'Manhunt' author James L. Swanson follows up with a new look at history

By Keith Staskiewicz
October 01, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

James L. Swanson is fascinated by the question ”So what happened next?” In his non- fiction best-seller, Manhunt, he investigated the 12 days after Abraham Lincoln’s death and the search for the assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Now he’s returning to the same era with Bloody Crimes, which follows the twin trajectories of Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln as they make their way across the post-Civil War nation, one a fugitive, the other a corpse. Swanson spoke with us about blowing the dust off the history books.

You cover some of the same 12-day time period in this as in Manhunt. Are you surprised that there are so many stories to tell in such a short time period?
That is the great thing about this month-long period at the end of the Civil War. It’s like the American Odyssey. It’s an incredible panoramic epic. When I started to write this book, I decided to do it almost as a film director, where I was going to move the position of the camera and show the story in a fresh new way.

The kinds of details you get are amazing. What’s your research process like?
Total immersion in the time period. I really cut myself off from my modern life, and I immerse myself in Civil War newspapers, letters, journals, trial transcripts, photographs, paintings, artifacts — these things speak to me. I can’t write a book just by reading material in the archives. I need to see and handle the original newspapers.

But you don’t read by gaslight, right?
No, I don’t read by gaslight! When I write about the lock of hair being cut from Lincoln’s head by the secretary of war, I have that lock of hair in front of me, and I’m looking at it. I wrote part of the book inside Ford’s Theatre, and inside the Petersen House [where Lincoln died].

Weren’t you born on Lincoln’s birthday?
Yes, I was born on Lincoln’s birthday in Illinois. So from my childhood, I was given Lincoln things as gifts and I went to the Lincoln sites in Illinois, and by the time I was 10 I was collecting original Lincoln material. It’s really been a lifelong obsession.

So if you’d been born on the birthday of another president, do you think that would have changed the way your life turned out?
Fortunately, my birthday was Lincoln’s birthday and not Grover Cleveland’s birthday.

Are you working on your next project?
I’m working on two things: a nonfiction history book, but I’m also working on a thriller novel series. Patricia Cornwell and Harlan Coben have encouraged and inspired me to write a thriller. So I have to try.

Do you think it’s easier to make up a fictional crime or to do all the research?
I don’t know, we’ll see! One of the advantages of history is that other people have made up the plot for you.