All in Good Time
With more than 80 nonfiction books to his credit, history author Martin Sandler has hit his stride—with no plans to slow down.
What do you do when you’re an 80-year-old writer and so many voices—your critics’, your editors’, the one inside yourself—tell you that after more than 40 years in the business, you’re better than you’ve ever been? If you’re Martin Sandler, you scribble your rollerball pen across a yellow legal pad for hours on end, because you have a deadline looming.
Over the course of four decades, Sandler has amassed a body of work comprising more than 80 nonfiction books for adults and young adults alike, each illuminating seldom-explored angles of history. The acclaim for his words doesn’t derive solely from their volume: Sandler has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize twice, he has won seven Emmys for his television work, along with countless other awards. His latest book, The Impossible Rescue (Candlewick Press), was named one of the best nonfiction releases of 2012 by School Library Journal.
“To my thinking, he is a hidden treasure here on Cape Cod,” says Tom Phillips, owner of Books by the Sea, an Osterville bookstore that frequently hosts Sandler for author events. “People don’t really realize that we have one of the most prolific authors in the country right in our own backyard.”
Reaching Sandler’s Cotuit home requires three turns down roads named after 20th-century presidents. The stairs from his front door lead to the second-floor workspace he shares with his wife, Carol, an acclaimed multimedia artist, where late-morning light pours through the windows and onto his clutter: Books keel over on shelves, and it looks like a filing cabinet exploded across his desk. This is where he gathers himself at 7:30 every morning, lights his pipe, and writes—always by hand.
Sandler has a tuft of close-cropped white hair, a burly voice, kind eyes behind his glasses, and striated cheeks that open into laughter whenever he’s holding court—and it turns out that he likes to talk just as much as he likes to write. “It’s one of the great jokes played on a human being: Whoever’s up there created someone who’s the most garrulous person in the world, yet gave him an occupation where he sits alone for 10 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says. “So when I’m outside—or with a captive audience—I don’t shut up.”
Sandler has a preternatural ability to remember names, whether it’s an author, a friend he hasn’t seen in decades, or a minor player fallen through the cracks of history. Considering he remembers almost everything else, the fact that he consistently forgets how many books he’s written is all the more remarkable: Is it 86? Or 87?
There was a time when he hadn’t expected to write even one. Sandler grew up in New Bedford shortly after the city’s textile industry migrated south, oblivious to his own family’s poverty. As a student, he went from top of his class in middle school to a standout second baseman in high school. “I was more interested in hitting a baseball and chasing girls than I was in books or writing,” he says, “and I was much more successful with hitting a baseball.” Sports were his “way out,” he says: he earned an athletic scholarship to Providence College, which provoked a passion for American history that carried him through graduate school at Brown University. “It became clear to me when I was in college how much I loved history,” he says. “That these people, who were giants and less than giants, have come before me and walked before me, that I could stand under the arch at Fort Ticonderoga and know that George Washington stood there, and that he spoke to his troops by reading the speech I had just read. I’d get chills from it.”
He spent 13 years teaching history, first in secondary schools around New England and later as a professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst and Smith College, and the initial plan was to stay in the classroom. But it was the textbooks—those hardcover slabs of boredom—that turned him into a writer. “There were these exciting activities, like ‘Go home and memorize a list of presidents, come back, and give ‘em to me by rote tomorrow,’” he says. “I thought, It’s got to be better than this.” He submitted two unsolicited chapters of his utopian textbook, and to his surprise, a publisher was interested. In 1971, Allyn & Bacon published The People Make a Nation, Sandler’s first book.
He has relished the life of a full-time writer ever since, rattling off an average of more than two books a year for adults and young adults alike. His oeuvre includes a six-book American history series for the Library of Congress, several histories of photography, and works like Why Did the Whole World Go to War?, which reframe the complexities of history for children. There have been detours into television: Sandler was a writer and guiding force behind This Was America, a series hosted by William Shatner and based on his book of the same name, and The Entrepreneurs with Robert Mitchum. But the allure of books endured in a way that sitting between takes on a TV set did not. And after 25 years of living in Boston and Newton and spending weekends in Marstons Mills, he and Carol made a permanent move to Cotuit in 1997.
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.
Jeff Harder is managing editor at Cape Cod LIFE Publications.
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