As he did in Lincoln Shot!, Barry Denenberg meshes fact and fiction to tell the story of the building of the Titanic and its doomed maiden voyage, in Titanic Sinks! (Viking). In this account, the author uses a narrative device similar to that used in his earlier book, relaying the story in the tabloid-style pages of a fictional magazine. Denenberg talks about creating the book and the challenge of bringing history alive for middle-grade readers.
How did you come up with the idea for using a faux magazine format in both Lincoln Shot! and Titanic Sinks!?
When I was working with freelance editor Kate Waters on Lincoln Shot!, we decided to take an unconventional route to tell the story. I felt that a bold, innovative format was needed for readers today. We had to do something to really shake it up, and communicate with middle-school students in a way that grabbed them. So we structured the information in this magazine format, to help bring kids into the era.
Why did you decide to return to this style in Titanic Sinks!, and create Modern Times: Your World, Illustrated to report on the tragedy at sea?
When I stumbled upon the fact that the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking was coming up, I thought, ‘There’s an interesting idea for a book.’ And magazines of that day were so big. I actually created a glossary of magazines from 1912. They really were remarkably perceptive. I pictured Modern Times as a cross between the New Yorker and Life. With this magazine format, I could include entries with different voices. The initial articles about the building of the ship are straightforward journalism, with no editorializing. Then there is the chatty journal of the fictional S.F. Vanni, the chief correspondent of Modern Times, who was on board the ship.
What’s the significance of the name 'Modern Times'?
I decided on that title very early on, because I feel as though I’m communicating a very important point about contemporary times. To me, the Titanic is about today. In my afterword to the book, I quote filmmaker James Cameron, director of the epic movie Titanic, who said, "Basic human nature was the same in 1912.... Cover-up, lies, corporate denial of guilt or responsibility, these are not new concepts." In 1912, many thought that man’s folly and worship of new technology was responsible for the Titanic’s fate. It never crossed anyone’s mind that this great ship wasn’t unsinkable. A century later, that blind faith in technology sounds eerily familiar.
How did you tackle the task of blending fact and fiction?
It is a tricky issue. You don’t want to confuse children. Vanni, the magazine’s correspondent, is on the Titanic and has a bird’s-eye view of the sinking, and although he is a fabricated character, he doesn’t have any encounter with anyone who didn’t actually exist. In terms of sources, I had a good collection of first-hand accounts, so that enabled me to get that dense detail.
Through Vanni’s harrowing hour-by-hour, and then minute-by-minute, account of the sinking, you really capture the horror of the incident.
One of my complaints about adult books centering on the sinking of the Titanic is that they don’t convey how bad this was. This was not romantic—it was really grim. I wanted to hold onto that—that was very important to me.
You mention in the book that every photo included is actually of the Titanic, which isn’t always the case in books on the subject. Why is that?
Since the Titanic wasn’t around long enough to be photographed extensively, most other books on the subject substitute photos of the Olympic, her nearly identical sister ship. I felt strongly that the photos included in this book be entirely authentic. The book’s designer, Jim Hoover, and my editor at Viking, Catherine Frank, supported me on this. Every single photo in Titanic Sinks! is of the Titanic, even if it means that the photo of the first-class dining room, for example, isn’t a great shot—it’s actually quite a terrible one. But that’s okay. It’s kind of creepy—and genuine.
Speaking of realism, your book includes some gripping facts and anecdotes about some of the passengers on board—both high-profile individuals and lesser known folk. Was this a priority for you when you were shaping the story?
For me, this is very much a people-driven story. It is, of course, a great tale of luxury and over-the-top opulence. There’s wealthy Benjamin Guggenheim, who takes off his sweater and life belt and puts on white tie and tails, determined to go out like he came in. And John Jacob Astor runs down to open up the kennel door to free his and other dogs as the ship is sinking.
But there are really serious heroes here—the musicians, restaurant staff, pages, and postal clerks—who stayed at their stations and didn’t even attempt to get into a lifeboat. Two of my favorite parts of the book are the actual first-person accounts about the interaction among people in the lifeboats, and the [fictional] closing note from the publisher of Modern Times, who explains what happened to some of the survivors in later life. To me, it’s all about the people—those who acted in wonderful ways and even those who didn’t.
In your afterword to Titanic Sinks!,you mention that you hope to make history come alive and "create a sense of being there." Is it accurate to say that that’s your mantra with all the historical books you write for kids?
I have a line I use about history being not only stranger than fiction, but having better plots. To me there is no fictional story that compares to the nine million stories in American history. I tell the story in my afterword about my grandparents taking me to one of my favorite places—the library—one weekend when I was eight. I took out Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox, and began reading it as soon as we got back to my grandparents’ Brooklyn apartment. I felt truly transported, as if I was right there with Grant and Lee. And in my books, that’s exactly what I enjoy doing for kids.
Titanic Sinks! by Barry Denenberg. Viking, $19.99 Nov. ISBN 978-0-670-01243-5