Back Talk: Nicholson Baker

Back Talk: Nicholson Baker

In the debut of a new biweekly series, the author of Human Smoke discusses pacifism and World War II.


Nicholson Baker is known for fiction that takes a microscopic view of the everyday, bringing to life each wriggling ribosome of fleeting thought and mitochondrial human routine. This spring, he published Human Smoke, a 550-page “amateur history” of the run-up to World War II. (The book ends on December 31, 1941.) Researched from contemporary news accounts and historical sources and arranged as a series of brief episodes, the book gives voice to oft-ignored pacifists; it also “rescues” stories of ordinary people caught up in the terrible grinding gears of the march to war. —Christine Smallwood

What was a typical working day like?

Well, the book kind of grew the way a strawberry plant grows. It starts with a little bunch of stuff happening over here–you get interested and look up what’s in the newspaper, see what a diarist said, check a secondary source. And then some of the roots reach out and plant themselves into another place. I let the newspapers and diaries pull me in the direction that they wanted to go rather than start with the idea that I was going to tell some comprehensive history.

How did you decide what to include?

I included the things that struck me as strange or that seemed to reveal something obliquely. The book seems in some ways to contradict itself, and that’s what real history does. And I used the things that I couldn’t forget or that seemed very painful but part of the marginalized history of the war.

Did what you found change your thinking on the war?

Yeah, because I began the project thinking the kind of things that people think: war is generally not so good, but on the other hand, there are really bad people in the world. I think different things on different days, but the big surprise was the way that Britain resisted the Hitlerian menace–the deliberate choosing of a slow war, a war of attrition, a war of hunger and civilian bombings so early in the war. I didn’t realize that there was such an effort to create fear, sleeplessness and disorientation in the German civil populace in 1940. And the notion that Churchill and Roosevelt are talking about whether they should have 20,000 four-engine bombers or 30,000, but they really don’t want to allow Jews to come into their country. They just don’t want it. The war was not fought for the Jews. It was fought for what? For British honor, for British Empire, you know, certain abstract ideas of liberty. There’s a lot of heroism, but the surprise to me was how much the early part of the war was a continuation of the way the British Empire in its late phase thought of the whole world–that it could be controlled in this way from the air.

What did you leave out of the book?

It’s up to you to rescue it! Let’s see. I left out a good deal of what happened in Russia and what happened in France. And even in the draft that I had, when my wife read it, she reached her limit with bloodthirsty statements from Winston Churchill. She actually was in a kind of rage, and she said, “This page has to go!” She was so right. But I think that anybody who wrote a book like this would do it a different way. People used to have books rebound, and they would double in size, and they’d put a blank page between each page. And then they’d put in their own things. This book is all written using libraries. It’s not using any secret sources, anything unpublished. Anybody who wants to go ahead and fill in pages between my pages or cross out my pages should, because I think that a war this important to the history of humanity needs lots of amateur historians.

Your previous book was Checkpoint, a dialogue about assassinating President Bush–another case of dangerous speech.

There’s definitely a connection between the two books. But I also found with that book that fiction only gets you so far. I mean, if you try to tell a story, you try to say true things with a parable, you let the reader off the hook sometimes. Even with, say, Catch-22, which is way above anything I’m ever gonna do, it’s so funny and strange that you sort of say, Oh, that’s interesting that the war was bad, but this is such a funny, strange book! So with Human Smoke, I wanted it to be one thing: this thing happened and then this thing happened and this thing.

I was going to ask how you would assassinate Bush, but you’ve made it clear that that’s not where you’re at.

I really wouldn’t, I really wouldn’t, I honestly would not! I think it’s a really, really, really, really bad idea to kill anybody! I mean, I removed my own personality and overt opinionizing from Human Smoke, but I don’t want to hide it now. If you really wanted to know what I believe? More or less I’m a Quaker-allied pacifist kind of guy. Which means that you would never, even if it’s crystal clear that a person is a really, really bad person–you want the rule of law to prevail, you want people to be punished for things that they’ve done but not to be killed for things that they’ve done. That’s true for Presidents and that’s true for horrible dictators and everyone in between.

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