Friday, February 22, 2019

Q&A with Mike Winchell

Mike Winchell is the author of Electric War: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Light the World, a new book for young adults. He is the editor of the Been There, Done That series. A veteran English teacher, he lives in upstate New York.  

Q: Why did you decide to write about Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse, and how would you describe the dynamic among them?

A: To be honest, nonfiction wasn’t really on my radar initially. I had always written fiction, but after shopping a couple projects with my agent we had a conversation and she recommended I explore writing nonfiction. 

She saw something in my writing that indicated my voice would translate nicely to narrative nonfiction. I must admit, she was right. I took to it immediately. 

The Gilded Age is such a fascinating time period because our country was spreading its wings when it came to science and invention. I knew a decent amount about the war of the currents already, but as I started delving deep into my research, I knew this was a story that needed to be shared with young adults. 

I think young people are only told about “the great Thomas Edison” in the typical classroom, and I feel it’s important to share the true story with them. If ever there was a man who was corrupted by competition and cutthroat capitalism, it was Thomas Edison. 

The fire in his eyes with regards to his main competitors, Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse, became a raging inferno. Edison stopped at nothing to one-up his opposition. On the other side, Tesla and Westinghouse stayed true to their character and fought fair, focusing on the true benefits of alternating current. 

Q: You begin the book with a murderer facing the electric chair—the first time it would be used. Why did you choose to start here?

A: I had always envisioned starting the book by teasing the reader with William Kemmler’s pending execution. I felt I needed to open the story with a compelling hook—to basically kick off the narrative by showing a nasty byproduct of the battle between these men. 

It’s such an eye-opener to learn that Thomas Edison endorsed the electric chair for the sole purpose of besting his competition. What better way to show how the war of the currents corrupted Edison and impacted the course of history than to show how it led to the introduction of the electric chair?  

Q: Did you learn anything as you researched the book that particularly surprised you?

A: In terms of surprising nuggets I learned while researching this book, most of them dealt with Nikola Tesla, which makes sense, since he was such a complex individual. 

The way Tesla claimed to be born on the very moment the days changed—at the stroke of midnight—and during a lightning storm, no less, seemed to be perfect foreshadowing of his life. Tesla was such an enigma, so it mirrors the anomaly of being born on what is essentially two different days. 

Another surprising fact was the loving relationship he had with his favorite pigeon, which Tesla compared to the romantic love one has with a significant other. Reading Tesla’s first-hand descriptions of his love for this one particular pigeon was a bit surreal (he wrote about the bird quite a bit). 

Q: What do you see as the legacies of these three men today?

A: I think it’s important to discuss the false legacy vs. the reality of Thomas Edison, since there is a lot to deal with there. 

But before I get to that, George Westinghouse is mostly an overlooked man, as I don’t think most people today even know who he is. There is so much to admire in this high-character man, though, so I hope readers come away with an appreciation of his profound impact on the world. 

Likewise, I feel Tesla is mostly overlooked and ignored in the history books, although there seems to be an almost underground, cult-like following that has grown over the years. We owe so much to Tesla, so I hope readers come to understand how much he did to lay the foundation of the world we live in today. 

As for Thomas Edison, his legacy—the one most American students read about in textbooks and learn about in the classroom—is one of a great man who was in all ways admirable. Edison is certainly placed on a pedestal. 

However, his greatness was corrupted in the extreme during the war of the currents. I wouldn’t make the claim that he was a “bad” person to the core, as I feel he did many great things and had his heart in the right place early on in his life. 

But it’s clear that he had a severe case of tunnel vision with regards to winning the battle, and to this end, he was morally corrupted and did some despicable things in the process. 

I feel it’s important to share this reality with young readers, so one of my goals was to raise the curtain to show what the real Thomas Edison was like behind the scenes. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am currently researching and planning the next book in the Gilded Age series, this one focusing on Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. I don’t feel Roosevelt’s story has been shared much with young readers, and I definitely don’t think the Rough Riders have been in the spotlight, so I’m excited to put this book in front of eager eyes.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I also created and edited the thematic anthology series, Been There, Done That (Penguin-Random). These two books highlighted a collection of award-winning and bestselling middle-grade authors, who were asked to share a real experience from their lives, which then served as inspiration for an original short story. The goal was to show how real life inspires fiction. 

If readers would like to know more about me and my books, they can visit my website. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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