The cold sun sinks behind the trees outside but she does not turn on the lights. The dark holds no comfort, but it does hide her icy tears. In the gloaming, pictures of her two oldest sons sit on top of the console radio a few feet away. She leans forward and twists one of the knobs. The tubes glow. Before the announcer can say much, she turns it off again. She covers her face and rocks back and forth in her seat. Life was never easy for her – but it had been fun. Now fun tastes wrong. So does love. So does hate, for that matter. They told her to keep her routine – but that doesn’t seem right either. So she sits in that chair every day – waiting.
The condolence letter from President Roosevelt made my Uncle DG’s death official – but not real. He didn’t die in battle – he was run over by a truck somewhere far away with an unpronounceable name. They buried him where he died. There was a war to win before they could send him back to my grandmother.
Nanny’s grief was still new, when her second son, my eighteen-year-old father, entered the war. All she knew was that he was with the Fifth Marine Division – and the Fifth Marines were engaged in a fierce fight with the Japanese on a little island known as Iwo Jima. Newspapers reported heavy losses – thousands killed – many more thousands wounded. With one child dead and another in harm’s way, all Nanny could do was wait – and fret.
So it is again. Anxious families display blue star flags in their windows. They check computers for emails from children who are half-a-world away in towns with unpronounceable names. They program cell phones with ringtones – and leap to answer that special one or swallow back tears when an unfamiliar tune sounds.
They remember cuddling apple-cheeked babies with gummy smiles – or chasing wobbly bicycles on first-day-without-training-wheels rides. They touch prom night pictures with the tips of their fingers and tell stories about the day their children graduated from high school or college. But, sometimes, fear taints the best memories like snow obliterating tender shoots. Will their precious boys and girls be the same when they return? Will the darkness of war blunt their sparkle? Will they come home at all? Torn between devouring and ignoring the news, they wait and wait – and wait.
Not long ago, a man that I have never met messaged to say that his son had died in Iraq. For him, the wait was over. I stared at the IM, wondering what to say. Whatever the reason, however it happens — to lose a child is to lose a dream. I wanted to reach out to him, but sensed comfort wasn’t appropriate. His agony was a bonfire that needed to burn itself out. He just didn’t want to be alone. I waited – an anonymous node on the internet — thinking about my grandmother, sitting in her chair – waiting for her boys to come home.
Award-winning author Joyce Faulkner is the daughter and niece and wife of veterans. She writes about things that move her about life. She is a past president of Military Writers Society of America and is the cofounder of The Red Engine Press. To read more about Joyce’s work, please visit her website at www.JoyceFaulkner.com
For sixteen years I believed in this novel. Snarled at rejection. Revised. Raised two sons. Sold stories to national magazines. Stayed true to my dream of finding a traditional publisher. And then it happened. On my 50th birthday. Then USA Today, The Associated Press, & Military Times took notice. And now almost six years after the original publication, my little book that grew wings and learned to fly is back in paperback and e-book.
In Part II, Dwight exclusively shares here an excerpt from his upcoming autobiography forRED ENGINE PRESStentatively titled“Adventures in the Publishing Trade: and a Little Bit More about Life, Love, and the Pursuit of a Dream.It’s the story of a young man with a dream and the unlikely and impossible-to-plan path he took to achieve it.
Kathleen: You grew up in North Dakota and started out as a printer. How old were you when you moved to New York City, and where did you get the courage to make such a drastic change?
Dwight Jon Zimmerman: Oh, boy, the question you just asked! Joyce Faulkner and Pat Avery, fellow members of the Military Writers Society of America, own Red Engine Press, a small publishing company. Over the years at the organization’s annual conferences they heard many stories of my experiences in the publishing industry. One thing led to another and I’m presently writing my autobiography for them. With your permission I’d like to answer your question by providing this unedited draft excerpt of the chapter dealing with that event, because there was a lot of history behind making the decision I did. I should warn everyone, it’s not a happy anecdote.
I Cross My Rubicon
“I am not a bum.”
—Dwight Jon Zimmerman, circa. 1976
The distance between Grand Forks, North Dakota, where I worked, and Devils Lake, where I grew up, is 90 miles. One weekend in July 1976, I headed west from my apartment on a Sunday drive that I didn’t want to make, but had to.
Too many years have passed for me to remember anything about that day except the meeting I had with my father in the living room where I broke the news. I know that it happened sometime after lunch and that dad and I were alone. I had decided to tell the news first to him, because even though I knew he wouldn’t like hearing what I had to say, I thought he’d be a little more sympathetic than my mother. He was in his easy chair and I was sitting nearby on the couch when I said I had something I needed to tell him.
I said I was planning to quit my job at the UND Press in one year and travel to New York City and try to make a go of things at Marvel Comics where Dave [Kraft my high school friend] was working. I explained why I was making this decision—that I was young and single, and that I didn’t want to have the “what would have happened to me if” question hanging over my life. If things didn’t work out, then I’d know and move on with my life as a printer, as that was a skill I could use anywhere. In the meantime, I needed to store my possessions at home.
Dad was sixty-two and his health had been bad for several years, the consequence of alcoholism, bad eating habits, and no exercise. He’d already had one heart attack and two strokes. He was overweight, diabetic, and suffered from high blood pressure; in short, he was a sitting pathology. After I finished my speech he looked at me for a moment. Then he said, “Well, if you want to go out and be a bum, that’s your business.”
That’s all that I remember about what happened that day. I don’t remember telling my mother, and I don’t remember the drive back to Grand Forks that afternoon.
I do remember being hurt—and angry.
Since my sophomore year in high school, my relationship with my parents had been essentially a truce punctuated by arguments, invariably about something that I liked and wanted to do. With the exception of my decision to go to North Dakota State School of Science in Wahpeton where I learned the printing trade, they pretty much opposed everything. NDSSS had a reputation for being a “suitcase college.” On Friday afternoon, almost the entire student body would get in their cars and drive home for the weekend. Not me—home was the last place I wanted to go. I stayed at the near-deserted campus, enjoying the quiet and solitude. In fact the only time I went home was during the holidays. After that first year, I found an apartment with some friends. The habit of not going home carried over after I had moved to Grand Forks. Trips home were usually once-a-month affairs.
I thought that now being on my own, and with my sister recently married to Joel, I wouldn’t have a fight on my hands to do what I wanted to do. It turns out I was right, I didn’t. With his one-liner Dad had done something worse: he threw one of his guilt trips on me.
My father had led a hard life. The oldest of four children, two boys and two girls, he grew up on a small farm in Wells County. He was in his mid-teens when his father committed suicide or was murdered (I’ve heard differing accounts) during the Great Depression. His younger brother Gordon was mentally retarded. (I knew all of dad’s siblings. Gordon died in 1963. Margaret married, lived on a farm near the homestead, and died of accidental self-immolation in 1982. Connie, the youngest, married and moved to Idaho where she still lives.) He quit school after the eighth grade and knocked around the West working at a variety of jobs, one of them being a carnival barker. His first wife was a young woman looking to escape her family. That marriage soon ended in divorce. He married his second wife shortly before he enlisted in the Army about a month after his 28th birthday on April 25, 1942.
His MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was Parts Clerk 348. After training in Camp Sutton, North Carolina, he was assigned to Company G, 255th Infantry Regiment, 63rd Infantry Division, rising to the rank of Tech Sergeant. His campaigns included Tunisia, Southern France, the Rhineland, and Central Europe. He received his honorable discharge on October 8, 1945. In addition to his campaign ribbons, he received the Good Conduct Medal.
Not long after he returned to North Dakota, his second wife divorced him. In a tale all too common during the war, she had married him for his service paycheck and death benefit insurance. When the latter didn’t happen, she was gone. Neither marriage resulted in children. That would come with dad’s third wife, my mother. In March 1953, Morris Zimmerman and Darlene Stolt eloped to South Dakota where they got married. On June 2, 1953, at a hospital in Harvey, North Dakota, I was born. My mother was twenty years old. Dad was thirty-nine. My sister, Mary, was born four years later; and in 1960 my brother, Chris, was prematurely born, delivered by Caesarian section.
Now, with the exception of some general statements about the war, and a couple of passing mentions of minor events, my father rarely talked about his life, and never mentioned the fact that mom was his third wife. The facts recounted here came from his mother, my Grandma Mabel, before she died in the early 1970s, and from his discharge paper, which I saw years after his death in 1981.
(An aside here. The circumstances of my father’s death have proved a constant source of amusement for me whenever I have to fill out the family history section of medical forms. When I get to the father section, after checking the “Deceased” box I proceed to the “Cause of Death” section where I write: “Surgery.” Invariably whenever the doctor gets to that answer, the physician’s brow furrows and I get a quizzical look. I then proceed to explain that while my father suffered from acute coronary disease that caused him in 1981 to undergo high-risk life-saving surgery, when the doctors opened up his chest they discovered there was nothing they could do. His heart was too damaged to repair. So, while the contributing factor of my father’s death was a bad heart, the form wasn’t asking for that information. It was asking for cause. And “cause” was surgery. He went into the operating room alive, and came out dead. QED. None of the doctors have been favorably impressed with me about that.)
So, though gaps existed, I knew things about my father’s life that he didn’t know I knew. Grandma Mabel’s statements about dad explained a lot of why he acted the way he did to us kids, specifically his paternal guilt manipulation of us.
In the past when he played the guilt card, even when I carried through with what I wanted to do (like buying my first motorcycle) it was only after a lot of emotional soul-searching and agonizing. Not this time. Dad had pushed me too far. The emotion I was dealing with wasn’t guilt. It was anger.
Once in my apartment, I grabbed some paper and a pen and began writing him a letter. I began with a short recap of my decision to go to New York City, my reasons why, and his response. I concluded that first paragraph with the sentences: “You called me a bum. I am not a bum.”
With the second paragraph, I let him have it with both barrels. I wasn’t profane, and I didn’t reveal any of the facts about his life I had learned, but years of accumulated fury were behind the sentences that stated this was my life and I was going to live it my way.
Years of accumulated fury were behind my sentences. I had my first attack of nervous exhaustion when I was twelve years old. I remember lying on the couch one evening. Suddenly my heart started racing, my body started trembling, I had repeated heat flashes, and I started crying uncontrollably. I thought I was going to die, and said so. Dad rushed me to the hospital where I stayed for three days. When I got home I asked my mother what had happened to me. She said, “It was just nerves.”
I felt ashamed of myself for being weak. I endured two more attacks in senior high school. The second incident occurred in German class while I was taking a test. Now familiar with the symptoms, I managed to maintain sufficient control to finish the test and exit the class at its conclusion. I rushed home, skipping the rest of the school day. Mom also worked, so I was able to ride the spell out alone. The third bout happened at the end of school one day, so it was easier to for me to go into seclusion.
It was one day near the end of my junior year in high school that my mother kicked the parental support chair out from under me. She had a stock response whenever we complained about something: “You think you have it so bad? The kids in [name of a handy third world country] have it worse.” This time she raised the ante.
My parents and I had been going through a particularly stressful period. I was leaving for school when she looked up from the breakfast table and said, “You know, Dwight, you’re a disappointment to us.”
To use modern parlance, that was when Dwight Jon Zimmerman 1.0 died and Dwight Jon Zimmerman 2.0 was born. Though I still lived at home, from that point on I was both alone and on my own.
As I was writing, I realized a larger reality—that the roles of parent and child had become reversed and that I now had something that put me in control of our relationship from this point on: I had me.
Though the statements I was writing of my plans to go forward and the storing of my possessions at home were clear enough, I was also sending a between-the-lines message: “If you fight me any further on this, you will never hear from me again.”
I didn’t want to explicitly state that sentence, because that was the ultimate hammer I held. I didn’t want to use it because if I did, both sides would lose. Also, the threat of using it made it more powerful than its actual use.
The next day I dropped the letter in the mail.
The letter created uproar back home—so much so that my brother-in-law wrote me a blistering letter calling me, amongst other things, an ingrate and demanding I apologize to my “wonderful parents.” My sister’s first husband (she’s now on husband number three) was sticking his nose into business that didn’t concern him. But, knowing that I had made my point, a couple of days later I called home and when my mother answered the phone, apologized.
One year later, I was on a plane flying to New York City to start a new adventure.
DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, television and movie producer, and president of the Military Writers Society of America.
He co-authored the #1 New York Times bestselling young adult book, Lincoln’s Last Days, an adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s New York Times #1 bestselling history Killing Lincoln. Lincoln’s Last Days won the 2013 Branson Stars and Flags Book Awards Grand Prize. It is the second year in a row Dwight has won the organization’s highest honor.
He penned a series of World War II 70th anniversary articles for the Defense Media Network website that chronologically recount that conflict, available at www.defensemedianetwork.com.
He is the author of Saga of the Sioux, the award winning, critically acclaimed young adult adaptation of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. Saga of the Sioux won the 2012 Gold Medal in the Young Adult Non-Fiction category from the Military Writers Society of America and the 2012 Branson Stars and Flags Book Awards Grand Prize, the organization’s highest honor.
Dwight is the co-author, with John D. Gresham of Uncommon Valor: The Medal of Honor and the Six Warriors Who Earned It in Afghanistan and Iraq which received the Military Writers Society of America’s most prestigious honor, the MWSA Founder’s Award for 2010.
His first book, First Command: Paths to Leadership, which has a foreword by James M. McPherson, presents the pivotal challenges and events that occurred in the early careers of generals from George Washington to Colin Powell and how they overcame them. Dwight was the co-executive producer of the cable television miniseries based on his book. The miniseries debuted on the Military Channel in 2005 and has been regularly aired on the channel ever since. It won the 2005 Aurora Platinum Best of Show Award for Historical Programming. In 2009, the book received the Branson Stars and Flags Gold Medal Award in the Reference/Technical category. First Command is on the U.S. Army Chief of Infantry Recommended Reading List: Junior NCOs.
He’s written two acclaimed popular surveys of wars and weapons through the ages. The Book of War is about pivotal battles, leaders, and strategies from ancient to modern times and received the 2009 Gold Medal Award for Reference by the Military Writers Society of America. The Book of Weapons is a critically acclaimed sequel about important weapons, weapon designers, and arms manufacturers throughout history.
Dwight’s authored two graphic histories. The Vietnam War: A Graphic History, illustrated by Wayne Vansant, is a groundbreaking book that for the first time recounted the entire Vietnam War in the graphic novel format. The Vietnam War: A Graphic History received the 2010 Gold Medal Award: Artistic/Graphic from the Military Writers Society of America and the 2010 Branson Stars and Flags Gold Medal Award in the photography/graphics category. Military Review, the official journal of the U.S. Army, placed it on its recommended reading list. The Hammer and the Anvil, also with art by Wayne Vansant, is the critically acclaimed graphic biography of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
Dwight’s young adult biography, Tecumseh: Shooting Star of the Shawnee received the 2010 Bronze Medal Award: Young Adult from the Military Writers Society of America and was a finalist in the young adult category in the 2011 Western Writers of America.
His book The Day the World Exploded is the critically acclaimed young adult adaptation of Simon Winchester’s bestselling Krakatoa.
Dwight is the co-author, with John D. Gresham, of the critically acclaimed history of seven pivotal special operations from the Vietnam War to present day, Beyond Hell and Back.
He’s written numerous articles on military subjects for Faircount Media for its military-themed print publications and its Defense Media Network website, and other publishers. His article, “Maritime Mobility,” for The Shield of Freedom, an annual publication about the Coast Guard, was selected by the Naval War College for use in its curriculum. And his article about a special operations mission during the Korean War led by the theater’s surgeon general that had high-stakes diplomatic consequences, originally published in The Year in Special Operations 2009 was selected for re-publication by the Journal of Special Operations Medicine.
Dwight has lectured at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the Naval War College, and has appeared on the FOX programs DEFCON-3 hosted by K.T. McFarland, and AMERICA NEWS HQ discussing military subjects.
He was the host of “At Ease,” an hour-long program about authors and their projects, part of Veterans Radio Network. Information about the program is available at www.veteransradio.net. Guests on his program have included Rick Atkinson, Robert M. Edsel, Larry Bond, Thomas Fleming, Craig L. Symonds, Jake Tapper, and Stephen Coonts, amongst others.
He was a producer for the independent film, Trooper, which received the Bronze Remi Award at the 2010 Houston International Film Festival.
Dwight was the researcher for the critically acclaimed The New York Times Complete History of the Civil War, edited by Craig L. Symonds and Harold Holzer with a forward by former president Bill Clinton, and The New York Times Complete World War II edited by Richard Overy with a forward by Tom Brokaw.
He collaborated on a series of award winning young adult histories published by Atheneum. The authors of record included such Pulitzer Prize winners and bestselling authors as James M. McPherson’s Fields of Fury (Civil War) and Into the West (Reconstruction and settling of the frontier), Philip Caputo’s 10,000 Days of Thunder (Vietnam War), Stephen Ambrose’s The Good Fight (World War II), and Benson Bobrick’s Fight for Freedom (the American Revolution).
Dwight began his career in publishing at Marvel Comics, where he held a variety of editorial and staff positions. Among his Marvel comic book writing credits are stories for Spider-Man, The X-Men, and The Hulk, and other super heroes. In addition to his comic book stories, he has written a wide variety of children’s book adventures based on licensed product toy lines, most notably the Transformers. In 1992, he became executive editor of Topps Comics, a division of The Topps Company, and was responsible for the editorial and art direction of its lines of media tie-in comics based on The X-Files, Mars Attacks, Jurassic Park, Zorro,Xena: Warrior Princess and other movies and programs. In addition, Dwight was the writer, editor, and art director of Princess Diana the graphic novel biography of Diana, Princess of Wales published by Topps.
Dwight is the current president of the Military Writers Society of America. A native of Devils Lake, North Dakota, he presently lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Joëlle. They have two adult children.
A candid interview with Dwight Jon Zimmerman: author, producer, radio host, and former writer/editor at Marvel Comics
Kathleen: Welcome, Dwight. Congratulations on hitting the #1 spot on the New York Times Bestselling list for LINCOLN’S LAST DAYS. I understand this is a young adult adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s bestselling book, KILLING LINCOLN. If you are comfortable, please discuss the details of how you came to work on this project.
Dwight: Thank you, Kathleen—happy to be a guest on your blog! LINCOLN’S LAST DAYS was a great experience. As to how the project happened, Bill O’Reilly and I share the same publisher, he on the adult side, I on the kids’ side. KILLING LINCOLN had been a huge hit for Holt’s adult division and the adult publisher contacted his counterpart on the kids’ side about doing a young adult adaptation. At her next meeting with her editors, the kids’ publisher asked who among their stable of writers was a good candidate to do the adaptation. A year earlier I had written SAGA OF THE SIOUX, an award-winning adaptation of Dee Brown’s American West classic BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE. The publisher contacted my agent who contacted me. I got a copy of KILLING LINCOLN to read over the 2011 Christmas holiday. I thought it was an exciting story and signed on.
Now, the crucial thing was that they wanted the manuscript fast—by April 1, 2012, because they wanted to release the book in August! Yes, that essentially made this an instant book. I had a meeting with the publisher, editor, and head designer in January and discussed work details—I was also asked to do image acquisition.
I got a digital copy of the manuscript and immediately went to work condensing a 93,000-word manuscript down to about 36,000 words. And, because this was for kids, I was asked to write additional material that described life in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War. Condensing was a challenge, as you might expect, because in addition to deleting so much text, I then had to revise passages to maintain story flow integrity and make the vocabulary age appropriate.
The publisher also wanted to have at least one image on each two-page spread. One of the things I truly love on projects like this is image acquisition. Most of my books are loaded with photographs. LINCOLN’S LAST DAYS has more than 150 photos, if I remember correctly.
I’m proud to say I submitted the first draft and image package one week before my deadline. LINCOLN’S LAST DAYS debuted in mid-August in the top five on the New York Times bestseller list and by the second week had shot to #1.
KMR: I was honored to read an advanced copy of UNCOMMON VALOR: The Medal of Honor and the Six Warriors Who Earned It in Afghanistan and Iraq, the book you coauthored with John D. Gresham. In my review, I led with this question: What makes a person deliberately fall on a grenade, charge into a line of fire, sacrifice his life to save another? Please share what is was like to interview the families of the fallen and to delve into their backgrounds.
DJZ: Writing UNCOMMON VALOR was an extraordinary experience and one of the most difficult books I’ve ever written because of the responsibility of telling the stories of these brave young men as accurately as possible—particularly the stories of those who received their Medals of Honor posthumously.
Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons neither John nor I were able to interview family members. The one relative we were able to contact (a recipient’s father) demanded $5,000 before he would talk or allow other friends and relatives be interviewed. As the information we could obtain from him and the friends and relatives was about the late recipient’s childhood and pre-service background that had been extensively covered in a series of newspaper articles, we declined. We discovered later he used our interview discussion as leverage to secure his own book contract about his son.
What fascinated us about the stories of the recipients in UNCOMMON VALOR was the diverse background of the recipients. They came from all walks of life and socio-economic backgrounds. For some, the military turned their lives around. Others, with Ivy League and upper middle class backgrounds chose the military out of a sense of obligation to the nation. And, all were young—the youngest being just nineteen when he died. Doing the research on their lives was one of the most rewarding experiences I had.
One of the most humbling experiences John and I had concerning the book occurred up at West Point where we did some lectures and a book signing. At lunch we were brought up to the poop deck, an elevated platform in the middle of the mess hall. When we were introduced the entire Corps of Cadets, 4,700 strong, gave us a standing ovation. We asked the first captain of the class of 2011 why we received such an enthusiastic reception, he replied, “You tell our stories for us.”
KMR: How many books have you coauthored with John D. Gresham? I understand he worked closely with Tom Clancy on several projects.
DJZ:UNCOMMON VALOR was our second book. BEYOND HELL AND BACK, which is about seven pivotal missions that led to the creation of Special Operations Command, was the first. I’ve known John for several years, and we’ve worked together in a variety of editorial and writing capacities on books and articles. John collaborated with Tom Clancy on the series of guided tour non-fiction books about military units, ships, and airplanes.
KMR: Do you have a literary agent? If so, does this agent represent all of your work?
DJZ: I do have an agent, but he only handles my young adult books.
KMR: You have led many lives in your publishing career. What is your typical day like? Do you keep office hours?
DJZ: If you saw me, you’d think me probably one of the laziest people in the world. And, in one sense you’d be correct. Since I write military history, and have had to write on a variety of subjects ranging from U.S. Navy Dentistry to battles and wars throughout history, I do a lot of research. I’d say the ratio of research to writing is two-thirds research, one-third writing. So, I spend a lot of time reading.
There’s no real typical day, but rather typical periods. Research involves a lot of reading and Internet searching. I will pull out stacks of books from my library and do printouts of documents I’ve found (sometimes entire books) and then, pen and yellow highlighter in hand, will then mark up and highlight passages.
There are periods where I don’t do any writing at all. I grab a notepad and pen and try to put down words, but nothing really happens. I’ve been a professional writer long enough to recognize this sort of situation; that it’s best not to fight it. When it happens I do anything and everything else but physically write. What’s actually happening is that my mind is working on the stories. The longest such period took three weeks, which did start becoming a concern during that third week—when I’m not writing, I’m not making money. Then, one morning, the words just started flowing out and within a week I had written three small and one big article.
I do have an office where I do a lot of my work (and where I’m answering your questions). But when the weather’s nice, I’ll take my reference material and notebook (I handwrite my rough drafts) and sit down at the table in our back yard. Though the yard is small, my wife’s done an excellent job creating a flower garden and it’s a great pleasure to take little breaks looking at the flowers and stretching my legs walking down the backyard path.
KMR: How long did you work at MARVEL COMICS and what did you do there?
DJZ: I broke into the publishing industry in 1977, working in production at Marvel Comics. And most of my career, about twenty years, was in the comic book industry where I held a variety of staff positions in addition to being a writer. I was a journeyman writer at Marvel, and wrote every major character in the company’s stable, including Spider-Man, Wolverine, Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, amongst others. In 1992 Topps, the sports and entertainment trading card company and manufacturer of Bazooka bubble gum, hired me from Marvel to help start up Topps Comics, their new comic book division. The crowning moment of my career was that of Topps Comics executive editor.
KMR: On September 11, 2001, you were working as an acquisitions editor at a mid-size publishing house in New York City. As a novelist, I am intrigued by the inner workings of a New York publishing house. How long did you work there and would you elaborate on your job? Give us some inside scoop.
DJZ: The comic book industry collapsed in the wake of Marvel’s bankruptcy in 1998. Though Topps Comics was still making money, the company decided to fold the comics division shortly thereafter and I was laid off. I joined Byron Preiss Visual Publications, a mid-size publishing house and book packager, in 1999 as a senior editor, originally responsible for its line of licensed novels based on Marvel Comics characters. I later became responsible for the company’s military history books, and that opened the door to my military history-writing career, starting with ghost writing young adult histories for Stephen Ambrose (THE GOOD FIGHT), James M. McPherson (FIELDS OF FURY and INTO THE WEST) and Phil Caputo (TEN THOUSAND DAYS OF THUNDER).
KMR: What was the hardest part of your job as a book editor? Was it reading proposals, sending out rejections or simply finding the time and energy to read through mounds of manuscripts?
DJZ: Since I edited both comics and books, I’ll include my experiences in both fields. As a comic book editor, my most difficult experiences occurred at comic book conventions. Over time I came to hate doing portfolio reviews.
Aspiring comic book artists would attend comic book conventions hoping to get their work noticed by editors. Showcasing opportunities were usually formalized by convention organizers who arranged with publishers scheduled portfolio review times in a room or area set aside for that purpose, or they were informal with the artist approaching an editor at the publisher’s booth and asking if the editor had a few minutes to conduct a portfolio review.
I saw all kinds of work from artists ranging from high school kids to men in their thirties. The kids were easy to critique because they were obviously just starting out. It was pretty obvious who had talent and who didn’t. Regardless, I stressed the need to practice. A lot of artists with marginal talent became successful in the field more through their persistence than talent, and sometimes that’s what it takes.
There were two types of artists that were real difficult to critique: the ones on the cusp, and the ones incapable of letting go of their dream. The artists on the cusp had to be given specific instruction, a challenge because you could see the disappointment in their eyes because they thought their talent level was ready. The others, usually men in their late twenties or early thirties, had to be lied to. The best example of the latter occurred at a small convention in the South. This guy in his late twenties confidently approached me at the portfolio review table and gave me his portfolio. As he did so he told me to give me an honest appraisal, assuring me that he knew how to take criticism. I opened the portfolio, and saw that this guy would never make it as a professional comic book artist. The quality was that of an artist in his late teens. I pointed to a figure and began a general comment about what was wrong with the anatomy. The man’s expression became one of panic. And, this was a mild negative comment about the figure’s anatomy. So much for him accepting criticism. I immediately went into my set speech about practice and made some nice comments about things that I thought were good in the art samples, and wished him luck.
After a while I found myself seeing too much bad art, I decided I would no longer look at portfolios. Though at one convention I wound up making an exception to that rule. This artist came up to me and asked if I would review his portfolio. Accompanying him was his girlfriend—his exceedingly hot girlfriend. I opened up his portfolio, and saw some of the worst art I had ever seen in my life. How this guy ever thought he had artistic talent is beyond me. But he had this absolute babe of a girlfriend. So, that artist got one of the most detailed critiques I ever gave. He went away walking on a cloud because of my comments. That was the only time I had fun doing a portfolio review.
On the book side, it was editing manuscripts of writers who had contracts to write novels of Marvel Comics characters. My predecessor had given contracts to his science fiction and mystery author friends—and most of them had no feel or knowledge of the Marvel Comics characters. Some were just downright bad writers. This contributed to his being fired. I was hired because of my knowledge of the characters and I found myself tearing my hair out over some of the ridiculous things I encountered. Things like Spider-Man sporting a pistol, and advising a major supporting character in the Spider-Man universe to use it to “shoot to kill.”
Another novel had a morally reprehensible act as its driving element. It was Professor X physically taking over the body of a young man with mental retardation, now called intellectual disability, and repeatedly putting the young man’s body in harm’s way—actions completely out of character for Professor X. While there was nothing I could really do about the “body snatcher” part of the storyline, I did have a trump I could play which the author couldn’t fight. Basically, the author’s depiction of the young man revealed he had no experience with anyone having that condition. And I did—one of my uncles had intellectual disability, as did one of my neighbor’s sons in my hometown. So, I was able to chapter and verse him on what he did wrong in scenes involving that young man and how they had to be rewritten. If the author didn’t, I would rewrite them myself (an advantage I had because it was a licensed product). He did the rewriting as instructed.
KMR: You currently serve as president of Military Writers Society of America. How long have you served in that capacity and what are your duties?
DJZ: I’ve been president for almost two years now. My responsibilities include setting the goals and agenda for the organization, managing operations, am the organization’s representative at official functions, oversee the annual conferences, amongst other duties. I particularly like welcoming new members at our annual conference. I’ve recognized that my varied career has given me more experience than what most people in the industry have received, and as such I feel an obligation to give freely to members any and all information that I have to help them in their writing.
KMR: You reside in Brooklyn, NY. Are there advantages to living in the same city where most of your publishers are based?
DJZ: Yes. I can enter the subway and visit editorial offices in Manhattan within an hour. Though the Internet has made contact between writers and editors a lot easier than ever, face-to-face contact is still important. And, it gets me out of the house.
KMR: Please list all the titles of your books and your many awards.
DJZ: You had to do that to me, didn’t you? Okay, here goes:
LINCOLN’S LAST DAYS (with Bill O’Reilly), Grand Prize 2013 Branson Stars and Flags Book Award
SAGA OF THE SIOUX (with Dee Brown), Grand Prize 2012 Branson Stars and Flags Book Award; 2012 Gold Medal Young Adult Non-Fiction, Military Writers Society of America
THE HAMMER AND THE ANVIL: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the End of Slavery in America (art by Wayne Vansant)
UNCOMMON VALOR (with John D. Gresham), 2010 Founder’s Award, Military Writers Society of America; Silver Medal Non-Fiction 2010 Branson Stars and Flags Book Award
THE VIETNAM WAR: A GRAPHIC HISTORY (art by Wayne Vansant), 2010 Gold Medal Photography/Graphics Branson Stars and Flags Book Award, 2010 Gold Medal Artistic/Graphic Military Writers Society of America, Recommended Reading: Military Review, the official journal of the U.S. Army
TECUMSEH: Shooting Star of the Shawnee, 2010 Bronze Medal Young Adult Military Writers Society of America
THE BOOK OF WEAPONS
THE BOOK OF WAR, 2009 Gold Medal for Reference, Military Writers Society of America
BEYOND HELL AND BACK: How America’s Special Operations Forces Became the World’s Greatest Fighting Unit (with John D. Gresham)
THE DAY THE WORLD EXPLODED: The Earthshaking Catastrophe at Krakatoa (with Simon Winchester)
FIRST COMMAND: PATHS TO LEADERSHIP, 2009 Gold Medal Reference/Technical Branson Stars and Flags Book Award; Chief of Infantry Recommended Reading List: Junior NCOs, 2005 Aurora Platinum Best of Show Award for Historical Programming (three-part Military Channel mini-series based on my book, I was co-executive producer)
THE NEW YORK TIMES COMPLETE CIVIL WAR
THE NEW YORK TIMES COMPLETE WORLD WAR II
Faircount Media Group:
Assorted web and print articles on a wide variety of military history subjects. Web articles can be found at www.defensemedianetwork.com. Dwight’s article on “Maritime Mobility” was selected by the Naval War College for use in its curriculum.
Stay tuned for part two of Kathleen’s interview with Dwight where he’ll share an exerpt from a new autobiography he’s writing for Red Engine Press.