Smithsonian contributors
Henry Wiencek, far left, (clockwise from upper right) Ken Jennings, Michael Dobbs, Abigail Tucker and David Wise all contributed to the October issue of Smithsonian. Illustrations by Lara Tomlin

Henry Wiencek
The winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award for The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, about a complex family history in the Old South, Wiencek is the author of Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, sure to spark debate when it appears this month. An exclusive excerpt treads on perilous ground. “Finding moral fault in the founding era is tantamount to poisoning the well,” he says, “but I was fascinated with the radical contradiction between Jefferson’s ideals and actions, and with the lives of his slaves.”

Ken Jennings
After a record 74 consecutive wins on “Jeopardy!,” Jennings has written books on trivia buffs and the map-obsessed. He jumped at the chance to create our Great American History Puzzle (p. 39). “I’ve been solving puzzles as long as I can remember,” he says. “I love them for the mystery—it rarely happens in real life in such an exciting, clear-cut way.”

David Wise
Although he’s “America’s premier writer on espionage,” according to the Washington Post, Wise was still amazed when he met “The Code Thief”, a CIA operative who stole codes from foreign embassies: “I’ve written about the CIA for many years, but I had no idea about the Shop.” Wise’s most recent book is Tiger Trap: America’s Secret Spy War With China.

Abigail Tucker
While uncovering the forgotten history of “The Great New England Vampire Panic,” Tucker discovered that the real history of vampire scares isn’t anything like the portrayal in modern pop culture. “It was the opposite of glitzy and sexy,” she says. “It was about contagion, desperation and the destruction of whole families.” Smithsonian’s staff writer, Tucker has previously taken on topics as varied as narwhal hunters, robot babies and ancient beermakers.

Michael Dobbs
What does it feel like to lay eyes upon “The Photographs That Prevented World War III”—a batch of newly declassified CIA aerial reconnaissance images of Cuba taken during the missile crisis? “It’s thrilling!” says Dobbs, who wrote One Minute to Midnight, an hour-by-hour account of the crisis. “It’s like looking through a time machine into 1962.” Previously, Dobbs served as a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post for over three decades, in Warsaw, Paris and Moscow.

David Byrne
The legendary frontman of the Talking Heads, the singer-composer writes in his essay “How Music Works” that we should think of music as interactive. "I’m encouraging people not to be passive consumers of music," he says. "You can enjoy the products of professionals, but you don’t have to give up the reins."

Michelle Nijhuis
A science writer and author, Nijhuis was lucky enough to track down one of the most elusive birds in North America: the black swift. (“Secrets of the Swift”). “They fly really high, and nest in incredibly inaccessible places,” she says. “To see one up close was amazing.” She last wrote for Smithsonian about white-nose syndrome in bats.

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