Instead of enjoying a quiet retirement by the sea, Sandler is as prolific as ever. In fact, three of his most substantial works have been published in the last five years: Resolute, which links the 19th century search for the Northwest Passage to the desk in the Oval Office and earned a Pulitzer nomination; Lost to Time, a collection of stories about the unsung people and places that made lasting contributions to history; and The Impossible Rescue, a tale of three men sent across the Alaskan tundra to save the crew of a whaling ship locked in ice during the winter of 1897. “He takes subject matter which, in many cases, people are unaware of, but should know about—pieces of history that have just been lost,” Phillips says. “And even though many of his books are really written for young adults, they are written in such a way that adults can read and enjoy them.”
Sandler claims to have never encountered “five minutes of writer’s block” in his career. In part, that’s because he researches heavily before putting down words of his own. “I guess this is what keeps me going: I’m always hoping the next thing I read will give me an angle that nobody ever thought of, including me,” he says. He combs through diaries, letters, photographs and illustrations, and any every other resource he can get his hands on, culling and confirming and logging everything on five-by-eight index cards. In his writing, as much as possible, he defers to history’s witnesses. “To me, making history come alive means letting the people involved in the story tell the story as much as you can,” he says. “You’ve got to write your connective tissue and set the stage…I can tell the story brilliantly because I’m a hell of a good writer. But if I can have (the characters) tell the story—man, it’s so much more human, and nobody can question whether it’s authentic or not.”
Sandler remains tethered to his desk. He just finished a manuscript about the Japanese-American internment camps of the 1940s. And as usual, he’s working on three books at once: a history of the transcontinental railroad, an odyssey through the more than 2.5 million letters that entered and left the Kennedy White House, and a retrospective tentatively titled How the Beatles Changed the World for Bloomsbury Publishing. “When one of the biggest publishers in the world asks you to do a 50th anniversary book on the Beatles, what are you going to say? ‘No?’”
The truth, he later says, is that he’s getting to the point where sometimes he does want to say no. Why keep up the grind? Why not slow down? Those questions struck him one Saturday as Notre Dame played the University of Southern California. Sports could once again be a way out, if only for an afternoon.
But in return, he asked another question: Would I really rather take to the couch and watch football when, behind my desk with my books and my legal pads, I’m exactly where I want to be? “I always leave at the end of the day saying, ‘Jeez, I can’t wait until tomorrow to see how far I can take this,’ you know?” he says.
There’s another reason why Martin Sandler can’t slow down, too. He has deadlines to meet.