Story Behind the Story #7:
Encounter at Easton

At the end of my book, Night Journeys, the two runaway indentured servants, Elizabeth Mawes and Robert Linnly, manage to escape, and flee north. True, Elizabeth was wounded, but she was free, and the protagonist of the book, young Peter York, comes to an understanding with his master, the pious Quaker Mr. Shinn.

But then something happened in my head once the book had been completed: I began to worry about the fate of those two young people. Were they truly free? Did Elizabeth survive her wound? Where did they go?

Easton, PAIn short, I had created fictional characters who had become so real to me that I wanted to know what happened to them. I even did some research about the area to which they presumptively would have fled, Easton, Pennsylvania. In so doing I learned about an outcast woman who, in Colonial times, lived in a cave in the woods near Euston.

I am not one who dreams much, or at least, I don’t remember my dreams very well. Nonetheless, one night at that time I had a dream which, as it were, informed me what had happened to my young characters in Night Journeys. That is to say, I dreamed the whole plot of Encounter at Easton.

Encounter at EastonWith that gift in hand (and mind) I wrote the book. It is the only time I have ever dreamed a book.

One curious aspect of the book’s publication was that from the time I first started to write it, until I had the published book in my hand, it took only eleven months. Never before or since have I published a book so quickly. The normal publication time is at least twice that length.

Another odd thing about the book: When it was done, I realized that the boy in the story, Robert Linnly, could have easily become the main character in an earlier book, Captain Grey. All that was required was to make a few changes in Captain Grey when that book was reprinted. Thus I created a series of four books, but, alas, I never wrote what should be book number three.

That’s the trouble with dreams: you wake up.

Encounter at Easton went on to win the Christopher Award for that year.

Story Behind the Story #4:
Captain Gray

The College of New JerseyIn the summer of 1975, I was working as a librarian, and trying to write. My first two books had been published. But, still needing to work full time at something other than writing, and having worked at the New York Public Library for about ten years, I took a librarian’s job at Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey) where I was hired as a reader’s adviser, with a focus on the arts and literature. It was a somewhat unusual position insofar as I was a member of the faculty which, among other perks, meant I would have my summers off—to write, of course. That’s why I took the job.

Being in New Jersey I did what I always did when in a new place: read some of its history.

I don’t know if I was required to join the (state-wide) faculty bargaining agent, the American Federation of Teachers, or joined on my own. In any case I was a member of the union. What I did not know was that there was on-going contract dispute. In the spring of 1976, a strike was called. That was a new one for me, but I went along. The first day of the strike was exciting in its way: mass picket lines, camaraderie, hopes for a quick positive resolution. In fact, there was no quick resolution and, after the first day, I was given a one hour picketing assignment—for two weeks.

For the first time as an adult I was not working full-time. For a day I was perplexed, and then I realized I could stay home and write. That too was a first.

Captain GreySo it was that I sat down and began to write what would become Captain Gray, a novel set in New Jersey history, a sea-faring tale, if you will. [It was also the novel that in some fashion or other, the publisher forgot to send out for reviews.]

As for the strike: It was settled in NYC by Al Shanker (anyone remember him?), the head of the national union, and someone representing the state of New Jersey. The leadership of my union was not even at the table. The result: I (and all librarians) lost our faculty status, and our summers off.

Great labor victory!

Curiously, the word to strike derives from the nautical term, “to strike one’s sails,” which is to say not go anywhere.

But I did have my first historical novel.

Reloading the canon

Captain GreyI once heard a lecture about the establishment of the literary canon, those books which become the accepted milestones of literature. The lecturer went on to suggest that the primary way this happens is because these books—whatever the reason—become anchored in school curricula. Good examples of this might be Macbeth or To Kill a Mockingbird. This is not to question such works’ intrinsic literary merit but to think what happens when such singular titles become embedded in schools.

It can happen this way.

Many years ago, when my eldest son (he is in his late forties now) was in fourth grade, I gave a copy of my book Captain Grey to his young teacher. The book, my first work of historical fiction, had just been published. The teacher liked it so much he read it to his class. He told me how much his students enjoyed it.

Twenty years later my son had a reunion at that school and asked me to come along. Lo and behold, the same teacher was still there, still teaching fourth grade. Grayer, balder to be sure, but still enthusiastic. “Avi!” he exclaimed when he saw me. “Remember that book you gave me, Captain Grey?  I still read it to my class every year. My kids love it! It’s the one book I use to teach historical fiction.”

There are a number of ways of looking at this. First, delight that he liked the book so much. Delight that his students enjoyed it. That said, in the intervening years I had written some thirty other books and, frankly, some better than that first work of historical fiction. I would be very surprised if this teacher paid any attention to them. He had a book of historical fiction and his students enjoyed it. He was done.

Indeed, sometimes teachers (schools) buy a set of books—a particular title by a particular author. Having that set, there is no felt need to purchases anther set by the same author. They have her/his work, regardless if that writer goes on to create something better, different, more challenging. It can mean that the very success of one book can lead, in this context, to the failure of another book—regardless of merit.

The canon, if you allow me, needs to be reloaded now and again.

Old Books

Captain GreyI recently received a bunch of letters from a group of fifth graders whose teacher read them Captain Grey. This book, my first historical novel, was published in 1977. That’s to say it was written some thirty-seven years ago. I have strong memories of how and where I wrote Captain Grey, but in truth, I have few recollections of the book’s details, other than the general plot. The kids’ letters name characters, and recall incidents, which I’ve long forgotten. What a pleasure to know they enjoyed the book so much. In that sense, I think the book belongs far more to them, now, than to me. Still, it’s lovely to be reminded that old books are always new books to new readers. In this sense the books I once wrote have a kind of eternal youth, which, I can assure you I have not. Can you hear my sigh? I am envious of my old books!

Where do you get your ideas?

Sophia's WarThe most common question asked of authors is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Consider my newest book, Sophia’s War, a tale set in New York City (NYC) during the American Revolution.

I was born and raised in Brooklyn (NYC), close to the site of the biggest battle fought during the American Revolution, the Battle of Brooklyn.

In 1947, when I was nine, The American Past, an illustrated history of the United States, came into my home. The first of its kind, its pictures fascinated me. I went through it countless times, gained a basic outline of US history, and a life-long love of history. I still have that book. I still read history.

Goodman Ace

Goodman Ace, creator of the radio program, You Are There

From 1947 to 1950 I was an avid listener of the CBS radio series, You Are There, which reported great moments in history as if they were just happening.

Not far from my home was the place where the notorious British prison ships lay at anchor. At some point—I don’t know when—I learned of what happened.

Rabble in ArmsAs a teenager I read Kenneth RobertsRabble in Arms. Roberts was the foremost historical fiction writer of his time, and my introduction to historical fiction. This book focused on General Benedict Arnold. The book gave me my first real introduction to Arnold, his fascinating history, his tragic downfall.

In high school I began to buy (and read) books offered by the History Book Club. Some still sit on my shelves.

In college I majored in history, mostly American and British history.

Captain GreyMy first historical work was Captain Grey, (1977) a novel about the bitter aftermath of the American revolution. I would write some 35 other works of historical fiction.

In 1976 I watched battlefield enactments of the Revolution. Those experiences led me (1984) to write The Fighting Ground, about a boy fighting in the American Revolution. It’s one of my most successful books, and the first historical fiction for which I did serious research.

Iron ThunderIn 2007, I published Iron Thunder, a Civil War novel about  the Monitor and Merrimack. I wanted to write an historically accurate account of that battle, while inserting a fictional character, and thereby  creating an exciting adventure (and historical knowledge) for my readers. That was followed by Hard Goldsame formatabout the Colorado gold rush. Before I had finished it, I conceived a similarly constructed story about the American Revolution. I decided it would begin with an account of Nathan Hale’s death. Three years before I started to write the book I knew the first line: “It is a terrible thing to see a man hang.”

Where did I get the ideas for Sophia’s War? Throughout my life.