The Hill spoke with Firstbrook about the book and his experiences researching it.
Q: The topic of your book is something that not many authors or journalists have tackled. What inspired you to write about this subject?
When the American people elect a president, they really elect for the rest of the world the leader of the free world. For this new president, when he comes to office, he’s really an important individual. He touches the lives of every person in the world. ... And the one area of his life that I felt was missing and was not being covered at all was his African background, or rather the African background of his father.
It’s interesting you say that, because the book came out in Britain last year, and the whole [birther] issue just isn’t an issue over here. It’s not something that anybody’s really aware of. I was aware of it, because I have been a bit of an Obama watcher, and so when I was talking to my U.S. editor … I said to her, “Do you want me to address the whole [birther] issue for the American version?”
And so those three or four pages about birthing are unique to the U.S. book for a U.S. audience. And it’s important to write these things, because there is a lot of misinformation about … the president, about his place of birth, about his religious inclinations. ... Because I know that the polls suggest that something like 25 percent of the electorate think that he’s a Muslim, and he’s clearly not. There is a minority of people who think that he was born in Kenya, or possibly even Indonesia, and he wasn’t. And I felt that the work that I was doing for the book as a whole did give me an opportunity to address some of those issues.
Q: You touched on this in the book, but expand on the kind of access you had to the extended Obama family in Africa. How difficult was it to track people down and find where they were?
It’s never easy in Africa, because the roads are difficult, there’s no electricity, there’s no running water in these villages, and it’s very difficult to make any prior contact with people. And so the inevitable consequence of this is that I would usually turn up somewhere completely unannounced … and, without exception, I just found that people were open, they were welcoming, they were friendly, and they would just sit down there and then and answer my questions.
Q: You had a lot of contact with President Obama’s extended family, but did you have any contact with the president himself for this book?
No, I didn’t. And the reason is this: It’s not about the president. The book is really about his family. … The end of the last chapter ends with the death of the president’s father, which really is where the president’s memoir, Dreams From My Father, begins … In a way my book is a prequel to Dreams From My Father. I actually started off where the president picked up in his autobiography, so in that respect I felt I had to keep it uniquely African.