Today, I have the honor of hosting Arnie Bernstein, author of Bath Massacre: America’s First School Bombing. In his interview, Arnie describes his passion behind this book, explains how to conduct interviews on a delicate subject and the responsibility of portraying accurate details in a true-life story to honor the living and the lost.
Arnie Bernstein is a nonfiction writer based in Chicago. He is the author of three books on Chicago history, which won praise from the late United Stated Senator Paul Simon (D-Illinois) and Roger Ebert. In his introduction to Bernstein’s book “The Movies Are” Carl Sandburg’s Film Reviews & Essays, Ebert wrote:
“Arnie Bernstein has performed an extraordinary accomplishment in bringing this book into being….(He) adds great knowledge and insight…providing background, orientation, historical information, helpful footnotes. This is a book that reopens a chapter of journalism and history that might have remained closed forever.”
Bernstein has been interviewed by many media outlets, including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, National Public Radio, BBC Radio, television, documentaries and webcasts. He was honored for his work by the Illinois State Library, and won grants and awards from The Puffin Foundation and Warner Brothers Studios. Bernstein is a board member of The Society of Midland Authors, one of the nation’s oldest writer’s associations which was founded by Harriet Monroe and Carl Sandburg. He is also a member of The Author’s Guild.
Speaking engagements include presentations at DePaul University, the University of Chicago, Columbia College-Chicago, and many others. He has given speeches and served on panel discussions at the Chicago History Museum, the Illinois State Library, the Gene Siskel Film Center, as well as numerous public and private libraries.
With the horror of Oklahoma City and 9/11 still fresh in Americans’ minds, the seemingly endless stories of school violence epitomized by the Columbine shooting, and suicide bombers around the globe, Bath Massacre resonates powerfully for modern readers and reminds us that terrorism and murder on a large scale are sadly not just a product of our times.
Bolstered by cooperation with survivors and their descendants, the book includes exclusive interviews with the people who lived through that terrible day in 1927.
Some illustrations in the book have not been seen in over 80 years. Now published for the first time, you will find many of these exclusive pictures here along withother photos of the bombing and its aftermath.
As we mark the tenth year since the Columbine killings of April 20, 1999, there is no better time to learn and remember the incredible impact that such an act of violence can have on a community
Arnie will be stopping in throughout the day to reply to your questions and comments. One lucky commenter will be selected to win a copy of Bath Massacre.
So, grab a hot cuppa joe and settle in for a treat!
Interview by: Mary Jo Campbell
1. How did you decide on writing this book? Were you trying to find the story of “America’s first school bombing?”
I wanted to write about a “forgotten story” in history. I felt this would be a real challenge as a writer. How do you take something that fell through the cracks of time, and then make it come alive so it’s compelling and relevant to today’s readers? That was my initial goal so I started poking around the Internet, finding things here and there but nothing that really grabbed my attention. I stumbled onto the Bath story in May of 2005 on a history web site and knew immediately I found what I was looking for. It had everything I wanted: a great story arc, a compelling cast of characters, and resonance for modern audiences (particularly in the wake of Virginia Tech, Columbine and other school murders). The Bath School bombing grabbed me from the start. It was that “eureka!” moment; it was something I hadto write about. (Rather than recount the story here, readers should check out the synopsis on my web site: www.arniebernstein.com.)
2. During your reading at Columbia College in 2007, you spoke of the survivors you interviewed for this book. How did you find these people to interview and more importantly, how did you handle probing for details with such a delicate subject?
“Delicate subject” is a perfect description. I knew I’d have to get the cooperation from the people in Bath in order to get the book done. Keep in mind I didn’t have an agent or publisher at this point. There is an excellent web site run by a great-nephew of one of the victims. This site listed the address for the “town historian,” whom I contacted. Essentially, the town historian was a resident who put together a scrapbook on the tragedy. The Bath Middle School houses a museum about the bombing and this man sent me to a couple of their board members. I called to introduce myself and explain what I was doing. We agreed to meet and I drove up to Bath (outside of Lansing, MI and I live in Chicago, about a 3 ½ hour drive). I did a presentation for the assembled board, explaining who I was and why I wanted to do the book. That was one of the scariest days of my life! I knew they would look at me as some kind of outsider coming to tell their story—and rightfully so—hence I had to tread lightly but firmly.
I explained what I was doing, what my approach would be and that under no intention was I going to exploit their tragedy for personal gain. I pledged that I would give a percentage of any royalties I might earn to the school museum. It was also important to me that I do this. Let’s face it; a generation of Bath’s children was murdered. If I didn’t give something back to the town, then I would be making blood money. Obviously I had no interest in doing that!
I couldn’t really tell how I was doing in this meeting, but they took what I had to say and asked good questions about my background and my goals with this book. While they agreed to cooperate, they also asked me not to talk with any survivors, since they didn’t want these people—their friends and relatives, people in their late 80s/early 90s —disturbed by a stranger. I agreed, although inside I was frantic! How could I get to the heart of the tragedy without talking to survivors?
When the book came out this past spring, I learned that many people had come to the committee before with ideas on telling the story, but had received no cooperation because of various attitudes, mostly a lack of concern for the community. Among those who’d been turned down was Michael Moore, who wanted to include some stuff on the Bath School bombing in Bowling for Columbine. Apparently he and his people were rude—quite rude!
But one person, whose late father was a survivor, told me something that really made an impact on me. I was speaking to Bath high school kids about my book and the tragedy; after my speech I asked this man, “What did you think when I first came to town?” His words floored me: “After you left,” he said, “we knew we had finally found the right guy.”
Of course, I didn’t know this at the time! I continued working on the book, doing research, making trip after trip to Bath, talking to the townspeople and working on building trust. After about a year one of them said that perhaps I should talk to her father. He was in the school that day and his brother was one of the children killed in the explosion. The man was now in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. I sat with him and his daughter and we talked. I was very careful, as you can imagine, because I didn’t want to upset the man and yet I wanted his stories. His daughter and I went back and forth, gradually drawing stuff out of him. Although it was clear his mind was not all there, you knew his memory was keen when he talked about that day. I think we spent three hours talking. He did repeat a few things over and over but I just rolled with it, figuring he might come up with something fresh each time he recalled the events. In some cases that did happen. In fact, he gave me one of the most compelling moments of the book, the last confrontation between Andrew Kehoe and Superintendent Emory Huyck.
Once this woman saw me in action with her father, I knew I’d made a major breakthrough. I felt in my gut I’d finally proved that I could be trusted not to push survivors into painful emotional areas. I was right; the floodgates opened and I was given the contact information for several people. Ultimately, I interviewed four of the six or seven survivors left. And the woman who sat down with me and her father became my best contact, providing me with plenty of information, answering the most obscure questions about the town, and many other things. We’ve grown very close over the years; today I consider her to be one of my best friends.
I guess the bottom line for any of your readers who want to take on a difficult emotional project is take your time, be patient, be sincere, be sensitive, and give your all.
3. (A question borrowed from your website’s Reading Group Questions List) Bath Massacre uses techniques normally found in fiction. In what ways is the book like a novel? How does this help draw readers into the story? How did you build suspense even though the readers know what is coming?
My two biggest influences on this book were a pair of creative nonfiction masterpieces: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer. Though Capote and Mailer were far apart stylistically (to say nothing of their alleged feud and begrudging respect for one another), I think both of these books worked well in developing a dramatic and sometimes suspenseful narrative although the reader already knows how each respective story will end: with executions of the criminals. Those books were my models; in fact, when I reread Bath Massacre after it was published, I could see exactly how much of In Cold Blood I’d absorbed and reworked into my own style as far as lengthier prose and The Executioner’s Song when it came to the shorter paragraph bursts.
Knowing the outcome of the crime actually helps, I think. It gives the reader a reference point, one full of dread and yet inevitable. Throughout the book, leading up to the bombing, you get to know not only Kehoe and his increasingly erratic behavior but also the people of Bath. Some of them are going to die, mostly children. You don’t want it to happen, but you know it will and it is going to be devastating. The morning of the bombing, I fill the chapter with short scenes of children going off to school, classroom scenes, and other typical, normal, mundane activities. Knowing what’s coming, knowing that these lives are going to be shattered in so many different ways counterbalanced by Kehoe’s actions in the final days and hours before the bombing builds the suspense. Although Kehoeis behaving in a cold, calculating way, he doesn’t appear to be on the surface. We know what is coming but his victims and the people he has interactions with obviously don’t have a clue. These two worlds are about to collide in epic and inexplicable tragedy. And that’s where the suspense comes from.
I hope I’m not coming off as unfeeling here! Obviously these are real events that devastated a community. Through creative nonfiction techniques you’re drawn deeper into the action rather than you would be with straightforward police procedural or something written with histrionic language like you see in a lot of cheap true crime paperbacks. Those kinds of books are designed to provide vicarious thrills to the audience. I wanted readers involved and sympathetic, not simply stirred up.
4. The varying processes of published authors always fascinate me. Can you share your research and writing process and timeline for this book?
My research was conducted on several fronts. I relied on newspaper accounts of the tragedy; a transcript of an inquest conducted a few days after the bombing to determine the whats and hows of May 18, 1927; two previous books and other accounts of the tragedy, all of which were self published; and interviews with survivors.
Because I’m working in nonfiction, I like to immerse myself in as much material as I can on a topic so I know the story backwards and forwards and can cover all of its nuances. Fortunately, there was a wealth of eyewitness accounts as chronicled in newspapers of the day: obvious choices like New York Times and the Chicago Tribune provided great information, but the meat of these stories came from the Lansing State Journal. They had people on the scene first and hit all aspects of tragedy: rescues, heartbreak, fundraising, and events in the days after the bombing. These accounts—particularly the Lansing State Journal—were invaluable resources. They were filled with scenes that informed the overall story. I also used newspaper accounts marking various commemorations of the bombing (I dislike the word “anniversary” to describe the date), such as the 75th year marking the tragedy. A piece from the Detroit Free Press on how Bath offered lessons to the post-9/11 world was also very useful.
Next was the transcript of the inquest conducted by local law officials on the Monday and Tuesday after the bombing. The official goal of this inquest was to investigate the circumstances behind the murder of Emory E. Huyckbut the real job was to provide an account of what led up to the bombing and what happened on May 18, 1927. This document was nearly 300 pages and was packed witheyewitness testimony. It was filled withscenes, withdialog, with the interior mindset of so many townspeople, eyewitnesses, rescuers, and victims.
There were a few self-published books on the tragedy. One was produced by a Bathresident about a monthor so after the bombing to honor the dead and chronicle what happened that day. Another was a self-published history written about 20 years ago. The design of this latter book was terrible and the writing was even worse, but the research was great and provided me with a lot of good information, particularly in the school board events that showed the growing tension between Huyck and Kehoe. There’s nothing more boring than reading accounts of school board meetings and I had to wade through page after page of that stuff! Despite the tedium, the book did do a nice job of setting the stage and also gave some good history on Kehoe’s early years. The town historian also produced a pair of spiral bound books that collated a lot of articles and personal accounts and there was also a lengthy history of Bath written in 1976. All very useful stuff.
Finally there were the survivors. The bombing was 80 years ago, yet to them it was yesterday. Their memories, their words were far more eloquent than anything found in newspapers or books. One woman told me some particularly gruesome details about the scene and a family member who was killed. As the stories grew bloodier and more personal, I was afraid of upsetting her and said, “You don’t have to tell me this stuff if you don’t want to.” She said, no, she wanted to tell me. She wanted people to know what happened and it was her duty to bear witness. And that’s an awesome task to translate such personal stuff into a book. The survivors emboldened my resolve to do this book right. I wanted to create the definitive account and hence had to tell it properly.
What I did was go through this stuff over and over until I felt like I’d really absorbed it. Now comes the work! I write an outline and throw myself into the writing. Having all that stuff surrounding me physically as well as stored in my head infuses my process. I turn into a machine and churn out the material. I don’t pay attention to things like style; I just write. Then I go back and edit mercilessly. Did I leave anything out? Can I move stuff around? What really belongs and what can be deleted? How can I smooth out the work so it reads seamlessly? Again, I don’t worry about style but getting the story told right and told to the best of my abilities.
What I didn’t realize when I was writing was how violent and graphic the story was. I just wrote! In the editing phase, as I played with the material, I periodically would have to put down the manuscript; it got to be too much for me to handle emotionally. It never occurred to me how hardcore I was getting in the writing. Like I say, I turned into a machine, taking the research I absorbed and translated it to the page. Regardless, I knew during the editing that if I was this deeply affected, I was on the right track. Odds were with me that the reader would see and feel the tragedy exactly as I did.
5. As writers, we are told to have a readership in mind, especially when pitching an agent or publisher. Did you have a publisher in mind while you were writing this book? Can you tell us about your publishing experience?
I can’t say I had a readership in mind; all I knew was that I had a compelling story. If it grabbed me, surely it would grab others!
As for pitching it, I was told at the beginning by one person to “dream big.” To be honest, I had Devil in the White Citydreams about bestsellerdom, but agents and publishers had other ideas. I had no agent when I started, but I wrote a damn good proposal (and I used a wonderful book by Elizabeth Lyon, Nonfiction Book Proposals That Anyone Can Write to guide me in this phase; I highly recommend it). Next I scoured the Internet for potential agents and sent out query after query. I got plenty of rejections with the occasional nibble for the proposal. However, the majority of people said the story was “too regional.” In other words, because the story didn’t take place on the East Coast or the West Coast, it wasn’t significant! But after 40 or so submissions, I got a wonderful agent who really believed in the material. It took me only three months to find an agent, a much shorter time period than I anticipated.
She sent out the proposal to publishers but again we ran into the “too regional” roadblock. We both found this frustrating because in the post-Columbine world you’d think that the first mass school murder—particularly one with as many twists and turns as the Bath story has—would be a juicy plum for any publisher. Finally University of Michigan Press picked it up. Because the story took place in Michigan they were a natural choice and UMP is one of the most respected university presses in the country. I asked a couple of author friends who had published with university presses what they thought, and they encouraged me to take the deal. I’m glad I listened to everyone. I’ve been very happy with UMP; they’ve done a great job as far as production, editing, book design and promotion. They’ve worked hard on my behalf and that inspires me to hustle in my own marketing efforts. We’re now in our fourth printing.
Ironically, the Virginia Tech tragedy happened about six weeks after we sold the book. I said to my agent that we probably could get a big name publisher if the book was still being pitched at that point since the subject would have been more “topical,” something people were looking at anew. She agreed and she knows the business. It’s a sick little racket, the publishing game!
6. What would you like readers to take away after reading Bath Massacre?
Overall, I want readers to feel the depth of the tragedy in very human terms. I’m often asked if the book has any lessons in light of modern school violence and I can’t say it does; the only thing it really shows is that these sort of tragedies are nothing new and realistically there’s nothing we can do to stop determined psychopaths. I point that out towards the end of the book with a lengthy list of modern school killings. It’s not a hopeful message, but it’s a realistic one and that’s something I couldn’t avoid. But the final scene, of the 94 year old woman visiting her baby brother’s grave on the 80th anniversary of the bombing does—I hope—show the reader the importance of memory, of keeping the dead close to heart, of how connections of love are not diminished by the years, of how goodness and decency can emerge from unthinkable violence.
7. Please share your upcoming events and readings of Bath Massacre.
On Saturday, August 1 I’ll be at the Bourbonnais (IL) Public Library Author Fair. Later in the fall I’m going to be in Grand Rapids, MI for a book festival on Saturday, October 17. Other events are being scheduled as we speak. The best bet is for readers interested in attending a reading is to check in on the “events” section of my website and/or become a “fan” of the book on Facebook.
I do participate in book club readings and discussions; there’s a readers guide people can download from my website. Depending on location, I can meet with your group in person, or via telephone, webcast or Skype. If readers want to use Bath Massacre for their book clubs I’ll provide them with copies (signed, if they want!) at a group discount.
8. What is next for Arnie Bernstein? (Events/readings/classes/projects, etc)
I’m teaching basic college composition at Triton College in River Grove, IL. I love teaching 101; that nuts and bolts stuff and the enthusiasm of my students really helps my own work. If you can’t do the basics, you can’t write and teaching introductory stuff helps keep my own work fresh.
I’m currently researching a new “forgotten history” story that also has contemporary repercussions. And that’s all I’m going to say about that!
Overall, this book has been a great experience. Thanks for giving me this opportunity to talk with your readers. I’d love to hear from people if they have any questions or comments.
One last thing: the best advice I can give Writers Inspired readers is that if you have a great story you believe in, keep fighting for it. You will succeed in getting the work out there.
Please remember to leave a question or comment for Arnie for a chance to win a copy of Bath Massacre. Comments must be posted before 12 midnight, CENTRAL, today, July 29.