Five questions for John Boileau author of 6•12•17: The Halifax Explosion
1. You have written extensively on historical events. What is your fascination with history?
As a teenager I used to wish that our Canadian history was as exciting as American history. As I grew older, my fascination with our history started when I began to realize that our stories were just as exciting as any other country's—we just had not been telling them very well. My goal in writing about history is to tell some of those many stories in a way that makes Canadians want to read about them—and more.
2. There has been a great deal written over the years on the Halifax Explosion. What makes 6•12•17 different from the other "Explosion" books?
6•12•17 is different in the way it combines text and images in what I believe is a fast-paced, visually stunning way. Not only do the images run the gamut of photographs, prints, paintings, artefacts and maps, but the text is also broken up into various elements, including sidebars, factsheets and quotes. I think that the net result is an eye-catching medley that grabs readers and literally pulls them along. Additionally, the book has the largest format of any explosion book, as well as having more images than any other one. It also goes beyond the explosion to include the inquiry and reconstruction efforts immediately afterward, and then on to the explosion after the Second World War, plus two close calls during that war.
3. Sifting through the mountains of explosion material must have been a tremendous undertaking. How did you narrow down the content for your book?
This was definitely my biggest problem, as there is almost an unlimited amount of material available about the explosion—and not all of it accurate. I first looked at the various key elements of the story that I wanted to portray; these subsequently became my chapter topics. Next, I researched each element thoroughly, whittled each one down to the essential facts and then told them in a way that I hope engages the readers.
4. What do you want readers to take away from 6•12•17?
There are four "take-aways" I would like readers to remember: First, I want them to realize the tremendous magnitude of the death, injury and destruction caused by the explosion. Secondly, I hope they gain an appreciation for the rescue and recovery operations undertaken at a time when the modern facilities and equipment we have today for such a disaster simply did not exist. Thirdly, I feel they should realize that much of what has been published about the explosion over the years has not always been completely accurate, the result of haste, sloppy research or just taking what others have written at face value. Finally, I want them to understand the important role the army and navy played in the rescue and recovery operations, a role that has been almost completely ignored in the past.
5. What makes writing enjoyable for you?
Actually, I don't find the physical act of writing that enjoyable; what I enjoy most is the research that leads to the writing. Once the research is done, it's a fairly straightforward—although time-consuming--task to get from A (a blank page) to Z (a finished article or book).