Jeff Glor talks to Neal Thompson about "A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert 'Believe It or Not!' Ripley"
Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write the book?
Neal Thompson: One day (in August of 2007, to be exact) I read a New York Times story about a Ripley's Believe It or Not museum in Times Square, and I had this A-ha! Moment, realizing that Robert Ripley -- whose cartoons and books I'd read growing up -- was not only a real guy, but an amazing man, whose influential life had been largely overlooked. When I learned that no one had ever written a full-fledged biography of Ripley, I dove in. I mean, like, that very afternoon. I spent the next five years obsessed with Ripley's world.
JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?
NT: I loved learning how hugely famous and popular Ripley was during his time. Far more than a cartoonist, he was among the wealthiest men in entertainment and among the most popular and best-traveled men in America. And like a living believe-it-or-not, he lived an over-the-top life of extremes -- he traveled to scores of countries, collected a harem of girlfriends, lived in a mansion (one of three homes) on a private island. For someone who grew up shy, poor and bucktoothed, his life was the perfect example of the oddballs and underdogs he celebrated in his cartoons.
JG: What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?
NT: If I could live the fantasy? I'd love to make films -- a different style of storytelling. If the fantasy isn't possible, I'd be doing something that allows me to create. I loved my high school and college jobs as a mason's helper and breakfast cook, and I could see myself building stone walls or furniture, or tending bar, or running a restaurant. In fact, one dream I've had for retirement was a combination coffee shop, bar, bookstore, music club. But, you know, one that makes tons of money.
JG: What else are you reading right now?
NT: Two of my recent favorites are Colum McCann's brilliantly beautiful "TransAtlantic" and Stephen King's sweet and spooky "Joyland." The new Neil Gaiman is wonderful, too. Oh, and I can't wait to dive into NFL punter Chris Kluwe's smart, funny, weird "Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies."
JG: What's next for you?
NT: I doubt that I'll dive into another big research-driven project right away. But one idea I've been exploring (possibly as a digital short) is a look at the history and origins of the skateboarding culture that, via my two teens sons, has come to dominate our family. My kids and I, along with a few of their friends and another skate dad, crossed the U.S. two summers ago, visiting skate parks. I hope to write about that.
For more on "A Curious Man," visit the Random House website.