On July 3rd, I reviewed Simon Worrall’s The Poet and the Murderer, a nonfiction narrative about master forger and pipe bomber Mark Hofmann, whose composition of his own Emily Dickinson poem was perhaps the height of his audacity. Mr. Worrall has agreed to answer a few questions both about this book and his career generally. Part Two of this interview will continue tomorrow.
Simon Worrall was born in Wellington, England and spent his childhood in Eritrea, Paris and Singapore. Since 1984, he has been a full-time freelance journalist and book author. He has written investigative features, travel articles, celebrity profiles and reportage for publications all over the world, including National Geographic, GQ, The London Times, The Guardian, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Conde Nast Traveler, Playboy, and The Smithsonian. He speaks six languages and has lived in or visited more than 70 countries. Among many adventures, he has dug clams with the Inuit on Baffin Island, ridden with gauchos in Patagonia, followed the trail of a stolen Rembrandt with an undercover FBI agent, and explored a Tang Dynasty shipwreck off the coast of Sumatra. Simon’s first book, The Poet and the Murderer, a work of narrative non-fiction about master forger and double-murderer Mark Hofmann, was published to critical acclaim in 2002. It inspired a BBC documentary, The Man Who Forged America.
CK: Mark Hofmann was convicted of murder in 1987. Subsequently, several books were written about the case. What drew you to this story more than a decade later? How do you see your book as different from the others written about Hofmann?
SW: Like many things in life, it was chance that brought me together with Mark Hofmann. I had read a piece in the Sunday New York Times about a new, much heralded Emily Dickinson poem. I didn’t know much about ED. But I read the article. Six months later, a small, two line announcement at the back of what was then the Chronicles section of the NYT informed the public that the Emily Dickinson poem, recently bought by the Jones Library in Amherst at auction from Sotheby’s, had been returned as a forgery. I put down the paper and said to my then wife: “Who the hell is out there, forging poems by Emily Dickinson?” The next day I called Dan Lombardo at the Jones Library. The story he told me – of forgery, murder and auction house artifice – made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. And so began a long, fascinating journey in search of the truth – and the enigma that is Mark Hofmann. On the way, I, of course, read the other books about Hofmann (the best of them is A Gathering of Saints, by Robert Lindsey). My focus was different, though, in that I concentrated on Hofmann’s literary forgeries, rather than his Mormon ones. I also had access to sources and materials that the other writers did not. Specifically, I was the first –and only – person to interview the two people closest to Mark Hofmann: his wife, Sharon Olds, and his boon companion, Shannon Flynn. As a result, I like to think that The Poet And The Murderer is the best portrait of the life and crimes of this infamous forger and double-murderer.
CK: What was the most difficult part of your research?
SW: By far the most complicated part of the research was proving a link between Sotheby’s and Hofmann. It was like a series of Russian dolls. You opened one doll, and inside it was another. After several months sleuthing, I had the back of the story – and the front. I knew that Mark Hofmann had forged the poem sometime in 1985 and sold it to an historical documents dealer in Las Vegas named Todd Axelrod, who had put the Dickinson poem up for sale at his store The Gallery of History, in the late 80’s, with a price tag of $35,000.
I had the back of the story – and the front…But I did not have the middle: how it [the poem] got from The Gallery of History in Las Vegas to Sotheby’s in New York…
But I did not have the middle of the story: how it had got from The Gallery of History in Las Vegas to Sotheby’s in New York, ten years later. And I never thought I would. Sotheby’s had consistently lied about their dealings with Axelrod’s Gallery of History. And Axelrod, I assumed, would deny any dealings with them. A writer always needs a bit of luck. And, as you will read in the Epilogue to the new Kindle edition, an event of such improbability occurred that, if I had seen it in a movie, I would not have believed it…
CK: In your acknowledgements you thank a number of people in Salt Lake City who “generously gave [you] their, often painful recollections of Mark Hofmann,” including Brent Metcalfe, who had considered himself a friend of Hofmann’s. You describe Metcalfe as still shaken, as someone who now views his friend as a “ruthless nihilist” whose goal was to prove “that there was no God-given revelation” in the founding of the Mormon Church. Did Hofmann’s forgeries affect the religious beliefs of people like Metcalfe or simply destroy their friendship?
SW: The LDS brushed the story aside, like an elephant swatting a fly with its tail. But I think among Mormons who already harbored a seed of doubt Hofmann’s forgeries had a deep, corrosive effect. Not for what they proved or didn’t prove about the authenticity of the church’s founding myths. But for what they revealed about the LDS’ inner workings and its almost Stalinist tendencies to suppress anything that does not agree with its doctrines.
CK: You argue that Hofmann’s confession was a relief, not only to his wife, who might have been implicated in his crimes, but to the leadership of the Mormon Church. Had the case gone to trial, “[it] would also have shown that the LDS church [Church of the Latter-Day Saints] was, in many ways, a mirror image of Hofmann: that, like him, it was engaged in the manipulation of history.” Those are pretty strong words. After your book’s publication, what reaction did you receive from Mormon readers and specifically from the Mormons who had helped you in your research?
SW: My partner likes to joke that there is a Fatwa out against me in Salt Lake City! But in truth, I have not had to glance in the rear view mirror too much since the publication of the book. But maybe they are just biding their time. 🙂 Naturally, there have been some negative reviews on the Amazon site, from readers who are clearly committed Mormons. But, to my surprise, the LDS owned newspaper, The Deseret News, actually gave me a good review! Ex-Mormons and dissidents have also been supportive, as you would expect. Not because they admire Hofmann, but because they too have probably experienced the kind of repression and intolerance that warped his character.
Please visit our site tomorrow for the conclusion to this interview, in which Worrall discusses his attempts to contact Mark Hofmann, his distinction between Hofmann’s “evil genius” and Dickinson’s poetic genius, and his other, quite different, nonfiction works, including his latest – The Very White of Love.
Ask Simon: If you have a question today, though, just add it to the comments box.