In this episode, Kate spoke with historian Dr. Martha Hodes. Dr. Hodes is a professor of history at New York University and the author of multiple previous books focused on the nineteenth century, including The Sea Captain’s Wife: A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth Century, and Mourning Lincoln, which won multiple awards and was longlisted for the National Book Award. Her most recent book, however, has a very different focus. My Hijacking: A Personal History of Forgetting and Remembering, is an account of her experience as a 12-year-old hostage aboard a hijacked airliner in 1970. We talked about what it was like to write such a different type of history book, and the experience of mining her own unreliable archive for information. You’ll also learn how she ends up with as many as 20 or 25 drafts and why the best way to start a project is to pick a favorite document and just start writing about it.
Mentioned in this episode:
- Martha’s new book, My Hijacking: A Personal History of Forgetting and Remembering
- The Sea Captain’s Wife: A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth Century
- Mourning Lincoln
- Martha’s essay in the American Historical Review about writing My Hijacking (PDF).
- James Goodman
- Martha’s first book, White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth Century South
- Susan Faludi, In the Darkroom
- Burkhard Bilger, Fatherland: A Memoir of War, Conscience, and Family Secrets
- Annette Gordon-Reed, On Juneteenth
- Jonathan Scott Holloway, Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory and Identity in Black America Since 1940
- Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route
- Ava Chin, Mott Street: A Chinese American Family’s Story of Exclusion and Homecoming
- Richard White, Remembering Ahanagram: A History of Stories
- David Carr, The Night of the Gun
- Ada Ferrer, “My Brother’s Keeper,” The New Yorker
- Hua Hsu, Stay True; “When Immigrants are No Longer Considered Americans,” The New Yorker
- Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Family Matters,” The New Yorker
Note: Book links take you to Bookshop.org. If you purchase books through these links, Drafting the Past receives a small commission. Thank you for supporting the show!
Hey there, you’re listening to Drafting the Past, a podcast about the craft of writing history, and I’m your host, Kate Carpenter. In this episode, I spoke with historian Dr. Martha Hodes.
It’s great to be here. Kate.
Dr. Hodes is a professor of history at New York University and the author of multiple previous books focused on the 19th century, including the Sea Captain’s Wife, A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth Century and Mourning Lincoln, which won multiple awards and was long listed for the National Book Award. Her most recent book, however, has a very different focus. My Hijacking: A Personal History of Forgetting and Remembering is an account of her experience as a 12-year-old hostage aboard a hijacked airliner in 1970.
We talked about what it was like to write such a different type of history book and the experience of mining her own unreliable archive for information. You’ll also learn how she ends up with as many as 20 or 25 drafts and why the best way to start a project is to just pick a favorite document and start writing about it. Enjoy my conversation with Dr. Martha Hodes.
I guess it started, I loved English in high school. I was an English major. No, I assumed I’d be an English major in college. And then when I got to college, I took a course in religion and I was really intrigued. And so I ended up being a religion major in college and dropping the English major. And then I went on to get a master’s degree in comparative religion at Harvard Divinity School. And while I was getting that degree, I had financial aid and I had a work study job at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library on the history of women.
I was lucky enough to get that work study job, and I loved the archives. As a work study assistant, I was bringing archives to researchers and sometimes I would help process a collection. And I realized that I loved these collections and I didn’t want to be the archivist, which is an incredible job, but I wanted to be the person writing about the collections, and that’s when I made the switch. So that’s when I decided I wanted to be a historian, and I applied for PhD programs in history, and I remember very well saying to myself at the time, “Becoming a historian was a way to become a writer.” And I was lucky to also love teaching and love history itself, but I was very clear about studying history as a way to be a writer.
Well, let’s dive into some practical questions. When and where do you like to do your writing?
Well, in an ideal world, I will get up as early as possible and I will write at home. And when I say as early as possible, when I was working on the book before the one I just wrote my third book called Mourning Lincoln, I had a real deadline because the book had to come out to coincide with the anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, it was the 150th anniversary of the assassination. And so I would get up before sunrise, that was hard for me.
I mean, I’m a morning person, but not that much. But I just had so much to do and I’m not a fast writer. And what was funny about those days was the desk where I was sitting, looked over the next house where a little girl would come out around eight 30 to get the school bus, and I would get up in the dark because it was winter, and then the sun would come up and I’d see the little girl emerge from her house about 8:30, and I’d think, “Oh my God, the day is over,” because the dark of pre-dawn was so precious.
In a normal non-frantic deadline, I start early in the morning. When I was a fellow at the Coleman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, the fellows have the privilege of entering the library before it’s open to the public and I would arrive at my Coleman office at 7:15 AM and some of the other fellows would come in around eight, but it was just so wonderful.
Gosh, I love the morning so much. I do find if I don’t write first thing, it’s really hard for me to sit down and write. I can do many other things, research, and of course all the work of teaching and grading and class prep, but writing, even if it’s revision, I really need to do first thing in the morning. I should also say, although I love writing at my desk or in my Coleman Center office was a beautiful setting. I can write anywhere as long as I have headphones and I tend to use a sound effect app, so I’ll usually put on a sound effect of heavy rain or maybe a babbling brook or something like that.
So I do write on Amtrak because I take a lot of trains. I’m not crazy about writing in cafes, but I can do that with a soundtrack if I really feel like a particular cup of coffee. I have to say that I had one fellowship, I won’t name it. It was a lovely fellowship, but the offices the fellows were given were these just narrow, tiny windowless, fluorescent lit, really unpleasant spaces. And you know what? I wrote there, it was, okay. So I can write anywhere, but my ideal is at home early in the morning.
How do you like to organize your sources?
This is something I talk to my graduate students about a lot. I don’t use any software, and what I usually tell them is, and there’s no judgment here, if you’re a very organized person, you don’t necessarily need software. If you’re not, that’s just not one of your talents. Then sometimes the programs that are available can be helpful to you. And I always have the student share their experiences with one another.
What I do is I use my computer to mimic the old-fashioned index card method, which I never used because there were computers when I started writing books. What I do is as I’m reading my sources, my primary sources, as I start reading them at the beginning of a project, I think of topics that will be part of the book. And then this takes a long time because the topics shift and change, but eventually I’ll have a file for each topic. Sometimes those topics turn out to be the book chapters. Sometimes they turn out to be parts of the chapters.
But what’s really important, and this is something I also like to convey to my students, one sentence in a primary source could hold three different topics in it. And so I’m always mindful of placing that evidence in the many different places that it might go because a sentence both has multiple parts and can be used in different ways. So I do that and then eventually I will take a file and I’ll write from it. And in a funny way, it’s mechanical at that stage. It’s my method of saving me the agony of trying to craft, which is something that comes later
When you write. Do you like to write longhand? Do you write on a computer?
I do write on a computer, but that’s a great question because I always dream of writing longhand way. Way back when I was writing my dissertation, the library at Princeton University had just been renovated and there were these beautiful tables with skylights. And when you’re a grad student, I guess I didn’t realize this until I became a professor, you really have a lot of time.
If you’re in a fully funded program, and I was lucky enough to be, your responsibilities are your classes and your work. And so I would sit at those tables and draft longhand. And I remember there was a little stationery store in town where I and others would go to pick out a beautiful pad and a perfect pen. Oh, such a luxury. And I would go and I would write long hand, and then I would put it into the computer and work from there. And I always dream of doing that. Occasionally, I’ll often find a beautiful spot outside of home.
I think the last time I did that was this past summer, my spouse and I took a trip to Berlin, a city we love in Noel and a friend of ours told us about a cafe that had a secret little private loft that not many people knew about. You just had to walk to the back and walk up a set a spiral staircase, and it was like a little couch and some tables. And so we went there and I brought a notebook and a pen and it was utter heaven, but that’s so unusual. It was just a time when I, two weeks when I had no other obligations. So I would like to get back to that so much, but it’s not part of my routine. I do write on the computer.
So then when you talk about the more mechanic writing versus craft, where do those phases happen in the writing process for you?
I have notes. I have all my notes from primary and secondary sources. And I should say that ideally I would write as I go along and I tell my students to do that because the more you write from your sources, the more you know what to look for in your next research trip. I probably don’t write as early as I would like, but I try to write after a research trip or after I gather sources. And the mechanical part comes from having all these primary sources or quotations or paraphrases in these files about a particular topic.
And so I make that into a probably not very elegant narrative, but that’s a really important stage for me. And then comes the part that I love the best, which is going back to that and really crafting it into pros. And I do so, so many drafts, and I say that, I mean, I guess it depends what you count as a draft, but what I tend to do is after a day’s work, I’ll just make a copy of the file. So on a Mac, it’s control D, copy of the file, and then I’ll just number each 1, 1, 2, 3, 4.
And sometimes I’ll have as many as 20 or 25 drafts only because I do it every single day. Other people might not do that as often, but that way I don’t lose what’s come before and I don’t have to worry about the things I’m deleting that I might want to put back. It’ll just be in any of those previous drafts and I can search for that. So I guess for me, I hadn’t thought of it this way, but I think there are these distinct phases of getting the information down and then crafting it into pros, which I care about so much.
What do you find yourself doing in that crafting process to change the prose
On a sentence by sentence level, I love writing and that means I want each sentence, I’m not saying I achieve this, but my aspiration is to make each sentence beautiful and compelling and the reader wanting to go onto the next sentence. And I do tell my students, and I must have read this somewhere, but I don’t remember who said this, readers can close the book anytime. So it’s up to us to keep them there.
And of course, your dissertation advisor is not going to close the book is going to read the next page, but that’s not true of the world out there. So I care about how a sentence starts, and I want the word at the beginning of the sentence, not everyone, but many sentences to be interesting. I care about how a sentence looks on the page, and I want there to be a flow and a transition, not just from sentence to sentence, of course, from paragraph to paragraph.
And I also want a certain vividness. And of course it depends on what sources you’re working with. And also I want to write narrative and stories. And of course as historians, we also have arguments. But you know what, back in my second book, I decided to jet in the sentence. In this book, I argue that which I had done in my first book, and I knew I was very clear. This was the book called The Sea Captain’s Wife: A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth Century. And it’s so funny because before the book came out, I predicted to my graduate class, I said, “I bet there will be historian reviewers who say this book has no argument.” Just saying that to you, hope I’m wrong. But just saying the book had a very explicit argument, and it was in the first few pages. I just didn’t signpost it because I wanted the book to be more of a crossover and I didn’t want the academic jargon.
And lo and behold, I was correct. And the review that said that was very favorable and lovely, it was in academic journal, but said, and by the way, this book has no argument. So I felt a bit vindicated even though I wish I’d been wrong. So I spent a lot of time on the sentences, but not all at once. So I should also say I go back to passages days and days at a time. I have had students who say, I can’t go onto the next sentence until the sentence before is perfect. And I used to say, “Don’t do that. That’s crazy. You’re never going to finish.” However, I have to say, I have encountered students that’s their method, who not only get their work in on time, but are incredibly beautiful writers.
So my method is in everyone’s method, I could never do that. I need to go back and go back and go back day after day after day, week after week where I see something different, I see it in a different way, maybe I’ve moved things around and therefore the transitions change. And I love that process. That’s my favorite part that’s more enjoyable to me than the research which I love. And getting out the first draft, which I’d say I like, I love having the research done, the notes all there, the first draft out on the page, then I’m really in my happy place.
Do you also find yourself revising for structure?
Oh, such a good question. It’s so funny because chronology is the historian’s friend. And speaking for myself, I’ll say that I have written my books chronologically and partly because the books I’ve written as a historian have worked chronologically. That wasn’t the case with my last book, and I can talk more about that if you’d like. I first wrote my hijacking chronologically, and I worked with a wonderful editor at Harper Collins, my wonderful editor, who thought that that wasn’t the best way to tell the story.
Partly because, and I know this sounds strange, but nobody died in this particular hijacking. And it’s so funny because one of the publishers who rejected the manuscript told my agent, “Nobody died. We don’t want this story,” which we thought was rather hilarious, but what my editor was saying, and he very much wanted the book and the story was, you need to let the reader know upfront that that’s what happened so that there isn’t a sense of wondering and then not being sure.
And so I ended up structuring it in a way that he suggested, which is part one of the book tells the story from beginning to end, and then I go back and reconstruct it. And that was really hard because I’d already written it chronologically and I had never gone back and restructured and reorganized a manuscript in any of my free books or any of my articles. So that was a really different experience for me.
I want to pause here because My Hijacking is your newest book. It’s quite a bit different from your previous books. How do you describe it to people?
Yes, you’re absolutely right that it’s quite different. I describe the book as a deeply researched memoir, and it’s a phrase I came up with or maybe heard from someone else, but I didn’t just make that up right now. That is how I think of the book because I was 12 years old and my sister was 13, and she and I and my family were participants in a world historical event. So it was very much history but also very much personal history. And that phrase, personal history is in the subtitle, A Personal History of Forgetting and Remembering is the subtitle.
And so as a historian, it was about my personal experiences and about putting those experiences in a historical context, and it was also, as you can tell from the title, my story only, it was not my sister’s story. It was certainly not the story of my captors, nor was it the story of other hostages. And I explained this in the book partly because there were just so many variables ranging from where you were sitting on the plane to what your political outlook was about Israel-Palestine, and so it could only be my story and not anyone else’s.
How was the research process different from your normal research process? I assume it was different since we’re talking very different time periods.
Yes, so the first reason it was different was because here I was in the late 20th century, and I’m a 19th century historian, so I had never worked with typed documents. I’d also never worked with diplomatic records. There were so many sources I’d never worked with. It was the same in a general sense in that I went to many, many archives. I read newspaper articles. I had never, of course watched television news coverage before, so that was different.
But archives were similar. I went to the airline archives, read air traffic control reports. I found the flight catalog that had been in the back of our seat. I went to the State Department. I had never researched in the State Department archives before troves of telegrams between Washington and other US embassies. I watched press conference, newsreels. I had never seen those kinds of archives before. I read the archives of my captors, the popular front for liberation of Palestine. I went to the Nixon Library. Nixon was president in 1970 when this happened.
I read what were called telecoms, telephone conversations between Nixon and Kissinger. Kissinger was the, it was so interesting. These were type transcripts of things like, “Hi Henry, anything new with the hostages today?” And it was amusing. I went to the International Red Cross Archives in Geneva, Switzerland because our captors permitted the Red Cross to come out to the desert and onto the plains, both for sanitary reasons and also they were a party to the negotiations. And I also found an amazing document. I found the papers of one of my fellow hostages in another archive. She had been a sociologist. She was no longer alive, and in her papers I found a transcript of my sister’s diary that my sister had not been able to find all these years.
This woman who was a hostage with us had written a sociological article about it when she got home and she got in touch with us and we sent her our diaries. I also, and this is something I had done in my 19th century books, but it was different. I went back to the places where things had happened, so I went back to the Jordan Desert. I went back to the capital city of Oman where we were released. I even went back to the terminal at Kennedy Airport where we had met my father when we came home. That was different of course, because I was the protagonist, I was the actor, and that’s where the research was completely different from anything I’d done before. It began with my own memories and before I started my research, I wrote down everything I remembered, which was not much.
I had a diary that I had kept on the plane that was very important. I talked to my sister, my parents, my friends, my seventh grade classmates who remembered when I came home, my seventh grade teachers, neighbors, fellow hostages. So all of that was entirely new and different. That was the work of a memoirist, and that was hard for me. I was comfortable in the archives. Yes, they were 20th century, not 19th century, but still they were archives. I know how to use archives. I’m happy and familiar in archives. The rest of it was a really different experience for me
To take a closer look at how Martha’s careful sentence structure turns into a detailed scene, I’ve asked her to read a passage from My Hijacking. This is from the start of chapter seven where Martha invites readers to join her as she tries to reconstruct what happened to her in 1970. Here’s Dr. Martha Hodes reading from my hijacking.
It’s time to reconstruct the hijacking starting from the beginning. Despite how much I’d forgotten, I always remembered the moment it began, the running and shouting up in the air, a moment before I or anyone around me knew what was happening. A moment none of the hostages would ever forget. But what happened after that and before? I wanted to know what happened beyond my isolated image of those first startling minutes up in the air because I wanted to understand the fuller context of that enduring fragment of memory.
What did other passengers do? What did they think was happening and how did they feel? How did the cabin crew contend with their own fears along with a plane load of terrified passengers for whom they were responsible? What did the flight deck crew face trapped inside the cockpit with an armed intruder? All of them surrounded by the instruments that controlled the aircraft. Could piecing together the experience and emotions of everyone around me helped to excavate my own unremembered state of mind?
I’d never forgotten the flight number. Now I studied the airline timetable, TWA 741, it turned out was an around the world flight that began and ended in New York. Westbound, the plane stopped in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Honolulu before crossing the international dateline. It touched down in Guam, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India before landing in Tel Aviv to take Catherine and me via Athens and Frankfurt back to our father in New York.
The cockpit crew, the captain, copilot and flight engineer was working the entire trip with Frankfurt to New York their last stretch. A new cabin crew composed of five stewardesses, a purser and a student purser boarded in Frankfurt. I find the names of the stewardesses in newspaper articles, and when I reach out to June Hasler, she answers my query the same day, agreeing to meet at my apartment in New York on an October morning.
June is 74 years old, living on the Jersey Shore, retired from TWA for 14 years. In 1970, she had been a stewardess for four years, married for a year. June never thinks about the hijacking anymore, she tells me, unless she’s asked, and now she speaks about it in a lighthearted manner. When she describes our week in the desert as in prison in a tube with a whole bunch of other people, she laughs.
When I show her a picture of Catherine and me back then, she exclaims, “Oh, how cute.” June doesn’t remember us. As it turns out, few of the hostages I contact will remember Catherine and me, perhaps for the same reasons that I remember so few of them. We were all preoccupied. So much time has passed. We wanted to forget after we came home, even though the airline gave June time off, she wanted to get back to work sooner. She wanted to get back to normal. 50 years later, June explains to me the arrangement of our crew.
Rosemary [inaudible 00:23:07] was the most senior of the hostesses assisted in first class by Betty McCarthy. Tourist class passengers were served by June, Linda Jensen and Vicki McVay. June and I both find ourselves saying hostess and stewardess, which feels right since we’re talking about 1970, Rudy Twinkles was the purser in charge of the cabin crew and the night before, everyone had double celebrated the student purser Frank Allen at a German wine festival.
It was his very first trip. Andy was getting married in California the next weekend. I put June’s memories together with information about our flight stopover in West Germany along with a cabin crew, about 40 new passengers boarded at Frankfurt. Among them, a woman named Ms. Vasquez and a man named Mr. Lopez. Since their passports were Honduran, the agent at Twas Frankfurt ticket office was surprised that Mr. Lopez couldn’t converse in Spanish, but no one at either the ticket office or the Frankfurt airport detected that the couple’s passports were counterfeit.
The single security guard randomly searched hand luggage failed to uncover their concealed gun and grenades, and the metal detector seemed to be inoperative that day. In seats near Catherine and me, Susie Hirsch, 14 years old, was on her way home from Israel with her two younger brothers. Re boarding in Frankfurt, Susie was irked to find a man and a woman occupying their second row seats in tourist class. Since their parents were flying home from Israel on a different flight, Susie was in charge of Howie and Rob, and they all needed to sit together. When the couple declined to move, Susie produced her boarding passes and summoned a stewardess. June hasler apologized to everyone and directed the couple farther back. I went up to them and I said, “I’m sorry you have to move.” June tells me, they were very well-dressed and she certainly didn’t spy any weapons.
The European looking woman wore a chic outfit and the man wore a suit. Politely, they complied. Later when they ran up the aisle shouting, the Hirsch children recognized them as the passengers would tried to commandeer their second row seats. At the back of tour’s class, a passenger with a personal bottle of whiskey asked for coke and ice, and as June readied his order, the man told her that someone in the aisle had a gun, “If you keep joking, I’ll have to take it away your Jack Daniels,” June told the passenger smiling.
She was working the front end of the liquor cart and didn’t even turn around. Only when other passengers indicated that the man wasn’t in fact joking. Did June push the cart back into the rear kitchen? She saw Percy Rudy [inaudible 00:25:39], stumbling to the back galley after his encounter with the two hijackers, pale and sweating, trying to convey to the stewardess what had just happened upfront.
I chose this chapter often, as you know if you’ve listened to the show, I choose an introduction or a first or second chapter in part because it’s easier with context, but I chose this chapter, which is chapter seven because this is where the book takes a turn and you invite the readers along with you as you are reconstructing what happened. And we feel often like we’re sitting alongside you as you go through archival materials or talk to people. How did you decide on that voice?
Great question. An interesting process for me as a historian and writer when I started this book, in the proposal I originally wrote, I included that voice of bringing the reader with me. It’s something that I like to do as a historian anyway, but we don’t get to do very often in our more conventional books. I have done it to some extent in my other books, but certainly not the way I’ve done here.
Then I had a conversation with an editor, a wonderful editor, but an editor who eventually rejected the manuscript. Very generous person who told me, “Just write the story. Don’t put your voice in it. Don’t put your voice in it this way. Just write the story. Tell us what happened.” And I did respect this editor a great deal. And so that’s pretty much how I wrote an early draft of the book.
Then the editor who bought the book, the wonderful Jonathan Jao of Harper Collins now of Simon and Schuster, he read a first draft and in that draft I had a very early draft of acknowledgements. And in those acknowledgements, I wrote a lot of these stories about how I met with fellow hostages and gone to certain archives and he said, “This belongs in the book. This belongs in the text. Don’t put it in the acknowledgements.”
And I thought, “I took that other editor’s advice against my own will, and I wrote this book leaving all of that out, or mostly leaving it out, and now I have this editor who wants me to put it in.” That was another rewrite. But I was very happy to take that material and fit it into the text. And it was a task to figure out where does it belong? Where does it not interrupt the flow? How can I make it part of the narrative?
So I did rewrite much of the book making these decisions. I didn’t put everything in that I’d had originally in the draft of the acknowledgements, but I liked it so much better that way, partly because the book was meant to be this personal history and this trajectory of journey about remembering from going, from forgetting to remembering. And so it made sense to let the reader in on that part of the process.
You wrote a wonderful article in the American Historical Review, the AHR, about the process of writing My Hijacking. I recommend that people read it if they’re interested in this sort of writing, but you mentioned that you felt unsettled when another historian referred to you as a memoirist when you were working on this. You mentioned it earlier in this conversation too, that that was a comfortable mode for you. How is it different for you to be a historian and a memoirist then to simply be a memoirist?
I think it’s different. For me, I had always written about other people’s lives. I was comfortable doing that. Not only that, but other people from long, long ago who are no longer alive in one of my books, the Sea Captain’s Wife, I was in contact with descendants of the family, the 19th century family I was writing about. And that was wonderful, although it held its own challenges.
So I’m essentially a private person. And also this is another way that the book had to be revised so often in an early draft, I didn’t know I was doing this, but I put in so many other voices besides my own. A friend of mine, the wonderful historian and writer James Goodman, Jim said at one point, he said, in this one passage, “You give us eight different voices before you come to your own.” And it was too much. It was distracting. And I know that I was doing that on purpose because part of me didn’t want to be writing about myself, even though I wanted to write this book.
And then another friend put it this way, she said, “When you disappeared from the manuscript, I got worried about you.” And I thought that was such a beautiful, sweet way of saying you’re not really writing enough about yourself. And my editor also worked with me to help me do as much as I could of that. And it went from very little to what I was quite satisfied with, although other readers might not be certainly. So for me, the book wasn’t just my memory, but it was again, this deeply researched memory. And that part meant… Historians do this all the time, corroborating. But part of what I was corroborating were my memories with other sources, whether that would be, say, an interview and other hostage had given at release.
So that was close to the time I was writing about and how did those memories match up with my memories? And of course, like all historians, if 10 people say something happened, it happened. If I was the only one who remembered something, then I had to be much more careful. If a few people remembered it, that was pretty good, it probably happened. So it was a challenge to recover my experiences as a 12-year-old.
But I think what I was able to bring to memoir, I think all memoirs, do some research, but to be able to go to archives and have a historian skills, for me made it more interesting, I think, to answer the questions we all have about our past, which are what really happened. And that was very helpful to me to bring those sources to my memories because the theme of the book is that I had forgotten and wanted to remember, which is not an uncommon theme in memoirs, but I had a certain trade that I could bring to that question. As a historian, that was very helpful to me.
Was it challenging for you to be writing about people who were still alive and in some cases who you knew versus writing about people long dead? And how did you grapple with that?
Yeah, it was challenging. Certainly I was lucky to have the support of my family. So my sister who had had her own very traumatic experience. I mean in the book, my sister, she’s only a year and a half older than I, and we were traveling without our parents, so it was just the two of us. She was my hero. She took care of everything, but she was also a child herself, and it was very hard for her as well because she felt the responsibility that any older sibling would feel in that situation.
Could she keep us safe? Could she keep us from being separated? All of those, if she answered all the questions that we were asked whether by reporters or by our captors. She was incredibly supportive. My parents were incredibly supportive, although they had their limitations. I think as any historian doing oral history, might find my father coped with the hijacking by crafting a set of stories that he just told over and over again, and they were all quite cheerful.
One of his favorites was when he met us at Kennedy Airport after our release, we ran into his arms and said, “Oh, dad, we were so worried about you,” which he remembered because it made him feel that if we worried about him, we might not have been so worried about ourselves. My mother’s way of coping was that her memories were incredibly vague, really so disjointed and really very little there.
And so I realized that to research their experiences, and that is part of the book, I needed to go beyond their memories. I needed to read the newspapers they read, watch the television broadcast my father watched, talk to their neighbors, talk to their friends. So I did all of that. But I also was mindful of writing about people, as you said, Kate, who are still alive, and that included my fellow hostages as well. And that’s one reason I’m so clear in the book that this is my story, my hijacking.
My sister and I were different as I write in the book for many of our fellow hostages who were American Jews. My mother had gone to Israel to start a dance company. She was not a Zionist. She had no interest in Zionism or Israel. Of course, 1970 was three years after the 67 war when many American Jews went to Israel to see the newly occupied territories, the Western Wall people had their bat mitzvahs there. We grew up very secular and had no connection. Nobody ever took us to those places. So I also was mindful of their experiences and clear that I wanted to separate what had happened to me from whatever might have been their experiences. And I’ll say that I guess I contacted about 10 or so hostages.
There were a lot of people I didn’t remember and a lot of people who didn’t remember me. And I realized that in a way it just was where you were sitting, whoever was sitting around you. And I also tended to remember the people closer to my age, and of course many of the people on the plane were no longer alive because it was almost a half century later. So many of the fellow hostages who I’d been in touch with gun touch when the book came out, maybe all of them and were all very respectful of the book, even if it hadn’t been their experience or their political outlook either and I was very grateful for that.
But I was mindful that my experience, my outlook and perspective was likely different from many of them. I have to say I definitely kept that in mind while writing, but I also wasn’t going to compromise my own experience both back then, by the way. And I should say my sister and I were very interested in the cause and of our captors and the stories they told. And of course, it’s important to say at this juncture that our captors were very nice to us. We were children. That wasn’t the experience of everybody.
Certainly there was no physical harm, and it was also the internal policy of the popular front, not to harm anyone. So it was a different moment. But the captors were, although it was, I don’t want to minimize how frightening it was on an hour to hour basis, they were nice to the children. They jumped rope with us out in the desert. They explained there was one commando who explained the scientific workings of an oasis because we saw water on the horizon because we were in the middle of a desert. And he gathered the children together and explained what that was.
They gave piggyback rides to the children. There’s one incident I write about in the book where my sister had her diary on her tray table and she’d drawn a heart and put the name of a boy she liked that summer, and one of the commandos walked by and winked at her and said, “Romantic.” Another time my sister was in her seat crying, she was scared. And one of the men walked by and said, one of our captors and said, “Don’t cry. We have children too.” And that felt fatherly to her on we missed our father very much.
So that was, again, my, to some extent our, but my experience, and I wanted to be very clear, which is probably why I put this in the title, that it was not the experience of others. And I could only write about my parents and my sister from my perspective, certainly so different from writing about 19th century people who have no say over what we write about them, although we try obviously to be as true to them as possible.
As historians, we obviously talk and think a lot about the challenges of our work and what is available in the archives and what isn’t, and how sources all have biases and they have perspective and they have things left out both intentionally and unintentionally. But I imagine that nothing quite brings that home, like working in the memoir mode too, when you don’t have the distance, so much of a historian, but you have that personal experience. Did working on this book impact the way you think of your work as a historian?
A lot of people have asked me that, and I didn’t think about it until I was first asked that question, but it’s been really interesting to think about that, and I’m glad that you asked it to Kate. So in a way, the best example of this is the diary that I kept. So I was an inveterate little diary keeper as a girl, and I had my diary with me on the plane, and I wrote in it every day. And so when I thought about writing this book and I saved all my diaries in a carton in a closet somewhere, I thought my diary will be the scaffolding for the book. I wrote in it every day. I can take the experience day by day and use that as the basis and what I’m going to say next. I talk about in the book. What I quickly found was that my diary was quite an unreliable source.
At 12 years old, I had crafted my diary entries in a particular way, probably for myself and for my parents, not that my parents would ever read my diary, but as a way to craft a story that would be tolerable to my parents and to myself when I got home, because it was so frightening and I didn’t want to remember it. So in the diary, I didn’t record any of the things that I had… The few things I had never forgotten were not in my diary. So up in the air, I saw a gun in the co-pilot’s neck. There was one time when one of the commandos, there was a woman, there were women commandos as well as men. And one of the women was not a nice person, and everybody I talked to remembered her as mean, and she pointed her gun at me, and I never forgot that. I saw our captors wiring the plane with dynamite.
That was part of their hostage taking mission was to tell the world, although they told us something different to tell the world they were going to blow up the planes with the passengers in them, and sometimes they did make that threat to the passengers, I should also say. So I watched that when we were released to Ahman, we were in the middle of a war between Palestinian insurgents and the Jordanian army. So all of these, we heard shooting and bombs, and we were told to lie on the floor.
I never forgot those things, but I didn’t record them. And so we all know as historians that sources aren’t complete or reliable, but this was such a stark example that it did change the way I think about maybe especially about personal documents. At one point, I wrote this sentence in my diary. This was the first morning we woke up on the plane in which I described the hijacking, and I wrote, “The hostesses comforted a crying, Catherine my sister, and calmed everyone.” Only I had crossed out heavily in black magic marker. The words are crying, Catherine, because obviously my sister crying, my older sister crying, was very unsettling to me.
So the sentence then read, “The hostesses comforted and calmed everyone.” Now I was able to hold it up to some very strong light and decipher those words, but wow, what a stark example of altering a narrative about something that happened to me. And I always tell my students to ask this question, and I ask it myself when working with primary sources, why did this person tell this story this way? And that was such an important question as I wrote the book, why did I tell the story I told in my diary?
It was too hard to write down everything that had happened and I didn’t want to remember. So I selected and crafted the stories I could tolerate and that I thought my parents could tolerate when I talk to them about it. But knowing that I have to look at documents differently, not that we could ever answer the questions of what’s left out unless we have other kinds of corroborating evidence, but absolutely, yes.
I’d like to turn in our conversation now to talk a little bit about inspiration. So as I ask everyone, what is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
The best writing advice I’ve ever received, I received from the same friend I mentioned before, Jim Goodman. He and I went to graduate school together, and this is a piece of advice I give my undergraduate and graduate students when they’re writing substantial papers. So the thing about Jim Goodman, I should say, is that, and I give this advice to everybody, find the other people who want to talk about writing. If you want to talk about writing, find that person.
And so I found Jim early along, and to this day, we talk about writing all the time, all the time. Jim said, I was researching my dissertation, and Jim said, “Pick your favorite document and write the narrative that goes with that document. It doesn’t matter where it’s going to end up in the dissertation or the book, just write it.” And so at that point, this was my dissertation, which became my first book called White Women, Black Men Illicit Sex in the 19th Century South.
And I had lots of research, but I had found this document in the National Archives that was an interview with a northern man who had gone south during the Civil War and had recorded some of his conversations with enslaved people. And he had this incredible conversation with an enslaved man who was describing to him his sexual coercion by a white woman. And this was written in manuscript. There were a lot of other parts of the interview and the parts of the interview about sex with a white woman were bracketed off, and the word omit was written in the margin, like, don’t put this in the published document. And it never made it into the published document. So that was such an interesting, intriguing document to me, and I thought, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to write, I hate the word write up.
I hate the phrase, write up your research. But anyway, I was going to write that up and I did. And that was a way to start the writing process with something that really inspired me, that was very interesting to me historically. And that turned out to be a chapter in a chapter of the dissertation in the later chapter in the book, something like Chapter six. But that was such good advice just to start there, to start anywhere, but with your favorite, most interesting, most intriguing document that in no way has to be the beginning of the story. And I still do that to this day.
I think that’s great advice. Are there other books or writers or maybe even TV shows or films that you look to for inspiration?
There are, and some of these are books I assigned to students, undergrads, writing courses, courses that care about writing. So I’ll say a number of them. They’re not all by historians, some are. Really one of my very favorite books of a person researching her family history is the journalist Susan Faludi’s incredible book called In the Darkroom. It’s about her father in two ways. Her father transitioned to become a woman late in life, and her father was also in a family that lived through the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.
And she writes about both of these things together in this amazing book called In the Darkroom because her father was also a photographer. And the way she researches brings the reader with her very candidly, writes about her emotions. And I write about this in the AHR article that you mentioned, I believe Kate. So thank you for bringing that up, is just so beautiful and so skilled.
So that’s one of my favorite books. I’m currently reading a relatively new book. I’m almost done with it, but not yet by a writer named Burkhard Bilger called Fatherland. And the subtitle is A Memoir of War, Conscience, and Family Secrets. And Bilger is writing about his grandfather’s Nazi past. And it’s absolutely fascinating written in such a beautiful, thoughtful voice. It’s a wonderful model.
Some of the not as recent books, but books that are pretty recent that are very important to me. Annette Gordon-Reed’s wonderful book of essays called On Juneteenth about her childhood in Texas, a book I go back to over and over again, Jonathan Scott Holloway’s book called Jim Crow Wisdom, which is partly about his family and partly about the 20th century United States. Is wonderful. Siadiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother, the beginning of that book, beautiful model. A newer book, I know I have a lot of these here, a newer book, Ava Chin’s, Mott Street. Ava Chin isn’t a historian, she’s a writer and a journalist, but the book is very much about Chinese exclusion and American history, incredible book.
An older book I love is Richard White’s Remembering Ahanagran where he talks his mother about her childhood in Ireland. And he writes so beautifully about how her memories just do not comport with the documents, and that’s often what the book is about in many ways. One more wonderful book, David Carr, The Night of the Gun, David Carr was a New York Times columnist, and he writes about his own life that he remembered in a certain way when he was a drug addicted adult grownup and learns by talking to the people around him, how wrong his memories were. And it’s really beautiful. The other thing I would say, and I hope this is something that other people will take inspiration from, the New Yorker, has this wonderful column called Personal History, and it’s really worth searching those out. I actually was lucky enough that part of my book was excerpted as a personal history column in the New Yorker online, but both online and in print.
The historian Ada Ferrer re-wrote a beautiful column in the print edition called My Brother’s Keeper about her family in Cuba. Hua Hsu, whose wonderful, wonderful book Stay True was just published and won a lot of prizes. He has many wonderful New Yorker essays, but a really wonderful one called When Immigrants Are No Longer Considered American. Henry Louis Gates has a wonderful personal history column that I use in some of my classes called Family Matters, When science clashes with ancestral lore, again about his ancestors, remembering the family history in ways that are contradicted by DNA testing. So those, and there are many others, but those are some of the ones I come back to over and over again.
Wow, what an excellent reading list you’ve just given all of us. Before I let you go, I do want to ask just because I love to know what people turn to when they finish a project. So is there anything new that you’re working on that you’re up for talking about?
This isn’t much of an answer, but I hope it’s an answer that will soothe other scholars. And the answer is that I now know at this point in my career that I take a long time between projects, so I no longer become agitated by that. So I’m at a moment where the book was fairly recently published just a number of months ago. I guess my question is, do I go back to the 19th century in the Civil War era, my people, my comfort zone? I love that so much. There’s so many important questions to ask and explore, so that’s certainly a possibility. And I have found myself for a long time, very intrigued by one aspect of the life of Clara Barton, and that is she ran something called The Missing Soldier’s Office in Washington, and I’m going to do some research on that. I don’t know what will happen, but I’m very interested.
I’m always interested in topics of loss and grief. That’s such a beautiful and moving example, the Missing Soldier’s Office in the Civil War. I will do that, but I don’t know for sure if I’ll stay in the 19th century for all of the rest of my work. There are many other possibilities to explore. I don’t know that I’ll ever write about myself again. I’ll say that although it’s possible, I don’t know yet. But I like the stage where I have a lot of different inspirations, but don’t feel compelled to commit myself to one or the other of them. I like that stage and I hope others will feel that way as well, whether you’ve just finished your dissertation or published your first book or published your fifth book.
Marvelous. Well, Dr. Martha Hodes, thank you so much for joining me on Drafting the Past and talking about your writing process with me.
Thank you so much for your questions. It was such an interesting conversation for me because of your questions.
Thanks again to Dr. Martha Hodes for joining me on this episode of Drafting the Past. Thanks to you for listening and sharing the show with your fellow history writers. As we look ahead to the new year, I’m planning to bring you even more writing advice via the shows email newsletter. So if you’d like to join in, visit drafting the past.com to sign up. You’ll also find links from this episode as well as the complete transcript there. In the meantime, remember that friends don’t let friends write boring history.