Eric Burns has written 10 books, including the upcoming 1920: The Year that Made the Decade Roar (May, Pegasus Books LLC). He has an interesting career, having been a correspondent for NBC News and TODAY Show. He also hosted Fox News Watch for a decade. He earned an Emmy for his work.
In 1920 he explores how so much happened in one pivotal year, a time that would set the tone for the rest of the century in America. Kirkus Revews says is is “a fascinating work about a remarkable year,” and Publishers Weekly affirms it is “an entertaining and informative look at a pivotal period.”
Jazz. Flappers. Women’s right to vote. Robber Barons. Prohibition. Indeed, 1920 was a very interesting time. I found the book to be very thorough and insightful, as it peers into a moment in our nation's history that was both significant and symbolic. It would serve us well in 2015 to reflect back to 1920 through the careful reporting of Mr. Burns.
Here is an interview with the author:
1. Eric, what inspired you to write about the 1920s - -actually, just one year from the Roaring Twenties -- 1920? I am an incessant and eclectic reader, but the twenties, like the fifties, about which I have already written, have always had a particular fascination for me. However, so many people had already written about the decade. What could I possibly add? Eventually it came to me. By writing about only the first year of the twenties, I could add a narrowed focus which would allow the reader to see the following years with greater breadth. For the twenties were not the decade we think they were, and by concentrating on their first year, I could emphasize the interpretative errors in so many other books about the years that followed.
2. What about 1920 do we need to have a greater understanding for that we don’t already have? We need to understand that, for most Americans, 1920, under the continuing rule of the robber barons, was a time of unrelieved misery. Scott and Zelda might have pranced through the fountain at the Plaza; most Americans were sleeping six to a bed and preparing to awaken before dawn for their Saturday shifts. It is also important to understand that 1920 was the year in which the arts finally rebelled, and the people who slept in their crowded conditions gradually became the subjects of the novel, the poem and the play. Reality was so harsh for most that the artist could ignore it no longer as a topic. In a remarkable confluence of genius, Sinclair Lewis, T.S. Eliot, Carl Sandburg and Eugene O’Neill all stepped to the forefront in the same year, 1920.
3. This is your 10th book. You used to be a correspondent for NBC News and The TODAY Show and hosted Fox News Watch for a decade. You even won an Emmy for your work. What is it about books that you love to write them? I always found television too easy, unchallenging, and ultimately unimportant. It was my income, not my passion. Books, on the other hand, are harder to write, and the challenge is the joy of them. The best books are art, not blandly extended journalism, and if, as is the case with 1920: The Year That Made The Decade Roar, I can achieve art, in the process telling truths that have never been told before and thus making the reader think more than ever before, I have done a greater service both to him and myself than reporting for two minutes on a train derailment.
4. You say that 1920, an iconic period, is misunderstood. Why? I have explained above, Brian. It was not, for most Americans, the happy-go-lucky era envisioned by so many novels, so many movies. It is said that journalism is the first draft of history. It probably is. And that is why history is so often riddled with so many misunderstanding. The historian must look beyond the faded newspaper for his sources. Journalism is simply the record of the most sensationalized events of its era, not a guide to understanding the era.
5. Do you draw any parallels to life in 1920 and modern America? I draw them indirectly. In 1920, American suffered its first terrorist attack and worst until Timothy McVeigh detonated Oklahoma City. And then came 9/11. After the attack in 1920 (which began, on a smaller scale, in 1919), legislators began to talk about “homeland security,” although they did not use that term. Ninteen-twenty was Carlo Ponzi’s year, and the story, increased exponentially, of Bernie Madoff. Perhaps the most significant similarity between 1920 and today is that an unacceptable gulf still exists between the incomes of the have and have-nots. One fears, given the power of the haves, that it always will.
6. You wrote several chapters about Ponzi schemes and Robber Barons. What fascinates you about them? What fascinates me about Ponzi is (1) that he was reborn in my lifetime, and the lifetimes of tens of millions of readers, as Bernie Madoff, and (2) the story of Ponzi’s life, believe it or not, will end with most readers feeling sympathetic toward him. Yeah. Honest. What fascinates me about the robber barons is that they (1) still exist, (2) and are still as powerful as they always were, so much so that (3) they still govern the country. They just go by a blander, less offensive name these days. They are not robber barons anymore; they are “in financial services.” For the most part, their own financial service.
7. What should 1920 be most remembered for, if not the Flappers and the ushering in of the Jazz Age? Because of radio station KDKA’s live broadcast of the Harding-Cox election returns, 1920 should be most remembered most as the year in which the American media culture, the most powerful force in the country’s beliefs, values and tastes, began. Our nation’s priorities have been been becoming more and more trivial ever since.
8. What has been challenging – and rewarding – in penning a book like this? Getting it right. Achieving the certainty of my interpretations, and in the process providing a book worth thought, serious thought.
9. Where do you see book publishing heading? Other than to state the obvious, that Kindles and Nooks and those kinds playthings will continue to usurp the shelf space on “book” stores, I don’t know. And I’m not even sure about that. A lot of people love the feel of books, even the scent of books. They look the look of books on their shelves. I have 2,200 volumes. I sit among them now, fortified, as I write.
10. Any advice to struggling writers? If you want to write diet books, books that prove the existence of angels, and novels that pass the Nicholas Sparks test for banality, you may succeed. If you want to write literature, real literature, keep your day job.
Writers, please never violate these three rules!
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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2015
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