Finding the people in the Winter Fortress

Last week, we interviewed new-to-Seattle author Neal Bascomb for our New Hire column. Yesterday, Bascomb’s newest book, a non-fiction Norwegian World War II espionage thriller called The Winter Fortress, was officially published. Bascomb is hosting a launch party at Hugo House tomorrow night. We talked about the pleasures and pains of research and why his book might appeal to fans of the movie Red Dawn.

Did moving to Seattle make the research part of your job more difficult?

It's so much easier to do research now than it was 20 years ago. I'm doing this book — my next book — on a World War I escape story. I felt like when I was first starting out writing, I had to be at the New York Public Library, or at Columbia, to do the research, to find archives. Now there's so much available online. Eventually, I have to have someone go to the archives, but I can find out where everything is from my office at home, which is dramatically different than it was 20 years ago.

You did eventually travel for Winter Fortress, right? You were in Norway to research this book?

Yeah. My wife says that I choose what books to write based on where I get to travel, which could be partly true. I picked some good ones: Argentina, and Israel, and Australia. Once I find everything that's available online, then I'm archiving, interviewing, or hunting down people for diaries, or letters. There is a fair bit of travel. Which I love.

What are you doing to celebrate the book launch locally?

I’ve got a reading at Hugo House on May 5th, and then one at the Nordic Heritage Museum on the 24th of May. I picked the right book to move to Seattle around, considering it's a Norwegian-centered story, and there's a very vibrant Norwegian community here.

This is probably an obvious question, but just to make sure, you were done with the book by the time you moved here in the summer of last year?

I finished it here. I edited it here. I actually did all the hard work on it here. The writing is easy, the revising is where the challenge comes in.

That seems like a very short schedule, compared to some of the writers — especially of historical stuff — I've talked to...

No, that's right. Wait. Can that be right?

If you're on a once-every-two-years schedule, I guess that's right.

Yes, for sure. It does seem short, but I was a little late because of the move, which made me a little behind. I had all my research in my boxes, and I was doing revisions, and I was like, "Shit, I can't find anything." Yes.

A cross-country move seems like it would be tough when you’re working on a research-heavy book.

The moving van had most of my research, and then I brought my own boxes, that critical research, with me because I didn't want to lose it.

So can you give the elevator pitch to my readers for the book?

Well, it's the story of the sabotage of the German atomic bomb program. It's the story of the sabotage of Vemork Heavy Water Factory, which was key to their atomic research. Really, it's the story of Leif Tronstad, who was the 38-year-old scientist who built the plant, and then escaped Norway to work for the Allies. It's the story of Leif, and then this group of young Norwegians who were mostly in their early twenties, who escaped Norway, to be trained in England, to come back and fight. A lot of them were local boys to the area.

As I often say — I say it a little flippantly — but this story, Winter Fortress, is like their Red Dawn moment. You know, the eighties movie, with Patrick Swayze? The Germans come in. The local boys go to the mountains, and they use their local skills to fight back. It does have that flavor to it.

I tried as much as possible for it to be a story that told through their eyes. There's been other histories of the sabotage of Vemork, but most of them are heavy on just the events: “they came in, they went in, they blew up the plant.” None of them really had access to the archives, or the diaries, to the level of this book. I'm hoping it's very much a story of people instead of events.

Why is that? Why has nobody done the personal side yet?

There was a book by an American journalist about 20 years ago which was not based on, really, any of the Norwegian archives, or any of the other stuff, I think largely because it's in Norwegian. A lot of it wasn't accessible. Most of [the Norwegians in the story] really didn't want to talk about it that much, but they left so much stuff. I've never had more research — primary, firsthand research — on any other book than this one. I had daily diaries. I had memoirs. I had all the secret reports. I almost had too much, from most of the key players; hundreds of thousands of interview words. It was just incredible. Now that I'm back to really having to hunt and peck for every bit on this new book, it's like I look back at what I had with Winter Fortress, and I'm like, "I hate everything." It was a dream.

Is that also just because of the time difference between World War I and World War II?

Yeah. World War I is really hard. I think a lot of [World War I artifacts were] destroyed in World War II. But in Norway, this is one of their seminal stories. It's sort of like the Boston Tea Party, but for Norway. These guys recorded their experiences. In fact, Leif Tronstad, when four of these guys went off on their mission, he said, "In a hundred years, they will be writing about this." I think some of that took seed, in terms of their willingness to believe the history of what happened. Most of the primary research, and this was all Norwegian. Probably 80% of it was primary. At the least.

I was in Norway last year, and I did get the sense when I went into museums I got the sense that they were trying very hard to impress upon visitors that there was a healthy resistance movement during World War II. It seems as though the country is still very concerned with how they tell their own story. Did you have a hard time parsing what happened from the story that the Norwegians told themselves? Did you have a hard time as an outsider separating the truth from the legends?

I definitely felt like in Norway, the presence of World War II is still pretty strong. I mean, I felt that way in Europe, too, but in Norway, they really were under German thumb for almost 5 years, pretty brutally.

Norway was occupied in 1940, right? Germans essentially ran the country. And for 60 years, or 50 years, they've done one of two things: they've either built up this heroic resistance, which was robust. There was a robust resistance, with a lot of sacrifice, and a lot of courageous acts. But there was also a lot of collaboration. There were also a lot of people who just lived their lives. I think for 50 years, they largely centered, focused on, the courage. Which is natural. I think in the last 10 years or so, they really historically made efforts to examine this collaboration.

I felt like when I was there, there was a sort of a resistance to [examining the collaboration], again. Like, "Okay, we've seen that. Now let's go back to the history of the resistance." I felt like in my research I saw all three sides of it. There were collaborationists, and there was some pretty brutal stuff. That sort of murky history is there. It's there in Winter Fortress, for sure.