Seattle author Ben Thompson, who has written a new book, "Badass: A Relentless Onslaught of the Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters, and Military Commanders to Ever Live," sits down for a Q&A.
Even if you’re a fan of The History Channel, you may not have known that, for instance, the ancient Muslim warlord Khalid bin Walid employed “a subtle, delicate, refined mixture of diplomacy, negotiation and relentlessly clubbing people in the face with the hilt of his scimitar until their teeth fell out and they forgot how to play the piano.”
He’s one of the historical figures Seattle author Ben Thompson brings to blood-red life in his new book, “Badass” (Harper, $16.99 softcover), subtitled, “A Relentless Onslaught of the Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters, and Military Commanders to Ever Live.”
I confronted Thompson in his Ravenna home about his laugh-out-loud approach to history, but not his split infinitives.
Q: You wanted to meet in a Barnes & Noble cafe, which is not very badass at all. Shouldn’t we be in a biker bar?
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A: I like to say that I personally am not a badass, as much as a chronicler of badasses. I’m more of a Plutarch than a Caesar.
Q: Your book boasts that you are “considered by many to be the Internet’s foremost expert on badassitude.” If I can coin another new word, the book is badasinine.
A: (Laughs.) I’ll take that as a compliment.
Q: Example: “Eventually Xerxes showed up and was like, ‘What the hell is this crap?’ He opened a parlay with the Spartan king.”
A: Yeah, it’s not your parents’ history book.
Q: But you actually may have hit upon an effective way to teach history to the Youth Of Today.
A: I just wanted to find a way to present these stories in a way that was going to be interesting and exciting and give you the action-movie version without all the Hollywood embellishments.
Q: You’re conveying history in a language that The Youth understands.
A: Yeah, and especially for high-school and middle-school kids, to make you feel like you’re reading something you’re not supposed to, but you’re actually learning something.
Q: So you’ve bridged the gap between a stuffy history text and an Xbox 360. What are the defining characteristics of a badass?
A: A badass gets things done. They are so determined to do whatever it is they’re going to do — defend their homeland, be criminally insane, kill a bunch of people, whatever they’re going for — they get it and they don’t let anybody get in their way.
Q: You cover the well-known badasses like Genghis Khan and Vlad The Impaler — anyone with “The Impaler” in his name is a shoo-in. But there are also some that I’ll bet most people have never heard of.
A: Sticking with the excellent epithets, I would go with Wolf the Quarrelsome. He’s only in history twice. Both times he’s disemboweling Vikings or eviscerating people or doing some other gruesome, horrible things to Vikings who are invading Ireland.
Q: And this isn’t one big testosterone-party. There are some formidable women. Which one would you like to become the wife of?
A: (Laughs.) I think Anne Bonny was toughest, meanest of all of them. She was a pirate, and such a badass that it was bad luck to have a woman aboard a pirate ship, but once the pirates realized that she was a woman, she was so tough that they just let her stay on.
Q: Covering badass animals, you argue that the unicorn is something other than the peaceful, rainbow-loving fantasy animal of little girls.
A: When you look at the medieval bestiaries, I think that partly it was a horse but I think that partly they were looking at rhinoceroses and thinking of that. The unicorns in the medieval old tales are really tough. You can’t kill them. The only way to capture one is to have a maiden take her shirt off, which kind of seems like a devious trick —
Q: Yet it would work on me.
A: They killed elephants. They stabbed elephants with their horns, according to the myths. They were pretty serious animals.
Q: How close do you stick to actual history? Did the research involve a lot of Wikipedia?
A: No, I did not use Wikipedia. I didn’t put anything down that I couldn’t find two or three corroborating sources, and I have about 350 books in my bibliography at the end. So it’s all the real deal.
Q: Where did this obsession of yours come from? Were you picked on as a child?
A: My dad was really into history. He was a memorabilia collector. He had flintlocks, he had sabers, he had Spartan swords, medieval knight flails and things like that. So he would bust all this stuff out and I always thought it was the coolest stuff. I was always into action movies …
Q: What’s in your chapter on Bruce Lee that people wouldn’t generally know already?
A: He was the real deal. He used to train on a heavy bag that he filled with metal shavings instead of regular sand, and he would work on this thing for an hour and he would have people come to visit him and watch him work out, and then he would be like, “Now you try to hit this.” And they would try to punch it once and break their hand. He was tough. He was the ultimate killing machine.
Q: Who are some living badasses?
A: There’s always badass stuff happening. I didn’t use anyone who’s still alive in the book because I didn’t want to get sued.
Q: Suing someone is not very badass. Finally: What’s your favorite movie?
A: Probably the first “Star Wars.”
Q: Wrong. The answer is “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.”
A: (Laughs.) Oh, right! That’s right. I’m going to append my answer to say that instead.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or email@example.com