An Interview with Michael Blanding, Author of The Map Thief

Yesterday, I reviewed Mr. Blanding’s newest book, The Map Thief. Mr. Blanding graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of The Map Thief? What was the writing process like?

Michael Blanding Author Photograph (c) Kevin Day Photography

Michael Blanding
Author Photograph (c) Kevin Day Photography

MB: I have always been interested in maps, and was struck by Smiley’s story when I first read it in the New Yorker back in 2006. I was fascinated by how much people were willing to pay for antiquarian maps and how Smiley was able to exploit that desire for these rare objects in perpetrating his thefts. When I heard he was out of prison in 2011, I approached him for an interview and found him very willing to talk and tell his story. As I started working on the book, however, he suddenly stopped cooperating, and I had to work hard to report around him through other dealers and libraries in order to piece together the story. It added a lot more work to the writing and reporting — so that it eventually took me three years in all.

Writing the book clearly involved a great deal of research into the world of maps; is there a particular cartographic time period or geographical region that was a favorite with you?

photo (82)MB: As a lifelong resident of New England, I was fascinated to learn about the early settlement of this region by the English in the1600s. Smiley was also a New England native and specialized in this period, and so I was able to learn a lot from the maps he traded and eventually stole… At the time, the Dutch “golden age” of mapmaking was waning and the English were the upstarts in colonizing the area — so their first maps are very crude. But very quickly over the course of the century you can see them filling in details and creating more accurate depictions of the area as their knowledge and power increased. It’s very cool to see that happen right on the pages of these maps and atlases.

Many of the events of The Map Thief take place in the Northeast, and the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library figures prominently in the book. Since you are a Boston-area-based writer, can you recommend any other locations in Boston where new cartophiles might find interesting maps to peruse?

MB: Interestingly, before Smiley started stealing maps, he was a successful map dealer for many years — and his first and most important client was Boston real estate developer Norman Leventhal. Over the years, Smiley helped him acquire the largest collection of maps of Boston and New England ever assembled. While Leventhal eventually donated money to endow the map center at the Boston Public Library, he kept the rarest and most valuable maps in his possession — and they can now be viewed in a permanent exhibit at the Boston Harbor Hotel. The exhibit offers a fascinating glimpse at the history of Boston on multiple walls of its lobby and conference rooms, and I really recommend it to visitors of the city.

Given the inaccuracies and inconsistencies in his self-portrayal, would you be interested in interviewing E. Forbes Smiley III again if he decided to grant interviews once more? Do you think there’s anything left to be gleaned there?

MB: Though Smiley gave me a lot of information about himself and his thefts in the six hours he spoke with me, there were still pieces of the story he promised to tell me before he cut off contact — including exactly how he stole the maps and which maps he stole when. I was able to piece much of this information together from other sources, but still had to speculate on some ofthe chronology of the thefts. I would have liked to go through this chronology in more detail and cross-reference it with information he provided to the FBI to try and pin down these details.

What kinds of projects are you working on now?

MB: I don’t have another book project as of yet, but I am working on some interesting magazine stories, including an article for WIRED magazine about issues surrounding electronics manufacturing overseas. I’m also putting together a proposal for a new book that combines investigative reporting and memoir — we’ll see if that comes together! At the moment, though, I’m very excited to work on publicizing The Map Thief through media and speaking events — and finally sharing my baby with the world after three years of work.

My thanks again to Mr. Blanding for his time and thoughtful answers. You can read more about The Map Thief and Michael Blanding’s work at www.michaelblanding.com

If you’re in the Boston area, head over to the Brookline Booksmith on June 3 from 7-9pm for a reading, reception, and signing with Michael Blanding. 

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Out Today and Recommended: The Map Thief, by Michael Blanding

photo (82)For years, E. Forbes Smiley III seemed to be the kind of man who matched his name’s connotations: moneyed, educated, successful. An antiquarian map dealer, Smiley shuttled between both sides of the Atlantic, becoming an expert in valuable and rare maps, particularly early maps of New England.

He was also stealing them.

In The Map Thief*, Michael Blanding investigates the paradox that Smiley represents. How could a man who treasured maps, who taught himself about them by poring over them in some of the world’s finest libraries, desecrate the very documents he valued and betray the people who shared his interests?

Mr. Blanding delves into Smiley’s life and work, bringing to life Smiley’s quixotic attempt to shape the world to fit his vision. (For instance, Smiley tried to reinvigorate a Maine town on his own, without much consideration of residents’ input, which turned into a spectacular failure.) His friends came up with the term “Forbes dollars”: “a personal accounting system in which Smiley always spent less than he had and was always owed more than he was” (83). As his career progressed, Smiley sank deeper into debt, impulsively buying maps even if he didn’t have the funds ready to pay for them.

In one instance, Smiley bought a rare atlas from another dealer for $50,000. When his check bounced, the other dealer demanded the atlas back, but it was too late: “he had taken the atlas apart right on the train up to Boston, selling several charts of Boston Harbor to Leventhal and keeping the rest, hoping to sell them to other clients to recoup the cost. [. . . ] he [the other dealer] couldn’t help but be appalled that Smiley had so cavalierly taken apart a book with less than ten known copies in the world” (73).

If the thought of Smiley tearing apart an atlas he (ostensibly) bought makes you shudder, the actual thefts will repel you. The gravity of the thefts — the number, the institutions affected, the rarity of the works taken, the fact that many are still unrecovered — is simply outrageous; Smiley’s prison sentence seems ridiculously light. I’ve had the privilege of handling two or three rare books, and the thought of someone opening one too swiftly sets my heart racing — the thought of someone ripping out a page is painful.

Though Smiley is the subject of The Map Thief, and Mr. Blanding places him in the context of the lively and sometimes strange world of rare map aficionados (dealers, collectors, and librarians), the book shines brightest when Mr. Blanding recounts the history of the rare maps themselves and the people who created them. The research is meticulous, and the historical characters fascinating. The book includes several full-color plates of some of the maps discussed in the text, and they’re just glorious (this comes, by the way, from a person whose only displayed map is one of Middle Earth). If you aren’t a map person before you read this book, you very well may be one afterward.

Tomorrow: An Interview with Michael Blanding, author of The Map Thief

*I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.