Buzz Knight 00:00:04
Well, William, it’s so nice to meet you and thank you for taking a walk here at the North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts.
William Martin 00:00:12
Yes, one of America’s most important historic sites. And I’ve visited a lot of them in the course of writing twelve novels.
Buzz Knight 00:00:21
So you’ve been here a couple of times, I would gather.
William Martin 00:00:24
Yeah, I used to drag my kids over here at nine in the morning on a holiday morning, or even earlier than that, to see the battle reenactments. I think that now that they’re older, they appreciate my excitement, but at that moment they didn’t.
Buzz Knight 00:00:43
Well, of course, the reenactments still go on.
William Martin 00:00:46
Yeah. And if you have the right mindset and you allow yourself to travel back a little bit in time, when you’re at a place like this, you can get back there very easily. It’s basically what I do in my novels. And no matter whether we’re writing about the 18th century and I’ve written about that day in another book, Harvard Yard, or whether you’re writing about 1941, as in my newest book, December 41. And I can see the colonial troops coming down the hill that we’re walking up. I can see the British back there on the bridge. I can see the columns of smoke rising behind us where the British are burning the stores and munitions and conquered, and it all comes to life for me, and my job is to bring it to life for you.
Buzz Knight 00:01:50
Well, you just beat me to the question. I was going to say, for those that don’t know where we are or haven’t been here, paint the picture. And you just painted it so wonderfully here. Of course, right now it’s a quiet day here, but at one point this was not such a quiet place, right.
William Martin 00:02:10
One little moment in time when this spot became the pivot point of the rising and falling of empires, actually, when you think about it, because up until the struggle at the Old North Bridge that we just walked across, there was no expectation that the struggle would become as aggressively armed and violent as it became on that day. And then, of course, continued for the next eight years. The British marched out from Boston, about 16 miles out to here, and all of the Farmers minutemen gathered to tell them, no, you can’t take our stores, no, you can’t stop us from doing what we’re doing. And it was the beginning of the American Revolution.
Buzz Knight 00:03:10
So when did you know that the history bug had gotten you?
William Martin 00:03:14
Probably when I was a kid, seven or eight years old, down in Plymouth, Massachusetts, with my family at the summer house we used to have down there. And we’d go out and visit the pilgrim sites and got all excited when the replica of the Mayflower came cruising in. I really started then to have that imaginative skill to transport myself back to a particular place and time and see the surroundings that I was inhabiting, like this space, the way that it all looked on a particular day when history was made in that place. That’s a long time ago. Then I read a lot of history books and things like that, and that was what got me started. And then, of course, I fell in love with all the historical movies of the late fifty s and early 60s, like Lawrence of Arabia and Mutiny on the Bounty and pictures like that. And I decided I wanted to be a movie director.
Buzz Knight 00:04:39
So where did that end?
William Martin 00:04:42
Well, I went to Hollywood and wrote well, first I attended the USC Film School, where I quickly figured out that the easiest way into the movie business was to write a good screenplay. And all of my screenplays tended to be about historical subject matter. I wrote one about the Gold Rush. I wrote one about the struggle for water rights in Southern California in the 1920s. And all of these were admired. One, even one fellowship given by the famed Hal Wallace, the producer of Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy, and a lot of other big movies, and nevertheless, nobody wanted to produce them.
Buzz Knight 00:05:52
Was it just the whole fundraise pitch thing? Well, that you were challenged with?
William Martin 00:05:59
There are a lot of reasons why in Hollywood somebody doesn’t want to produce what you’ve written. The thing for me was that a producer finally said to me, you know the way you write, and when they tell you that, grab your hat because you’re on the way out the door. The way you write, you ought to write a novel. And so, being supplied with what I called the arrogance of naivete, which every young person entering the arts needs to have, that refusal to accept the odds, I said, okay, I’ll write a novel. And I wrote one, and it was about Boston and the history of the city.
Buzz Knight 00:06:53
Back Bay. Correct.
William Martin 00:06:54
Back Bay. And it spent 14 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and it’s still in print 42 years later. And it meant that I didn’t have to have a real job anymore.
Buzz Knight 00:07:06
And you got a $7,500 advance.
William Martin 00:07:09
Yeah, it was enough to persuade me to come back to New England from Southern California.
Buzz Knight 00:07:22
After you almost killed yourself. Right?
William Martin 00:07:26
Yes. You’ve done your research. You’ve dug deep.
Buzz Knight 00:07:30
Well, if I’m with a man who lives by doing research, I better do some research.
William Martin 00:07:35
That’s right. Yeah. I fell off of a cliff and I fell about 40ft and made a mess. But I survived. I bounced back, as I have in other events as well, in the writing of the new book. December 41. I was sitting there at the desk in April thinking, I promised them this book in six weeks, the week before my daughter’s wedding. Six weeks to finish, six months worth of work. How am I going to do that? And then I had a heart attack at the desk.
Buzz Knight 00:08:17
William Martin 00:08:17
Yeah, but I bounced back. I’m fine now. I see it. We’re walking uphill and I’m talking at the same time.
Buzz Knight 00:08:27
Well, you like walking. You are a guy who likes to walk. Or even well, I used to say power walk.
William Martin 00:08:34
Right. I used to run I used to run four and a half miles every other day. And then I finally stopped doing that. And I still like to get out and do a couple of miles every day and my wife does too. So we use that as our daily exercise.
Buzz Knight 00:09:05
To be able to walk where history is so rich and it’s so beautiful. So back to when you cracked your code with Bay. What went into creating that code? Basically, that you created this ability to take history and bend it upside down and these twists and turns subplots. How did you know you crack that code?
William Martin 00:09:37
Well, all that I knew when I finished that book was that I had achieved the thing that Stephen King has always said. Let’s go. Right. Stephen King has always said is at the heart of popular fiction, and that is narrative thrust. I knew I had given the readers a propulsive experience. Something different too, because in Back Bay the chapters go back and forth from past to present and then back again. And it was pretty unique then. Not many people had been doing that kind of narrative structure. In addition to having all the oomph that the book has fights and sinking ships and battles and storms at sea. Lots of action. Lot of action.
Buzz Knight 00:10:35
I feel like you’re in the middle of a movie.
William Martin 00:10:38
Well, because I was trained as a screenwriter at USC, I think like a screenwriter, I think from scene to scene rather than from internalized experience to internalized experience. Which is, I think, the way a lot of novelists write. And I think that that has always helped me to write books that seem to be clipping right along no matter what. And that’s the main objective when you’re working in the field of popular fiction. And I think it was Orwell who said the only real barometer of literary success is longevity. And I figure Back Bayes lasted 42 years. Cape Cod, another one of my books, is now 30 years in print, 31. So I’ve had a fair amount of longevity in the business of writing books and I’m still at it.
Buzz Knight 00:11:42
So you seem like a very gentle sort somebody who just got a calm demeanor, certainly. How do you develop these sinister, nasty characters committing devious crimes and murders?
William Martin 00:12:02
You just read the newspaper. That’s all you have to do. People think that Stephen King is probably the most frightening ogre imaginable when they have never met him. I knew King years ago and people would say is he as scary and as crazy as we think he is? I said, no, he’s the most normal guy in the world. But he has an imagination and he is skilled enough to bring forward the elements of that imagination in order to create something that captivates the world. And on a smaller scale, I guess I’m sort of the same kind of person like King. I like the Red Sox when they’re playing well, and I read a lot. Stephen King is a great proponent of making sure that if you want to be a writer, you should be a reader as well. I write a lot. It’s a discipline. It’s a process of sitting down every day for 8 hours a day and trying to fill pages. Some people have page counts as writers. Robert B. Parker, who used to write detective novels, the late Robert B. Parker, would write five pages a day. King has a I don’t think he has a word count. He basically sits and, as he says, excretes his writing. And then he would stop in the afternoon and read other books because he could write so fast. For me, it’s a matter of time, sitting at the desk for 8 hours a day, whether I turn out a sentence or 25 pages. And I’ve had both of those experiences in the process of writing a book. And it’s out of that kind of discipline, along with that screenwriting training and that awareness of what it is that makes a reader’s or an audience’s emotions jump and makes their heart run faster and so forth. It’s out of the application of discipline and the experience and knowledge that I’ve gained that I’m able to write the kind of books that I write.
Buzz Knight 00:14:31
But it’s like an out of body experience, isn’t it?
William Martin 00:14:33
It can be. Yeah, that’s true. It really is. I’ve had a few of those along the way where suddenly all you’re doing is you’re just a cipher for the characters and they are doing what they were born to do. They were born in your head and now they’re out there in the world living their lives and you are giving them a little bit of guidance and they’re taking you wherever they want to go. And that happens at the end of December 41 a couple of times. Robert Frost once said, no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. And I got surprised a few times in writing December 41, as I have with some of my other books, too.
Buzz Knight 00:15:23
Where were you influenced with your sense of humor in the books?
William Martin 00:15:28
I think we all have to have a sense of humor, especially these days. And naturally, if you grow up in a household with Irish storytellers everywhere, like my father, you’re you’ll develop a sense of humor. And to me, getting a reader to laugh is harder and more satisfying than getting them to gasp and horror or something. I don’t have the experience of sitting next to readers and doing this, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have a wife who waits until the very last sentence has been written on the first draft, and then she reads the book. And I’ll kind of eavesdrop on her when I think she’s coming up to a certain point. And if I hear her gasp at the midpoint turn, the big surprise right in the middle of the book. I got you. I know now that I have you and I’ll have every other reader, it’s just a natural instinct of mine that some characters are going to be funny, some of them are going to be smart asses. They’re like the people we meet in the world.
Buzz Knight 00:16:41
So how long of a process, generally, for your books, does it take from start to finish?
William Martin 00:16:46
Well, I like to say that it’s about three years. As one writer describes his experience. It’s a year of planning, a year of writing, and a year of selling. And for me, it’s something of the same experience. You adjust that timing a little bit, but between two and three years to write a book, and I have to admit that that’s a little too long a span of time, because the modern readership wants a book a year, and so the modern publisher wants a book a year. And it’s a difficult task for me to fulfill because these books, all of them, require a lot of research. In order for me to take you into American history, I have to spend a lot of time back there. I’ll do a lot of traveling to places like this if I’m writing about the battle at the Old North Bridge or as I wrote about the British retreat in the Harvard Yard. Or in December 41. The new novel. Which is about a German assassin who evades an FBI dragnet in Los Angeles on the day after Pearl Harbor. Because his job is to get to Washington and shoot FDR on the night that he likes the National Christmas Tree. In order to capture some of his experience, well, he rides on the Super Chief, the Grand Hotel on wheels. The Super chief no longer exists, but one car still does. The dining car from that train, or as it was known, that consist from that particular train, the one that the characters ride on, can be visited in the fantastic Railroad Museum in Sacramento, California. We went there, and I walked onto that car, and I took pictures of everything, including the menus and all of the menus that they work from in the book, exactly what was on the menu in December of 1941. And doing that helps to give me, as a writer, a sense of that out of body experience that you’re referring to, a sense of just being back there. I know what Santa Fe French toast tastes like, and I can create that experience for you. And once you’ve tasted the French toast in the breakfast scene on the railroad car, you’ll go with anything I give you. After that, you’ll follow those characters anywhere because I’ve brought you right down into their lives and into their experience. And that’s why you do so much research when you write one of these big historical novels. And that is why it may take up to three years to write them.
Buzz Knight 00:19:58
And maybe like stopping off at the bar at one of the legendary haunts in La.
William Martin 00:20:03
We did that, too. Yeah. You’re talking about the scenes in Musso and Frank, which, of course was, and still is a famous watering hole right on Hollywood Boulevard where people like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charlie Chaplin and many others were known to have bent an elbow from time to time if the walls could talk. I know that’s right. And in my book, I have a couple of scenes in Musso and Franks, and it was fun to bring in a few Hollywood characters like Humphrey Bogart in one scene and John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich in another. They’re in the midst of an affair, which is a rather unusual coupling, as you can imagine, and yet it really was going on. And I have a great ability when I go into a place like Musso and Franks to see the ghosts, just feel their presence and then go home and write about it.
Buzz Knight 00:21:07
Or you have the ability to find that The Three Stooges had had a little short. That’s right, that’s right, the Nazi short.
William Martin 00:21:16
Yeah. You Nasty Spy, it was called. And I’ve watched it. You can find it on YouTube and it’s actually pretty funny. Of course, you need to have a certain sense of humor to like The Stooges. And it’s lost on my wife and on my daughter.
Buzz Knight 00:21:33
But not your son
William Martin 00:21:35
I know my son’s like it, too. But I had a great deal of fun in creating American popular culture from the bottom to the top in this book. The first third of the book takes place in Los Angeles because, first of all, Los Angeles was a hotbed of neo fascist activity, which I never knew in the late thirty’ s and early forty’s. The book opens with that FBI raid on a neo Nazi compound down in the canyon off of Sunset Boulevard. And that canyon and that compound are real. You can still visit them if you know where to look. And it’s a creepy place, let me tell you. And I thought to myself when I first read about that place, that compound where they had built power plants, water tanks, fuel tanks, and they had engaged a famous Los Angeles architect named Paul Williams. I don’t think they knew he was black, by the way. They had engaged a famous Los Angeles architect to build a 40 room mansion, the plans for which you can still find in the UCLA archives. A 40 room mansion that was to have been Hitler’s western White House. So, wow, it was really an interesting place. And I said, Someday I’m going to begin a novel there. This was after I’d read a magazine article years ago about it, and then I got the idea for this particular story. I got the idea for it while I was watching the movie Darkest Hours with Gary Oldman as Churchill. Sure. Fantastic movie. And there is an amazing scene where Oldman is on the phone talking to FDR down on a secure line down in the basement of his headquarters. He’s begging FDR for help. France is falling, Nazis are advancing on Dunkirk. And FDR says to him, I can’t help you because American politics ties my hands. And as I was watching that scene, I said to myself, in a year and a half, right after Pearl Harbor, Churchill and Roosevelt will stand together on the South Portico of the White House and light the national Christmas tree. And what a target they will make. And out of that insight, through the that novel, it’s amazing. It was like a lightning bolt. Some novels take a long time to pull up out of the earth of your consciousness, and sometimes you’re just hit by a lightning bolt and there it is.
Buzz Knight 00:24:31
William Martin 00:24:32
Buzz Knight 00:24:33
Well, so in closing, I wanted to ask you, thinking about the times and how many every day there’s another strange story, certainly coming out of the January 6 hearings. Mike Pence afraid to get into a car with a Secret Service member. Just these things that are wilder and wilder. So, I mean, might we ever see something written by William Martin around this?
William Martin 00:25:10
I think about it. I wonder. And then I ask myself, who do I really want to spend time with? The people who are running around today like Donald Trump or FDR and Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln in one of my earlier books? And I come down on the side of the giants. I think that it’s important that we draw lessons from American history that will, in a way, light the pathway for us ahead, because we need those lessons from American history. We need to understand that those people, like the people of today, were human beings. They had Foibles faults, flaws and aspirations, and they found a way to subdue the Foible’s faults and flaws and answer their best aspirations. And that’s what we hope for in the modern era as well. Whether we get it or not remains to be seen. And I will keep looking to history because it’s a great teacher for all of us.
Buzz Knight 00:26:31
I like that recommendation better than my suggestion or my thought on it, let’s just say. Well, congratulations on your latest body of work.
William Martin 00:26:43
Buzz Knight 00:26:43
December 41, but all of your great work, and I’m grateful that we got to take a walk.
William Martin 00:26:50
This is fun. I’ve enjoyed this. This is a great way to do an interview.
Buzz Knight 00:26:56
Thank you, William.
William Martin 00:26:57
Buzz Knight 00:26:58
Taking a Walk with Buzz Knight is available on Spotify, Apple podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.