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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.

With more than 80 nonfiction books to his credit, history author Martin Sandler has hit his stride—with no plans to slow down.

Photo by Amanda McCole

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?

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