Joshua M. Greene: On Balancing Poetry and Conciseness in Biographies

Popular lecturer and biographer Joshua M. Greene shares how he handles writing a biography that is both accurate and concise while still illuminating the subject's personality.
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Joshua M. Greene is a popular lecturer on Holocaust history and an author whose biographies have sold more than a half-million copies worldwide. Greene’s groundbreaking book on the Dachau war crimes trials, Justice at Dachau: The Trials of an American Prosecutor, was deemed “riveting—history writing at its best” by Douglas Brinkley, presidential historian for CNN. His renowned work on survivor testimony, Witness: Voices from the Holocaust, was the basis of a feature documentary for national PBS and chosen as One of the Best Holocaust Films by Facets Media.

Joshua M. Greene

Joshua M. Greene

A former instructor at Hofstra and Fordham Universities, Greene is the recipient of numerous awards for his books and films. He sits on the board of Yale University Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies and has served as director of strategic planning for the United Nations Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders. He is the author, most recently, of the forthcoming Unstoppable: Siggi B. Wilzig’s Astonishing Journey from Auschwitz Survivor to Wall Street Legend.

In this post, Greene shares how he handles writing a biography that is both accurate and concise while still illuminating the subject's personality and much more!

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Name: Joshua M. Greene
Literary agent: Joel Gotler, IPG
Title: Unstoppable: Siggi B. Wilzig’s Astonishing Journey from Auschwitz Survivor to Wall Street Legend
Publisher: Insight Editions (distributed by Simon & Schuster)
Release date: April 6, 2021
Genre: Biography
Elevator pitch for the book: The ultimate immigrant story about a teenager who survives torture and starvation in Auschwitz to become one of the most remarkable successes in postwar America.
Previous titles by the author:

  • Witness: Voices from the Holocaust
  • Justice at Dachau: The Trials of an American Prosecutor
  • Hidden: A True Story of the Holocaust
  • My Survival, A Girl on Schindler’s List: A True Story of the Holocaust
  • The Dressmaker’s Daughter: A True Story of the Holocaust
  • My Sister’s Keeper: A True Story of the Holocaust
  • Here Comes the Sun: The Spiritual and Musical Journey of George Harrison
  • Gita Wisdom: An Introduction to India’s Essential Yoga Text
  • Swami in a Strange Land: How Krishna Came to the West
Unstoppable: Siggi B. Wilzig’s Astonishing Journey from Auschwitz Survivor to Wall Street Legend by Joshua M. Greene

Unstoppable: Siggi B. Wilzig’s Astonishing Journey from Auschwitz Survivor to Wall Street Legend by Joshua M. Greene

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[WD uses affiliate links.]

What prompted you to write this book?

I’d done maybe a dozen books and films about the Holocaust, and I was finished. Then I started researching Siggi, and something shifted for me. Here was this little guy—less than five-and-a-half feet short—who survived everything Hitler threw at him—forced labor, two years in Auschwitz, beatings, starvation, death marches—and came to America with nothing, no education, no money, and ended up building a business empire with $4 billion in assets. He was an inspiration to me, and I found light in a place where only darkness had been. He broke the mold of traditional Holocaust memoirs.

(Defining Creative Nonfiction, Narrative Nonfiction, Memoir, Autobiography, and Biography)

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? 

The project began seven years ago and required nearly 100 interviews, and at some point, it became clear this wasn’t a story about darkness. It was about someone who came out of that horror and discovered joy, discovered that we humans have hidden resources that come out under duress. I thought that was a message worth sharing.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title? 

After reading hundreds of pages of Siggi’s testimony and transcribed lectures, I saw that he never gave in to bullies—ever. Not to Nazis with machine guns and not to officers from the Federal Reserve who tried to force him to divest his oil and banking companies, arguing it was a conflict of interest. It wasn’t, and Siggi was convinced it was an antisemitic move to stop him from becoming powerful in business. He stood up in front of these guys, rolled up his sleeve, pointed to the Auschwitz prisoner number tattooed on his arm, and said, “The last person to try to intimidate me was Hitler. He didn’t succeed—and neither will you!” Then he got up and left the room. Eventually, he beat them at their own game. This is a story so far out that if it weren’t true, you wouldn’t believe it.

(How to Write a Biography: Writing from the Heart)

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

My Achilles heel is flowery writing. I want to be more literary than I’m capable of being. When writing about the Holocaust, that’s particularly dangerous since any exaggeration or misrepresentation can fuel denial. The surprise in this project was discovering that there is poetry in truth told concisely. Siggi was a pragmatist, and the writing reflects that without becoming didactic. The story is told in a straightforward manner but never loses the good-story-well-told appeal. I wasn’t expecting that.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

We learn that we humans are resourceful, resilient creatures and that standing up to bullies is everyone’s duty. Don’t be intimidated by dictators; they're usually cowards pretending they’re powerful, but they’re not. Siggi wasn’t intimidated even by Nazi guards holding rifles to his head. But probably the first reason to read it is that it’s a rollercoaster of a good read—often hilarious, and full of Siggi’s audacity. Remember the Steve Jobs Apple ad from the 1990s: “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers”—that was Siggi.

Joshua M. Greene: On Balancing Poetry and Conciseness in Biographies

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Don’t make the mistake I’m constantly making of trying to write over my skill sets. Be honest, stay simple, and trust your readers’ intelligence to appreciate what you have to say in honest, simple language.

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