Rafael Trujillo collected bottle caps. Mao Zedong was wed to an older woman at age 14 but refused to consummate the marriage. Joseph Stalin was a choirboy who studied to be a Russian Orthodox priest.
In "The Iron Bridge," Anton Piatigorsky used these real-life biographical snippets to write a short story collection that imagines six infamous dictators as still-impressionable teens.
Adolf Hitler conducted an elaborate fantasy romance with a girl who probably didn't know he existed. Idi Amin joined the British army as an assistant cook. And Pol Pot's sister was a concubine to the Cambodian king.
The Bethesda-born Piatigorsky was fascinated by these odd facts. They struck him as significant, and he thought that the best way to get to the truth might be to use verifiable facts for the outline and to fill in the gaps with his imagination.
"I felt it would be more interesting and insightful if I stuck to the historical record somewhat," he says.
"I used biographical information to build the borders of my story. Then I followed a rule of historical fiction, which is that all the events and characters should be plausible."
Piatigorsky, 41, has lived in Canada for nearly two decades, where he is known primarily as a playwright. ("The Iron Bridge" is his first published book of prose.) He took a few moments to talk about the inspiration behind his short story collection and his technique in advance of his reading Thursday at the Ivy Bookshop.
Why prose? Wouldn't the same subject make a great play?
I thought this project would work better as fiction because of the scale and the amount of research I wanted to do, and because describing the historical and cultural environment was so important. A play can't evoke a whole world as easily as fiction can.
I was really interested in worst-case scenarios in people, about what makes them so bad. I wanted to sketch detailed portraits of these people, taking into account their psychologies, histories and cultural environments. I thought that would be an interesting exercise.
It's important to note that I'm not saying that this is what causes a dictator. There's an element of free will and personal choice. Lots of people have mothers who dote upon them and fathers who beat them, and they don't become tyrants.
Why focus on the teen years?
I read a lot of their biographies, and by the time they reached their mid-20s, they weren't very interesting people. I found them to be calcified. I wanted to catch them at age 14 or age 16 at a crossroads in their lives when they really could have become other people. Hitler had no choice but to be crazy, but he didn't have to go down the path he chose.
Oh, everything from ethnographic studies of Idi Amin's tribe to histories of Chinese marriage and foot-binding, all sorts of random things that were relevant.
For all of them, It took a while to find a key to their personalities I could hook into. Trujillo's OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] was a key. Hitler's public narcissism was a key. Idi Amin was tough until I watched a famous documentary by Barbet Schroeder, and he actually came across as very boring to me. It went against my initial impression, because he made so many outlandish choices. He had such a colorful style, it was easy to imagine there was more going on in his head than there actually was.
Did the six tyrants have anything in common?
There were historical circumstances that were similar. Just before they came into power, there were huge changes in society. For instance, the Dominican Republic had a long history of strongmen, but because they were so rural and spread out there was no way of controlling the whole country.
Over the course of Trujillo's life, roads were built and radio came in, and suddenly, controlling the population was much easier.
But as technology develops further and further it starts to swing the other way. It's much more difficult to control 20 million people who are on Twitter than if the country has just one central TV and radio station.
You said somewhere that people aren't "born" bad. How do you account for psychopaths?
I don't know. My guess is that there are people who are born psychopathic. Clearly someone's genetic nature is part of who they become.
For instance, something was fundamentally off with Stalin. He was a sadistic, vicious man. Stalin wanted to have dinner with people the night before he killed them. But to be a dictator, you don't have to be a psychopath.
Ultimately, someone like Pol Pot is the most mysterious and fascinating to me, because he was not a psychopath. There was no way.
People who met him before and after he left power found him to be incredibly nice, sweet and soft-spoken. A British camera crew interviewed Pol Pot late in his life. He had married and had a little child. It was [hard] to believe that he'd been the head of the Khmer Rouge, the most brutal regime in the world.
Are you concerned that you'll be accused of sympathizing with monsters?
They are not more or less human than anyone else. It was important to me to emphasize the smallness of their thoughts and concerns. A huge chunk of what they did was to blow themselves up into gods and dehumanize everybody else. So by rooting my characters in their own banal desires, I am doing the opposite of what they did to themselves and the world.
Humanizing someone is always an anti-dictatorial act.