“We’ve lost touch with the emotional rawness of what the Kennedys and America suffered on November 22nd,” author James L. Swanson told us. “Don’t forget, a woman lost her husband, two children lost their father, and America lost its president.”
Fifty years ago today, our nation changed in a dramatic instant. Whether Camelot was an artifice or not, it seemed the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 persuaded many of us to believe that it had been unequivocally real and had been stolen from us forever. Even today the fascination with Kennedy’s death is very much alive and has spawned countless conspiracies.
Adding to the vast literature, author James L. Swanson has written a gripping minute-by-minute account of the day that ended an era of hopefulness. In the same vein of his previous work, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, Swanson has recently released End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, taking a true crime approach to a story everyone thinks they know. Employing his narrative storytelling and in-depth research, Swanson brings to life the historic assassination as if we were experiencing it right before our eyes.
There has been so much written about JFK’s assassination. How were you able to find a fresh angle?
In a few ways. I took a fresh approach and wrote it as a true crime thriller. I didn’t assume readers had any prior knowledge, because in fact, most people don’t. Most people can’t tell you how many shots [Lee Harvey] Oswald fired; they can’t tell you which shots hit the president; they had no idea that 10 witnesses on the street saw the rifle barrel pointing out of the sixth floor window of the book depository and tracking the president’s car and watched it as it was shooting. So by taking a true crime approach, where I do an hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute and sometimes split-second account, it feels like the story is new and fresh again.
The other thing I do is make Jacqueline Kennedy a central part of the story. She was a great hero that weekend, really standing as a symbol for all the people who mourned her husband. So this is very much a book about Jacqueline Kennedy and what she suffered.
What was your process for End of Days? Where did the research take you?
It took me to many of the John Kennedy sites and of course to the assassination sites in Dallas. It took me to people who knew the Kennedys, women who went to high school with Jackie, secret service agents. To the voluminous records of the Warren Commission. And thousands of books. Plus all the books about the conspiracies. Even though my book is not about the conspiracies, I do address them in my epilogue, because everyone who believes them wants to ask about them. I decided I had to master all the conspiracy literature, so that I could speak about it intelligently and express an opinion on it.
I began working on the book in 2011. I thought it would be important to have the book come out when people’s attention was going to be focused on the 50th anniversary and what that anniversary means.
What does the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination mean to people?
I have an idea of what it should mean. The contradictory, conflicting conspiracy theories of grassy knolls, multiple gunmen, Oswald imposters, Cuban conspiracies, Russian conspiracies, the CIA, the FBI, Naval intelligence, Texas oilmen, Lyndon Johnson, the mob, the military-industrial complex and so on, have distracted us from the true meaning of this day. We’ve lost touch with the emotional rawness of what the Kennedys and America suffered on November 22nd. Don’t forget, a woman lost her husband, two children lost their father and America lost its president.
Do not make this only Lee Harvey Oswald’s day, because he would love that. Oswald did it because he wanted to be remembered, and we do remember him. He would be thrilled that he has one of the most famous names in the history of the modern world.
So it’s very important to remember the real John Kennedy on this day. A great American patriot who believed with every fiber of his being in American greatness and American exceptionalism. An optimist about his country and its future. We should use it as an occasion to remember his life, what he did, what his dreams for America were, what he sacrificed for the country, and ultimately how he lost his life serving America.
Why do you think JFK’s assassination is something that still leads to so much debate and so many conspiracy theories?
First of all, conspiracy theories are nothing new. Americans have turned to conspiracies for almost 300 years to explain troubled times or puzzling events. Secondly, I think our minds find it difficult to accept that a lone disgruntled loser like Lee Harvey Oswald could change destiny. It’s just like the universe is out of balance, the fact that such an inconsequential person could kill such a great man. It’s something we were unwilling to believe. Another reason is that conspiracy theories are so dramatic, so exotic, so bizarre, that they appeal to our inborn desire to hear wild tales or fantastic stories. They’re entertaining and appealing in their own right, in a way. Also this: Conspiracy theories refuse to concede that chance, luck, randomness are part of human history and that they have been a part of human history for thousands of years.
How did presidential assassinations become an area of interest for you?
Well, I wrote Manhunt because I’d been interested in Lincoln since I was a child. I was born on his birthday and I studied him for years. Manhunt was the book I’d always wanted to read but had never been written. As I wrote it, I got more and more interested in the Kennedy assassination because I started to view them as bookends to one 98-year history of American death and sadness.
What will you write next?
Every time I do an adult book I also do a book for young adults with Scholastic. With End of Days, I’ve done a YA book called The President Has Been Shot. I enjoy writing books for young people and I want to keep doing that. I have decided to do a book about Martin Luther King for young people, but I have not chosen what my next adult book is going to be.