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Powell's Q&A

Edward Dolnick

Describe your latest project.
My newest book, The Forger's Spell, is a nonfiction account of the biggest art forgery case of the 20th century. It's the true story of a small-time Dutch painter who dared to impersonate the great Johannes Vermeer. The con man's most famous victim was Hermann Goering, one of the most reviled leaders of Nazi Germany and a self-styled art connoisseur.

I'd written about art crime before. My previous book, The Rescue Artist, centered on the thugs who grab masterpieces off museum walls. This time I dealt with a higher class of criminal. Forgers look down on thieves — unlike snatch-and-grab men, who are brutes, they are artistes. (The thieves, naturally, see it the other way around; they are men of action, bold buccaneers, while forgers are timid souls drudging away in garrets.)

The swindler at the heart of The Forger's Spell was a no-account painter named Han van Meegeren. For seven years he managed to pass as one of the most beloved and admired artists who ever lived. But the twist in the tale — and the element that sets this case of forgery apart — is that the reason for the forger's success was not his artistic skill. Van Meegeren was a mediocre painter. His true genius lay in psychological manipulation, and he came within inches of fooling the world. Instead, he landed in an Amsterdam court on trial for his life.

  1. The Forger
    $9.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "Mesmerizing....Energetic and authoritative." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

    "Dolnick's compelling look at how a forger worked his magic leads to one sad conclusion: there will always be eager victims waiting to be duped." Publishers Weekly (starred review)

  2. The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece (P.S.)
    $8.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "An entertaining account of the eternal struggle between high art and low cunning." Time magazine
  3. Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell
    $6.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Written with authority and zeal, this rich narrative is popular history at its best." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Calvin Trillin. No writer has as appealing a voice. The tone is natural, informal, wry, because all the labor has been done offstage. Trillin is a gorgeous craftsman — watch, enviously, to see how efficiently he sets a scene, or how swiftly he nails a character — but he never strains and he never shows off. Start with Messages from my Father.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
The bulletin board next to my desk is thick with quotations scribbled on scraps of paper. The bulletin board itself has long since vanished, like a patch of lawn buried under autumn leaves. The quotations serve as reminders, rebukes, insight, inspiration.

"A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought, our stitching and unstitching has been naught."

"Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all."

"There is but one art, to omit! Oh, if I knew how to omit I would ask no other knowledge. A man who knows how to omit would make an Iliad of a daily paper."
Robert Louis Stevenson

"Nothing puzzles me more than time and space; and yet nothing troubles me less, as I never think about them."
Charles Lamb

How do you relax?
By watching basketball on TV, but it never turns out to be relaxing because the stakes are too high. I always resolve to watch simply for the athletic grace — "Why, look, it's ballet with a scoreboard!" — only to find myself desperately rooting for the Forces of Civilization to do in the Ruthless Brutes.

Describe the best breakfast of your life.
Why is it that no one can bear the thought of the same dinner twice in a week and yet we'll happily eat the identical breakfast every day for a year? I will, anyway. This year it's half granola, half bran flakes, topped with yogurt, raspberries, blueberries, and a blackberry. Sometimes I fall asleep in a good mood knowing what lies waiting in the morning.

Do you read blogs? What are some of your favorites?
Basketball blogs, the more obsessive and offbeat the more tempting., I love demented, learned examinations of such questions as who would play center on the all-bald team.

Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
Dogs — the bigger, the better. The incumbent officeholder is a 140-pound Great Pyrenees with a pathological fear of loud noises. Blue combines the noble appearance of a carved lion with the temperament of a hummingbird on speed.

Make a question of your own, then answer it.
Q: Name three great, scary read-aloud passages.

A: Great Expectations, Chapter One, Magwitch terrorizes Pip:

Now I ain't alone, as you may think I am. There's a young man hid with me, in comparison with which young man I am a Angel. That young man hears the words I speak. That young man has a secret way pecooliar to himself of getting at a boy.

The Hound of the Baskervilles, Chapter Two, Holmes is asking questions about footprints found near the body of a dead man:

"A man's or a woman's?" Dr. Mortimer looked strangely at us for an instant, and his voice sank almost to a whisper as he answered: "Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!"

The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson, "The Black City":

How easy it was to disappear. A thousand trains a day entered or left Chicago. Many of these trains brought single young women who had never even seen a city.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.

Five Nonfiction Books with Brilliant Opening Chapters:

The Path to Power: The Years of Lyndon B. Johnson, Vol. 1 by Robert A. Caro

Freedom at Midnight by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins

Maximum City by Suketu Mehta

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory by William Manchester

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

÷ ÷ ÷

Edward Dolnick is the author of Down the Great Unknown, The Rescue Artist, and Madness on the Couch. A former chief science writer at the Boston Globe, he has written for the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, and many other publications. He lives with his wife near Washington, D.C.


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