It Took Me 17 Years To Write My Book

In October, Pantheon published my nonfiction book And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank. An investigation into two infamous crimes that occurred in Georgia in the second decade of the 20th century, the work explores anti-Semitism, class strife and racism. For me, the publication of And the Dead Shall Rise marks the culmination of 17 years of labor. I spent over a third of my life to date on the book. Why did it take so long?

1. The research materials were scattered across the United States, necessitating months-long trips from my home in Los Angeles to Atlanta, Boston, New York, Cincinnati and several other cities.

2. Most of the newspaper accounts I needed to read were contained on un-indexed microfilm, forcing me to spend untold hours eyeballing blurry images from the past.

3. A majority of the people I interviewed for the book were over 80 years of age and suffered from either poor hearing or a need to go on excessively about the old days. Transcribing the tapes took forever.

4. The Atlanta Jews who lived through the aftermath of Frank’s lynching were understandably hesitant to talk about the subject.

5. Similarly, the children of the men who orchestrated Frank’s lynching were also reluctant to talk.

6. I did not employ a research assistant.

7. When I got midway into the project, the advance money from my publisher ran out. As a consequence, I began soliciting magazine assignments to pay the bills. I fell seriously behind schedule.

8. Once I fell behind, I became depressed.

9. Once I became depressed, I developed writer’s block.

10. Once I developed writer’s block, I became obsessed with cleaning the windows in my house.

11. When not cleaning the windows, I found new ways to envy friends who’d made millions creating TV shows.

12. Finally the depression cleared, but the work was still slow going, in part because I refused to write on a computer, preferring instead my trusty old IBM Selectric II.

13. As the book finally began to take shape, I was seized by the desire to make it the last word on the subject. This led to a crippling form of perfectionism.

14. Conversely, I also suffered from an acute awareness of the book’s potential to hurt people. Its revelations could well shock Georgians who’d grown up in ignorance of their fathers’ sins. I decided to re-research the subject.

15. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I considered shelving the book altogether. As a journalist, I kept wondering why I was on the sidelines during this moment of upheaval.

16. Compiling the book’s endnotes took a year in and of itself. I’m proud of my research and wanted to make sure that readers knew that the book’s every assertion was carefully documented. Still, when it comes to the word ibid, I can only say this: Never again.

17. As I neared completion of the book, I was seized by a new fear — what will I do with my life when it’s done?

[Editor’s note: And the Dead Shall Rise is in its third printing.]


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