The winner of the RBC Taylor Prize will be announced on Monday, March 2. In the lead-up to this year's ceremony, we asked each of the five finalists to answer some questions about non-fiction writing. Today David O'Keefe talks about writing for non-historians, his favourite non-fiction writer, and the inspiration behind One Day in August: The Untold Story Behind Canada's Tragedy at Dieppe.
What inspired your book?
One Day in August was inspired by the enduring mystery that has surrounded the intent of the Dieppe raid, which has rightly gone down in Canadian history as one of our darkest and most controversial national tragedies. As a military historian, at first I shied away from the "Dieppe story" that has captured the attention of so many good historians and that, until now, has been shrouded in seemingly impenetrable secrecy. But I could not avoid it: whether I was writing about Vimy Ridge, Hong Kong or the Normandy campaign – major and critical moments in our history themselves – all exploits on the field of battle were measured by the ghastly human cost and futile results of the raid on Dieppe on August 19th 1942.
What's your favorite work of non-fiction? Why?
Marc Bloch's Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940. One of the greatest historians of the medieval age, Bloch movingly turns the tables on himself, providing us – and the public record – with evidence of his experiences during the Fall of France in 1940 – an event most historians agree deeply affected our modern world today.
Who's your favorite non-fiction writer? Why?
It is Bloch's approach to the subject which shaped my views on writing non-fiction – in particular, how he methodically peels back the question of "why France fell?" to the Germans in just six weeks during the summer of 1940 – each revealed layer providing a nuanced, stinging indictment of the French military high command, culture and society in almost three-dimensional fashion in less than 150 pages. His work has shaped my approach to history, my research and my writing.
What was the most challenging part of writing your book?
As my editor explained to me in no uncertain terms, "The new revelations are so important for all Canadians that you cannot simply write for the handful of other Dieppe scholars." So the most challenging part of writing One Day in August became striking a delicate balance between solid academic research/analysis and an engaging narrative that would grip the reader – the non-historian as much as the historian. I fell back on Mark Twain's time-honored quip that "truth is stranger than fiction because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn't" – which gave me license to use the dramatic new evidence I had uncovered to set the tone and to drive the narrative.
10. If you could write a book about any topic, with unlimited financial resources to research it, what would it be?
As One Day in August reveals, much of the gritty truth of the Second World War is only now seeping out of intelligence archives locked since the war years: my dream would be to embark upon a complete re-examination of the Allied and Canadian effort during the war by capitalizing on the millions of formerly Ultra Top Secret classified documents now being released. One can only imagine what stories they will tell….
An excerpt from One Day in August:
Dr. Alan Mathison Turing was a wild and eccentric genius among code-breakers. Often called the "father of modern computing," he was a brilliant mathematician and logician who developed the idea of the modern computer and artificial intelligence. Turing's work helped develop the Bombe, an electromechanical device used to decrypt the German's Enigma-encrypted messages, and later the world's first computer – the Colossus. His tragic death, whether suicide, accident or murder, has never been satisfactorily explained, although urban legend claims his death is reflected in the Apple logo: after being convicted of an illegal sexual relationship with a man a few years after the war, he was sentenced to chemical castration by hormone injection. In June 1954 he was found dead, after having allegedly bitten into an apple dipped in cyanide.
The Nazi high command, despite some brilliant and maverick minds at work in their own code-breaking organization, Beobachtungsdienst, or B-Dienst for short, suffered from an institutionalized anti-intellectualism and arrogance that gave the British the time and space needed to conquer Enigma. The British harnessed their greatest intellectual resources right from the outbreak of war in 1939 and put them to work at Bletchley Park. They challenged these people to overcome the staggering odds and take the science of cryptography to levels never before imagined. To make an analogy, they stood the same chance of defeating the three-rotor naval Enigma in 1939 as an individual would have in winning a national lottery once a day, every day, for nearly one hundred years. Nevertheless, by mid-1941, the cryptographic team – led by the legendary Alan Turing, Peter Twinn and Dilly Knox, among many other stellar minds – had done just that. The journey to this great accomplishment was anything but smooth, however, and when Turing first took on the project with his team in Hut 8 – the Bletchley hut devoted to cracking the naval Enigma ciphers – he did so under a cloud of pessimism.
Fortunately, help for the Bletchley Park cryptographers came in several forms. First, they received tremendous aid from the work of exiled Polish cryptographers, who had pioneered the cryptographic assault on an earlier version of the German army Enigma in 1932 and who turned their work over to the British and French just before Germany invaded their country in 1939. The Poles invented the original Bombe, a high-speed electromechanical device designed specifically to attack Enigma encryption. It in turn was improved upon by Turing, who created the first machine able to decipher the German encryption – something that Fleming would have appreciated, given his fascination with Charles Babbage's pioneering work in computers and cryptography.
There were fundamental differences between the two designs. Unlike the Polish Bombe, which relied strictly on mathematical principles, Turing's Bombe was based on "cribs," or "cheats" – a system similar to possessing answers to one or more questions on the Times crossword which also hint at the solutions to other questions. In essence, the Bombe sifted through all the possible configurations of the three Enigma wheels, searching for a pattern of keyboard-to-lamp-board connections that would turn the encrypted letters into plain German. Although the Bombe worked in mathematical terms at superhuman speed, reducing the man-hours needed to a mere fraction of what the human brain alone would have required, in real time during a war it simply wasn't fast enough. Each Bombe took days or even weeks to crack an out-of-date message from an Enigma key. Turing tried using one of his Polish-inspired inventions, "Banburismus" – a cryptographic process that in theory could speed up the machines by enabling code-breakers to narrow down the number of wheels that could have been in place when a message was sent. Still, without any bigram tables to consult, he had no matching pieces of German and English text to help him reduce the odds.
Then a most fortuitous pinch of material in Norway provided just what Turing required to solve the problem.
Excerpted from One Day in August: The Untold Story Behind Canada's Tragedy at Dieppe. Copyright © 2013 David O'Keefe. Published by Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.