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Festival of Books: Hochschild, Goodheart, Nagorski put fresh faces on old conflicts

April 21, 2012 |  2:08 pm

Click to view photos from the Festival of Books

A better title for the Saturday morning L.A. Times Festival of Books panel "History: War & Remembrance" might have been "Putting a Face on the War."

Authors Adam Goodheart, Adam Hochschild and Andrew Nagorski underscored with moderator Diane Smith how finding the right character to focus on allowed them to tell oft-written stories about wars in a fresh way.

For Goodheart, author of "1861: The Civil War Awakening," it was about making the military conflict about more than "lines and arrows on a battlefield map." He was lucky enough to find a peach basket of mouse-eaten source material tucked away in an attic to help him tell that story.

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"I've got my friend beat on the number of books written about the war I focused on," said author Hochschild, who followed Goodheart on the panel. "There's something like 139,000 titles written about my war."

That would be World War I, the focus of his book "To End All Wars," and a conflict he found intriguing not only because it represented, in his words "the original sin of the 20th century," but it was a war in which "rich people and the their families died."

"Lord Salisbury had 10 grandchildren and five of them died in this war," he told the crowd in the Hancock Foundation auditorium. "What fascinated me was what did these men think ordering their own sons into battle?"

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He found the perfect vehicle for his story when he realized that Sir John French, British commander in chief on the western front, was the brother of anti-war activist Charlotte Despard. "I looked around and found several divided families and used them to tell the story of this war about which everybody had a moral viewpoint."

When the panel's attention turned to Nagorski, who wrote "Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power," the author couldn't resist tweaking his fellow panelists. "I will see you and raise you on the number of books written about my war," he said to the amusement of the audience. " Have you heard of this guy Hitler?"

Nagorski explained that while much had been written about Americans living in Paris in the run-up to World War II and many individual accounts of Americans living in Berlin during the same time, there wasn't much that focused on the American community as a whole.

"The real place to be at that time was Berlin," Nagorski said. "Berthold Brecht and Marlene Dietrich were there, Albert Einstein would flit in and out. ... Americans were quite popular in Berlin in the '20s."

He was intrigued that "very smart Americans  -- some of the best journalists and writers -- couldn't get a fix" on Hitler and his potential as a threat. (Indeed, he said the title of his book came from the name some journalists gave to Germany in the early years of Hitler's rise to power.)

To help tell his story, Nagorski focused on an eccentric assortment of journalists, writers and society folks "that casting directors in this town would have a hard time making up." He referenced some interesting details too, such as an anecdote in his book in which one of these characters might well have prevented the future fuhrer from committing suicide. "There was also a lunch where Herrman Goering showed off his pet lion," he said.

After the panelists spoke, the floor was opened up to questions, with several focusing on the the source material for such stories.

One audience member wanted to know how to begin winnowing out the thousands of World War II era letters a grandfather had written to create a narrative story. Nagorski's advice: "You need to figure out what your central story is," he said. "What is going to carry the reader through? What moves the story forward? Then you leave the rest out. At first you'll be terrified that you won't have enough, but you will."

"Make sure you don't store your letters in a peach basket," Goodheart chimed in. "The papers we found were in such danger of being destroyed by mice, the students nicknamed them the 'mouse turd papers.' So I suggest you digitize whatever you can to preserve it."

The last question came from a history teacher who asked what advice she could give to her students whose grandparents were among the Navajo code talkers who broke code for the Americans during World War II.

"Get those stories down as soon as you can," Goodheart advised. "And have them capture it in a way that strips away the veneer that history textbooks use [to talk about war] ... in a way that isn't just lines and arrows on a map."


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-- Adam Tschorn

Photo: Author Adam Hochschild Credit: Kim Kulish / For The Times