Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Interview with Stuart Lutz

Today I'm pleased to have Stuart Lutz, author of The Last Leaf, join us.

Stuart, The Last Leaf was one of the most memorable books I've ever read. What inspired you to write this book?

When I was young, my older relatives would, during family gatherings, tell me the stories of their lives, and this got me interested in oral history. My great-grandparents were married for 77 years, and they related what it was like to live in Russia before 1900, and how they came to America on a passenger boat (what I wouldn't do to hear their stories again!). They also told me about their first brushes with modernity, such as light bulbs, airplanes, and women suffrage. All things that we consider mundane today. Likewise, an older cousin had been in the Flying Tigers during World War II. When his plane was shot down, he parachuted out over China. He was tangled in a tree and remained up there for two weeks, surviving on rain water, until the Chinese underground rescued him. So I had a great history education right in my own boyhood home. It led to an ongoing interest in last survivors. When I was in college and took a Soviet history class, I was amazed to learn that the last Bolshevik died in 1991. He helped create the USSR, was responsible for the famines in the 1930s that killed millions, and watched the country crumbled. I thought that a book about last tales would be an interesting and unique concept.

What makes this a book that people MUST read and WHY?

I get emails and letters from readers (and authors are ALWAYS grateful to hear from people who have chosen to spend their rare free time with my book). One of the most gratifying messages states something like, "I knew about Pearl Harbor and the Hindenberg, but I didn't know there were two Iwo Jima flag raisings and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. I learned a lot of history by reading your book." One of the goals of the book was to write about both the famous people (FDR and Harry Houdini) and important events (the Scopes Monkey Trial and the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake) in American history, but also to recount our forgotten history that was equally important. Such chapters include the Lusitania (the sunken ship that helped us get into World War I), the ENIAC (the first computer, and if you are reading this, you know how important computers are to our lives), and Philo Farnsworth (the inventor of electronic television who should be a household name like the Wright Brothers and Thomas Edison). This history is as important and influential as Babe Ruth and Amelia Earhart. I do think there is something for everyone in The Last Leaf. I also hope the book inspires older relatives to tell their younger kin the stories of their lives, much like what happened to me as a boy.

How did you research and find the people you have interviewed?

Finding final survivors was a long and challenging process. My first interview was in 1998 with the last pitcher to surrender a home run to Babe Ruth in Ruth's historic 1927 season, and the book was not released until this year. I have always been an avid newspaper reader, so I read about the final Babe Ruth pitcher in The New York Times; he was being honored at Yankee Stadium on the 50th anniversary of the Bambino's death. So I wrote to Mr. Hopkins and secured an interview. Other methods were more active than just reading the paper. I wanted to know if there were any last soldiers who served in World War I under Captain Harry Truman. I called up the Truman Presidential Library in Missouri and they said there was one last Battery D soldier, and gave me his name and hometown. So I wrote to Mr. Wooden and secured an interview. Google has also been very helpful, so there are times I enter in the name of an historically important event and the word "survivor", and sometimes I find local newspaper articles on a last participant. I then write to that person and secure an interview. Also, historical societies located near where an important event occurred have been terrifically helpful over the years.

What has been the biggest stumbling block in putting this book together?

If I had to pick one stumbling block, it was the sheer challenge of finding the "Last Leaves." The worst thing for me was reading an obituary and seeing that So-and-So was the final survivor of an event, and it would often be an event that I had not thought of. I had to be proactive, and come up with lists of famous people and historic events that *might* have very few survivors left. Then, I had to find them, if there were any people left, and convince them to be interviewed for a book project. I did find that once I tracked down people, they were overwhelmingly willing to be interviewed, with a few exceptions.

What is your current work in progress?

I would love to do The Last Leaf, Volume 2, and I have a list of about a dozen possible people for it, including the last man from the first NBA game and the final participant in the "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast. I would also like to write a book on the aftermath of the Vietnam War in the United States. It took the country a long time to recover from the actual war and the societal traumas caused by the conflict.

Can you tell us where to find more information about you and your books and how readers can reach you?

The book's website is http://www.thelastleaf.com/, and there you can read a sample chapter, see book photos, read my blog, and watch a two minute video. My email is TheLastLeaf@aol.com. I look forward to answering reader email.