Local author James M. Scott isn’t likely to run out of ideas any time soon. Formerly an award-winning reporter at the Post & Courier, Scott has transitioned to working as a full-time author.
His first two books, The Attack on the Liberty and The War Below: The Story of Three Submarines that Battled Japan, covered an Israeli attack on a U.S. spy ship and the Pacific front of World War II. With his third, Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid that Avenged Pearl Harbor, Scott returns to Japan, telling the story of Doolittle, a daring pilot, and his team of fellow pilots and bombardiers who led the American counterstrike on Japan's capital.
Scott, who still considers himself a journalist, enjoys the freedom to spend years digging into a single story. “Even though I write history books now,” he says, “I still think of it as journalism.” The process, he says, “Involves a lot of research, investigation. I spend a lot of time piecing together a story, which is what I did in journalism.”
And over the course of researching each book, he inevitably finds seeds of at least one future book. “Every story kind of leads into another story,” he says. “You’ll be researching something, and run across a fact, and say, ‘That’s really interesting. I’ll put that on a list of ideas.’” The hard part, for Scott, is settling on a single idea to explore next.
The 672-page Target Tokyo eventually ended up telling the larger story of the Doolittle raid by following the personal stories of various soldiers leading up to, during, and after the airmen’s attack on Tokyo. “On one hand you’ve got the raid, which is kind of one storyline, then afterwards they all go in these myriad different directions. Some crash-land in China, one’s interned in Russia," Scott says. “It reads more like a novel. There’s a story, there’s drama, there are cliffhangers.”
Although he's a member of the 2006-2007 class of Nieman Fellows for Journalism at Harvard University, and has been honing his craft for years, Scott isn't shy about taking pointers from others in his field. “When I first started working on books, when I was working on The Attack on the Liberty, and was trying to figure out how to transition from doing daily newspaper journalism, I went to the Nieman Narrative Conference in Boston. Adam Hochschild, who is an amazing writer, was doing a presentation. He said something that really stuck with me. He said, when you’re writing about historical events where most of the people are dead, and you’re going through historical documents, and you find a piece of dialogue, use it.”
“Whenever you’re writing a book like this,” Scott says, “It needs to be character driven. You need to give people a reason to latch on, to care about what’s going on. The easiest way for people to do that is through really getting in bed with these characters.” While researching the book, he says he latched onto a few soldiers whose stories struck a particular chord with him. “One of them that really affected me was Billy Farrow,” he says. Farrow was a South Carolinian who also learned to fly in this state. Ultimately, he was executed by the Japanese.
“He actually wrote this creed to himself,” Scott says of Farrow, “These points on how to live a better life. So when he was captured, and the information was given out to the press, it became an international news story, this story of this young man, and his creed on how to live a better life. Insurance companies printed it up as flyers. I think back and think, to have been so young, and be so mature, is really incredible.”
“All the stories of the guys that were captured,” Scott says, “What they went through, it’s extraordinary. These guys were captured at the very beginning of the war, they spent 40 months in these prisoner of war camps, much of it in solitary confinement. One of them starved to death. So the physical and the mental toll, the fact they survived is amazing... For them, that one mission became the whole war.”
Scott is clearly more at home talking about the material of his most recent book than he is on the topic of himself. When pressed, however, he divulges the details on his upcoming book release event at the Citadel. “It’s going to be an official book release party,” he says. “I’m going to do a PowerPoint presentation. It’s going to have about 75 slides, including some from the Japanese archives that have never been shown in the US. Then I’m going to do a book signing after. I’m very excited.”
Scott is clearly pleased the event is scheduled to take place at the Citadel. “One of the raiders [Horace Crouch] was a Citadel graduate,” he says. “He’s quoted in the book. He’s got a great quote.”