be complete without some mention of Coca Cola. I’ve heard more than once that Coca Cola invented the contemporary image of Santa Claus as part of a holiday-themed ad campaign. Snopes.com, however, notes that while Coca Cola did start using Santa Claus in their ads in the 1930s, images of what we now think of as the “traditional” jolly old elf were appearing on magazine covers and in advertisements throughout the first few decades of the twentieth century.

Yet while Coca Cola may not have “invented” Santa Claus, I wouldn’t be surprised if they helped to proliferate his image. What’s more, with the kind of corporate backing that a company like Coca Cola could provide, it isn’t surprising that the concept of Santa Claus eventually helped to turn Christmas into the commercial bonanza that it is today.

To sum up, though I’ve probably left a lot of the “ingredients” that have fed into our contemporary conception of Santa Claus out of this discussion, a few of the major ones are illustrated below. Saint Nicholas gave us his name. Krampus gave us the chimney. Odin gave us a fondness for winking and an odd predilection for associating footwear with the holidays, Martin Luther reminded us to keep the Christ in Christmas and thereby unwittingly gave us Chris Kringle, and Coca Cola helped turn Santa Claus into an agent of commercialism.

Personally, I’m rooting for Krampus to make a comeback.

Speculation on the Origins of Santa Claus, Part Three: Chris Kringle

(Continued from yesterday.)

So there’s Saint Nicholas, who was known for his generosity, Krampus, who was known for sliding down chimneys, and Odin who had one eye and a horse with eight legs. But none of this explains why Santa Claus sometimes goes by the name Chris Kringle.

This one, I think, we can trace back to Martin Luther. In line with his interest in reforming Christianity, Luther was way ahead of his time when it came to putting the Christ back in Christmas. One of his big concerns around the Christmas season was that Germans were more interested in the feast of Saint Nicholas, which was celebrated on December 6, than in the birth of Christ. To fix this problem, he told everyone to remember the Christkindl or Christ Child.

My guess is that Luther’s exhortations worked for a little while, but when Germans started emigrating to America, the Americans misheard “Christkindl” as Chris Kringle. Somewhere along the line, Chris Kringle got conflated with Santa Claus, and we ended up with this song, which you may recall from your childhood: