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Author Jon Meacham interviews Neal Thompson

Neal Thompson talks about his new book A Curious Man.

A Curious Man by Neal ThompsonJon Meacham is the author, most recently, of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, a #1 New York Times bestseller that was named one of the best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, the Seattle Times, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Meacham received the Pulitzer Prize for American Lion, his bestselling 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson, and is also the author of the New York Times bestsellers Franklin and Winston and American Gospel.

Neal Thompson is author of A Curious Man the biography of Robert “Believe It or Not” Ripley, the enigmatic cartoonist turned globetrotting millionaire who won international fame by celebrating the world’s strangest oddities, and whose outrageous showmanship taught us to believe in the unbelievable..

1. What led to the moment when you decided that this was the right book to do?

Someday I need to buy Edward Rothstein a drink, or give him a hug. His 2007 New York Times story about a new Believe It or Not! museum in Times Square, and the man behind it—“a cross between the Coney Island barker and the cultural anthropologist”—set me on the five-year path to this book. From that article, I learned that Ripley was far more than a cartoonist. In his day, he was among the wealthiest men in entertainment, among the most popular and best-traveled men in America. And yet his over-the-top life story had never been fully told. I was instantly hooked, and my inspiration became an obsession. It was a life-changing moment, when I realized: this . . . this is my story.

2. What surprised you the most in the research?

I had a general sense of Ripley’s appreciation for the so-called “freaks” that have anchored the Believe It or Not brand. But I was thrilled to learn that Ripley was hardly a Barnum-style exploiter. In fact, he was a compassionate champion of those whose weirdness defined them. As a shy and bucktoothed oddball, I found that his devotion to strange people and the strangeness of the world grew from his own sense of being a bit of a misfit. He was the underdog who celebrated underdogs. I was equally thrilled to learn that this passion for discovering the overlooked and the outcast made him fabulously rich and famous.

3. What, if any, enterprise in our own time most resembles the role Ripley’s played in the culture in its heyday?

It’d be impossible to find a modern equivalent, and I’ve often wondered if Ripley, who thrived in a pre-TV era, would find an appreciative audience in today’s screen-centric, beauty-obsessed culture. He was a goofy looking dude, and not entirely comfortable as a public figure. Yet, remarkably, he was a multimedia pioneer, on radio and TV, usually thanks to his nerve-taming paper cups of gin or whiskey. Today, what most resembles Ripley is a mash-up of pop-culture personalities and phenomena: Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern, Oprah, Dr. Phil, The Amazing Race, MythBusters, and Fear Factor.

4. What was the secret to Ripley’s empire? Why did it thrive where and when it did?

One thing I love about Ripley’s life story is that this strange and restless guy turned his curiosity about the world into an empire: a syndicated cartoon, bestselling books, top-rated radio shows, lectures, museums, and some of the first episodic TV shows. And for most of his prime years, the rest of the nation was suffering the effects of the Depression. But it turned out that Ripley’s dispatches from all corners of the globe were exactly what America needed at the time. And, I’d argue: today, we still do.

5. What do you hope readers take away from the book?

Mainly I hope people will be inspired by Ripley. In all of my books, the real-life characters share an underdog quality. Having grown up with a sister who had a disability (Down syndrome), I’ve always been drawn to those who overcome some hardship or setback, who challenge themselves and achieve something remarkable. In Ripley’s case, he enjoyed life to the extreme and was constantly amazed by it. And I hope readers will enjoy the wild ride of Ripley’s rambling life and eccentric, lavish lifestyle while also discovering (as I did) that Ripley’s influence is all around us, sixty-plus years after his death.

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