Q. Why did you choose this moment in history?
A. It was a significant event in a number of ways. Until the Hindenburg disaster, lighter-than-air transport had a bright future. The Hindenburg was the largest and most elegant of all zeppelins, capable of carrying huge loads great distances in an energy-efficient and supposedly safe manner. When the Hindenburg was reduced to rubble, faith in lighter-than-air travel crumbled. Production of new airships ceased, existing zeppelins were dismantled, and airplanes moved in to fill the void. So, in many ways, the demise of the Hindenburg was a turning point in the history of aviation.
The Hindenburg disaster was also a pivotal moment in the history of broadcasting. Film crews and reporters were waiting at the Lakehurst, New Jersey site ready to document the landing. Today, with access to the Internet, all it takes is a click of the mouse to view that footage or to hear Herbert Morrison's emotional report of the Hindenburg's tragic end and to realize the impact that type of reporting must have had at the time. Like no other single event, the Hindenburg disaster demonstrated the immediacy of the emerging media and its ability to stir public emotion and opinion.
Q. Why did you choose to tell the Hindenburg story through the experiences of Werner Franz?
A. Watching footage of the Hindenburg disaster, you can't help but marvel that anyone actually survived. Start to finish, the whole thing was over in 32 fiery seconds. Incredibly, of the 93 people on board, 62 made it. Werner Franz, the youngest crew member, was one of these. His story of survival was amazing, a combination of fierce determination and luck. With flames leaping overhead, he had the wherewithal to figure out an escape route in the few seconds he had left. I figured that focusing on the experiences of just one person, young Werner Franz, was the best way to give the large-scale, historical moment a personal and immediate touch. Here was a young man with a sense of adventure, not much older than readers themselves, who managed to live through a horrible experience. He was someone I felt readers could identify with, someone they could cheer on when things looked bleak.
Q. Did writing the story that way pose problems?
A. Many written accounts of the Hindenburg disaster--the film footage and radio broadcast too--are told from the perspective of someone watching the event from the ground. But telling the story through the experiences of Werner Franz meant that the story had to be told from inside the airship. To get it right, I needed to understand the inner workings of the Hindenburg, the layout of cabins, the position of the keel walkway, gas bags and other features of the interior. I also had to plot the route followed by Werner. It meant digging through a lot of research material and viewing archival footage of the airship's interior to get to the point where I felt secure enough to tell the story. Telling it through Werner's eyes also meant that I needed get under his skin to understand him and the actions he took. Fortunately, Werner Franz had been interviewed a number of times over the years, and I was able to read or hear his own accounts of the event. I felt a strong connection to him and his story. When there were differing details in the literature, I was able to go back to his first-person accounts to verify the choices he made and the reasons he acted as he did.
Q. What do you hope readers will learn from this story?
A. Besides learning about the Hindenburg, its pivotal role in history, and the circumstances surrounding Werner's own escape, I hope readers will learn something about character and how it is forged at critical times like this. The true test of a person's mettle comes not at moments of calm and contentment, but during periods of turmoil and unrest. In Werner's story that was certainly true. The cabin boy rose to the occasion, demonstrating a mix of boldness, persistence, and quick thinking that allowed him to escape.
Q. In writing this story, what surprised you?
A. A number of things about the Hindenburg were surprises: its sheer size, its vast capabilities, the hope it generated for the future of flight; but mostly I was surprised by how technologically advanced it was for its time. It was equipped with the latest navigational gear, intricate weather instruments, sophisticated communication systems--the whole nine yards.
Werner Franz was a surprise too, particularly in the plucky attitude he displayed. I didn't realize initially that being the cabin boy aboard the Hindenburg was a type of dream job for him. He was an adventurous soul, and the prospect of visiting far-off places thrilled him. He hoped to make a career out of zeppelin travel and eventually work his way up the ranks to other positions. After the disaster, he still hung on to that hope. A week after the Hindenburg's failed landing, he reportedly asked a representative of the German Air Ministry this question: "When the next zeppelin is ready, may I fly again with her?"
Q. What is your favorite book of all time?
A. Tough question. Really, there are so many that it's hard to pick just one. One that stands out immediately, though, is To Kill a Mockingbird. I first read the book when I was a teenager, and then again later in life. Each time, I walked away with different understandings and felt that in some way I had been changed because of what I had read. That, to me, is the mark of a great book.