Martha Brockenbrough UNPRESIDENTED Interview
I’m thrilled to have Martha Brockenbrough back on Dreamwalks for another Creative Conversation!
The many-talented Martha takes on every genre with finesse from picture books like Love, Santa, (a perfect family read this month), to historical fiction, Alexander Hamilton –Revolutionary, to her acclaimed novels, Devine Intervention, and The Game of Love and Death, 2016 winner of the Washington State Book Award. Today we’re celebrating her newest brave release, Unpresidented: a Biography of Donald Trump
Feiwel & Friends (December 4, 2018)
“A riveting, meticulously researched, and provocative biography of Donald J. Trump”
Martha’s offering a signed copy of Unpresidented to some lucky Dreamwalker. Listen in. Join in. We’ll watch for your comments.
Janet: It’s great to have you back, Martha B.
Martha: It’s good to be back. Ah, the miracles* of technology.
* Miracles that sometimes feel of questionable value.
Janet: No kidding! The tech “connects” the world, but it can drive me nuts. Happy you made it here today to share about Unpresidented hitting the bookshelves this month. Tell us a bit of the story behind the book, will you?
Martha: I’d love to. So for starters, Unpresidented is an unusual book. Most biographies of presidents written for young readers present the man (it’s always been one) in a favorable light. The morning after the 2016 election, I woke up sick to my stomach that children would be presented a false version of Trump. On the campaign trail, we’d seen a lot of unsavory behavior: from lying (most statements he made were at least partially false) to misogyny, racism, and religious bigotry.
I also knew enough about Trump to know his business record was dotted with bankruptcies, and that he’d failed to pay contractors on many occasions—and as someone who’s worked as an independent contractor for 18 years, that didn’t sit well with me.
So I wanted to write a factual story about the president. And even though my editor told me she didn’t have the stomach for the book, I embarked on an intense research project. I read everything I could get my hands on, and I started keeping a timeline of the rapid news developments (I used Excel with lots of columns to tag categories and label sources).
What I learned made me feel this book was even more urgently necessary. His relationship with Russia, which I had shrugged off when it came up during the campaign, struck me as astonishingly worrisome. His continued lies lay the groundwork for authoritarianism—the opposite of the system of government most Americans cherish.
One thing writers are told never to do—return to an editor who’s rejected a project—I did anyway. A year into Trump’s presidency, my agent returned to the brilliant and fierce Jean Feiwel, who has published three of my nonfiction works. This time, she was eager to publish. (It just goes to show, there aren’t really rules, and passion and persistence do tend to pay off when applied with a bit of diligence and humility.)
Anyway, this book covers his entire life and beyond. It reaches back in time to his grandfather’s immigration (meant to dodge the German draft and the thing that cost him his citizenship). It covers how his father made a fortune with the assistance of the American taxpayer. And how Trump’s business decisions during his career left him worse off financially than if he’d never worked at all. And it also covers his campaign and the first 540-some days of his presidency chronologically–this is something most books about Trump haven’t done, and it was astonishing to see all of the turmoil covered as it happened. (Sometimes, we don’t learn about something until it’s reported months later, and seeing all of this stuff when it was actually happening creates a clearer picture.)
My mission was to write a meticulously researched book that identified key patterns in Trump’s life. His behavior. His attitudes. His values. This gives a young reader—or any reader—a faithful understanding of who the 45th president is. There are more than 1,400 footnotes. There’s extensive back matter. And it was vetted by fact checkers and a lawyer, so I feel confident it is the trustworthy guide that readers need and deserve.
Janet: You know how you hear the phrase, “A must read”? I usually dislike that phrase, but in this case, I feel like shouting it. Thank you for taking the time to do the intense research, for forging ahead knowing how important this work will be for all of us. You are a lighthouse. Gratitude also to your editor, Jean Feiwel, for bringing this book out into the world. What sources did you find the most helpful?
Martha: The independent American (and international) print media is, in many cases, doing a solid job of covering the Trump administration—and it’s not an easy job for a lot of reasons:
• The lies are frequent, and it takes a great deal of time and is very difficult to disprove a lie (trust me on this).
• The news cycle is relentless. Trump creates so much news and controversy that it’s hard to follow it all thoroughly, and it’s hard to give everything proper context.
• I particularly valued single-subject timelines journalists laid out (for example, the timeline of Mueller’s Russia investigation). These were useful to me as I created one truly massive timeline I used to organize the material for the book.
I also read books about Trump, some by Trump, some by critics, and some by allies. These were useful—and I note that Trump’s allies also play fast and loose with the truth in a way that his critics do not. For example, in Let Trump Be Trump by Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, who’d worked on the campaign, Lewandowski says “check the video” for proof that a journalist jumped a barrier and made a lunge at Trump. I did check the video. This did not happen. (And this is why Lewandowski was initially charged with assault, though the charge was dropped.) Think about how brazen this is. He knew book readers were unlikely to check the video and were likely to be persuaded by someone assuring them there was video evidence. To be honest, this makes my blood boil.
The Congressional record was also helpful. I found the testimony of Trump’s father who’d been accused of pocketing $4 million in windfalls he engineered, worth many more millions in today’s dollars. His defense: It was sitting in a bank account so he hadn’t “pocketed it”.
I also found Trump’s racist testimony about Native Americans. And I watched him lie under oath about not knowing Felix Sater, a Russian mobster who went to jail for stabbing a man in the face and then worked with the Trumps to build the Trump SoHo, a project that almost resulted in criminal charges against Trump’s two eldest children.
A lot of research went into this. Dozens of books. Thousands of news articles. Hours of video footage. Thousands of pages of depositions and sworn testimony. This is why the spreadsheet was such a necessary tool.
Oh! And Trump’s own Twitter account is oft-cited.
Janet: I’m freshly stunned at some details I’m learning for the first time here. I know this will happen again and again as I read Unpresidented, and I welcome this resource. The factual chronology will give me a firm place to stand. So much of the flurry that happens every day feels like scaffolding. Everything is shaking. Having the history, the facts, will empower my actions whether it’s marching, signing petitions, speaking out against racism or atrocious behaviors like tear gassing of the asylum seekers at the U.S. border.
We focus on the creative process here on Dreamwalks, so I’d like to turn the spotlight on the person behind the project for just a moment. How did you live while writing this book, Martha? I cannot imagine the stress of dealing with all the research and then sorting out just how you’d approach the writing. Can you share about that?
Martha: I’d just finished writing the biography of Alexander Hamilton, so the form was familiar, and that helped. One challenge was that I did not know how—or when—the book would end until just a few weeks before my deadline. And it was a very tight deadline. February-August 15 of this year.
I was fully immersed in it all day, every day during that time. This was hard, of course. The deadline alone, plus the pressure of being accurate and fair without falling into the false equivalency trap that can be so alluring.
But I thought of the kids from Parkland. I thought of their generation and how much they have been imperiled. I thought of immigrants and refugees. They don’t get a day’s break from the pressure of living in Trump’s America and along Trump’s border. Nor do the people of color who are threatened by white supremacists—and a white supremacist publication was the first to endorse Trump. Make no mistake. His values are theirs.
So, while it was extremely challenging, it was also a privilege to get to do this work and to serve humanity in a way that I know is important and right. It might not surprise you to know that the evening I handed in my final page proofs, I got sick. And I stayed sick for weeks and ended up needing a chest X-ray to make sure I didn’t have pneumonia. I didn’t. It was just an all engaging ordeal and my body was able to hold out exactly as long as I needed it to, and not one day more.
Janet: Yes. I believe that, Martha. This was a long mental and emotional march. I should have bought you some soup! It’s moving to hear how you continued this hard work by remembering those who are traumatized every day by Trump’s policies. And your commitment to tell the truth to youth.
To SUSAN SAUNDERS, who started me on this path.
And to the Parkland generation: You know what to do.
You’ve used your skills, knowledge, and passion to empower the rest of us. And now Unpresidented is about to hit the stands. Are you ready? What are your hopes, dreams, concerns?
Martha: I’m almost ready! Whenever I bring a new book into the world, I try to get the word out. And I’ve done that. I also host a local launch event, and I need to make a slide deck. Part of my research uncovered some EXCELLENT photos of Trump, who is a master entertainer.
My hopes are that people will appreciate the seriousness of this work–I believe in telling the kids the truth. Everyone, really. But a large segment of our population bristles at that when it comes to young people. This is where you get arguments that YA is too “dark,” and that it’s somehow bad for kids to see reality represented through the metaphors and devices of story. Look, my fellow adults: If you don’t like the world, work to change it. You make things worse by lying to kids about human weaknesses.
I would also like this book to make it into a lot of libraries. That kind of depends on the courage of others. The book will be criticized as “fake news.” It isn’t. Not one shred of it. But we are living in an age of weaponized, politicized falsehoods, and not everyone has the guts to stand up to that. I am confident in librarians, though. They remain guardians of the truth.
I confess to having some fears. Trump critics have received bombs in the mail. So I have taken certain security precautions—steps made necessary by the president’s violent and reckless rhetoric. Otherwise, though, like all writers, I am still at work. I teach and I write new books. These next few weeks represent the last of my efforts for this Trump book. Unless, of course, I write a sequel, which is entirely possible.
Janet: Okay, I have to say I’m worried for you too, brave one. And glad to hear you’re taking some security precautions. I hope you’ll be dealing with this book’s launch for quite a while — in a good way. We need this book.
Loved the book launch at University Bookstore in Seattle December 7th, Martha! Thank you so much for taking the time to give us the fascinating background behind your new book, for sharing how you went about it, for putting yourself out there so that we can have the facts that empower us all to respond effectively.
Martha: What a pleasure to chat with you, Janet. Thank you, and happy writing and reading!
More about Martha:
And now for the book giveaway!
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