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tv   Neal Bascomb The Escape Artists  CSPAN  January 2, 2019 7:10am-8:02am EST

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some of these authors have appeared on booktv and you can watch them online@booktv.org. you are watching booktv on c-span2. for a complete television schedule visit booktv.org. you can follow along behind the scenes on social media at booktv on twitter, instagram and facebook. >> ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the national world war i museum and memorial located right here in kansas
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city, missouri, where it has been since 1926 and it is our honor, in particular this year, the year of the centennial of the armistice on the western front, to welcome you all, whether you are here in our auditorium for joining us on youtube or if you are joining us on c-span for a continuing part of the conversation about the stories and the enduring impact of world war i. this evening we are so pleased to be in partnership with another gem of a cultural institution, rainy day books, who continue to bring spectacular speakers looking at all sorts of history fiction. one of my favorites was a cookbook author who came in
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town and you should take a look, find out about what is happening at any of these places do take a look on our websites. ours is www. the world war.org. it is my honor and pleasure to invite the president of rainy day books to the podium so she can share the website where you can find more information as well. ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming vivian jennings. [applause] >> thank you, laura. you can check our calendar. we would live to have you join us anytime. rainy day books is pleased to partner with the museum tonight. we do it all the time and love to be here. we are pleased to partner tonight to host neil bascom, award-winning author to talk about his new book the escape
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artist on the 100th anniversary of this amazing escape. neil is also the author of the winter fortress, the perfect mile, the nazi hunters, and red mutiny among others. please help me welcome neil bascom. [applause] >> good evening. technical difficulties, sorry about that. thank you, vivian, thank you to the world war i museum for having me here and thank you for coming out on this cool september evening. fantastic work on your part.
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this is the beginning of my book tour and generally i'm slightly nervous at the beginning of these events, but yesterday i spoke to 500 eighth-graders. i think i can handle you all this evening. whenever i start on writing a new book i often ask myself i always ask myself two questions. one, do i have something important to say with this book? to be perfect we honest, i wrote this whole book without knowing exactly what that was. it was the first time. i did that because i just wanted to write a really cool escape story. i'm fascinated by escapes, escape from alcatraz with clint eastwood was one of my favorite and i knew i had to write one. this labor day i took my family to san francisco and asked my 11-year-old and 13-year-old what do you want to do while we are in san francisco? go to the ferry building?
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to ride over the golden gate bridge? do you want to ride a cable car? my 11-year-old says i want to go to the rock. i want to go to alcatraz. so we did and took the ferry out there and on the way my 11-year-old said it just seems so impossible. how could they have escaped? on the way back, she looked at me and she said they must have really wanted to be free. i am not trying to liken murderers and robbers and the like to pows in world war i but there is a fundamental notion of wanting to exercise one's own will, to live one's own life and to be free and the drive to do whatever it takes to obtain that and that is what is important in this story about these pows in world war i.
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the second question, do you have something new to say? with this story i was welcomed by the families of these soldiers and pilots to give me their memoirs, their letters so that i could really bring this story to life. i will begin with a description of james bennett. james bennett in world war ii, every friday morning he would go to his daughter's room while she was sleeping, she would unlock a locked cabinet in her room, he would take out some slides, take out some various gear like compasses and the like and put them in his briefcase, left before she was away, took the train into london to switch to a car and then was delivered secretly out across, he was in world war ii and agent for an i-9. it started at the beginning of
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the war. he would go and deliver lectures on the art of escape and these are his lecture notes that he would have in hand when he delivered those speeches. if any of you find yourselves captured later this evening or later next week, the number one rule is escape as soon as possible. at the beginning of the lectures he was a prisoner where the great escape i write about took place and he would begin by telling the story of an individual named david gray, captain david gray. he was born in india, his father was a bit of a drunk, he was a gambler and david wanted to be everything his father wasn't. he joined military school and return to england, he went on and graduated and joined the british india army and served in the early parts of the war
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in the british -- in the early parts of the war in the british indian army. in late 1915 he saw two planes flying overhead and decided that is the service he wanted to join so he joined the royal flying corps. the royal flying corps was one of the original air forces. it was not that long before kitty hawk. the brits along with many others did not quite know what they would do with an air force. the general -- i love this quote because brits have great quotes. one of the generals at the beginning of the war said an air force planes were useless and expensive, advocated by a few individuals whose ideas are unworthy of attention. when asked how many planes he needed he said two. when world war i began, over the front, they began to learn
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these planes were quite good at reconnaissance. they could be used to bomb behind enemy lines. they could also be used to thwart german attacks, a rapid increase in the number of pilots, planes that were needed. david gray was part of that. to recruit these pilots, it was a strange process. they were generally oxford, cambridge, will the daredevils. when interviewed, whether you want to join the rfc, one of the initial questions is how good are you at riding a horse? doesn't seem terribly helpful. one of the other questions was you prefer tennyson or shelley? as if your preference of one writer versus the other would give you some sort of edge in a dogfight. these planes were basically wooden, cloth and piano wire strung together. the engines were not terribly trustworthy.
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in training alone, one quarter of these budding pilots were killed. on september 1916 overheated battle over the front, david gray was shot down. he was not alone. that morning at the breakfast table, there were three pilots who had not come back the day before. the average lifespan, in the most heated part of the war was 17 hours in the air. 17 hours, it was quite high. david was shot down in a dogfight, the leading germany, his second-in-command was shot down by the red baron on his first dogfight. davidson found himself captured. he was captured in the same
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week this individual, cecil blaine who is 19 years old, was the youngest individual in the squadron and the classic rfc pilot, daredevil, rode a motorcycle who showed up with his own plan and wanted to fight. the other individual i talk about a lot is casper -- don't on his first flight in the air. they found themselves in germany in a world of pow camps. at this time what they were getting themselves into. and particularly when it came to pows and in germany alone,
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1.6 million pows and a vast sea of men. and what to do with pows, that had evolved over history. in the byzantine days there was an emperor who captured 14,000 soldiers, he blinded the lot of them and had the march home. by 1916 that had evolved, in 1899, 1907, attempted to civilize war and done a reasonably good job about it. such a sea of men largely depended on where you ended up, how you were treated. for the british, for david gray and the like? they came under the thumb of carl von heinous.
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lost two battles, the lines were overrun, his son was killed, when he was demoted and sent overseas to the oto w camps. he was going to impose a harsh regime on every single one of them. cecil, casper and hundreds of other officers find themselves in camps. they find themselves in camps and the first thing they want to do particularly david gray's get out of there. david at one point dresses up as a german officer, david spoke 6 linkages fluently, the teacher of language, and indian. he walked straight out of the gate, he went 100 miles to the border and made the mistake of
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the town sign, and surrounded by german soldiers in the town. and spent two months in a room dehydrated, starving and nearly went bad. david was not alone among pows trying to escape, they were trying everything possible they could do, probably one of my favorites were some british soldiers buried themselves in a common yard in the afternoon while guards were looking the other way, had reads with which to breathe and when night came they dug themselves out and went over the fence. i love the russians, the russians in one of the first camps they went to build a balloon out of papier-mâché and attempted to fly themselves to freedom.
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that did not work out seriously enough. the balloon was burned, the question is why escape? i come to that question. an individual named will harvey, will harvey was an expert scout on battlefront one day, he went out alone so far he dropped into the german trenches, forward trenches and tried to map them out so the next attack they would have an edge. he was captured, two bayonet stuck at his chest and to give an idea who will harvey was, started to laugh uproariously. he identified one of the guards who looked like a childhood friend and thought that was the funniest thing he could find.
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a rather famous poet, one of the famous poets, he was into his poetry home and wrote a memoir of his experiences as a pow and he wrote about what was to be a prisoner and i will read a couple lines here. he cannot help them, he cannot join any more dreadful and glorious fight for england and her liberty, he is futile, there is no more terrible reflection for a man, her enemies are still unbroken, his idol, that is the essence of his trouble, the true agony of a prisoner. are you all poetry fans? this looks like a poetry crew. i will read this stanza will road and that i was able to see in this journal so that i could
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speak about him and recount what it was to be a prisoner. laugh, laugh loud, long-ago, adventure sauce and galant company saving stagnation, laugh heartily. on this filthiest backwater, drift we and rot until something sets us free, laugh like old men with senses atrophied, nodding quite foolish on the fireside and seeing no flame but only either red and flickering embers, pictures of the past, lifelike a cinder dating black at last. that was life as a prisoner and that is why many of them wanted to escape.
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the germans decided they needed to build or construct the camp that was like alcatraz unbreakable. all these rascals like david and cecil who keep trying to escape over and over again so they build this clan, it is to be there alcatraz. the prisoners thought these former barracks would be a prisoner's mecca with clean air and a wonderful time. when they arrived they discovered that would be far from the case. inside a prison inside a prison inside a prison, and interior barbed wire fence, dead man's own and another wire fence. there were guards around-the-clock rotating, changing schedules, and german
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shepherds patrolling the perimeter. the camp was overseen by an individual named carl niemeyer. carl was a tyrant of the first-order, he was a bully, he spent 17 years of his life in the united states, he was born in germany, he spent if you believe them, was a bartender in milwaukee at one point, a billiard maker, a spy, he was sunk at sea and saved the whole crew. he thought in the front, niemeyer was a liar and he was not a very likable individual. the british who have a great way of putting things called him everything from a cad to a low bread ruffian to the personification of hate to a cheat to a plausible rogue to a coward with all the attributes of one, he deceives, he's cruel, he blusters, he is dishonest, he cringes.
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not even carl's dog likes carl niemeyer and it was an item of great humor among the prisoners, these cartoons you are seeing in this presentation come from will harvey's memoir comrades in captivity. the first thing, you will never escape from here. david gray and cecil and any number of others arrive at this camp and they do what they do it every other camp which is us out how to get out of there as soon as possible and they try any number of things, to tie the movement of the guards and go over, leapfrog over three perimeter fences. that doesn't work. they decide to break through the walls and try to go through the gates and that ends up badly for them.
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they build a long shoot, 16 feet long, they put rails on and extend out of the window and shoot off of it over the wall, that did not work. they landed at the foot of the yard and david gray, who twice now had escaped near the border, twice brought back and punished severely decided that the next time he went out he was going to make it what they are called the home runs of freedom and needed a very good plan for that. he and a number of others go around the camp, reckoned leader for days and weeks and suddenly not suddenly, they decide the tunnel is really the only way out. the problem with a total is you need a place to start. you can't start in the middle of the yard. you need a hidden place.
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they made sure none of that existed until gray and his compatriots, 11 of them go into the barracks, down some steps into the basement and discover a blank partition wall underneath the steps. the thing about holtzman you have to understand is they gathered the most escape prone prisoners in all germany in one place, 500 officers all of whom escapes former camps. these individuals knew how to make fake walls, they knew how to tailor german uniforms, they knew how to pick locks, they knew how to tunnel, they knew everything you need to know about escape, gathered them all together and created an escape university. which was wonderful for david gray because they had a
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carpenter on hand. i need you to take this partition wall and created door out of the past two. the germans who passed by this hundreds of times a day, you need to press it and open up and go inside and close behind you without anyone knowing. and the origination for the tunnel, they started it in november 1917 and initially thought, to be there. they dug to that point by christmas of 1917. the problem is carl niemeyer at that point, we don't know whether he heard whispers of an escape or a tunnel but he began, all around the perimeter
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of the camp. to borrow up to the surface. the problem is there was no other place to go unless they extended the tunnel 70 yards to ride fields that were further away from the camp and they figured at night they can do that. none of the prisoners thought that was possible. them simply didn't want to do it. david gray is considered the father of the tunnel, said to the men, most of whom he was superior to in rank, we are going to build this tunnel, we will continue every day until we do. this does not quite characterize what it was like to dig a tunnel 70 yards to freedom.
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casper, who was custer phobic -- claustrophobic, describes a letter to his family the feeling of going down in the tunnel and having an absolute panic attack, absolutely horrified of the darkness, the mustiness and cramped quarters of it. you could basically in the tunnel they were building, you had to crawl in on your belly, you could not raise yourself more than on your elbows, you were digging more - no more than a foot a day. sometimes with the end of your bedstand, chiseling away at the dirt, rats would scurry over the back, dirt would fall down the nape of your neck, cave-ins were frequent. it was a horrifying, tough, sweaty, dirty, miserable work they did day after day after day. they needed to support the tunnel. in order to support the tunnel they needed would. the only would they had access
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to was bedboard that were supporting their beds, they began stealing those been boards from every prisoner in the camp. by the time the tunnel was 50 yards you could not sit in your bed without going through it. which was rather humorous. you go through the spring, run into a stonewall. they encounter steel that they need to burn through an acid, entry point to the problem is not discovered. there is any number of mishaps on the way but finally by june, july, the tunnel is far enough and they need to begin to prepare to escape. it wasn't enough to just get out of the camp.
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david was the exemplification of that. he got away and was recaptured. he knew you not only needed to get out of the camp but you needed a foolproof plan to get to the border. you needed food, you needed a compass, you needed maps, you needed a plan to get there. 150 miles to the netherlands. they would have to go to enemy occupied germany. there would be a manhunt for them. they needed to circumvent towns. 150 miles was about 200. on the night of july 2324th, close to midnight when they began, 29 officers went through the tunnel before it caved in.
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they planned for 70 to make the run but they were cut off. all the movement through the narrow tunnel, it collapsed, if you men were buried and had to be dragged out by their feet to be saved. cecil who is on the left, david in the middle and casper on the right. so you look at that a moment and see the difference in their faces, the solomon us of their cheeks, their narrow frame. they had lost a quarter of their weight while in camp. niemeyer instituted a starvation diet. he was cruel to them at every point. he would often walk the yard issued his pistol at the windows. they were degraded throughout the process. the night of their escape they were weaker to begin with. david gray decided he needed a foolproof plan and he probably came up with the most ingenious one that i have ever heard in a prison escape. he who spoke german fluently
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decided to impersonate an orderly from an insane asylum. his assistant would be cecil blaine. there is his forged id identifying him as carl holtzman, the assistant orderly, from an insane asylum near the dutch border. casper kenner would be acting as an insane asylum patient who escapes and is on the run, david and carl holtzman have been captured and are bringing him home. and they start moving -- one of the first villages they come to they are confronted and can't go around anymore. they tell the local villagers
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and police who they are. david begins to explain who casper is. when casper suddenly goes into an apoplectic fit and starts foaming at the mouth or and wriggling on the ground acting like a crazy person, cecil blaine who has just aspirin, pops a pill into casper's mouth, casper goes still in the villagers just want them to get out. and so their route to travel to holland begins. they enact this a couple other times and prevent themselves from being recaptured. it took 15 days to make it to holland. the tunnel is discovered soon after the break out in the morning. carl niemeyer orders his guard to go in the tunnel to find the origination point. he tries to send his dog down into the tunnel, the dog is too
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smart for that. he orders prisoners to dig it up. it took 20 days to find the fake paneled wall, they found it when they came through the beginning of the tunnel. my second favorite part of this story, lieutenant colonel charles, a senior officer at holtzman, one of the last men out of the tunnel. he wasn't going to look around with hiking 150 miles at night through the german countryside. he was going to take a train. and a perfect businessman suit, he has a lovely hat, he showed up at the local train station,
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he was free. he was the first one to make it back. when he sent a telegram which we have, i have, to carl niemeyer at the camp. i will read you what the telegram said. having a lovely time stop if i ever find you in london stop will break your neck stop. [laughter] >> that is one of many characters in the story who is amazing. they arrive in holland, they are sent by ship back to britain. they are heralded by the king
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of england, they are lauded in national newspapers and international newspapers, it was a huge propaganda win for the british. it was exactly the kind of derring-do against german might the allies needed in the darkest time of the war. i like to bookend these stories and answer questions, returning again to james bennett. this is james when he was a young man in world war i. james was shot down over the north see as a royal narrow naval air service observer. he landed, he and his pilot landed in the north the, they were captured by nothing other than a submarine who pulled up essentially right underneath them.
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he was taken to germany, taken to holtzman and was one of the ten who made it home. in world war ii he served as an mi 9 agent throughout his family knew nothing of it. to give you an idea of the impact of mi 9, the impact of james's work and other holtzman escapees and other prisoners of war from world war i, serving as the genesis of mi 9. 573 british and commonwealth prisoners found themselves behind enemy lines, captured, escape to freedom in world war i. over 33,000 escapes in world war ii, british, commonwealth, and american. you can hold it too large measure to mi 9, not only the lectures they delivered to pilots, sailors, soldiers, but
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also to the escape alliances they created. it was a remarkable achievement and in every way james bennett was a hero. his children knew nothing of it. he died when he was 83. he had never spoken a word of service with mi 9. it wasn't until lori pictured to the left and graham pictured on the right began to go through his affects and began to find train receipts in world war ii that his father had taken to air stations and the lecture notes and even the compass that he invented for service men to use if they found themselves captured. he was an absolute hero. i'm proud to write about him here in escape artist and i hope you all have a chance to read about him as well. thank you very much. [applause] >> i'm happy to take questions.
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any brave souls? >> how did you survive talking to 500 eighth-graders? >> i spoke very quickly. had f torture, poetry, lunatics and the golden. they stick around for the rats. >> they threw that in as well. >> what is the next great story of world war i and world war ii that no one has written a book about? >> that is quite a question.
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if i knew i wouldn't tell you. that is the first thing. and i have to say, i'm not saying this, in the national world war i museum, that is reservoir that remains unsold, and world war ii, rightfully or wrongfully, the focus of attention from popular narrative, but many others. i was happy to write this book about world war i and my editor at scholastic suggested to me that i write about watching escape from alcatraz every 6 months.
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do you want to tell that story? paul brickhill is a much better writer than i am. it was written about and shown to death. there is such a rich story in world war i and that is what i want to write about but if i do find out the great next story, should be sure to look for my name at a local bookstore. thank you. >> our next question are coming up. we are happy to be partnering with scholastic to present some really great world war i educational material which highlights the book you will be signing later. your question. >> two things. really curious why you feel this gentleman didn't tell his family about his history and what he was doing with mi 9. i find it interesting he never disclosed that. you had a previous slide
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showing artifacts they used during the escape. can you go back and tell us what those were? >> i can. >> the answer to the first question. james as i understand from lori, his daughter who i spoke with, she was very generous with all his affects, he was a very humble guy and he was a very secretive guy and even though we now know much about mi 9's formation, there have been books written about it, it was his duty to keep it to himself. that is who he was. he was a quiet hero. that is the best way i can explain it.
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the prisoner's war receives parcels, the officers could. they could draw on their bank accounts. they send packages, pretty much anything they wanted as long as it wasn't considered contraband. the germans respect to the parcels so they had things. they wrote secret messages in the letters twice a month asking for the supplies they wanted. sometimes they wrote it in secret ink, sometimes missing letters in their letters home. this is our tongue. i know you all of your ox tongue. that was delivered to the camp. in it was these compasses and wire cutters. down below, not exactly sure, these might be the train
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timetables. i know they are train timetables, he was sent the information on when the trains left from which town, they were hidden inside a shaving brush. and that is the town the train stop, the last train stop he walked across the border at night. >> i. thank you for coming, such an incredible story. i want to hear about how you dove into your research and what the process looked like. >> i love research. generally these books take between two or three years, i spent two of those years on the research. the general process is everything written on the subject, not only in this case about pows, mi 9 and escapes in
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world war i, a vast shelf of world war i escape memoirs which are wonderful. once i got to the end of that i couldn't interview anybody, these events happening 100 years ago. what i really wanted was firsthand information, memoirs, letters, diaries. i spent a lot of time on ancestry.com. which was a weird thing to say but i need to find the granddaughters the distant cousins, strange people i met who had information and collected all these memoirs from these individuals. cecil blaine for instance who tragically was killed 6 months after he escaped. had begun to write a memoir of
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this experience as a pow and his escape. i found the handwritten memoir. in it, he basically stops almost mid page. he wasn't able to complete it but he was able to write about when he was shot down, what the experience was like tunneling, all this gritty firsthand information that illuminated what the story was. same with will harvey. i had all his journals that he not only wrote his poetry but his thoughts at the camp, scores, i collected those when i wrote the book. >> two questions please. first i noticed when you write these books you do a young adult edition. was goes into that? do you leave out the footnotes and that sort of thing? what is your target audience?
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second, tell us about your journey, what got you writing these historic novels -- excuse me. historic events. >> about 5 years ago i got approached by an editor at scholastic, very sharp woman named cheryl klein and she read my book about the hunt for adolf eichmann in argentina and she thought that would make a great book for fifth grade on the lower end of eighth grade to ninth grade levels. she wanted me to take that adult book and cut it down by a third. if you are an author, it was an emotional process, i will say. to say the very least. innocence what i did or didn't
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with escape artist which the scholastic addition is called grand escape, i take the core narrative, the core action and focus on that. i strip away a lot of the history and character sketches instead of three pages on david gray it is a very tight paragraph. that said i don't change the language. i don't know whether that means that i write simply or the students can read to that level but i spent no time worried about the language itself. i have been fortunate enough that the kids love these stories. i probably derive most if -- most of my pleasure writing these books knowing kids are reading them voraciously. my journey as a writer, i was a
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journalist overseas for several years. i wrote six very bad novels. i'm a terrible novelist. but i love to write. i came up with this idea to write about a skyscraper war in 1929, a true story about two architects who were partners and became bitter enemies and one built the chrysler building and another built the bank of manhattan building. it was a true story and i found that was the kind of writing i do best and the stories that i love and so i am doing it 18 years later, thank you. >> just wondering, why has this prison escape, why does it not have, the great escape in world
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war ii caught public imagination. there is a very famous movie very sick on drama and thin on facts but very popular movie. why is the story not as compelling? >> you can't compete with steve mcqueen on a motorcycle. i think that is the main problem. it is a great question. i think this story, if you -- i just recently reread the book on the great escape by brickhill. i purposely didn't read it, i read it a few years ago. i didn't read it for writing this book because i didn't want it to influence me but the echoes of the great escape in this story about holtzman or as the prisoners called hellman, are so remarkably similar.
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i argue quite easily that the individuals who performed the great escape, the real one, were influenced by the lectures that mi 9 gave. they practiced or lectured in the art of escape. similarities between the origination point, how it was supported and how they kept it secret and how they wanted to limit it to a tight group in the beginning, too numerous to overlook. i would say the great escape of world war ii stole the thunder in many ways harkening back to the first question asked this evening, world war i getting cast a little bit in the shadow of world war ii and that is why i love telling the story. >> i knew there would be other questions, but you have the opportunity during the book signing to ask them. i will take a challenge and say
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there is a cooler man on a motorcycle than steve mcqueen. if you check it out on www. the world war.org, go to our online collections database and type in motorcycle, the gentleman asked name is vernon coffee. one of the coolest men i have ever seen in a photograph and it is from world war i. >> i stand corrected. >> you should check it out. you should also check out the book the escape artist. most of you in our audience have it with you tonight. if you are joining us online go to your independent bookstore or rainy day books and if you are not going to buy it always go to your public library. latest gentlemen, please join me in thanking of a charming neil bascom. [applause]
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>> booktv is television for serious readers, all weekend every weekend, join us again next saturday at 8:00 eastern for the best in nonfiction books. .. >> a divided government returns to washington with the convening of the 116th congress.
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democrats assume control of the house of representatives while republicans increased their majority in the senate. this congress has been described as the most diverse in history with over 100 new members coming to washington including more women and minorities than ever before. join us at noon on thursday as the 116th congress gavels into session. watch your member take the oath of office, the election of a new speaker, and the congress began its work. new congress, new leaders live on c-span and c-span2. >> c-span covered an event marking the 50th 50th anniversy of the civil rights movement in northern ireland and the shared experiences found in the federal movement happening during the 1960s in the u.s.

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