Interview with Jeff Fleischer, author of Rockin’ the Boat

Rockin'-the-BoatRockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries from Joan of Arc to Malcolm X tells the stories of a wide variety of rebels and revolutionaries throughout history, including winners and losers, heroes and anti-heroes, military leaders and non-violent protesters, ancient and modern figures. It covers their motivations, the tactics they tried, and the impact they made. The book is designed to introduce readers to historical changemakers they might know little about, and teach them more about those they already know.


Zest Books: Why did you write this particular book?

Jeff Fleischer: The history nerd side of me has always been interested in movements, and the way they often coalesce around an individual leader. Regardless of their cause, every revolutionary takes on a real risk – at least failure, and often jail or death – but they also have to inspire a lot of followers if they’re going to succeed. Studs Terkel, a journalist I always looked up to, used to tell a story about two men who marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King. One was lamenting that nobody would remember their names, and the other responded that they would be remembered because people would always know about Dr. King. In that way, this book is about many thousands of people, told through the stories of fifty leaders. Like Dr. King, those leaders can inspire real progress, or like some of the others, they can set things back considerably and leave a trail of destruction. But they’re all worth learning about, and I hope the book gets readers interested in learning more about them.

ZB: What was the most interesting thing about covering so many revolutionaries in the same book?

JF: Most of the revolutionaries in the book are people we usually think about in the context of their own time and place. But researching and writing about fifty of them in such a short span of time, the links between them become part of the story. Just like how Cesar Chavez was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s work in India, Gandhi’s early activism in South Africa inspired Nelson Mandela. Julius Caesar got the idea from Hannibal to cross the Alps with an army. Martin Luther admired Arminius and gave him a new name to stress their shared German heritage. Fidel Castro inspired his troops by telling stories about Simon Bolivar. One of Toussaint Louverture’s nicknames during his slave uprising was the “black Spartacus.” There are countless links like this, and thinking about them helped bring the fifty chapters together as a book.

ZB: What was the most fun part of the writing process?

JF: I have a lot of random historical trivia floating around in my head, so it’s always nice to put some of it to practical use. I really enjoyed writing a lot of the sidebars. Some were ways to point out why these people are still relevant, or to debunk common myths about them, or to link the chapters to one another, or just to include interesting asides to the main story.

ZB: Who else did you want to include?

JF: That’s a long list. When I first submitted the proposal to my editor, I started with a list of about one hundred and twenty possible revolutionaries, and together we brainstormed even more. That meant a lot of really interesting and important people weren’t included – not because they weren’t just as worthy, but there were only so many spots. Leon Trotsky, Emmeline Pankhurst, Jean-Jacques Dessalines…there are definitely more than enough to fill a second book.

ZB: Which revolutionary was your favorite to write about?

JF: It’s hard to pick one. I’ve always been fascinated by Hannibal and the Second Punic War, especially the way he was able to use smart planning and tactics to defeat armies that were a lot bigger than his and had much more at stake, all with little support from back home. I’ve always considered him a great underdog story. I particularly liked writing about people like Kate Sheppard, who should be much better known than she is outside of New Zealand, and who I hope the book can introduce to more people. As I say in the introduction, I remember watching Nelson Mandela leave prison, and I’ve followed his life story since I was quite young. For a long time, he was always at the top of my list of people I hoped to interview one day.



Jeff_FleischerJeff Fleischer¬†is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. He is the author of the non-fiction books¬†Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries from Joan of Arc to Malcolm X¬†and¬†The Latest Craze: A Brief History of Mass Hysterias.¬†He has also co-written a textbook on environmental science for high-school students, edited dozens of books for other writers, had current-affairs articles included in numerous textbooks and non-fiction collections, and published several short-fiction pieces in the¬†Chicago Tribune’s¬†literary magazine¬†Printers Row.¬†His journalism work has appeared in publications including¬†Mother Jones, The Sydney Morning Herald, Chicago Magazine, Mental Floss, National Geographic Traveler, The New Republic, The Chicago Tribune, BuzzFlash, Women‚Äôs eNews, Forbes Travel, Chicago Wilderness, World Jewish Digest, The (Chicago) Daily Herald,¬†and many other consumer and trade publications. His work has been published or syndicated in more than thirty countries on every continent but Antarctica. He was also 2008 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow in Oceania.

Jeff has interviewed subjects ranging from a former American president and the head of UN peacekeeping in Rwanda to a Pulitzer-winning graphic novelist and a member of Monty Python.¬†He spent a month reporting on a remote Pacific atoll, was taught how to throw a googly by one of the world’s best cricket bowlers, lectured to law students about his research, and covered multiple state and presidential elections.¬†His hobbies include fiction writing, photography, visual artwork, travel, following sports (particularly the Chicago Cubs, Chicago Bulls and New Zealand All Blacks), and building an ever-growing music collection.

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