Of coffins and commanders

Brady Carlson’s new book explores the afterlife of American presidents

Brady Carlson likes presidents. Specifically, U.S. presidents, and, even more specifically, dead ones. The New Hampshire Public Radio host is the author of “Dead Presidents: An American Adventure into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders.” It’s out this month, just in time for primary season, Presidents’ Day, and other celebrations of Oval Office denizens and hopefuls.

Carlson will be at Water Street Bookstore in Exeter on Feb. 16 and at Barnes & Noble in Newington on Feb. 18 to read from the book. He’ll also be at the Seacoast Repertory Theatre in Portsmouth for an event with the improv comedy group Stranger Than Fiction on March 1.

He won’t be doing any readings on Presidents’ Day, though — he’ll be taking a well-deserved break. The Concord writer visited the grave sites of 39 presidents. Well, actually, 38, because, as Carlson explains, “there are 38 dead presidents, but because Grover Cleveland served two nonconsecutive terms, I had to visit his grave on two nonconsecutive occasions.”

The Sound recently spoke with Carlson about presidential Pez dispensers, the plight of James A. Garfield, and the difference between coffins and caskets.

You write that this is a subject you’ve been thinking about since fifth grade. What made you finally write this book?
Two things, now that I look back. I dreamed it up almost exactly four years ago, in the middle of the last presidential primary, so I had presidents on my mind. And that was around the time crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter were getting big, so I thought (correctly, it turned out) that maybe I could raise a few dollars and start traveling and blog about it. And the blog ended up leading to an agent, who led to a publisher, which led to a book.

The book has a fun, unique voice. Does working for NHPR help or hinder that? Tell us about the intersection of what you do for a living and “Dead Presidents.”
It helps a lot, actually. Calling up knowledgeable people and saying, “Please talk to me about corpses,” is not a surefire way to get your calls answered, so it’s great to be able to add, “And by the way, I’m a journalist, not a morbid hobbyist.”

How lucky are we to live in the time of president-themed Pez dispensers? Do you own any?
I can hardly remember what life was like before the Pez-idents; they are true game-changers. But I have a confession to make: I don’t own any of them. I am trying to cut sugar out of my diet and if I had Rutherford B. Hayes there to serve me Pez, I’d relapse in about four seconds.

What is your most treasured piece of dead president swag? What about gift-shop items related to a living president?
My favorite is a vintage postcard my writer friend Darren Garnick sent me. It’s a “Wish You Were Here” postcard from Dealey Plaza in Dallas, where John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It even points out all the grisly spots. About the only gift-shop item I have is a sticker book of the presidents that I got for my 4-year-old. The Martin Van Buren sticker keeps slipping out of place.

(Abraham Lincoln) had an enormous train that lugged his body for elaborate public receptions in seven states before burial.

Do your friends and loved ones give you dead president-related gifts?
Yes! Just the other day some friends found a handful of these presidential figurines from the ’50s and bought them just for me! They got William McKinley, James Madison and Millard Fillmore. For once, Millard Fillmore didn’t get left out.

Who is your favorite, and least favorite, dead president?
I liked James A. Garfield. He seemed like a decent guy who didn’t even want to be president, and ended up getting shot and being in horrible pain for the last days of his life, thanks to medical care that did more damage to him than the assassin. After all that, he was basically forgotten as one of the innumerable bearded presidents of the 19th century. Plus, a few years back, someone broke into his tomb, got drunk and stole some of the commemorative spoons. And the tomb has a mural depicting the shooting. I mean, what did James A. Garfield do to deserve all this?

I don’t know if I have a least favorite, but I dreaded writing about John F. Kennedy’s death because it’s a big and controversial story and I really didn’t want to get into the middle of it. But I ended up really enjoying the chapter on JFK, which is about how Dallas dealt with being the site of such an infamous assassination.

What was your favorite research excursion? Did you have any big failures or flops?
I had fun just about everywhere I went, but probably my favorite was going to Iowa to see the national Hoover Ball tournament. Hoover’s doctor invented a sport so the president could get some exercise, and his hometown still plays the game today. I expected to see memorials and monuments but I never expected to see anything like Hoover Ball!

The closest thing I had to a failure was when I showed up to a William Henry Harrison museum that was closed — I thought it was Saturday when it was actually Sunday — but then the guy running the museum happened to show up and ended up giving me not only a private tour, but special access to Harrison’s tomb. It was the best failure I ever had.

Do you know the difference between a coffin and a casket, and which president had the most glorious transport?
The award for fanciest means of posthumous conveyance goes to Abraham Lincoln; he had an enormous train that lugged his body for elaborate public receptions in seven states before burial. The Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Il., has a replica of what these receptions looked like, and it was morbid and stunning.

I Googled the difference between caskets and coffins and got a lot of puns. Somebody fill me in!

Brady Carlson reads from “Dead Presidents” at Water Street Bookstore in Exeter on Feb. 16 at 7 p.m. and at Barnes & Noble in Newington on Feb. 18 at 7 p.m. He’ll be at the Seacoast Repertory Theatre in Portsmouth with Stranger Than Fiction on March 1.