CATE LINEBERRY is the author of Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero, which will be published in June by St. Martin’s Press. She is the author of The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Enemy Lines (Back Bay Books, 2014), a #1 Wall Street Journal e-book bestseller and a finalist for the Edgar and Anthony Awards. Lineberry was previously a staff writer and editor for National Geographic Magazine and the web editor for Smithsonian Magazine. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times. Lineberry lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.
1. What inspired you to write this book?
I’ve always been fascinated by the Civil War and the massive impact it had on our country. In fact, I have ancestors who fought on both sides at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. They were each injured, and the Confederate soldier eventually became a prisoner of war. When I read an article about Robert Smalls a few years ago, I was amazed that I had never heard of him and his incredible heroism and perseverance. I wanted to know how an illiterate enslaved man accomplished so much in such a short period of time, and against all odds. I also wanted to understand why he was not more widely known and celebrated—I hope to change that through this book.
2. How did you become interested in military history?
I grew up hearing stories of family members who served in the military, including my grandfather who lied about his age so he could enlist and go to Europe during World War I, and a second cousin who died in Vietnam in a helicopter crash. So many of our military men and women have made major sacrifices for the country and I have a profound respect for all of them. I am also inherently drawn to stories about people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances and rise to meet them; military history is full of accounts of people who did just that.
3. What is your favorite time period to write about?
I find World War II and the Civil War particularly intriguing, but I’m also interested in other periods—from the Revolutionary War and the Industrial Revolution to the Cold War. I love learning about different places and cultures and sharing them with readers, but I’m also looking for gripping characters whose actions inspire readers and whose stories resonate today.
4. Does writing energize you or exhaust you?
I find the process of making a story and its characters come to life thrilling, but it’s painstaking work. Finding the right story takes time and patience. Once I’ve found it, the detailed research begins. Discovering new material is always fun for me, and I know that it’s critical to give myself time to uncover information from as many sources as possible. But I have also learned that it’s important to realize when I have enough to start writing. Then it’s a matter of keeping a regular schedule. Writing an 80,000-word book based on research takes a lot of energy and discipline; taking breaks helps me stay energized and focused.
5. What kind of research do you do, and how much research is necessary before you begin writing?
When I begin my research, I look for as much information as I can find. I start by reading any related books and newspaper articles and then expand to interviewing relatives, visiting archives, conducting online research, and talking to historians and other experts on the subject. I also make sure to visit places featured in my books. I spent quite a bit of time in Albania for my debut, The Secret Rescue, retracing the group’s journey. I traveled to Charleston and Beaufort several times for Be Free or Die. Once I feel that I have a really strong grasp on the overall story and the characters, I start writing.
6. What books are you reading right now?
I just finished Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathemeticians Who Helped Win the Space Race. I loved it. What an inspiring and empowering story. Next on my list is Candice Millard’s Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, A Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill. Candice and I worked together at National Geographic many years ago and her first two books, River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic, were meticulously researched, beautifully written, and absolutely riveting. MH