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Nat Philbrick

A Chat with Nat

On any given day in February or March, Nantucketer Nathaniel Philbrick sits like a regular Joe on a swivel stool at the Nantucket Pharmacy and orders a sandwich and something to drink for lunch. Those who sit next to him that time of year most likely know him, and ask him how life is going, how is his family faring -- everyday chitchat about life on an island out at sea, where the human population dwindles to provide easy parking on Main Street and shooting the breeze is not only a weather related fact, but a figuratively welcome activity.

This year Nat, a prolific author of historical nonfiction, has agreed to pull up a more comfortable chair to chat with friends and attendees at the second Annual Nantucket Book Festival taking place June 21-23, where he will be introducing his latest book, Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege and a Revolution. Written and researched in part, in his home office on Nantucket, the book took three years to complete. And although Nat may appear to be just a regular, hardworking writer to his friends and Island neighbors, his resume tells an even more impressive story. He is a New York Times bestselling author, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a National book award recipient and lately, a hot West Coast commodity. According to the Internet Movie Data Base ( Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, and a Revolution is being optioned for a movie by actor/director Ben Affleck; and his earlier book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex is in pre-production with director Ron Howard.

When asked how he felt about being a “Hollywood magnet”, Nat simply answered, “I’m not sure what to say other than that I am a huge fan of the movies and it’s all quite exciting. That’s it.”

Well said, by a man who would probably prefer his favorite ham and pickle sandwich at the Main Street pharmacy rather than lunch at California’s Brown Derby restaurant. In fact, Nantucket’s neighborly demeanor and tightly knit community spirit plays an intricate part in Nat’s writing process.

‘What I’ve found essential, is that I can walk into town to the drugstore and see people, especially in February and March, in the midst of a day when I’m otherwise at my desk in the basement of my house. It’s more the community aspect of the island, rather than the Zen beauty thing, that I’ve found important.”

As most Nantucketers know, small communities can either pull together to make great things happen, or split dramatically to create huge fissures, and Nat recognizes that his familiarity with this type of life helped him better understand the tensions between Boston’s residential British loyalists and the newer independent colonial supporters.  It is Nat’s profound ability to bring these historical characters to everyday life, and to make the reader feel as if they too, are neighbors in the community he writes about,  that render his books into  such  compelling reads.

Nat’s tenth nonfiction book, Bunker Hill, offers a fresh perspective on the battle of 1775, better known for Paul Revere’s famous quote, “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes!” than for its pivotal crusade for  political freedom,  leading to an eight year war.  The book delves deeply into crucial characters such as Joseph Warren, a thirty three year old doctor who was an initial on-the-ground instigator and champion of the fight for patriotic freedom against the British crown loyalists who tried to live simultaneously, if not tenuously with the new patriots in Boston’s then hilly surrounds. Bunker Hill was a hot dispute  based in petty feuds among neighbors who’s alliance could not always be decided. Community angst, professional jealousy and public and private out pouring of frustrations of “who’s side are you on, anyway?” did not make Boston a very hospitable place to live, one the reader is grateful not to have experienced first hand, but is equally as grateful was fought.

“As a historian working with the incomplete evidence, I’d love to get in a time machine and witness all the events I’ve described in my books. I’ve lived through those events via the archives and the ultimate thrill would be to see history actually unfold,” Nat wrote recently by email.

Never the less, he is very content living in the 21st century.

“I think I’m happy right here in the present. Given how all of us take our creature comforts, modern medical care and enlightened attitudes for granted, I think we’d all have a very difficult time in the past. It’s always tempting to romanticize living in a past age, but I think the reality would make our heads explode. For me, the past is something to study and describe; I don’t want to live there.”

That’s good news, as we would much rather chat with him at the drugstore  with a cup of coffee anyway.

Ryder S. Ziebarth, a freelance writer, was most recently published in the Metropolitan Diary section in the New York Times,  Brevity, a flash- nonfiction literary journal, N magazine and here on among other publications. Here are her other interviews with Nantucket Book Festival authors Kathryn Kay, Bob Barsanti, Nancy Thayer, and Ann Leary.