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.

Writing About Literature (Pt. 3: Support)

Throughout the body of your paper, you will support or explore your main point or thesis. To do this, you will alternate between providing summary and analysis. In other words, you will spend some of your time pointing out relevant passages from the texts you are discussing, and you will spend more of your time explaining why those passages matter and how they relate to the main point of your paper.

Summarizing Texts

If you suspect that your reader may not be familiar with the work of literature you are discussing, you may wish to summarize the entire text before moving forward with your discussion. Summarizing a text usually involves describing key elements of the work (e.g., plot, characters, setting, themes, tone, and style) and focusing on details that are relevant to your thesis. Keep such summaries brief, as the majority of your paper should be devoted to analysis of the text in question.

If your reader is familiar with the text you are discussing, there’s still a good chance that you’ll need to provide some degree of summary. The difference, however, is that instead of sketching out the entire work, you might want to draw your reader’s attention to a specific passage in the work in order to analyze its significance in relation to your thesis. If the passage you’re examining includes a particularly moving or well-written line, your summary might also include a direct quotation. When you summarize a text or include a direct quotation, be sure to provide a citation so your reader knows where to find the passage you are discussing.

In addition to summarizing passages from the main text you are discussing (a.k.a. the “primary text”), you will also need to summarize material from any outside sources you are using to support or explore your argument (the “secondary texts”). To summarize a secondary text, provide your reader with some context by explaining the main point of the secondary text (in other words, its thesis), and then draw your reader’s attention to specific elements of the secondary text that are most relevant to your thesis.

As with your use of primary texts, you may wish to include direct quotations from the secondary text, particularly if the critic or scholar has stated a point in a particularly effective way. Be sure to cite any ideas or direct quotations you take from secondary texts.

Analyzing Texts

Each time you provide the reader with summary, you should follow it immediately with analysis. That is, you should explain how the passage you just described or quoted relates either to the main point of your paper or to a supporting point that you are making in a specific part of your paper. If you get stuck, you can ask yourself some basic questions like, “What attracted me to this particular passage?” or “How is this passage related to the point I’m making?”

Your analysis can take several forms. In the early stages of your academic career, it will likely involve explaining how a detail from an outside source supports your main point. As your writing advances, you will probably start to bring in opposing voices—scholars and critics who argue points contrary to yours. In such cases, your analysis will involve constructing counter-arguments or using such opposing voices to complicate your position and thus to bring greater depth to your argument.

One other form of analysis you can perform with primary and secondary texts is called synthesis. In its most basic form, synthesis means taking two differing ideas or terms and creating something new from them. As far as writing a paper is concerned, it’s usually a matter of placing two ideas or texts next to each other and explaining what happens when we consider them together. For example, if you read Moby Dick alongside Hindu mythology, you’re bound to come up with an interpretation of the novel that’s different from one you’d get if you read Moby Dick alone. Just what that interpretation is would be up to you as a scholar—and explaining that interpretation is a form of analysis.

Remember that for every instance of summary you provide, you also need to provide analysis. In fact, your paper should consist of more analysis than summary. As a rule, every time you provide details about a primary or secondary source, you should then explain why those details matter in relation to your thesis. To put it another way, the body of your paper will consist largely of alternating between saying (in effect): here’s a detail, here’s why it matters, here are some more details, here’s why they matter, here’s some information from an outside sources, here’s how it relates to my primary text, and here’s why it matters to my main argument. (And so on, and so on.)

Throughout your paper, be sure to stay focused on the text in question. In other words, if your paper is on Moby Dick and you start explaining something about Hindu mythology somewhere on page three, you better draw a clear connection between both topics right away, or your reader will be lost.

Recap

The main thing to remember when you’re writing a paper for a literature course is that you’re not just letting your professor know that you did the reading. Rather, you’re making a point about the text. To do this, you will need to alternate between summarizing portions of the text and analyzing them, as well as summarizing ideas from outside sources and explaining how they relate to your main point or thesis. In other words, you’re constantly alternating between saying here’s what happened and here’s why it matters.