The award winning author of ten books and dozens of stories in national magazines, Dean King has a deep and abiding passion for historical and adventure narratives.
King’s latest work, Unbound: A True Story of War, Love, and Survival, about the 30 courageous women who walked 4,000 miles across China with Mao Zedong, in 1934, was published in the spring of 2010. While crossing eleven provinces, the 30 women forded dozens of raging rivers, scaled ice-covered peaks on the Tibetan Plateau, and survived ambushes, bombings, severe hunger and thirst, typhoid fever, and the births of half a dozen children. Their epic march helped reshape China forever.
What are you currently working on?
Next up is a retelling of the Hatfield and McCoy feud. Everyone has heard of the feud, but nobody knows the details anymore. Right now, I am really enjoying picking apart the threads of the various renditions of this fascinating bit of American history. The feud raged on the West Virginia-Kentucky border during one full decade, the 1880s, when America was undergoing a transition to its modern industrial state, and it has a lot to say about the people who settled our country, the changes it underwent during this crucial period, and how these determined families survived and thrived. The story also allows me to explore what are to me the endlessly intriguing Southern Appalachians. When Kentucky sent bounty hunters into West Virginia to kidnap Hatfields, the two states nearly went to war before the Supreme Court of the United States settled matters. It took a public hanging to bring the violence to a close. Oh, and there is a Romeo and Juliet story with a special twist in the mix as well.
Tell us a little bit about your writing journey, highlights, lowlights or a
My writing journey overall has been something of a quest for knowledge and enlightenment, and for adventure and craft. I follow my instincts and passions and what life throws my way, which is why I have written a book for fighting cancer (Cancer Combat; Bantam), companion books to a novel series (A Sea of Words and Harbors and High Seas; Holt); a biography (Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed; Holt), and two nonfiction narratives (Skeletons on the Zahara and Unbound; Little, Brown), among other things. The last two books took me to remote places in Africa twice and in China twice. I love the combination of uncovering an historical story both through its written history and its traces left on earth, be it in survivors, descendants, or physical clues. While writing the unauthorized biography of O’Brian, I went to Balinasloe, Ireland, to figure out that the author was not who he said he was and befriended his old friends and family in England, Wales, Canada, and Australia. Best of all was when I had the chance to connect the long lost bastard son of his older brother in Australia with the family in England. (The older brother had impregnated a farmer’s daughter before running off to become a platypus poacher; he was later shot down in a bomber over Germany and became one of the inspirations for O’Brian’s famous fictional sea captain, Jack Aubrey.) They invited me to their family reunion.
My goal is to feel like I am becoming a better writer every day. Writing is hard work, but it’s rewarding and it can be a lot of fun. You’ve got to find that intersection.
As an author who tackles historical events and the stories of survivors, what do you find more challenging?† Too much information or too little? How do you manage that challenge?
Too little information is the toughest challenge in writing historical nonfiction, because you can’t make anything up and conjecture gets monotonous fast. These challenges have to be finessed. For some important events they are insurmountable. I have experienced both situations, but usually you have too much information about some things and too little about others. If you have too much, you have to parse it back to the original sources as best you can and then work with the best analysis of those original sources. You discard the rest. Contradictory information can be troubling or it can be your best friend as a story-teller, because it represents conflict and tension. Writers need that to tell riveting stories.
What challenges have you faced when interviewing survivors and what skills have you honed to help with those challenges?
The first thing you have to do as an interviewer is prepare yourself. You want to know more about the subject than the person you are interviewing. That way you can immediately put what they are saying into context and know where to steer the conversation. You can also comment intelligently, winning the confidence of the person you are interviewing. Which brings me to the second thing you have to do: win the confidence and trust of the person you are interviewing. Sometimes that means just chatting on the first phone call. Sometimes it means saving difficult questions for follow up calls. All the while you are sizing them up for the depth of their knowledge on the subject, for their level of objectivity or motives for telling their story the way they do, and for their general reliability.
Patience is a virtue for the interviewer. Let the interviewee tell the story at their pace. This means you have to sometimes listen to digressions or opinions you’re not interested in, while gently steering the person back to your area of interest. But sometimes these digressions lead to interesting material that you did not know you would get. You want to have an indea of what you want to get when you go into an interview but be flexible enough to abandon preconceptions and follow the trail that unfolds before you. You need to be a good listener. Once you have the trust of your subject—that they know that you know your stuff, are competent and worthy of talking to, and are gathering their story with good intentions—they will want to tell you what they know. This usually applies even if they are on the other side of an issue. Most people involved in a historical event want to tell their story for the record. Of course, there are always exceptions.
Share your most helpful research tips.
Spend as much time in the stacks as you can. It’s not what you went for but what you find that you didn’t know existed. Start with the bibliographies of the best books related to your subject. Use research librarians. They are amazing resources and are often more than happy to have their skills put to good use. Take advantage of interlibrary loan. You can get almost any book anywhere you are, including, as last resort, books from the Library of Congress.
Try interviewing on the phone. It can be very effective. Your recording will be crystal clear. And the anonymity of the telephone can allow fewer inhibitions and thus deeper revelations. You’ll both be sitting in a comfortable place by yourselves, not worrying about what you look like, how you need to respond to conversation cues, etc. It’s easier to let the mind wander farther in recalling a distant event or place. A phone relationship can be quite wonderful. Differences in ages and experience can melt away. I find it very effective.
If you didn’t write true historical survival stories what would you write?
Why? Or if you didn’t write at all what would you do for a living? Why?
I’d probably write some form of historical fiction or perhaps some sort of epic Tolkien-like fantasy. I still might. I’m always collecting ideas. On the other hand, I like a good memoir too. I would write another biography if the right subject caught my fancy. If I weren’t writing, I’d probably be a documentary maker or try my hand at feature films. I like the idea of collaborating, but I am impatient, instinctive, and relentless. A long time ago, I’ll never forget it, an acquaintance looked at me and said, “Man, you’re the most intense person I’ve ever met.” I’m still not sure if that’s good or bad. I am passionate about my work and life, and believe that you should experience life in the most alive way you can, whatever that means. For me, it means participating without fear. Or rather, facing fears head on. That also means accepting a certain degree of risk. You have to figure out what kinds of risks you are willing to take. I don’t mind standing at a dais and speaking to 300 people, I’ll get rabies shots and trek in the Snowy Mountains of China or ride camels across the Sahara, I won’t hang from a mountain face suspended by ropes overnight. I’ve always had the confidence that I won’t fail any worse than the next guy. Some might call me bull-headed. Many partners I’d drive crazy.
Have you found unique marketing avenues because of your genre? Describe some of them.
Sure, when I was doing the Patrick O’Brian-related books, I found myself invited to speak at maritime museums, naval clubs, and yacht clubs around the country. I still get invitations on a regular basis. For touring, this is a slam dunk, especially the clubs, which usually plan a dinner or lunch around the talk and reel in a sizable crowd that likes to buy books. That allows me to also do bookstores in those towns, in places that I might not visit just for one of those iffy bookstore audiences. My work has led to a number of magazine assignments as well. I did a major feature story on my African travels for National Geographic Adventure and another on my China trek for Outside, which was also a cover story in Outside China. These gigs help pay for the research, bring desirable exposure for the book, and also provide a professional photographer to help document the research. I’ve later been able to use some of these amazing photos for presentations and on my website. .