In 2009, when Bernstein saw the Quentin Tarantino movie Inglorious Basterds, he had no clue his life was about to change. Watching a fictionalized account of Jews hunting down Nazis during WWII got him curious: What were the real stories of Jews who fought back during the Hitler era? His research uncovered the forgotten story of an American pro-Nazi movement of the late 1930s. Coupled with a long-standing interest in extremist groups after having witnessed the controversy surrounding the would-be Nazi march in Skokie in 1977, Bernstein knew he had something special on his hands.
“I was looking for a story,” he says, and the story he relates in his latest book, Swastika Nation, found him.
In fact, it was such a good story that Bernstein sold it to a literary agent on a one-line pitch. “I’ve been incredibly lucky,” he says with a shake of his head.
Swastika Nation, which published September 3, was several years in the making. The book tells the true story of Fritz Kuhn and the rise of the German–American Bund, a pro-Nazi group in the 1930s. The Bund had a national presence, but also powerful enemies, including politicians, newspapermen, Hollywood figures, and members of the Jewish underworld.
After winning over his agent with that one-line pitch, Bernstein spent about a year researching and writing the book proposal. “I wanted to get it right,” he says. “The proposal had to be perfect.”
But getting to a perfect proposal didn’t force open the gates of publishing. Months went by during which all Bernstein or his agent heard was one rejection after another, most of them in the vanilla “it’s not a fit for us” vein. “We got fabulous rejections,” Bernstein jokes.
The rejections came one after the other for a good five months until, in May 2011, an editor at St. Martin’s Press understood right away the story Bernstein wanted to tell and what he was trying to accomplish. Bernstein then spent about eighteen months researching and writing the manuscript and even more time working with his editor at St. Martin’s before the book published last week.
But getting the proposal right was only half the battle, of course. Bernstein also had to get the story itself right. “You have to be honest to history,” he says. “You have to let the story tell itself.”
Being true to history meant doing a lot of research—many months of research across many miles of America. Bernstein’s studies found him trolling for information in some unexpected sources, from networking for interviews on Facebook to sifting through thousands of pages of files in FBI documents and from scrolling through scores of microfilm to weeding through inky pages of old newsprint.
“What I had in my hands was a puzzle,” Bernstein says of the bits of information he uncovered for Swastika Nation. “I knew what the picture looked like, but I had to pull all the pieces together.”
Getting pieces to come together seems to be working fine for Bernstein. In fact, it seems just about everything has converged to get Bernstein to this very point in his career as an author. Swastika Nation is his fifth book. His previous titles are Bath Massacre: America’s First School Bombing (University of Michigan Press) and Hollywood on Lake Michigan; The Movies Are: Carl Sandburg’s Film Reviews & Essays; and The Hoofs and Guns of the Storm: Chicago’s Civil War Connections, all of which were published locally by Sharon Woodhouse and the team at Lake Claremont Press.
Bernstein offers high praise for Woodhouse and Lake Claremont, noting that it was they who helped him get his foot in the publishing door. “She listened to me and gave me a start,” he says.
If it was Lake Claremont that helped Bernstein get his foot in the door, it was his work on Bath Massacre that thrust the doors wide open. Bath Massacre, the story of the first school bombing in America, changed everything for Bernstein. “It was a turning point,” he says about that book. “It changed my life.”
After the publication of Bath Massacre, Bernstein earned wide praise for his work. It also established him as an expert, and in December 2012, following the horrific events surrounding the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Bernstein suddenly found himself getting calls from a variety of media as people sought insight into the tragedy.
Bath Massacre may well have been Bernstein’s breakout title, but that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten his roots.
“I learned my craft here in Chicago,” Bernstein says. “Chicago has the most supportive writing community in the world.”
From Dana Kaye to Rick Kogan to Augie Alesky to Jonathan Eig, Bernstein heaps praise and thanks among those of Chicago’s literati who have helped him not only hone his craft but support his books in other ways, whether through publicity, interviews, speaking, or author signings.
“I’ve learned that when writers in Chicago approach established authors and other people in the publishing business who live here and ask for help, people are glad to offer what advice and direction they can,” he says. “That’s one of the great beauties of the Chicago writing world.”
A new book, a history of garnering positive reviews, and a supportive writing community—that in itself makes for a good story, just another aspect of the good fortune Bernstein feels lucky about.