Robert Kurson

Author Robert Kurson was interviewed on May 1, 2014. He appeared on Booknotes on July 11, 2004, where he discussed his book Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II.

Interview Transcript

Today is Friday, May 23, 2014, and we are interviewing Robert Kurson, who appeared on Booknotes on July 11, 2004, to discuss his book, Shadow Divers.  Good morning, Mr. Kurson.

Good morning.

Thank you very much for taking this time to be a part of a telephone interview.

Oh, truly my pleasure.

So how did your book come to be on Booknotes?

Well, the book was published early in the summer of 2004, and I got word from my publisher, Random House, that really the ultimate honor had been bestowed upon it, that it had been chosen for Booknotes. And I immediately knew the implications of that because Booknotes had long been my mother's favorite television program. And at the time I got word that I was to be a guest, Shadow Divers had already garnered a lot of advanced media attention, but nothing thrilled me, and especially my own mom, like an offer to appear on Booknotes. So I believe I was told by the publisher, and it was a huge and singular thrill for me.

Well, you were one of the last twenty books to be on Booknotes.

Yes, I remember being told that. In fact, I remember it being explained to me how important that was, and I understood it immediately and considered it a great honor.

How did you prepare for your appearance on Booknotes?

Well I got advice from a lot of circles I remember, that I was going to be asked all kinds of things that I would never be asked anywhere else. And I had known that that would be true just from my own watching of the show. But the most interesting kind of advice I got about preparing for Booknotes was that it was impossible to prepare for it. This Shadow Divers was my first book, and I think for that reason Random House had arranged some media training for me, where I went in a kind of a makeshift studio in Manhattan, where it was someone's private apartment, but they had studio lights and cameras, and it was an attempt to recreate the environment and also the pressure of an interview. And I was told, "This will prepare you for all kinds of TV shows and radio shows and interviews and appearances." But I remember being advised it won't prepare me for Booknotes, and that I best just come with my A-game because anything was possible there, but that all the questions would be very smart. And of course, from watching the show I knew that would be true.

So what do you remember most from your appearance on the program? And if you could describe, you know, things like what the studio was like, did you think that how the studio was set up was a benefit for the program?

I do. I remember it being a very simple setup. There wasn't a lot of adornment. And I remember that the time between me opening the door, the outside door to the studio, and the time to being in the chair and actually having tape rolling was unbelievably fast. I don't know if it was five minutes. And at that point I had done several interviews for the book. The book was really, really successful. And so I was all over the place doing interviews, but nothing had ever hit me that fast. So the one thing I expected was to be able to settle in and to get my bearings and to really kind of catch my breath. But none of that happened. That turned out, I think, to be a benefit for me, but it was quite a surprise that it had gone, it was that fast from stepping in to getting in the chair and having tape rolling.

Booknote's hour-long format differed greatly from most of the network television interviews, which lasted three minutes or less. What do you think are the benefits and/or drawbacks of this longer format for the author and for the viewer?

Well, it was unlike any interview I had ever done before or since. You're able to get into all kinds of aspects of not just the book, but the writer's process, the writer's thinking, how the book was conceived, how it was crafted, why writers made certain choices. You know, often I would be asked the same two or three or four questions. And in answering those, inevitably you come up with a, you know, you kind of fashion a good answer and tend to use that answer over and over. And there's nothing wrong with that, of course. But being there, for some reason I remember Brian telling me 57 minutes we were going to roll. And you have to concentrate that hard and be that on your game for 57 minutes is a real challenge when you're used to, as you said, two or three-minute spots. But it allows you to talk about things that you hadn't thought about since the writing of the book or even before the writing of the book when you were just conceiving the book. And that was such a pleasure. I can't tell you there were, I revisited memories in that interview that I hadn't had since writing and probably haven't revisited again since.

Well, you had judging from the from the the end of the book, the very last episode of the chapter in the book, you went along with Kohler, the one of the divers to Germany. I mean, you you will, in fact, became part of the story yourself, which is very unusual.

That's true. And, you know, I hesitated significantly to include any kind of my experience at all in the book. And the appearance you mentioned happens only in the very end in the epilogue. But even then, I was quite hesitant to inject myself in any way in the story. I'm a pretty firm believer in the idea that a good writer is like a good baseball umpire, that when he's doing his job best, you don't notice him at all. So I really was reluctant to include my experience. But it turned out that my experience with Kohler in Germany was so meaningful and affected the story itself that I felt compelled to include it.

I'm sure glad you did. I mean, it's it's wonderful. Judging by the extensive marginalia in his books, it appears Mr. Lamb read them thoroughly before the interview. I, in fact, have the exact copy in front of me that Mr. Lamb used. And it's a librarian's nightmare of  underlining. And every single page has notes and questions and comments that he had or looking at the the salient points. Do you find this someone actually doing a study of your book that the person who's going to interview, do you find this to be normal for interviewers? And how does that change the interview experience?

No, not only is it not normal, or I should say it's not usual, certainly. I can't remember anyone having read it that closely that ever interviewed me. And it's I can't describe to you the privilege and the honor that bestows on an author because when you write a book and take years to write it, you know, you think about those kinds of things so closely. And when Mr. Lamb was interviewing me, it was very clear that he had not just read the thing carefully, but had thought about the same things I had thought about in trying to decide how to write this book and how to approach the telling of the story. He saw into my process in the way that no other interviewer I can ever remember ever came close to. It doesn't surprise me to hear that the book is underlined and noted in the way you describe because I don't think a person could have asked the beautiful questions he asked without reading it and paying that kind of careful attention to it in that way.

Well, Mr. Lamb asked about an author's research and writing methods. I believe he asked, you know, what kind of tape recorder you used. Do you believe that the reading public finds these details about the practice of writing interesting? And do you think other authors or publishers find them interesting?

You know, my answer 10 years ago would have been, I think that Booknotes viewers find that very interesting, but I would have wondered whether the general public found it interesting. After my appearance, when I spoke to people about what it was like to be asked those kinds of questions, the more general the public I described it to, the more they seemed interested in it. So that was a real surprise to me that people did find it very, very interesting to hear that I had been asked what kind of tape recorder I used or where I did my work or at what hours and were even more interested to hear me answer the question to them. So that was a revelation to me. I found it fascinating to be asked that. I never was asked that by anyone else. But when I told people about it, they were fascinated to hear as well. And I think it's, I have yet to meet a person, whether in publishing or whether the most casual of reader who wasn't interested to hear those things.

Well, Mr. Lamb frequently asked his guests biographical questions. Did that surprise you? And is this generally different from most author interviews you have experienced?

Yes. Well, it didn't surprise me because I was familiar with the show. Nonetheless, when he did ask, I found myself quite surprised because when you get into the rhythm of discussing the story, you are locked into the book and you kind of see yourself as separate from the title and the experience of the storytelling. But I think it was tremendously helpful to me in putting together a description of the book itself. You know, it sounds counterintuitive to say, but the more I found myself describing my own life and experience to him, the easier I found it to discuss the book itself. And I think that's one of his master strokes. I think there's a reason for it. And it's not just because it's interesting biographically. I think he gets the most out of an interview subject, even describing the book itself.

Were you surprised by any of Brian Lamb's questions?

Not really, because I knew him and I knew the show, but that doesn't mean it doesn't feel surprising when you're asked them and when you're under those bright lights and you know the tape is rolling and I don't think they stopped tape. If my memory is correct. I think I was even told, I think he even told me, we're going to roll and we don't stop. And so again, you know, you get into the rhythm of talking about the book and because you've been through these, so many of these interviews before and nobody ever asks you about yourself or your process or your biography, what you care about personally, you tend to forget that that's coming, even though you know going in that it's likely to be coming. So you still find yourself surprised, even though you know that's likely to be brought up.

Well, did you, we already established that your mom enjoyed Booknotes and that you had seen it before your own interview, but did your experience actually being on the show changed change your impressions of it?

Only in that I was amazed that a general interest guy like me could possibly hold his own on a show like that when I had seen so many great intellects appear on the show. I really did not consider myself to be the equal of really anyone I'd ever seen appear on the show. So it was so flattering just to be asked to be on. And because it meant so much to my mom who was such an avid reader and had such fine taste, I was nervous to be on and to do a good job. It was intimidating in the sense that I had seen who'd come before me. I don't think I'd ever seen the show and ever seen someone who wasn't a much greater intellect than I, that's for sure.

Booknotes focused entirely on nonfiction books published between the late 1980s and 2004. What do you think might be the advantages of having a 800 book collection such as this with this particular focus?

I think the best testament to those parameters is the taste and sensibility of Brian Lamb himself. You can tell by how he reads and what his curiosities are and what he wants to know that you could be very well off taking those 800 books based strictly on his sensibilities alone and have spent your time very, very wisely. I think he chose a broad collection of things. He was open to many subjects, but I think he had very good taste. There were very few times I saw an author on there where I wasn't much more curious to know about that author's book and about that author him or herself than I was when I started.

Brian Lamb and C-SPAN had a rule that authors could only appear on the program one time. You have been on, were you on the Booknotes show twice or were you on Booknotes and then on Q&A? No, I think I was on Booknotes twice. Could you describe that?

I remember it being described to me as a very rare thing. I hope I'm correct about that, but I believe I am. What was the other book? The other book was called Crashing Through and that was published in 2007. I believe... I had a very unusual and interesting experience on that Booknotes if you'd like me to describe it.

Yes, if you could please.

I was ill that day. I had been on a huge book tour for the book and I had taken ill the night before or early that morning and I had some interviews scheduled earlier in the day and it was a brutally hot day in DC and by the time, about a half hour before I was to appear on Booknotes for the second time, I started to feel very ill and we were also running late and I had a kind of a guy who was driving me around helping me to get from appearance to appearance and we were running late and he was saying and he didn't have to say, but I knew you do not run late for Booknotes. You can show up late anywhere else in the world. I did not want to show up late for Booknotes. Nonetheless, we were running quite late and so we were weaving in and out of traffic and he could not break the traffic about two or three blocks short of the studio. So he told me you have to run and I was in a suit and in wingtip shoes and it was probably 95 degrees and humid and I was sick and I started to run and by the time I got to the studio, sweat was pouring down my face and it just would not stop and when I got into the studio, Brian Lamb took one look at me and said, what is going on here? Why did someone bring him here late? He was very protective of me and very kind to me. He instinctively understood that I was in distress and he explained to me, we have to roll, we are going to get started. I am going to give you a towel and if you need to dry off, any time the question comes back to me, the camera is going to go back to me and when it does, you feel free to dry but do not dry when I am talking to you. I am going to talk to the person who got you here late who was very, very kind to me. I will never forget the kindness of it and how protective he was toward me and how he helped me try to save that second appearance where I was so sweaty, at least for the first half of it and I will never forget the gesture of kindness above all else.

That is a great story. Was there a difference in sales or national attention for your book after you discussed it with Brian Lamb on Booknotes? What about critical reception?

Yes. Booknotes, for people in the publishing industry who were aware of these kinds of things, an appearance on Booknotes, never mind twice, was the ultimate pinnacle achievement. It was like being on Mount Rushmore for an author. I remember being taken with that, thinking, "Jesus, not just my mom who is so impressed with this television program, it is everybody who I was meeting and publishing, especially for Shadow Divers, my first book. I was new to publishing so it was interesting to see their reaction to the news that I was going on or had been on Booknotes.  My memory is that there was a big spike. I think it was just in the beginning days back in 2004 when you could check your sales rank on Amazon. I do remember thinking it had a very powerful impact on sales and having people remind me that a huge percentage of Booknotes viewers are book buyers. Of course, that made sense to me. That wasn't true on every kind of interview you did. Those were the ones I was most grateful for.

Someone described it as being, if you go on a regular show like Good Morning America, you might reach 12 million viewers, but how many of those people buy books? Whereas if you went on Booknotes, you might only reach half a million viewers, but you knew all of those people bought books.

I think that's absolutely true. I think that when Brian Lamb showed enthusiasm for your book, that was the best blurb, endorsement you could ever hope for as an author. I think people could feel it. I think that people who tuned into that show would buy books that they never otherwise would have believed themselves interested in if for no other reason than Brian Lamb was interested in it. What do you think in terms of book sales, in terms of all the books that get published a year? I think the figure is what, 50,000 books get published a year? It's a lot. It's a lot. How do you think publishers have to reach an audience and a book selling audience? Now they do it with websites, I mean every publisher has a website. Many, many authors themselves self-publish. They have their own websites. But this wasn't possible until the rise of the internet and Amazon and everything like that.

Do you think Booknotes was in some ways a bridge with a gap of just the print review that you saw in the New York Times Sunday supplement and what we have now?

I think it was a bridge, but I think it's something that we miss desperately now because the face-to-face with an author, to hear an author's inflection or to see a gleam in an author's eye when the right question is asked is something that I don't think any book review or any print medium could deliver no matter what the quality of the writer or the critic. So I think that personal connection and that feeling of being one-on-one that was so dominant in Booknotes is something that definitely bridged into the internet, but I don't think it's anything the internet can really capture. Even through the use of video, you need not just the personal experience of being in the room with the author, but you need the right person asking the questions. And those are very, very hard to come by.

Did your experience with Brian Lamb and Booknotes cause you to rethink any of your own approaches or assumptions regarding your research or writing?

I wish I could say that it did, but I just mostly felt vindicated in how I did it. Those were the two most challenging interviews I've ever done, but the questions that were asked and especially the interest that Brian Lamb showed in my work, if nothing else, made me more confident in my at least ability to choose a good story. And that's such a challenging aspect of the writer's career. Most people think the big part of a writer's life is the writing, but to me, by far the biggest challenge is to discern a good story and to separate it from the just pretty good stories. And that's the thing that I think Booknotes might've done most for me is kind of affirmed from someone I really respected and who read my books very carefully, as you noted, that I had a sense for a good story, not just a pretty good story. Well, I would like to know in your search for good stories, what have you been working on after Shadow Divers?

You mentioned Crashing Through. I'd like to know more about that story and more about any other of your work and what you're most pleased with.

Well, I am one of those people who kind of diverted to Hollywood for a few years. There was movie interest in both of my books. And so I spent a few years working on developing the screenplays for both of the books, neither of which has been produced yet. But it's one of those once in a lifetime experiences that was absolutely fascinating and rewarding and just a singular kind of life experience. But all of those things have to end and I'm back to writing books now. I have just completed a nonfiction book about American treasure hunters looking for treasure ships in the Dominican Republic. So I'm back to nonfiction and kind of true life adventure.

Did you ever go diving? Have you ever, I had read that you had trained to do some diving, but have you ever been diving with any of these guys?

You know, I believed when I was doing the writing of Shadow Divers that unless I learned to scuba dive and not just learned to scuba dive, but went to the very wreck itself, this terribly dangerous, deep, lost German U-boat in New Jersey waters, that I couldn't properly convey the story to the reader, that I had to breathe it and smell it and see it and feel it for myself. Otherwise I was just providing a poor facsimile of the experience. And so because I had never gone scuba diving before and in fact couldn't even swim, I started to train and with the full endorsement of the two divers that I was writing about, I lasted about 45 minutes in the class, in the underwater portion of the class before the instructor said to me, "Get out of the pool, you can't swim. What are you doing in scuba diving class?" And I had to explain that I only intended to make one dive in my life and then I was done with scuba diving, but I needed to get the card, you know, the certification card. And he asked me, "Well, what is this one dive? Where are you going?" And I said, "I'm going 60 miles off the New Jersey coast, 230 feet down into a World War II German U-boat with 56 dead sailors inside." And he said, "You're out of the class." So that was the sum and substance of my experience. I was very lucky, however, that my divers had videotaped all their dives and took me out on the boat, took me to the wreck. So I had as much of the experience as I could have and described everything to me. And in the end, it was my passion for the story in the same way it was their passion for the U-boat that I think delivered the book.

Well, if I might say, I think you found very authentic voices to tell the story. You know, you were able to convey what they were looking at and what they were thinking just phenomenally well. I mean, as I said, I've been really enjoying this book and I can feel that claustrophobic feeling and the thumping in the ears of the regulators and this and all these little details that you do, in fact, pick up and relate through your book.

Oh, thank you for saying so. I was very lucky to have two subjects who were excellent describers and who had wonderful memories and a lot of patience with me. So that I owe a lot of it to them, I have to say. But you did the hard work of getting it down and I admire it greatly. So in your estimation, what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes in the then contemporary American society and perhaps in subsequent times? Well, I think it was a sounding call to all those people out there, not just who loved books, but who might love books. Because I think one of the show's greatest strengths was that if you came across it not even intending to watch it or to buy certainly the book that was being featured on that episode, you were very often turned into a book buyer or a book lover. And the idea that someone could speak to you seriously and in long form about books and ignite a love inside you is a real lasting testament. I think that's what the show did almost more than anything and what I think is missed so sorely since it went off the air.

Is there anything that you would like to add regarding the Booknotes program C-SPAN or Brian Lamb?

Just that for a new author like me who had published his first book to be given a chance like he gave me when so many of the authors were so accomplished and so acclaimed was a gift and an act of generosity that will never be forgotten, not just by me professionally but by me personally. He's a very kind man, serious and beautifully prepared man, but also a kind man who didn't need a huge resume in front of him but just needed a good book in front of him. And for that I'm grateful forever.

Well Mr. Kurson, I'm through with my scripted questions. I don't know if you have anything more to add, unless you do have something to add?

No, I think that was terrific.

Okay, alright. I'm going to end this interview by saying Mr. Kerson, thank you for agreeing to do this oral history interview and for sharing with us your experiences on this groundbreaking television interview program. Thank you so much for your time, sir.

It was a great pleasure for me.  Thank you very much.