Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Back to Reality

At the NBA dinner: "Who are you again?"
Last week was kind of surreal—three amazing days in New York City, doing National Book Award-related events. I walked around much of the time with this huge medal around my neck (they said we had to wear it—really!), read on stage with some serious literary heavy hitters, even walked a red carpet (a very short one) at the super-fancy black tie awards dinner. Okay, it was mildly deflating when photographers asked, “Now, who are you?” (which I noticed they didn’t do to Dave Eggers). But still, an unforgettable experience.

Driving home early the next morning, with two screaming kids in the back seat, that’s when reality began to reassert itself. I guess the good news is, when your job is to research and write nonfiction, reality is a pretty good place to be. At least, it’s filled with stories as wild and incredible as anything any novelist could invent.
Due out in Jan. 2013, Scholastic

 My next book, aimed a bit younger than Bomb, will be Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, a true crime thriller about a bunch of Midwest counterfeiters who decide it would be a good idea to steal Abraham Lincoln’s corpse. This was eleven years after Lincoln’s death, and the gang was desperate to get their best engraver out of the state pen. Their plan: bust into Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, steal the body, stash it under a bridge, and refuse to give it back unless the government lets their partner out of jail. And the most amazing thing of all is how close this crazy-sounding scheme came to working.

Would you trust these men? (Hint: they're grave robbers)
On top of the priceless plot, what makes this story great from a writer’s point of view is that the sources are so rich. The top Secret Service agent in Chicago discovered the plot from an informer, and wrote daily reports on the case to his boss in Washington, D.C. (the boss didn’t believe a word of it). And the caretaker of Lincoln Monument, a man who dedicated his life to protecting this sacred place, saw the crime up-close and later wrote a detailed memoir about it. There was even a Chicago Tribune reporter lurking around the monument the night of the attempted theft—he’d been tipped off that something big was going to happen, and was able to write an eye-witness account of the showdown between cops and robbers.

This is one of those stories you just love telling kids. One of the events last week was a “teen press conference” at the Brooklyn Public Library, where students got to ask the five finalists questions about our books and writing process. I was the one nonfiction guy up there with four fantastic novelists, but the students were every bit as intrigued by true tales of atomic espionage and grave robbing as they were by fictional plots!

A good reminder that in this line of work, getting back to reality is not such a bad thing. 


Gretchen Woelfle said...

I can't believe I haven't heard about the grave robbers. Lucky you to be the first to tell the story. Lucky us that you're the first to tell the story!

PS Did you know that someone did steal Haydn' head from his tomb and it was lost for over a century?

Steve Sheinkin said...

Yes, I'm incredibly lucky to have gotten my hands on this story.

It's kind of amazing, how much grave robbing went on. A disgruntled gardener even tried to steal Washington's skull from the family tomb at Mount Vernon - but ended up taking the wrong one. Can't make up that kind of stuff!

Deborah Heiligman said...

I can't wait to read this book! And at NCTE the other day, a teacher was RAVING about BOMB. Get back to work. But KEEP THE MEDAL AROUND YOUR NECK!

Cheryl Harness said...

Oh Steve, I'm working on a historical Weird But True book for the Nat'l Geographic and I came across that keystone cop story of Lincoln's grave robbers and wow! who needs fiction???
Me – but you know what I mean.

And yes, I agree w/ Deb: wear your medal, especially to the grocery store.