SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
At the opening of his new book, Conn Iggulden says: There's a moment in some lives when the world grows still and a decision must be made. At such moments there is no one to save you.
Conn Iggulden joins us from London. He and one of his brothers wrote the best-selling "Dangerous Book for Boys," which offered instructions on how to build a tree house, tan a hide, or build a soapbox racer, which we did with him.
This new book, with another brother, offers boys - and not just boys - stories to inspire them about men and women who - when history and circumstance called - replied with grace and pluck to save themselves and others.
Conn Iggulden co-wrote "The Dangerous Book of Heroes." He joins us from the BBC in London.
Conn, thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. CONN IGGULDEN (Author): It's a pleasure.
SIMON: What's a hero?
Mr. IGGULDEN: A hero, I suppose - at least we've gone on a fairly simple definition - is one who inspires us, one who has courage and possibly just a bit of style. We decided fairly early on they dont always have to be likable. They don't always have to be a good father, a good brother, a good son or a good mother, of course.
But at the same time they had to have an unusual life, to have been part of great changing times, and to some extent to show what you can do with a single life.
SIMON: You have some names which probably wouldn't surprise anybody - George Washington.
Mr. IGGULDEN: Yes.
SIMON: Although coming from you, that is a little surprising. Coming from any Brit, it's is a little surprising. Daniel Boone, the brave RAF fighters who won the Battle of Britain.
Mr. IGGULDEN: Yes.
SIMON: But you also put in Harry Houdini.
Mr. IGGULDEN: I know this is a tricky one, but you can't argue with his bravery, for a start. And you can't argue with his style. He had a certain amount of dash. I mean, you know, not since P.T. Barnum has someone sort of had that attitude to making the legend greater than the man.
But he was also a personal hero of mine when I was a boy. I absolutely loved the idea of escapology and had a good go at it and, you know, ended up like a lot of children, tied up in ropes and having to call for help.
So, you know, this will always be...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. IGGULDEN: ...this will always be a series of personal choices in many ways. I mean, you can never have everybody who deserves to be in a book like this. So you do the best you can. But I think we have some pretty good stories in here. And that's what we were hoping to do, get inspiring stories that might - some of which might otherwise be forgotten.
SIMON: Florence Nightingale.
Mr. IGGULDEN: Yes. I mean, hers is an interesting story. I mean, apart from anything else, when she was building that hospital in Scutari, I mean discovering that there was a dead horse stuck in the underground water system, so to explain one of the reasons why there was so much typhoid and dysentery and everything else - she actually introduced a sort of modern standard of nursing. And when she arrived in this Turkey hospital, she, you know, she found it as a sort of warehouse where thousands of people just laid out on the ground to die. It was a nasty, a nasty business.
And what I wanted with that chapter was to put in perspective the bravery of other people of that time, because this was what awaited you if you went into a battle. If you were lucky enough not to be killed but only to be wounded, you were entering a horrific world, which, you know, she did her very best to improve, and I thought that was worth putting in.
SIMON: If I had to nominate a favorite chapter, it would be the story of the women of SOE.
Mr. IGGULDEN: Yes.
SIMON: Special Operations.
Mr. IGGULDEN: I mean, they were the Special Operations Executive. They were often parachuted into France during World War II to act as radio operators and to liaise with Resistance people on the ground. So they had an awful lot of information. They all carried code books, and if they were caught they were guaranteed to be tortured for that information, and they knew this.
They were all young women. They all had, you know, great loyalty to Britain, or at least an antipathy to the Nazis - and you know, because they were French and British and American, and a few other places. And, you know, in many ways this story is constantly tragic, because after years of work they were captured. They were tortured.
And I - this was a very sad one to write because, you know, there's no happy ending for this. These are young women, these aren't sort of, you know, young soldiers, young male soldiers carried away on dreams of glory. It was often difficult, unpleasant work, in terrible fear of the knock on the door at any point, and then finishing in a very grim way for many of them. But they did it, and I, you know, I wanted to keep that aspect of courage in the book.
SIMON: I feel the need in 2010 to talk about the passengers on United Flight 93.
Mr. IGGULDEN: One of the reasons I wanted to do the passengers in Flight 93 was partly because I was, like a lot of people, I remember exactly where I was when the Twin Towers were hit on that particular day. I was teaching in a comprehensive school in London. I remember seeing it on the news and, you know, the whole world stopped.
It was an act of courage, extraordinary courage, by a group of people who were completely ordinary. They were just passengers on a plane, and almost all of us have been passengers on a plane at some point. And the thought of having 35 minutes to realize that you're in serious trouble, realize it's a hostage situation but you're not going to be taken down and negotiated for, and in fact if you don't act, everyone is going to die and possibly the plane will be used as a weapon.
They were the only flight in the air that day that had that information in time to act on it. That is an extraordinary thing.
And it's inspiring because they were just, you know, flying on that particular day without realizing it was the last day of their lives. And you see, I never know quite how to say this. And I'll try and say it, because it just sounds obsequious, or sucking up. But I realized on that particular day that I share a great culture with America, that I realize that - it's like the king of Nepal once said to Britain, that when you win, we win; when you fail, when you fall, we fall with you.
And, you know, I felt a fantastic bond at that particular time, that we were under attack, not just America.
SIMON: Let me ask you about our modern definition of heroes, because it does seem to me there's a phrase that's entered the language in recent years: exit strategy. And, of course, fruitless, vain charge of the light brigade kind of courage is something that is understandably diminished these days. But the term exit strategy sometimes nettles me.
Mr. IGGULDEN: Yes. It does a little bit, actually. It's a different world now in many ways. I mean, the value of human life has frankly gone up in the West and that has to be a good thing. That has to be, you know, something we can be proud of, so that when we lose a single soldier, we, you know, his name is on the news across the land, across the world. That said, I think thankfully we still do value bravery as an essential characteristic. I mean, it's almost the oldest human activity, to sit around a campfire and say this is a story of a brave man, we value this. If you grow up to be cowards, you will be less than, you know, an impressive human being.
And I think, you know, that if we are cowards, then it does rather shame the memories of those people who weren't if they were able to hear us.
SIMON: Conn Iggulden, together with his brother David, has co-written the book, "The Dangerous Book of Heroes," just out now. Conn, thanks so much.
Mr. IGGULDEN: Thank you.
SIMON: You can read about the Gurkhas, the staunch Nepalese soldiers who serve Great Britain around the world in an excerpt from Conn Iggulden's book on our website, NPR.org.