Mike Dash writes books. Historical stories are his favorite. He is a New York Times best selling author who takes a special interest in research and journalism. He brings to his writing an in-depth style of research that has been described as “a level rarely seen in books intended for a general audience” and “up-close, personal, and full of you-are-there detail”.
Mike grew up in Hertfordshire, England and went to a boarding school. He recalls those early, formative years as a ‘living history’ and admittedly describes himself as a “pretty bookish kid”! He did not begin his career as an author of books but rather a journalist writing for school magazines. He would eventually garnish his talents in such magazines as Manufacturing Clothier, Fashion Weekly, VIZ magazine, Gardens Illustrated and eventually Smithsonian Magazine. Mike began writing for the Smithsonian in July 2011 when the Smithsonian acquisitioned his WordPress blog, A Blast from the Past, shortly after the History News Network awarded it the 2010 Cliopatria prize for history blogging.
He would attend Cambridge and study History. He completed his post-graduate studies at King’s College in London where he would receive his PhD. Mike then took interest in research and writing as a historical author and publish five books. Mike would admit that he is fascinated by the least known stories that would make for great reading.
The First Family is Mike Dash’s outstanding new history of the birth of the American Mafia. Gripping, vivid, fast-paced, and yet painstakingly researched, the book follows Giuseppe Morello, the United States’ first boss of bosses, from his Sicilian birthplace to New York as he and his murderous family scrabble their way from the Italian slums to control of organised crime throughout the country. Ranged against the ruthless Morello family are the police and Secret Service agents who have sworn to stop them. Who lives? Who dies? (Official Website)
Mike was kind enough to grant Featured E-Magazine this interview.
Where did you grow up and how would you characterize your childhood?
I had an all-over sort of childhood. I grew up in a rural area of Hertfordshire, which is just to the north of London, and I lived there until I was 9. Then my father lost his job, and the only one he could find in the same industry was in West Berlin. So we all moved to Germany, and I lived there for five years. Of course this was at the height of the Cold War, and we lived within a mile of the Wall and the Soviet zone in Berlin – you could hear guns firing occasionally in what I hope were just exercises, not at people trying to cross over to the West. I think that ‘living history’ in that way must have had some impact on me, but probably the most formative thing that happened in those years was that I got sent back to a British boarding school. My father continued to move about – to Zurich, then Paris, then Cannes – so it was quite common to come home for the school holidays to a new home where I knew nobody and where there was no English language TV or radio – even the newspapers were always a day or two out of date. Not so surprising in those circumstances that I became a pretty bookish kid.
“One of the things
that makes me different
to other historians
who write non-academic books
is that I’m most fascinated
by the least-known stories.”
Mike, you are now a New York Times Best selling author. When did you first begin to realize that you would become a writer?
Very late on, at least in the sense of writing books.
I discovered while I was still at school that I loved writing for magazines, and I ran the student magazine for years at college, and then helped pay for my postgraduate work with freelance journalism. And after that I was a professional journalist for six years. But I came to be an author in a very weird way.
My wife was friends at university with a guy who became a literary agent, and one evening in 1995, when she was away from home, he phoned in a huge panic, looking for a lift out of London. “A million pounds were at stake,” he said, and so of course I drove him, and he directed me to a little cottage deep in a forest about an hour outside London. It turned out that he had hidden an author named Anna Pasternak there while she finished work on something called Princess in Love, which was the first book to reveal that Princess Diana had had several affairs – it kickstarted the entire tell-all genre. One of Diana’s lovers had threatened to derail publication, and my small part in the story was to get the agent to the meeting where the whole project was put back on track. He turned up again three or four days later and, as a thank you, offered me the chance to work on The Limit, a book the BBC were bringing out to tie in with ‘Engineering Week on BBC2’.
To be honest, this was more than just a favour. The original author had dropped out and there were only six weeks to go till deadline, so it was a real rush job, and it made sense to come to a journalist who could treat it like an extended piece of journalism.
I only got paid £4,000 for it, the TV series was a flop and I don’t know a single person who actually read the book … but once you’ve completed one, publishers are much more willing to take a chance on your finishing another. So that was my start. When anyone asks me how to become an author, I usually respond: ‘Well, first of all you need to get involved in a major scandal involving the royal family…’
How did your early experiences such as writing for Fashion Weekly and working as an Assistant-Editor/Editor for Licensing Reporter impact you today as an author?
I think that journalism is a useful background for a writer for two reasons. First, it teaches you to write quickly and it stops you being too precious about your work. You get used to being edited, and realize it can help improve your stuff. Second, it teaches you to know a good story when you see one, and to have a few ideas about how to tell it in an interesting and original way.
I remember the tutor on a course I took in my second job, at Haymarket Magazines. He was an old-school newspaperman, and had once been editor of the Newcastle Journal. One day he sprang a practical exercise on us which we hadn’t prepared for. It involved us talking our way into a news conference we hadn’t been invited to, and to write up a story about it. It was for some sort of businesswoman of the year award and it was pretty dull, except that the woman who won said something in passing – that her hobby was sawing up logs in her spare time. And I began my story with that, while everyone else in the class did something more straightforward and worthy. Next day the editor held up all the stories we’d written and a copy of the Daily Mirror, which at that time was the best-selling newspaper in Britain. He said, ‘Well, Mike’s the only one who used the same lead as the Mirror did.’ And I remember that quite clearly, because it was the first time that I felt properly confident that I could write.
You are very well educated. What were some of your experiences like in School and working on your PhD in History?
One of the things that makes me different to other historians who write non-academic books is that I’m most fascinated by the least-known stories. It’s something that has certainly cost me a lot of money, because frankly there is more mileage in writing yet another biography of Napoleon than there is in turning out something genuinely original about someone nobody has heard of, or much cares about. But it’s something that I can see in myself going as far back as school, where I did a course on seventeenth and eighteenth century history and found that by the most interesting things to me were the Ottomans and the Swedes, not the English and the French.
I’ve always enjoyed knowing things that nobody else does, and you can see that in my doctorate too. It was about British submarine policy – not in the 20th century, when we actually had submarines, but in the 19th, when we didn’t, and for the most part nobody did. It was interesting to me because the period was completely unexplored and it was full of crackpot inventors and death-trap machines. And again, it was not exactly calculated to get me a job. I’ve been pretty fortunate to make any sort of living while indulging my curiosity.
“Like any writer,
I have plenty of dark nights of the soul,
where I convince myself I’m useless
and that everything I do is useless, too.
Having a big pile of positive noises . . .
to turn to is an incredible resource
in the tough times.”
What was it like working in the ‘Magazine’ sector of journalism?
Fantastic fun. I was lucky enough to do so in the 1980s and 1990s, before the internet undermined the industry. But it’s the opposite of writing history. It’s collaborative and there’s a fast turnover, and the stuff you write gets read by a lot of people very soon after you finish writing it. Whereas a PhD is six years of working completely on your own to finish something that you seriously doubt will ever be read by more than two or three people.
I don’t think there should be nearly such a big gap in the perceived status of these two activities as society thinks there is. The stuff I’ve written for magazines has had vastly more impact than all the “proper” history I’ve written ever has or ever will do. There are two stories in particular that I think of here, both of which I originally wrote for the Smithsonian Magazine. One was called ‘Above the Senior Wrangler’, and it was about Philippa Fawcett – she was the first woman who ever came top in mathematics at Cambridge, at a time when the maths exam there was widely regarded as the toughest intellectual challenge on offer anywhere in the world. She’s mostly forgotten now, but at the time her achievement changed perceptions of what women were capable of, all over the world. I’ve had comments on that story from women who say they were in tears, or punching the air, by the time they got to the end, and it’s the only piece of mine that still gives me goosebumps when I re-read it myself.
The other story I’m thinking about is one that I wrote about a Russian family that fled into the taiga to escape persecution during Stalin’s reign. They spent 40 years living completely off the grid, 150 miles from the nearest human settlement, and never saw another person in all that time. It’s the only story of mine that has ever gone viral. It was tweeted and posted all over the place, and so far it’s been read by four or five million people at least. A musician in Albuquerque wrote an entire album, a brilliant one, based on it.
A lot of people have said incredibly nice things about that essay, which, compared to the deafening silence that greeted most of what I’ve written over the years, was a moving experience for me. Like any writer, I have plenty of dark nights of the soul, where I convince myself I’m useless and that everything I do is useless, too. Having a big pile of positive noises like that to turn to is an incredible resource in the tough times.
Of course, part of the problem here is that it’s never possible to tell in advance what sort of story will strike that sort of chord, so you can’t just go out and hope to duplicate that impact every time. The second most widely read story of mine is one about the Old Man of the Lake –– a tree stump that has been floating vertically in Crater Lake in Oregon for the last 120 years. Who’d have guessed that? It certainly came as a surprise to me.
It appears working for John Brown and VIZ magazine may have been a ‘breakthrough’ moment for you. What type of things did you learn about the publishing business under John’s direction?
That it is actually possible to make a living having an incredibly good time doing something that is genuinely interesting, with people that you really like. As I say, that’s sort of a dangerous message because it’s certainly not reality for a lot of the time. But it would be wonderful if everyone could have a job like that at least once in their lives.
You wrote 2 books before breaking through with Tulipomania. How did these early book projects help you to become a better author?
Firstly, they taught me how to actually finish a book – I mean take it from start to finish and hand it in making some sort of sense. It’s surprising how many people who want to write aren’t capable of doing that.
A second lesson is one that I should probably have paid more attention to in my later projects. It’s that nobody cares more about what actually goes into a book than you do, and pretty much nobody notices the little glitches and problems that are glaringly obvious to you because you sweated over them. I’ve spent a lot of time in my career trying to fix problems no one else even knows exists, and the reality is that you don’t actually get paid more for worrying about that sort of thing. Maybe that’s a lesson about being a more professional author than a better one, but I’ve learned that there’s certainly no link between how hard I worked on a project and how perfectly it is written, and how well it actually sells.
When you decide to write a book on a subject, what kind of research and planning goes into it?
A lot. The first thing I do is make sure I can actually add something new. I don’t want to spend two years, which is the length of time it takes to write and research a book, just to rehash material that is already out there. And since I’m invariably working on something that’s not widely known, there’s always also lots of research needing to be done to master the background. I try to make my books immersive experiences. It’s important to me that readers can feel that they’re there, whether ‘there’ is a Dutch East Indiaman sweating through the tropics, or a crowded street in turn-of-the-last-century New York, or the back roads of India in the 1820s. I try to make reading one of my books a cinematic experience, and that takes plenty of research and planning.
Your latest book, The First Family, about the rise and fall of the American Mafia, is quite interesting. Where did you come up with the inspiration to write on such as subject?
In part, obviously, it was an attempt to come up with a topic that had a chance of selling in a lot of different places. It was when The Sopranos was a big deal, and one of the main things that has happened in book publishing since I started is that publishers have got a lot less adventurous.
No American publisher would touch a project like Batavia’s Graveyard now – a book about a Dutch shipwreck and the mutiny that followed it – even though it’s by far the most incredible story that I’ve ever told. That’s because no Americans feature anywhere in the book.
But lots of people are fascinated by the Mafia. And when I discovered that no one had ever really written a book about how exactly it came to get established in the US in the first place – and then I worked out how I could lay my hands on a treasure trove of reliable, previously unseen, documents about that period – that created a sort of “perfect storm” of circumstance for me.
Your blog, A Blast from The Past, has a variety of historical topics. Do you see your blog as an extension of your writing and research?
It’s sort of taken over from the books for me now. I’ve been doing it long enough – four years – that there is actually about two books’ worth of material on that site, in terms of length. It works for me for all the reasons that I’ve already touched on. I get to look at obscure new topics every week, and to research them till I’m satisfied I understand them, but I don’t have to spend years on those sorts of tasks. I get to publish them in a way that’s much more like magazine publishing than book publishing, so they’re seen by a lot of people quickly, and I get a fair amount of feedback on them, too. It’s a bonus that I don’t have to care about whether or not they would “sell “ in a bookstore. And I’m incredibly fortunate that the Smithsonian believes enough in me to publish even my most obscure stuff, just on the grounds that it’s interesting.
All the things that I am working on at present are for the blog. An essay on the question of whether the Ottoman Turks sent aid to Ireland during the great potato famine. Another on evidence that people from outside Polynesia made it to New Zealand before Captain Cook became the first European to land there. I have about 15 or 20 little topics all researched and just waiting to be written – which gives you a pretty good pointer as to which part of the job I like better, the writing or the research.
You discuss in your video interview that people like to be taken back in time when reading a story. In your research, have you come across any time related stories?
Two of my favorite essays are about “time-slips”, in which people become convinced that they’ve somehow travelled back in time to a much earlier time and place. There was one about a group of naval cadets who found themselves walking through what they became convinced was a medieval plague village, and another about a Scottish woman who thought she’d stumbled across the aftermath of a battle fought in 685.
I think there’s something immensely compelling about those stories. They really get your imagination going. And I don’t think you can be even a half-way decent historian without having a really good imagination. It’s probably the most innate skill that the really great ones possess. I think that, in many ways, a historian’s academic training is all about harnessing an imagination that already exists, but doing that in responsible ways to achieve academically useful goals.
In other words – if I can be excused a comment that I realise will infuriate every poststructuralist out there – I think that history ought to be about yoking one’s imagination in the service of fact, not fiction.
Mike Dash is an award winning author who lives in London with his wife Penny Dash — formerly editorial director at the magazine publisher Attic Futura and currently director of Deeper Media, a leading editorial and publishing consultancy — and has a daughter, Ffion. He is presently “deeply immersed in an education start up” that will be launched in August 2015.