BookLife Talks with Joseph Wurtenbaugh
A sponsored Q&A by the author of 'A Prophet Without Honor'
What inspired you to write A Prophet Without Honor?
A Prophet Without Honor is an epistolary novel set in 1936, three years before the start of World War II, that reimagines Adolf Hitler's reoccupation of the Rhineland, leading to very different consequences. But in a larger sense, the novel's subject is really the historical process itself. I was a criminal law practitioner for 40 years. I did more than 150 jury trials, from homicide to trade secret theft. Trials are really small-scale historical inquiries. The fragility of events and their interpretation is endlessly interesting to me.
To what extent do the characters and events in A Prophet Without Honor depart from the historical record?
The book is 90% historical, deviating only at the end. To make that deviation plausible, however, I had to reimagine the careers of a number of statesmen. Dwight D. Eisenhower has a starring role, and Charles de Gaulle plays a minor part. But I'd stress that all this stays fairly close to the characters and careers of the persons we know. The alteration from the historical record is actually very slight.
What about the book do you think is most relevant to today's readers?Recognizing the complexity of historical understanding, how unclear the road behind actually is, is always useful. In the book, the fall of Hitler is an ambiguous event. No one dances around singing "Ding, dong, the witch is dead." The aftermath is enormous confusion and controversy.
How and where did you conduct your research? Did you turn up anything particularly surprising?
I traveled to Munich in 2013 to walk over some of the places I intended to write about. I also ran down some fairly obscure sources on early Nazi history. By far, the most important was Hitler's First War by Thomas Weber, which depicts a Hitler who is even more contemptible than the person we know, an unbalanced hysteric who probably had a nervous collapse at the end of World War I—and lied about it. I draw on this characterization in the book.
How did the process of writing this book differ from composing your previous novel, Thursday's Child: An Epic Romance?
The process was completely different. Thursday's Child is told almost exclusively from the perspective of the heroine, Adele Jansen. As for A Prophet Without Honor, I had always wanted to write an epistolary novel. There are probably around a dozen different voices in the book, from the German nobility and the British upper class to a Kansas farm boy (Eisenhower) and an earthy car mechanic. Switching between these voices was great fun!
Who is your ideal reader and why?
I hope that what I've done is fun and accessible to all readers. But, generally speaking, the better read and more literate a reader is, the more they will enjoy the book.
What is the one thing you most want to tell readers about you or your books?
After all the highfalutin stuff, I'd emphasize that both of my novels are fun. They move quickly, with lots of events and interesting, sympathetic characters. I like to think I've created the same kind of books as the ones I like to read, which are lively and plot-driven with serious underpinnings and a lot of interesting information provided in passing.