Giblin, author of more than 20 books for young readers, was publisher of Clarion Books until taking early retirement in 1989 (he continues to edit a few of his long-time authors). His newest work is The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler.
PW: What drew you to this subject? Does World War II hold a special interest for you?
JCG: I was six when Hitler invaded Poland. At 12, I remember our teacher bringing a radio into the classroom so we could hear Germany surrender in May of 1945. My childhood was shaped by the war, and Hitler was a big part of that. In going back to write about him, it was almost like reliving an important chunk of my past.
PW: In your recent biography of Charles Lindbergh, you discussed his pro-Nazi feelings. Did your work on that book spark your interest in exploring this era further?
JCG: That biography, oddly enough, did lead me to Hitler. I hadn't known until I got into serious research how deeply impressed by Nazi Germany both of the Lindberghs were. I wanted to explore not just Hitler but fascism.
PW: How long did this project take, and what was the scope of the research?
JCG: It took roughly two years. When I was in my late 20s and early 30s I took two bus tours across Europe. On the first, in 1962, we had a stopover in East Berlin. It was still filled with rubble and ruin. I also remember looking at prewar buildings in the outskirts of Warsaw and thinking they were made of rusticated stone, then realizing those were bullet and shrapnel holes. On a later trip in 1964, I went into Russia and Prague, which was eye-opening because the Iron Curtain was very much in place. I drew on a lot of those memories when working on the book.
PW: Did your research turn up any surprises?
JCG: I discovered that the National Archives [in Washington, D.C.] has all 35 of Eva Braun's photo albums. All the photos of her and Hitler in the book come from those albums, which were absolutely fascinating. I remember one that I didn't use; the caption said it was a Christmas party that she and Adolf gave for children of some Nazi leaders in 1942. And there are all the little Bormanns and Speers and Goebbels at this Christmas party with "Uncle Dolf." I told one friend about it, who reminded me of Hannah Arendt's phrase about the "banality of evil."
PW: Were there special considerations you made in preparing this material for a young readership?
JCG: I never start out thinking about what I shouldn't include. I do try not to assume prior knowledge. For instance, I will stop and ask myself, will they know what Versailles is, let alone the Treaty of Versailles? Or I will mention how wide the English Channel is at its widest point. I don't assume that even bright teenagers will necessarily know these things.
Also, I think that you always have to find the story line in the material and, in the case of a biography, the character line. When I was young I did some acting, and I remember one teacher talking about the "through line" of the character—what it is that the character is seeking, what behavioral patterns would he or she develop to achieve this goal? I find that's a useful exercise to apply to biography.