March 2009

Neal Bascomb

Fugitive from justice
Interview by
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When it comes to writing, Neal Bascomb is a creature of habit. He begins his day at the same coffee shop in Greenwich Village, New York, where he has written all his books. He drinks regular coffee, and he takes it black. He reads The New York Times. When he puts the paper down, it’s time to have a second cup of coffee, and to write. He uses one of the fancy pens he’s received as a gift, and any notebook he has available. Then he sets about writing his first draft in longhand.

“I’ve been coming to the same place almost every day for the past 10 years,” Bascomb says. “The place has a good feel to it. It’s public, yet no one bothers me. People come in and out. I sit at a table and open a notebook. The sounds around me become white noise. It’s beautiful.”

Bascomb breaks around noon, and returns to his home in Brooklyn for lunch with his wife and two daughters. Then he returns to the coffee shop to write again until dinnertime.

“Two good sessions, and a 1,000 words, and I’m happy,” he says.

In contrast to his rigid writing routine, Bascomb’s nonfiction books are remarkably diverse in subject. His latest, Hunting Eichmann, is an engaging account of the manhunt for Adolf Eichmann, the notorious Nazi commander who was the architect of the mass extermination of Jews during World War II.

Written in rich detail and with authority, the quality of Hunting Eichmann would suggest the author is an expert on World War II, the Holocaust and war crimes. But this is his first foray into such subjects.

Bascomb’s first book, Higher, described the battle between America’s most gifted architects to build the world’s tallest skyscraper during the Roaring ’20s. He followed with The Perfect Mile, the tale of Roger Bannister and two other runners struggling to be the first to run the mile in under four minutes. Bascomb then wrote Red Mutiny, chronicling the 1905 munity aboard the Russian battleship Potemkin.

The diversity of Bascomb’s subjects makes perfect sense, given that he is a journalist in pursuit of a good story.

“I like to find stories that are very intriguing, with a strong narrative,” he explains.

While his approach allows Bascomb to avoid being pigeonholed, many book authors develop a specialty, which enables them to develop an audience.

“It may not be the best idea in terms of my career,” he admits. “There is value in focusing. a) You become an expert. And b) you keep your audience. In essence, I’m finding a new audience each time I write a book. I suppose there are those who love Neal Bascomb, but I’m not sure how many of them are out there.”

Bascomb actually has quite a few fans, given that his books have met with critical acclaim and have made numerous bestseller lists. Hunting Eichmann has the same potential, thanks to Bascomb’s painstaking research and lively writing.

The book follows the life of Eichmann, a lieutenant colonel in the notorious Nazi SS who organized the deportation of Europe’s Jews to concentration camps. When Germany surrendered, Eichmann escaped and lived under an alias in Argentina until his capture by Israeli spies in 1960. He was convicted of crimes against humanity and hanged.

Hunting Eichmann tracks the Nazi officer’s rise to power and recounts his acts of genocide. It outlines his harrowing escape, his undercover life in Argentina and his suspense-filled capture. The story is thoroughly researched and rich in detail.

Bascomb, 37, first became interested in Eichmann in 1992, when he was a young college student studying abroad in Luxembourg.

“I was this Midwestern kid who found himself in a place where there was a lot of World War II history. Then when some Holocaust survivors came to talk to us, it struck me in the solar plexus.” Bascomb recalls.

Years later, when he was researching the subject, Bascomb was excited to discover new material on Eichmann, and he began a journey that took him around the world to learn about the fugitive Nazi’s life. He traveled to Buenos Aires to interview former Nazi soldiers. While there, he also discovered in court files the long-lost passport Eichmann used to escape Europe. Bascomb also traveled to Israel to interview former operatives with Mossad, the spy agency that tracked down and captured Eichmann.

“For 50 years, they had not spoken about this. They had a pretty dramatic story to tell. [And] discovering the passport—it was a powerful feeling to add to history,” Bascomb says.

Writing Hunting Eichmann also was a satisfying experience for Bascomb, in large part because the real-life manhunt for Eichmann was structurally similar to a mystery novel.

“It was like writing it as a novel, except everything is true,” he says. “It was exciting to get to that level—trying to tell it as if you were reading a novel, except this is history.”

While Bascomb is about to embark on an eight-city tour for Hunting Eichmann, he already is busy researching his next book, which is about high school science students. His eager pursuit of his next project, which is taking him to New York, Detroit and Santa Barbara, California, is due in part to his continued curiosity as a journalist. But there are also some practical reasons.

“I write books full time. I don’t freelance, I don’t teach. So when one project is done, I like to get cracking on the next one,” he explains.

But his wife has her own theory.

“My wife says I pick my books depending upon where I want to travel next,” Bascomb laughs. “That may seem true when I’m researching in Santa Barbara in January. But in my defense, I was in Detroit the week before.”

John T. Slania is a journalism professor at Loyola University in Chicago.

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