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Powell's Q&A

Howard Blum

Describe your latest project.
Just after midnight on October 1, 1910, a series of explosions rocked the Los Angeles Times building. The building was destroyed, and 21 people were killed. Who did it? And why?

It was "the crime of the century," and the lives of three celebrated men intersect in its aftermath. William J. Burns, the American Sherlock Holmes, Clarence Darrow, the legendary populist attorney, and D. W. Griffith, the pioneering film director, all become involved in the mystery surrounding the bombing. And in the process, these three men (along with the women in their lives) struggle through their own emotional traumas as they help solve a great mystery — and help to transform America and the times in which they live.

Yet this true story is not just about the past. This account of one of the first acts of domestic terrorism in the nation's history continues to resonate. Warrantless wiretapping, suspension of habeas corpus, secret prisons, coerced confessions — many of the issues first raised in the response to "the crime of the century" are still very much part of the national debate as we face a new era of terrorism.

  1. American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century
    $4.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "This tangled and fascinating tale is the stuff of novels, and...Blum tells it with a novelist's flair....[A]n absorbing and masterful true crime narrative." Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    "[s] suspense with an astonishing cast of characters in the unfolding drama of the American labor movement. Completely riveting." Booklist (starred review)

    "Unfailingly entertaining." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
Coming out of graduate school at Stanford in the '70s, I was hired by the Village Voice, an alternative weekly newspaper in Greenwich Village. To be young in New York, to be armed with a Working Press Card that gave you access to everything that was happening in the city, to hang out all day (and many nights) in an office with lots of bright and quirky writers — well, it just doesn't get any better than that. It was our Paris. (Of course, it all came to an end after four years when I wrote a book that got some attention, and I put on a tie and went to work for The New York Times.)

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
It was Yeats's line, but Delmore Schwartz borrowed it for a collection of poetry: "In dreams begin responsibilities." It's something I always tell my kids: if you want something, if you have a dream, then you need to do the hard work that will make it possible.

How do you relax?
I like to run. After sitting at a desk for most of the day, there's something liberating and restorative about going for a three-mile or so jog. I don't use an iPod. I like to have the day's thoughts and experiences shuffle through my mind as I run — more often than not they begin to clarify and take shape. Running helps me to begin to understand.

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
For my birthday in July, I received a copy of Richard Price's Lush Life. I was overwhelmed by his technical skill: he makes even the most minor characters come alive in just a few sentences. The book takes place on New York's Lower East Side, and the neighborhood is immediately vivid, a character in the story. My next book takes place in 1900s Alaska, but the most valuable research I've done so far is to read Lush Life: I want to recreate the wilderness the way Price has recreated the streets of New York.

Why do you write?
Because I have to. I get up in the morning, and, if it's a good day, that's all I want to do. It gives me pleasure to tell a story, to craft a story and to share it.

Talk about your vision of the ideal life.
I would like always to be proud of what I do, and always to be challenged by it. And I would like the people I love to respect my work and to find comfort and maybe even a bit of wisdom in it. I would like to love, and to be loved. A comfortable chair, a good stereo, and a room with a view would be nice, too. And since we're talking about ideals, yeah, a cool car would be nice.

Do you read blogs? What are some of your favorites?
I start each day by reading the Huffington Post. Yeah, it's archly liberal, and its prejudices and sympathies are easily apparent, but I enjoy their take on the world. It's a political year, and I find the targets the various bloggers are aiming at and the combativeness of some of the posts all valuable ways to jump-start my own thoughts and opinions as we head to an election.

I also check out I like to discuss with my teenage kids the music they're listening to, and this gives me a head start. No better way of bonding than debating, for example, just what precisely Vampire Weekend means in "Oxford Comma" (which is a truly smart and wonderful song).

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

Five Books I've Given to Girlfriends:

A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul

Daniel Martin by John Fowles

The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth

The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

Why did I give these five books? Well, she wanted to be a writer. Everything you need to know about how to tell a story can, I believe, be learned from this reading list.

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Howard Blum is the author of eight previous books, including the national bestsellers Wanted!, The Brigade, and Gangland. Currently a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, Blum was also a reporter at the New York Times, where he won numerous journalism awards and was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his investigative reporting.


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