Today at Chicago Book Review, we continue our “5 Questions for …” series with our echat with Ray Boomhower, whose work has included biographies of such figures as Gus Grissom, Ernie Pyle, Lew Wallace, Juliet Strauss, and May Wright Sewall. The Indiana historian recently accepted the top prize in the biography/memoir category from Society of Midland Authors for his book John Bartlow Martin: A Voice for the Underdog. We asked Ray what he’s working on, what he’s been reading lately, and what might be next for him.
CBR: What new writing projects are you working on right now?
REB: I am currently deep into writing a book for Indiana University Press on the World War II writing of Robert L. Sherrod, a war correspondent for Time and Life magazine. What Ernie Pyle did for his reporting for the average GI during the war, Sherrod did for the those who served with the U.S. Marine Corps, who suffered and persevered in the horrific engagements at Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. In his writing, Sherrod strove not to present complete stories, leaving that task to historians, but to write what he saw, heard, and felt during a battle, thereby reflecting the “mood of the men in battle” and how they appeared, talked, and fought. Washington Post reporter Richard Harwood observed upon Sherrod’s death in 1994 that as a war correspondent the man from Georgia produced “some of the most vivid accounts of men at war ever produced by an American journalist.”
Sherrod also produced two classic books on his wartime experiences—Tarawa: The Story of a Battle (1944) and On to Westward: War in the Central Pacific (1945). As Sherrod, a former Washington, DC, correspondent for Time, noted, “I can think of nothing less interesting than sitting out the war in Washington. There is too much history being written where men are dying.”
CBR: Who are some of your favorite writers?
REB: My taste in authors and genres has changed over the years. Like many ex-reporters, I grew up reading the stories and novels of Ernest Hemingway, admiring his spare prose. Because I now write mainly biography and nonfiction, my preferred writers are those who also work or have worked in narrative, including John McPhee, Robert Caro, Barbara Tuchman, and William Manchester.
CBR: What are you reading right now?
REB: Immersed as I am with my Sherrod book, I have little time at the moment to read about anything but what might help with that project, including several books on the history of the war in the Pacific, especially Peter Schrijvers’s incredible The GI War against Japan: American Soldiers in Asia and the Pacific During World War II—a must for any historian of the war. For inspiration when I find myself lagging, I have turned recently to Scott Donaldson’s The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography, comforting myself that at least I don’t have to contend with the problems he encountered in writing a biography of John Cheever.
CBR: Which books are on your to-read list?
REB: Books coming my way as part of my Sherrod research include James L. Baughman’s Henry Luce and the Rise of the American News Media and the autobiography of writer and Fortune magazine editor Eric Hodgins. I also look forward to reading Robert Gottlieb’s Avid Reader: A Life, especially his relationships as the editor of a host of famous authors.
CBR: If you could write one book about any topic—fiction or nonfiction—what would that book be?
REB: I have taken to heart David McCullough’s tip that biographers should select as their subjects people they are going to enjoy spending time with, as these projects can sometimes take years, or even decades, to complete. With that advice in mind, I gravitate toward people I have a shared experience with, either through an interest I have on a particular subject (World War II, for example) or a profession we might share (journalism). I would love to have the time to do a biography of Richard Rovere, the American political journalist and the writer for so many years of the “Letter from Washington” column for The New Yorker.
Ray E. Boomhower is senior editor of the Indiana Historical Society’s quarterly popular history magazine, Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History. Along with numerous articles for Traces, The Indiana Magazine of History, Outdoor Indiana, and other history periodicals, Boomhower is the author of several books, including John Bartlow Martin: A Voice for the Underdog (Indiana University Press, 2015), Robert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary (Indiana University Press, 2008), and Fighting for Equality: A Life of May Wright Sewall (IHS Press, 2007. In 2010, he was named as the winner of the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award in the regional category.
Learn more about author and historian Ray E. Boomhower at http://rayboomhower.blogspot.com/