Discover more from Read More Books
A Few Bookish Questions With Bestselling Author Neal Thompson (and a Giveaway!)
I’m thrilled to introduce you to Neal Thompson, whose most recent book, The First Kennedys, was just named one of the best history books of 2022 by Amazon. I reviewed it when it was published back in the spring and have thoroughly enjoyed his newsletter since it was launched around the same time.
Given that it’s Black Friday week, I should be convincing you to buy something. Instead, Neal and I are giving away a copy of his book! Click below to enter the giveaway:
You have a week to enter — it closes on Monday the 28th at midnight Mountain Time. If you still feel the itch to buy something, be sure to check out all of Neal’s books.
Be prepared to add to your TBR after reading this interview.
1) At first blush, the subjects of your books are rather varied: an astronaut, car racing, football, fatherhood, Robert Ripley, and most recently, the Kennedy family. Is there a through-line that connects the things you write about?
Ah, the same question my agent asks every time I suggest a new book idea! He’s been very patient with me over the years. When I set out to break free from my job as a newspaper reporter and try writing books (20 years ago!), I decided to only pursue stories I really cared about, only those with real, complex, human, and interestingly flawed subjects. I’ve never veered from that.
But I do think the connective tissue, even if it may not be obvious, is chronicling eclectic and overlooked Americana. I try to tell stories about people, warts and all, striving to make it in a hard land, overcoming hurdles and hardships, aspiring to live big American lives. I also try to focus on a specific time and place, a world and a community — 1880s Boston; the 1960s space race; 1930s southern racing.
2) Though your books are non-fiction, your newsletter, Blood & Whiskey, focuses on fiction, largely in the mystery/thriller category. Do you read novels as a break from all the (presumably) non-fiction reading you do for work?
I love novels and especially crime fiction. It’s my distraction reading, my dark and gritty escape from real life into make believe. For my nonfiction books, I’m often reading so much historical and archival research material that I find a murder mystery to be the perfect antidote.
At the same time, that reading serves another important role in my actual (non-fiction) writing life. I find crime-fiction writers to be some of the best writers, period. At its best, crime fiction gives us complicated characters, interesting locales, and human drama. And I love that more than a few came from a journalism background like myself (Laura Lippman, Ace Atkins, Dan Fesperman, Michael Connelly). I enjoy trying to figure out how they do what they do. Is that forensic reading?
3) What are some of your all-time favorites in that broad category of mysteries and thrillers?
Too many to list, and I know I’ll forget some, but a few favorites are: Megan Abbott, Dennis Lehane, Peter Heller, Louise Penny (a recent addition to the faves list), Attica Locke, Ace Atkins, Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos, Ivy Pochoda, Kem Nunn, Don Winslow, Joe Ide, Chris Offutt, Percival Everett, Daniel Silva . . .
And among the classics: Patricia Highsmith, George Simenon, Andrea Camilleri, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Margaret Millar.
I wish I had a better habit of re-reading certain favorites, but I seem to be always looking for the next new book or author. For example, I’m very eager to dive into Everybody Knows, coming in January from Jordan Harper.
4) Are there particular books or authors that have especially influenced your own approach to writing non-fiction?
When I was first considering the leap from daily journalism to non-fiction books, there were a few writers whose work inspired and awed me — Erik Larson, Laura Hillenbrand, Ben McIntyre, Buzz Bissinger, Tim Egan, and others who were writing nonfiction books that read like novels, even thrillers.
I admire their ability to make the deep research required for a great non-fiction book to disappear beneath a propulsive, vivid story packed with great characters, dialogue, action — just like the best crime fiction.
I’m also inspired by more recent non-fiction faves (Candice Millard, Rebecca Skloot) and the consistent work of two friends and incredible writers, Karen Abbott and Denise Kiernan.
5) You also write about whiskey and cocktails in your newsletter. What’s your go-to cocktail when you’re at a new bar? At home?
Well, here’s a secret . . . I used to be a devout Manhattan guy. I mean, I loved the drink — it’s elegant, potent, adaptable, classic. But during the pandemic something got tweaked in my 50-something-year-old system and my favorite ingredients — whiskey, bourbon, rye — no longer sat comfortably in my gut.
So even though I write a newsletter called Blood & WHISKEY, lately I’ve tapered off the brown-liquor drinks and have been trying more gin and tequila drinks. Probably the favorite of the moment, which ranks right behind the Manhattan (and alongside its cousin, the Boulevardier) is the Negroni. Equal parts gin, Campari, vermouth. But I’ll add a shoutout to the French aperativ, pastis, which I discovered on a late-summer trip to Marseille, where I speed-read a trilogy by French crime writer Jean-Claude Izzo, whose effed-up ex-cop protagonist makes regular stops at Marseille bars for a pastis or three.
6) What are you reading and enjoying right now? What’s next on your list?
As you know, the list is always long and ever-changing.
Like you, I had contributed a newsletter post to the “Notes from Three Pines” homage to Louise Penny, so I’ve been tearing through the Inspector Gamache books. I recently got an advance copy of the next book in the series (#18), so I’m about to dive into that. I just finished Now Is Not the Time to Panic, by Kevin Wilson, which was wonderful. I just started Properties of Thirst, by Marriane Wiggins, whom I’ve never read. It’s set in California just after the Pearl Harbor attack and it’s about water, land, L.A., and the creation of the infamous Japanese internment camp, Manzanar. Also coming up: Everybody Knows, by Jordan Harper and Exiles, by Jane Harper (no relation), both out in January. Also, I recently received a stack of George Simenon from Penguin and plan to chip away at those as the days get darker.
7) Are there books you find yourself referencing, thinking about, and/or recommending over and over again? Basically, do you have any all-time favorites that have shaped your life and your thinking?
One book I always have within arm’s reach is Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain. I’ve recommended it, given it away, made my two sons read it. Ben’s next novel is coming in a few months and I can’t wait.
Non-fiction writers I admire and whose books I keep nearby for motivation: David Grann, Patrick Radden Keefe, Beth Macy (former newspaper colleague), Tim Egan, Candace Millard. Also Katherine Boo’s amazing Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
Since I’m constantly collecting new books I occasionally do a big purge and donate a pile to one of my many neighborhood Little Free Libraries. But there are of course those I can’t/won’t part with, including: So Much Blue by Percival Everett; the collected works of Margaret Millar (from my friends at Soho press); The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, by Bob Shacocchis, an amazing book that’s stuck with me; Life Among Giants, by Bill Roorbach; The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller. And there are a few writers whose books I’ll always buy, read, and keep: Megan Abbott, Colson Whitehead, Andre Dubus. I also love me some Irish: Kevin Barry, Colum McCann, Tana French, and Donal Ryan.
Don’t forget to enter the giveaway and thanks so much for reading! I deeply appreciate your time and inbox space.