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Interview with Eric Hammel

Published: 30 April 2010Last Updated: 07 April 2012Eric Hammel began writing military history at the age of fifteen and his books have been appearing regularly since the mid 1970s. He has written forty military history books in all and nearly seventy articles, and he served as contributing editor and the West Coast stringer for Leatherneck magazine in the 1980s. He founded Pacifica Military History in 1985 and has worked as a staff and freelance editor on at least a hundred military history books. He has become a strong practitioner of and advocate for the print-on-demand and electronic publishing methods. He is now all but retired but has taken up fiction writing as therapy against boredom. He also creates fractal art as a hobby: http://www.FractalDimension.com.
Hammel’s author site is at http://www.EricHammelBooks.com

His most recent book is Islands of Hell: The U.S. Marines in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945.

The interview took place in April 2010.

AHFHow did you get contact to publishers when starting out?

Hammel: When I had something to show in the mid-1960s, I tried to make  direct contact with book editors at top publishing companies. I had some genuinely encouraging responses, but they led nowhere. I managed to find an agent in 1969 who sold one of my early books to a publisher for a $2,500 advance I honestly appreciated. But the publisher went bankrupt before the book was published. In the meantime, I began a career in advertising and temporarily put aside my efforts to get published.

AHFHave you got any specific training (history degree, writing courses)?

Hammel: I earned a degree in journalism in 1972; it took me eight years because I had to work full time. By then I owned my own advertising agency and had written several books. I selected journalism in my sophomore year because it looked easy. It was easy to me, because I’d undertaken serious self-training as a writer since 1961. I had confidence. The main thing I learned from the early newswriting classes was to find the core of the story and develop a lead in a matter of seconds. Throughout my writing career, I have been a quick starter. Once I find the essence of a story and fashion a lead, the books and articles tend to write themselves.

AHFHow did you first become interested in military history and what made you choose the topic of your first book?

Hammel: My father was both a Holocaust survivor and a wounded U.S. Army combat veteran of the war in the Pacific. He never really talked about his experiences, but when I was a kid–I was born in 1946– World War II was still all around me. The first adult book I took out of the library was Guadalcanal Diary. I was in third grade. This prompted me to read one war book after another. When I was twelve, I was confined to bed for a week to recover from an illness. My father bought me a copy of Walter Lord’s new book, Day of Infamy. Before I finished reading it, I knew I wanted to write books like it. I was also inspired by books by John Toland, another narrative historian. In the summer of 1961–I was fifteen- -I put one and one together and began to write a narrative history about Guadalcanal.

AHFHow did your interest in the Second World War begin?

Hammel:  As a child, listening to my father talk about the war with other young veterans. He only opened up around his peers.

AHFHow do you select topics for books?

Hammel: Over the course of time, topic selection was often based on what I knew least and wanted to spend a year or two with the most. From around 1975 on, I never didn’t have a topic in mind for my next book, I never wasn’t working on a book.

AHFWhich archives have you used and how do you find working in them?

Hammel: I’ve only ever worked in official archives located in an around Washington, D.C., but a fair number of my books are based almost solely on original research–people and their writings–not found in archives until I put them there.

AHFWhat in particular needs to be kept in mind in archival research?

Hammel: Focus; how much it costs to get to an archive and what it costs to eat and sleep while doing research. This forces me to get to the center of the research effort, as opposed to meandering off along interesting but fruitless paths that always seem to present themselves.

AHFHave you tried to contact veterans and interview them – if so, how did this work out?

Hammel: Most of my books–all of my narrative histories–are based largely on interviews and correspondence with veterans. It’s how I’ve made my particular mark on the genre. I did my first interview ever with a senior Guadalcanal veteran–a retired Marine general–in 1962, when I was sixteen. He was surprised when he saw how young I was, but he was very kind and accomodating. He made calls to his comrades to set up more interviews. I never looked back.

AHFWho decides on the contents of an index, and how do you decide what’s listed and what’s not?

Hammel: I’ve indexed all my books except for the pictorials written since 2005. I even sold my services as an indexer for a time in the 1980s and 1990s, but it’s extremely boring work that I stopped doing altogether expect for my own narratives.

AHFWhat are your plans for future books?

Hammel: I’m trying very hard to retire. I have no history projects underway. I cannot find it in my heart to spend time with young veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan, who are my own kids’ age or younger. And there aren’t enough World War II veterans left to interview at the overall depth of subject I always aimed for. The young veterans I started to interview in 1962 were in their late thirties and early forties; now they’re in their eighties, the few who are alive. I’d rather not put them through the wringer of an in-depth journey to those painful days.

AHFWhat has the greatest challenge for you as a historical researcher been?

Hammel: Multiple challenges. One challenge is finding enough viewpoints from which to create a useful, balanced, 360-degree account of an event in the past. Records are easy to locate and exploit, but human memory is difficult to pin down. People lie to a greater or lesser degree, not so much to self-aggrandize but most often because they don’t want to admit they can’t fill in gaps or because they don’t want to admit that it’s too painful to confront all memories sufficiently head-on. Sometimes they lie in order to support their current political views. Acquiring the empathy to let some things go or recognize that the interview is churning up things best left dormant is an important development in one’s interview technique.

AHFIn hindsight, are there any things in your books that you would have done differently?

Hammel: Sure. In nearly every case, in a perfect world, I would still be researching the perfect book. But enough detail is enough detail and a book that’s as complete as it needs to be must be finalized and brought to the light of day. There are books I now wish I’d spent more time researching or seen more clearly as I was putting them together, but that’s what hindsight is about.

I wrote a whole book–Guadalcanal: Decision At Sea–to debunk a chapter in Guadalcanal: Starvation Island that was based in large part on a source that turned out to be wrong on many counts. I spent more than a year doing my own original research to set the record straight; I even found official battle reports that contained falsehoods that made some people look good.

AHFHow did you manage your time between daily life (work and family) and work on the book; do you have a regime in regards  to work time on the book?

Hammel: Writing is my job, not my hobby. I did nearly all of it during work hours, in an office in my home. I had to be tough-minded about work time being work time and my work space being my work space–as well as my time being my time or my family’s time. My response to time-encroaching crises–invariably foisted on me by disorganized editors–was to be so far ahead of schedule as to be able to refuse to be sucked into the craziness: if something is late because of your ineptitude, don’t expect me or my family to suffer in your behalf. I established boundaries to keep me in and to keep others from invading my equanimity.

AHFHow do you as an author view the Internet, both as a source and as a competitor to books?

Hammel: It took me a long time to trust the Internet at all as a research tool. Now I use key sites as a matter of course. As in all research, you must evaluate the source, perhaps discuss it with fellow writers whose assessment you can value. But I must say that the antidote to bad information from any one source is to cast as wide a research net as possible. That tends to dampen out the nonsense.

The Internet as competitor? Nope; I don’t see it. In the end, a book =I= write is presented in context of a story, not as a string of facts. There are people whose brains prefer raw data, but they are not nor ever will be customers for my books. Readers of books are consumers of storytelling. The collection of data is science with some art thrown in; the presentation of data is art with some science thrown in.

AHFWhat is the key bit of advice you would give to those who want to write a book on military history, especially World War 2?

Hammel: 1. Don’t quit your day job.
2. Don’t bother us unless you have something new and useful to offer.

AHFWhat is your opinion of the recent rise of interest in the second world war in popular culture? What effect might it have on the historical research community?

Hammel: Rise of interest in the second world war in popular culture? As a war baby with a deep life-long interest in World War II, I must say that I didn’t know interest had ever sunk in the popular culture. As both author and publisher, I never noticed a break in sales of books related to World War II.

AHFCan you live off the proceeds?

Hammel: Without a working wife and other money-making pursuits, including book publishing, my family would have starved in all but three or four years since I was first published in 1975.

AHFYou have authored around 36 military histories — about half on the Pacific War, 5 on Vietnam, 1 on Korea, but the emphasis seems to be centred around the US Marines. What stirs your interest with the Marines?

Hammel: Habit. I bought into the Marine Corps ethos as a young kid. It seemed glorious at the time. Later, the Marine Corps made it really easy for even a teenage wannabe writer to get into its archives. I got farther and farther into the Marine Corps’ role in the Pacific War because the Marine old-boy network encouraged me. I absolutely idolized some of the vets I interviewed in the early days, and I was drawn to the underdog aspects of their story. As it happened, my formative years as a writer/historian overlapped a golden age of Marine Corps-related biographies (Puller and Vandegrift come to mind), memoirs (Leckie’s A Helmet for My Pillow) and histories (Leckie’s Strong Men Armed and Samuel B. Griffith’s The Battle for Guadalcanal). Bluntly, as time wore on, I saw that Marines bought books about Marines; they put their money where their hearts are. And they continued to encourage my work. But my career wasn’t confined to that one track! ; I’ve written three books on naval battles, at least seven books by or about fighter aces, several aviation histories, two books on Arab-Israeli wars, and so forth. Some people think I’m too scattered.

AHFYou started your first book (Guadalcanal: Starvation Island ) at 15?

Hammel: Yes. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

AHFHave you ever thought of doing a book on the Axis side of things?

Hammel: I’d have liked to get into Japanese records, but my interest in that came at a time well before easy communications made it feasible, even before there were many English-language books devoted to the Japanese view or derived from Japanese records.

AHFYou have interviewed a lot of veterans in your time?Have you memories of any characters,unique individuals, that stand out?

Hammel: Too many to begin to describe. Each and every story was a piece in the whole puzzle, which to my mind still centers on how people get through the universal violence, heal the psychic and physical wounds, and somehow go on to live productive lives. I made some good friends among the veterans I interviewed. Many of them were my father’s age, more or less, but the friendships endured, even grew. It’s a trust thing, I think; in a really good interview that goes to the essence of combat, both interviewer and interviewee go out on a limb for one another, build trust with one another in a way that risks reputations and feelings. The writer exploits the interviewee’s at-times darkest, most secret memories while the writer often provides validation, even absolution or salvation. If the essence of friendship is trust, then emergent trust between strangers is a good place to begin an enduring friendship. Starting out, I had no idea I’d be so blessed.