The Emmy-winning writer and World War Z author shares the backstory of his latest project, the graphic novel, The Harlem Hellfighters.
Writer Max Brooks
Tavis: Best-selling novelist Max Brooks began his professional writing career at “Saturday Night Live,” “SNL,” back in 2001, not so different a beginning from his famous father, Mel Brooks who started his illustrious career writing for “The Show of Shows.”
But Max Brooks has carved out a very different path of his own. He’s now the author of the best-selling novel, “World War Z,” which has earned him a cult following, to say the least.
And he’s also the author of a very different graphic novel out now that comes straight from history. It’s called “The Harlem Hellfighters,” which tells the story of a hard-fighting infantry regiment in World War I. And I am delighted to have Max Brooks, the author of “The Harlem Hellfighters” on this program. Max, good to see you.
Max Brooks: Thank you. Good to be here.
Tavis: I want to start and get this out of the way right quick. I get asked everywhere I go by people here and there how do I get on the show? I want to be on the show. I’ve got this project, I’ve written this book, I’ve done this. I get asked all the time how do we get on the show. And I’m gonna start telling me people what you have to do is have a really, really famous father…
Tavis: Who’s like iconic and who just…
Brooks: And who just pounds you mercilessly into…yes.
Tavis: Who comes on this show [laugh] and brings his son’s book and pounds you mercifully, just berates – well, let me just show you. Here’s what happened when Mel Brooks was on recently. Let me show this to you, Max. Here we go.
Mel Brooks: This is that Max book. Max Brooks wrote a couple of books. The first book – I hope he doesn’t hear this. I thought it was a little crazy. I really was worried about him [laugh]. He wrote a book called “The Zombie Survival Guide” and I said, all right, okay, kids are nuts.
He likes zombies. The book called “The Zombie Survival Guide” is all about what to do in case you’re attacked by a zombie. You know, how to defend yourself, where to hide, where to go. You gotta stick a knife through their brains. It’s the only way – it’s a little embarrassing [laugh].
Tavis: I’m laughing – before you go forward, I’m laughing at you making fun of Max’s ideas with the stuff that you’ve produced. You got some nerve. You got some nerve.
Brooks: Yeah, I do, I do. And then, by the way, that book’s sold like two million copies.
Brooks: I mean, I go to him now for money.
Tavis: I just wanted you to know I defended you as best I could.
Max Brooks: Oh, no, I understand.
Tavis: When your dad was calling you names, I tried to…
Brooks: Look, 20 years from now, I’ll be doing this for my son [laugh].
Tavis: I just thought was so cool. We just celebrated Father’s Day not too long ago and it was just such a beautiful thing. We had the writers on our show for our Father’s Day show, Carl and Rob. Carl, of course, and your dad are best of friends. So I just thought it was so cool that your father comes on the show, he just insisted you have to have my son Max on the show.
So you’re here, but not because your dad asked me to, but because you have earned – all jokes aside – in your own right, you have earned your own following. That “World War Z” thing just really took off.
Brooks: Who’d have thought? Who’d have thought? I mean, I wrote it for me. I didn’t even think anybody would read it and, before you knew it, it paid for my house [laugh].
Tavis: How does one process when one writes a book for himself and the next thing you know it’s optioned by a guy like Brad Pitt and it’s a movie?
Brooks: Well, you know, I think you have to be very clear about what’s going to happen in Hollywood. I think Hollywood’s going to do what Hollywood does, especially if it’s a summer blockbuster. Their goal is to make a lot of money and they did and I have to be okay with no matter what they do and how far it goes from the book.
So you have to own that. You have to own the consequences and, as a stand-alone movie, it was fine. I thought it was a really interesting movie that just happened to have the same title as a book I once wrote.
Tavis: When you say you wrote the book for yourself, what does that mean, Max?
Brooks: Well, that means that when I sat down to write it, when I sit down to write anything, I don’t write for an audience because I was never the popular kid, I never understood other people, I didn’t know what would work, what wouldn’t work.
I knew what I liked and that’s always been my compass needle. When I sit down to write, I think, okay, what would I want to read? And that guides me every page.
Tavis: When you say you were never the popular kid, that struck me as interesting in part because of who your father was. When you’re in this town and your parents are popular, it just kind of flows that oftentimes the kids are popular. When you said you weren’t the popular kid, what did you mean by that?
Brooks: I was the nerdy, insecure kid who would, as an only child, people ask me did you grow up in L.A.? I say, no, I grew up in my room. Being very dyslexic didn’t help, so I had to struggle in school. I had no interest in sports. I still don’t get it. People say, yay, we won! You didn’t win anything.
So I really felt like I was waiting for the spaceship to take me home. And when you live in your head, it helped me be a writer, helped me be an isolated novelist, but it has definitely disconnected me from an audience. So I always write for me.
Tavis: Back to the clip of your dad, so does that mean then that your dad pretty much left you alone to do what you were doing? Did you seek his counsel or advice? I mean, clearly, you knew your father was a great writer himself. How did that relationship work or not work when it comes to the writing?
Brooks: Well, you know, my father, remember, he’s two generations away from me. He’s not one. I’m a Gen Xer, he’s World War II. He had me when he was in his 50s. So the business has changed, the world has changed. So the advice he would help me to get started wouldn’t help now.
I can’t go to him and say, “Hey, Dad, how would I make it in 1949?” If this were 1949, he’d be great. He would tell me how to do it. He’d say, “Well, you go to the Catskills, then you meet Buddy Rich and then you meet Sid Caesar.” That’s now how it worked, so I really sort of had to make it up as I went along.
Tavis: Were you – I don’t want to say surprised, but let me just ask a question then. How did you process the success of “World War Z?”
Brooks: No one is more surprised than me. I mean, how does a book that I write for me connect with other people? I still don’t get it. I still don’t understand why people are interested in what I write and I can’t let that affect me.
I can’t sit down to write the next book and think, oh, I’ve got to keep that success. I’ve got to keep that love. Because, for me, that’s a road to ruin. I’ve got to stick with what got me here in the first place, which is what do I love?
Tavis: We know the route that your father chose to take and he’s just, you know, burnished with his own artistic gift, the lane that he runs in. For you, it turns out to be the graphic novel. Why the graphic novel?
Brooks: Well, specifically for “The Harlem Hellfighters,” I tried to write it as a movie script a long time ago. Nobody wanted it and I was about to give up on it and I met with LeVar Burton and he said, “Look, if I could do it…”
Tavis: The LeVar Burton?
Brooks: The LeVar Burton.
Tavis: Kunta Kinte from “Roots.”
Brooks: Dr. Geordi La Forge from “Star Trek.”
Brooks: I just saw LeVar Burton at a comic book convention and I gave him this book. And I said, “Mr. Burton, I’m sure you don’t remember me, but 100 years ago back in the 90s, I wrote this as a movie script. Nobody wanted it. I was going to give up. You said there’s a few Harlem Hellfighter scripts floating around. This comes closest to the truth. Don’t give up.” I said, “Mr. Burton, this would not be getting done if it wasn’t for you.”
Tavis: Tell me about “The Harlem Hellfighters.”
Brooks: In the war to end all wars, the Great War, a unit of American soldiers was set up to fail by their own government. They were given inadequate training. They had to write to their own government to get their own guns. They had to lie. Their government was giving away guns to private shooting clubs, not to them. So they had to pretend to be a private shooting club.
They were then sent to train at Spartanburg, South Carolina hoping there would be a race war. This is right after the horrific race riots in Houston. So all of this humiliation, all this degradation, then finally they weren’t even allowed to march off to war with all the other New York National Guard units.
They were all put together and it was called the Rainbow Division, march off to war. They weren’t allowed because they were told – direct quote – “Black is not a color of the rainbow.” They’re sent to France to dig ditches, unload ships.
When they finally demand to be given a chance to fight, the U.S. government gives them to the French as a throwaway, says you take ’em, we don’t want ’em. The French government was desperate. Anybody who could hold a rifle. And the French had also had phenomenal success with their Black African troops.
So in their reverse racism, they thought, well, maybe anybody who’s Black can fight well. We’ll take them. They get in combat; they come home as one of the most decorated units of the entire U.S. Army, despite everything.
Tavis: George Lucas fought mightily in this town to get his movie about the Tuskegee Airmen made because, to your point earlier, nobody wanted it.
Tavis: With all the money that George Lucas has made for everybody in this town, nobody wanted George Lucas’s project. So what does Lucas do? He puts his own money into it and he gets it done.
So when you say that nobody wanted this, I’m not naïve in asking this question, but I will ask anyway. Why would no one in Hollywood want a movie about heroes like the Tuskegee Airmen or heroes like the Harlem Hellfighters? Why would somebody not want a movie like that?
Brooks: It literally came down to the economics of race. It literally came down to the fact that there was simply at that point not enough bankable – what they call “bankable” – African American stars in Hollywood.
And I actually took a class at UCLA with a man who created a TV show, African American. The show was called “Tour of Duty,” Steve Duncan, huge fan of his. He had said to all of us, all scriptwriters, he goes, “Look, if you want to maximize your chances of selling a script, make it a white male.”
He said, “There’s just more white males in Hollywood than anybody else and that broadens the horizon.” And everyone said, “No, no, no. It’s a period piece that’s expensive.” It’s World War I. Nobody cares about that war. They think World War II is spelled t-o-o. And it’s starring Black people? Thank you, no.
Tavis: So the book is out and…
Brooks: The book is out in two weeks. Before it came out, I got a call from Will Smith’s company who wants to turn it into a movie. That’s how Hollywood works, the moment you turn your back and you say, okay, this is the direction I’m going in. So now I’m writing the screenplay for it.
Tavis: But it was still Will Smith.
Brooks: It was Will Smith.
Tavis: Thank God, big Willy was there.
Brooks: Right. Well, remember, in the 90s, Will Smith, he was just up and coming. He’d just done “Independence Day.” Nobody knew. He was like, oh, the Fresh Prince fights aliens. Now he’s Will Smith. Now he is a titanic heavyweight. So if anybody can get this done, it’s him.
Tavis: It’s a remarkable story. I think I must have read somewhere in my research for our conversation that one of the reasons why you wanted to make this a graphic novel is because your illustrator, Caanan White…
Brooks: Oh, God, he’s so good.
Tavis: He is very good. I can attest to that going through the book. When you write it as a graphic novel, you are forced to see that these are…
Brooks: Yes, and this is important. I didn’t want to leave anything up to the imagination. When you read a prose book, you could forget that these are African Americans. I don’t want that to ever be forgotten. I want every page to remind the reader of what skin color these guys are because they were reminded.
Every step of the way, they were reminded who they were. In fact, they started to do so well in combat and they started to become so famous overseas, the U.S. Army actually exported Jim Crow to the French Army.
They literally sat down with the French Army, gave them a list of rules and said, “Look, you got to help us out here. We don’t want them coming home thinking that they’re entitled to be treated like human beings. So can you please just treat them with shame and degradation the way we have.”
I mean, it literally was don’t shake hands with them, don’t praise them excessively, certainly not in the company of white soldiers, try not to let them near white civilians and you know what we mean. So there was literally this memorandum of keep them in their place, don’t “spoil” them.
Tavis: I was busting his chops at the beginning of this conversation in part because it’s just fun to tease the son of Mel Brooks because Mel is…
Brooks: Partially, he’s paying me back for what Mel Brooks did to you last time [laugh].
Tavis: Not at all. It’s just fun to – you can’t tease Mel Brooks because he’s got these one-liners that I would never win a tease-off with Mel Brooks. I figured I’d take it out on you.
Brooks: Tavis, I get it from both angles [laugh]. I’ve got Mel Brooks, the father. I’ve got Henry Brooks, the son. Henry Brooks just was gonna be a notable American for his school. He was gonna be FDR.
So he did his rehearsal for us, said “We have nothing to fear” and then he went, “Whoa, oh, my polio! Oh, I’ve got eye polio! Can I do a polio comedy, Dad?” I said, “No, you can’t do a polio comedy!”
So literally I left him yesterday playing in the back yard. You know, other kids, they play sports or whatever. You know what he was playing? John Brown [laugh]. Running around the back yard, “Freedom!”
Tavis: Yeah. If you don’t know who John Brown is, shame on you. If you do, you’re laughing as hard as I am right about now [laugh]. I started out to say that I was busting your chops earlier, but I want to thank – Mel, are you watching? Mel? Over here, yeah. I want to thank you for bringing the book with you when you came. Thank you for…
Brooks: Thank you, Dad.
Tavis: For suggesting that I have your son on because it was well worth it. I’ve enjoyed this immensely, Max.
Brooks: Well, thank you, and my father’s very happy that I have a job [laugh].
Tavis: It’s a great book and it’s a story that ought to be told and, Big Willy, thank you for optioning this. The book is called “The Harlem Hellfighters” illustrated by Caanan White, written by the author of the number one New York Times best seller, “World War Z,” Max Brooks. “The Harlem Hellfighters.” I’ll look forward to seeing this when it comes out on the big screen. Max, congratulations.
Brooks: Thank you.
Tavis: Good to see you, my friend. Good to have you here.
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