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tv   Neal Bascomb The Escape Artists  CSPAN  November 24, 2018 9:10am-10:01am EST

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i went home that night and knew that i was writing this book. >> you can watch this and any of our programs in their entirety on type the author's name in the search bar at the top of the page. [inaudible conversations] >> ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the national world war i museum and memorial located in kansas city missouri, where it has been since 1926. 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 the auditorium, whether you are joining us on youtube or on
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c-span for 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 continues to bring a variety of speakers looking at all sorts of history, fiction and the recent cookbook author who came in and if you want to find out what is happening take a look at our websites, hours is www. the world and my pleasure is to invite the president of rainy day books to the podium and she can share the website where you can find more information as well. please join me in welcoming vivien jennings.
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[applause] >> thank you so much. you can check out our calendar. join us any time. rainy day books is so pleased to partner with the world war i museum tonight. we are happy to be partners with them. we do it all the time and we are pleased to be here. we are pleased to partner with them to host neil bascom to talk about his new book "the escape artists" on the 100th anniversary of his amazing escape. just so you know, neal bascomb is also the author of the winter fortress, the perfect mile, the nazi hunters and please help me welcome neal bascomb.
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>> good evening. technical difficulties. sorry about that. thank you to the world war i museum for having me here. thank you all for coming out on this cool september evening, fantastic work on your part. this is the beginning of my book tour. i'm slightly nervous at the beginning of these events, we spoke to 500 eighth-graders. i think i can handle you all this evening. when i start on writing a new book i often ask myself two questions. one, do i have something important to say with this book. to be perfectly honest i wrote
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this whole book about exactly what that was. it was the first time, i really wanted to write a really cool escape story. fascinated by escapes my whole life, escape from alcatraz was one of my favorites and i knew i had to write one. this labor day i took my family to san francisco. i asked myelin-year-old and 13-year-old what do you want to do in san francisco? go to the ferry building? eat delicious food? ride over the golden gate bridge? ride a cable car? myelin-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 seems so impossible. how could they have escaped and
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on the way back she looked at me and 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. and and with this story i was welcome enough by families of these soldiers and pilots to give me their memoirs, letters, so i could bring the story to life and begin with a description of james bennett. james bennett in world war ii, every friday morning he would
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go to his daughter's room, she would unlock a cabinet in her room, take out some slides, take out various gear like compasses and the like, put them in his briefcase and left before she was away, took a train into london to switch to a car and delivered secretly to stations across england. he was, in world war ii, an agent for mri 9. the brits started at the beginning of war. and and and the number one rule is escape as soon as possible.
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he was a prisoner where the great escape that i write about took place and he would begin by telling the story of an individual named captain david gray. david 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 when he returned to england, went on and graduated sandhurst and joined the british india army and served in the early parts of the war in the british indian army. in late 1915 he saw some planes flying overhead and decided that was the service he wanted to join so he joined the royal flying corps. it was one of the original air forces, not that long before kitty hawk. the brits along with many
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others did not quite know what they would do with an air force. i love this quote, the brits have great quotes. an air force plane is useless, and and when world war i began, and reconnaissance, used to bomb behind enemy lines and be used to for it german attacks, rapid increase in the number of pilots and planes needed to fight and david gray was part of that. to recruit these pilots it was a rather strange practice.
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oxford, cambridge, wealthy daredevils, and whether you want to join the irs see, one of the question is how good are you with riding a horse? it doesn't seem helpful. one of the other questions was do 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 would, cloth and piano wire strung together. engines were not terribly trustworthy and training alone, one quarter of these budding pilots were killed. september 1916 overheated battle over the front, david gray was shot down. he was not alone. that morning at the breakfast
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table, there were 3 pilots who had not come back from the day before. the average lifespan in the air for an rfc pilot, was 17 hours in the air. it was quite high. david was shot down in a dogfight, in germany, shot down by the red baron on his first dogfight. davidson found himself captured. he was captured the same weeks as this individual, cecil blaine, who is 19 years old, the youngest individual and a classic rfc pilot, daredevil, rode a motorcycle very fast, and wanted to fight. and there is casper.
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and in germany, in a world of pow camps. at this time the allies and germans had no idea what they were getting themselves into in terms of mass industrialized nature of it particularly when it came to pows. in germany alone, there were 1.6 million pows. a vast sea of men. there were questions what to do with pows. that evolved over history in the byzantine days, there was a number who captured 14,000 soldiers, blinded them and marched home led by one of every hundred.
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by 1916, the conventions of 18991907, a sense of the civilized war. and had done a reasonably good job but the question was with such a cd of men it largely depended where you ended up to how you were treated. for the british, for david gray, casper and the like, they came under the thumb of carl von heinous, the general who served on the front, he lost his battle, his son was killed and he was determined when he was demoted and sent to oversee these pow camps that he was going to impose a very harsh regime on every single one of them. so david, cecil, casper and hundreds of other officers are
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finding themselves in camps. and to get out of there. david dresses up, spoke 6 languages fluently. is name was munchy. he walked straight out of the gate. he made the mistake of mistaking a town time, and worked into police station and found himself surrounded by german soldiers. he was sent to a place where he was sentenced to isolation and spend two months in a room, and nearly went mad. david was not alone among pows trying to escape, they were trying everything they could do.
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one of my favorites, some british soldiers buried themselves in the afternoon while the guards were looking the other way and ways to breeze and when nice came they dug themselves out and went over the fence. the russians in one of the first camps david blaine and sees the gray went to build a balloon out of papier-mâché and attempted to fly themselves to freedom. that did not work out curiously enough. the balloon was buried and they were sentenced to isolation. the question is why escape? i come to that question and would rather use a good writer to describe that, an individual named will harvey scout, he
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went out alone and went so far he dropped into the german trenches and tried to map them out so they would have an edge. he was captured, two bayonets stuck at his chest and to give you an idea who will harvey was he started to laugh uproariously. he identified one of the guards who looked like his childhood friend and thought it was the funniest thing he could find. will was a poet, rather famous poet, one of the famous world war i poets, sending his poetry home during the war and wrote a memo of his experiences while a pow. he wrote brilliantly what it was to be a prisoner. he cannot help them, harvey wrote. he cannot join in the glorious fight for england and her liberty yet there is no more
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terrible reflection for a man. her enemies are still unbroken. he is idle. that is the essence of his trouble. the true agony of the prisoner. this looks like, are you all poetry fans? this looks like poetry. this is a poetry crew, good. i will read this little stanza that will wrote and i was able to see in his journal the family gave me his journal. so that i could speak about him and recount what it was to be a prisoner. this is one of the first poems he wrote, the beginning of it. laugh, laugh loud, long ago, soft and gallant company, safe in stagnation, laugh, laugh
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heartily while on the filthiest backwater of time, drift we and rot until something set us free, laugh like old men who's sense was atrophied, heating no presence to the future dead, nodding quite foolish by the warm fireside and seeing no flame but only i, the red, flickering embers and pictures of the past, life like a cinder fading black at last. that was life as a prisoner and that is why many of them wanted to escape. in 1917 the germans decided they needed to build or construct a camp that was like alcatraz unbreakable. you have all these rascals like david and cecil who were trying to escape over and over and over again and the germans are fed up and they built a place called holtzman and it is to be
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there alcatraz. the prisoners thought these cavalry barracks would be a prisoner's mecca, clean air and have a wonderful time. when they arrived they discovered that was far from the case. holtzman was in essence a prison inside a prison inside a prison. it had high walls surrounding it at interior barbed wire fence, dead man zone and another wire fence. there were guards around-the-clock rotating, changing schedules. there were klieg lights and german shepherds patrolling the perimeter. the camp was overseen by an individual named carl niemeyer. carl was a pirate of the first order, he was a bully. he spent 17 years of his life in the united states, born in germany. he was a bartender in milwaukee at one point. he was a billiard maker, a spy,
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he was sunk at sea and saved the whole crew. he fought on the front. niemeyer was a liar. he was not a very likable individual. the british who have a great way of putting things called him everything from it had to a low-grade ruffian to the personification of hate to achieve to a plausible rogue to a coward with all the attributes of one. he deceives, he is cool, he blusters, he is dishonest, he cringes. not even carl's dog liked carl niemeyer and it was an item of great humor among the prisoners in these cartoons you are seeing in this presentation come from will harvey's memoir comrades in captivity. the first thing was he would point at their chest and
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declare you will never escape from here. david gray and cecil and a number of others arrived at this camp and they do what they do it every other camp which assess out how to get out of there as soon as possible and they try any number of things, try to time the movement of the garden leapfrog over the three perimeter fences. that doesn't work. they decide at one point to break through the walls and go through the gates. that ends up badly for them. at one point they build a long shoot, 16 feet long that they put rails on and extend it out of the window and like a buggy shoot off of it over the wall. that did not work, they landed at the foot of the yard and so david gray who twice now has escape the former camp near the
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border, twice brought back and punished severely, decided the next time he went out he was going to make it what they all called the home run to freedom and he needed a very good plan for that so he and a number of others wreck and ordered over and over for days and weeks and suddenly, not suddenly, they decide the tunnel was really the only way out but the problem with the tunnel is you need a place to start it. you can't start in the middle of the yard. you need a hidden place. carl niemeyer and the holtzman guards made sure there was none of that until gray and his compatriots, 11 of them, go down some steps into the basement and discover a planked partition wall under the steps. the thing about holtzman you have to understand is they gathered the most escaped
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prisoners in all of germany into one place, 500 officers, these individuals new how to make fake walls and how to tailor german uniforms, they knew how to pick locks, how to tunnel and they knew everything you needed to know about escape and they gathered them together and created an escape university. which is wonderful for david gray because they have a carpenter on hands, i need you to take this partition wall and created door out of the last two planks. the germans who passed by this hundred of times a day cannot notice anything. you need to press it and have it opened up and go inside and close it behind you without anyone knowing. within an hour they had built this fake door and had the origination point for their tunnel.
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they started in november 1917 a few months after they arrived and they thought they would only have to go 15 yards to points, be there and they don't do that point by christmas of 1917. the problem was carl niemeyer at almost that point, we don't know if he heard whispers in the tunnel but he began to play sentries around the exterior perimeter of the camp right on top of where they planned to burrow up to the surface. the big problem with that is there was no other place to go unless they extended a tunnel 70 yards to some rice fields that were further away from the camp and that night they could do that. none of the prisoners thought
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that was possible. some didn't want to do it but david gray said to the men most of whom were superior to. we are going to continue every day until we do. this does not quite characterize what it was like to dig a tunnel 70 yards to freedom. casper, a claustrophobic, described in a letter to his family first going down in the tunnel and having an absolute panic attack, absolutely horrified of the darkness, the mustiness and cramped quarters. you could basically in the tunnel they were building you had to crawl in on your belly, you cannot raise yourself more than up on your elbows, you
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were digging no more than a foot a day sometimes with a spoon and 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 horrifying, tough, sweaty, dirty, miserable work they did day after day after day. i just want to bring back this slide. they needed a sports tunnel. they needed would. the only would they had access to was the bed boards supporting their bed. they began stealing them from every prisoner in the camp. by the time the tunnel was 50 yards you could not sit without going through it. which was rather humorous. they begin digging a tunnel, they go through the spring, run into a stonewall, they need to
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go through it, encounter some steel they need to burn through with acid, their entry points to the tunnel is not discovered but they need to find another way and because guards are placed with any number of mishaps happen on the way but 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. david was the exemplification of that. he got away twice and was recaptured. not only needed to get out of the camp but needed a foolproof plan to get to the border. you needed food, you needed a compass, you needed masks, you needed a plan to get there. 150 miles to the netherlands they would have to go through enemy occupied germany. there would be a manhunt for
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them. they needed to circumvent town so 150 miles was really about 200. on the night of july 2324th, close to midnight, 29 officers went through the tunnel before it caved in. they planned for 70 of them to make the run but they were cut off because of all the movement through the narrow tunnel collapsed and two men were buried and needed to be dragged out by their feet to be saved. cecil is on the left, david in the middle and casper on the right. look at them a moment and see the difference in their faces, the solomon us of their cheeks, their narrow frames. they had lost a quarter of their weight while in camp. niemeyer had instituted
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essentially a starvation diet at a certain point. he was rather cruel to them at every point. he often walked the yard and shot his pistol at the windows if you were looking. they were the greatest of men throughout the process so on the night of their escape they were week to begin with. david gray decided he needed a foolproof plan and probably came up with the most ingenious one that i ever heard of in prison escape. he who spoke german fluently decided he would impersonate an orderly from an insane asylum. his assistant would be cecil blaine. there is his forged id identifying him as carl holtzman, assistant orderly from an insane asylum near the dutch border.
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casper forecaster would be acting and an insane asylum patient who is on the run and david when carl holtzman recaptured them and were bringing him home. they got out of camp, start moving towards one of the first villages they come 2, they are confronted, can't go around anymore so they need to tell the local villagers and police who they are. david explains who casper is when casper goes and apoplectic fit, foaming at the mouth, wriggling on the ground acting like a crazy person. cecil blaine who has essentially aspirin pops a pill into casper's mouth, casper goes still and the villagers just want them to get the hell out. and so their roots to travel
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begin, they and act a couple of other times and present themselves from being recaptured. it took 15 days to make it to holland. the tunnel is discovered soon after the breakout, in the morning. carly meyer orders his guard to go to the tunnel where the origination point is, they refuse, it is too horrifying to them. carl tries to send his dog down into the tunnel, the dog is too smart for that. finally he orders the prisoners to dig it up. it took three days to find the fake panel wall. they only found it when they came up through the beginning of the tunnel. this is also probably my second favorite part of this story,
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lieutenant colonel charles raven born was a senior officer at holtzman, one of the last men out of the tunnel and he decided he wasn't going to muck around with hiking 150 miles at night through the german countryside. he was going to take a train. he spoke german fluently. he had one of the prisoners who was a taylor advise him, perfect businessman suit, a lovely hat, he showed up at the local train station, bought a ticket and 36 hours later was free. he was the first one to make it back. what is so delicious about this is he sends a telegram which we have, i have, to carl niemeyer at the camp. i will read you what the telegram says.
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having a lovely time stop if i ever find you in london stop will break your neck stop. that is just one of the many characters in this story who is just amazing. they arrive in holland, since by ship back to britain. they are heralded by the king of england. they are lauded in national newspapers, international newspapers. it was a huge propaganda win for the british, the exact kind of derring-do oh against german might that the allies needed in the darkest time of the war.
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i like to bookend these stories and answer questions if you have them. returning again to james bennett. this is james when he was a young man in world war i. james was shot down as royal naval air service observer, he landed in the north the, they were captured by nothing other than the submarine who pulled up right underneath them. 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. his family knew nothing of it and just to give an idea of the impact of mi 9, the impact of james's work and other
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prisoners of war who helped serve as the genesis of an eye 9, 573 british and commonwealth prisoners who found themselves behind enemy lines and captured escaped to freedom in world war i. over 33,000 escaped in world war ii, british and americans. you can hold it to large measure to mi 9, not only the lectures they delivered to pilots, sailors and soldiers but also the escape lines they created. it was a remarkable achievement and in every way james bennett was a hero. his children new nothing of it. he died when he was 83, spoke nothing of his service with mi 9. not until lori pictured on the left and graham pictured on the right began to go through his affect they began to find train receipts in world war ii that
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his father had taken to air stations and then the lecture notes and even the compass he invented for service men to use if they found themselves, he was an absolute hero, and escape artist and i hope you have a chance to read about him as well. thank you very much. [applause] >> i am happy to take questions if anyone has any. any brave souls? >> how did you survive talking to 500, eighth-graders? >> i spoke very quickly. i told them at the beginning i would give them 5 things over the course of the lecture,
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grizzly torture, poetry, lunatics and the golden rule and they stick around for the rest. >> always. cooties is a nice want to throw in as well. >> i would like to ask a question. what is the next great story of world war i or world war ii that no one has written a book about? >> that is quite a question. if i knew, i wouldn't tell you. i think that is the first thing. and secondly i do have to say i am not just saying this because i am at the national world war i museum but i do believe there are vast reservoirs of world
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war i stories that remain untold. for a very long time world war ii rightfully so wrongfully so has been the focus of attention from not only popular narrative historians like myself, but many others. i was so happy to write this book about world war i. my editor, scholastic, suggested i watch escape from alcatraz every 6 months. she asked me do you want to write, tell that story? i told her, i said paul brickell is a better writer than i am and it was written about and shown to death. there is such a rich story here and that is what i want to write about, but if i find that story be sure to look for my name. thank you.
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>> our next questioner, we are happy to partner with scholastic to present great world war i educational materials which highlight the book you be signing later this evening. >> two things, curious about why you feel this gentleman didn't tell his family about his history and what he was doing with mi 9. the other thing, a slide showing various artifacts they used during the escape, can you 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 at length, very generous with all of this, very humble guy and a
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very difficult guy. he thought even though we now know much about mi 9's formation and there have been books written about it, it was his duty to keep it to himself. that is who he was. just a sort of quiet hero and that is the best way i can explain it. the prisoners of war would receive parcels. they could even draw on their bank accounts. they were sent from home, packages, boots, pretty much anything they wanted as long as it wasn't considered contraband. they had things. they wrote secret messages,
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coded messages in the letters they wrote home twice a month asking for various supplies and sometimes they rose it by missing letters in their letters home. this is ox 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, i am not exactly sure but these might be trained timetables. i know they are train timetables rathbone used, he was sent the information on when the trains left from which towns, they were hidden inside a shaving brush and that is the town, the train stopped, the last train stop he walked across the border at night.
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>> thank you for coming, an incredible story. i would love to hear how you dove into your research and what it looks like. >> i love research. generally these books take between two and three years which i sent two years on the research and my general process is first, read everything that has been written on the subject, not only in this case about pows but mi 9 and escaped in world war i, a vast shelve of world war one row makes escape memoirs which are wonderful but once i got to the end i couldn't interview anybody, these eventss happening over 100 years ago. so i wanted firsthand information, those memoirs, letters, diaries.
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i spent a lot of time on i needed to find granddaughters, distant cousins, various strange people who for some reason had information and i collected memoirs from these individuals. cecil blaine who was tragically killed 6 months after he escaped began to write a memoir of his experiences as a pow and his escape. i found the handwritten memoir and it basically stops at the edge. 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 really gritty firsthand information that illuminates the story.
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same with will harvey. i had all his journals he not only wrote his poetry but his thoughts about his time at the camp and scores of things so i collected those and wrote the book. yes, sir? >> two questions please. first, i notice when you write these books you do a young adult addition. what goes into that? the footnotes and that sort of thing? what is your target audience? second, tell us about your journey as you started writing these historical novels, historical events. >> about five years ago i was approached by an editor at scholastic, a sharp woman named cheryl klein and she read my book on eichmann, in argentina.
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and she thought that would make a great book free sensually fifth-grade, on the lower end up to ninth grade level and she wanted me to take that adult book and cut it down by a third, which if you are an author, it was an emotional process, i will say, to say the very least but in essence what i did i did here with escape artist, the scholastic addition is called grand escape. i take the core action and basically focus on that. i strip away a lot of the history and character sketches. instead of three pages on david
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gray, it is a very tight paragraph. i don't really change the language. i don't know whether that means i write simply or that 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 story. i probably derive most of my pleasure writing these books knowing kids are reading them voraciously. my journey as a writer, i was a journalist for several years, then i was an editor in new york. i wrote 6 very bad novels. i'm a terrible novelist. but i love to write and i came up with this idea to write about a skyscraper war in new
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york about two architects who were architected became bitter enemies and one built the chrysler building and the other build the bank of manhattan building, it was a true story and i found that was the kind of writing i am good at and the stories that i love so i'm doing it 18 years later. >> just wondering, why has this prison escape, why does it not have -- the great escape from world war ii helped public imagination was a very famous movie, thick on drama and thin on facts but a very popular movie. why is this story not as compelling? >> you can't compete with steve mcqueen on a motorcycle. that is the main problem. it is a great question. this story, i just recently
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reread brick hill's book on the great escape and i purposely didn't read it, i read it a few years ago, purposely didn't read it, 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 it hellman are just so remarkably similar and i argue easily that the individuals who performed the great escape were influenced by the lectors mr 9 gave, whether it was james bennett or somebody else. they were practicing or elected in the art of escape. similarity between how the tunnel was built, how it was
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supported, how they kept it secret, how they wanted to limit it to groups in the beginning i just too numerous to overlook. i think the great escape stole the thunder harkening back to the first question asked this evening, world war i getting cast in the shadow of world war ii and i love telling a story. >> i knew there would be other questions but you all had the opportunity during the book signing to ask those. i will take up the challenge and say there is a cooler man on a motorcycle and steve mcqueen and if you check it out on ww.the world and go to our online collections database and type in motorcycle, it is vernon coffee, clearly one of the coolest men i have ever seen in a photograph but it is from
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world war i. >> i stand corrected. >> you should check it out, check out the book, the escape artist. you have it with you tonight. if you're 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. please join me in thanking the charming neal bascomb. [applause] >> each year, booktv tape hundreds of other programs throughout the country. here's a look at some of the events we are covering this week.
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