I’ve been asked, often, which phase of the book process I like best: The writing, or the research? I was just now musing on that question, because I have embarked on a new project and once again find myself happily engaged in the hunt for compelling bits of historical detail. That’s not to say that I like this phase any better than the actual writing. In fact, my favorite period begins when I have my first full draft in hand. But I do love the hunt, especially when it involves hunkering down in some dusty archive. Sometimes I feel a bit like a scholarly Indiana Jones, albeit without the whip or revolver. (“Microfilm. Why did it have to be microfilm.” Indy fans, you know the line I’m alluding to.)
It’s hard to explain. Call me boring, but I get this feeling of excitement with every new document from an archive, every trip to the library. Best of all is when I find something I know no one else has found or that has not previously been used to full narrative advantage, as when, in going through the papers of Martha Dodd for my latest book, In the Garden of Beasts, I came across the many love letters from her Russian lover, Boris Winogradov, and the two locks of hair from a previous lover, Carl Sandburg. When such things occur, something inside me starts to vibrate. It’s a bit like the moment when Sydney Greenstreet, playing the “fat man” in the The Maltese Falcon, first gets his hands on the wrapped parcel that may or may not contain the fabled jewel-encrusted falcon. I hasten to add, however, that I’m a lot skinnier.
I found something today. But I’m not going to tell you what it is–at least not now–because it’s never a good thing to talk about work in progress. Doing so is a little like letting steam out of a boiler, and a writer needs all the steam he can raise.
Speaking of Artifacts…
During a recent book signing, a kind reader gave me the 1930s-era postcard (postkarte) of Berlin’s Hotel Adlon, posted above. The hotel was considered the classiest hotel in Berlin, and received prominent visitors from around the world. As such, its bar became a haunt for agents of the Gestapo. I’d love to be able to slip briefly back in time and grab a seat at that bar–ein martini, bitte!–just to get a sense of 1930s Berlin and the mounting tension under Hitler’s rule. Then, however, I’d get the hell out of there. I tend to crack under torture.