Friday, May 1, 2015

On Race, Lincoln, Literature, and Fan Mail

I knew it would happen eventually, I would get my first “fan” mail. I perhaps was misguided and thought that the first experience would be more positive. And I know the common wisdom to not engage the internet trolls, but this time the troll landed in my Inbox—it wasn't just a random review up on GoodReads or Amazon. I would never respond to those. But when you e-mail me something racist, homophobic, or just plain bigoted, you might find me punching back. Besides, after spending three years working, revising, polishing, and now showing-off Molly and Joseph's story, I feel somehow compelled to rescue that copy of LINCOLN'S BODYGUARD!

SPOILER ALERT: For those of you yet to read the novel, the e-mail to me (and to a lesser extent, my return e-mail) do give up a few plot points. While they are not minor points, if you've read about the first 30 pages, you already know them! And in fact, Amazon lets folks read an excerpt that talks about most of them anyway. There are plenty of other plot twists to be had, so your enjoyment of the novel should not be ruined should you choose to proceed. You've been warned though! 

Below is the e-mail I've received. I have masked the e-mail address to protect the guilty. 

Mr. Turner

I finished reading your book. I have never written to an author before but I must speak against how you insulted our President. I understood your book was a new history of the civil war, but I hoped for more accuracy. It appalled me early in your book that President Lincoln had an affair, and with a black woman. No president back then would lower their standards, maybe today but we live in different times. You forget your history or never read it. Some call President Lincoln the liberator of slaves, but they don't know he would have shipped them all back to Africa to be with their people. America would have no racial problems if he lived. I almost stopped reading sooner. It also offended me with how you write about the underground railroad. That was a system where white people freed the slaves. You insult those people saying black people would help white children. They would laugh and enjoy little white kids forced to work in factories not help them. Also your character Molly is completely not real. Women in the civil war knew their place and would not carry a gun or get into fights with men. Hollywood makes us think that but its just not truth. When she saves Joeseph it just shows he is not a good hero for a book if he cannot fight his own fights and win. I would write a review for amazon but they only let me give you as low as one star. This deserves none. I will not deal with it anymore since it already wasted my life.


And my response back...


Your letter is the first piece of “fan” mail I have received. So it is nice to know that at least my e-mail server is working fine. I am working under the assumption that both your name and e-mail address are fake, as I well know who Forrest Carter was. I do have to thank you for writing your thoughts so clearly as to leave no ambiguity in your intentions. A greater man than either you or I, (especially you) gave us the only manner by which to judge another person—by the content of their character. Your letter leaves no doubt in that regard. 

I would apologize for the fact that you did not like my novel, but in truth, offending a person such as yourself actually brings me great joy. Although you claim me to be devoid of historical fact in my work, especially in my description of a liaison between President Lincoln and a former slave, it is immediately clear that you are not the student of history you believe yourself to be. While it is true that early in Lincoln's first term he supported the Colonization movement—sending free African-Americans back to Africa—his opinions on slavery and the outcomes for freed slaves changed immensely. He championed the 13th amendment to the Constitution explicitly banning slavery, and even spoke of Black Suffrage (that's voting) by the end of his time in office. He moved to instate equal pay for black soldiers. As for his “affair”. Perhaps you have heard of Thomas Jefferson? He was the man Lincoln most admired and looked up to, and it may surprise you to know (although it would not surprise anyone who knows American history), that no less a man than Jefferson had a years-long relationship with a woman named Sally Hemings. Together they had 6 children. The catch—Hemings was one of Jefferson's slaves! So much for your theory of the lowering standards amongst the presidential circle. I won't even address your Underground Railroad affront, other than to say that in my opinion, if my alternative history had played out, newly freed slaves would be exactly the type of people against a defacto slavery forced on children—even white children of their former slave owners. They knew the bonds of oppression better than any other, and would have fought against it in any manner they could. And then there's Molly...she is a smart, tough, and beautiful woman, more than capable of handling herself in the post-Civil War time period of my novel or any other time. Did women like that exist? HELL yes. And they still do. Go read any book about the frontier. Too bad you haven't encountered one as she would most definitely have enlightened your viewpoint. 

I'll make you a deal. As you are my first “fan” mail, I'll give you an offer you can't refuse. I will completely refund your purchase, as well as any shipping and handling costs you incurred. I will do this on two conditions. 

1. You ship me back my book. I'll find an intermediary place for you to ship it where I can recover the novel. I hate to think of it in the hands of someone with such an ignorant perspective on life. It would give me great pleasure to see it returned to loving hands.

2. Post a review on Amazon for me—immediately! I know you can't make it the zero-stars you think it deserves, but trust me, a 1-star hurts both an author's pride as well as his/her overall rating. I would suggest you just take your e-mail and cut and paste it right in, that way you waste no more of your life on me or my novel. While you're at it, perhaps you missed the fact that Joseph is half Native American. I'm sure you could enhance your review by denigrating yet another demographic. I will treasure that rating, even more than the slew of 4-star and 5-star ratings I have received. In fact, I will print it out and frame it for my office. It will be my badge of honor.

Please send me your address—we'll just make it the full list price and say $10 should cover shipping. I will be sure to get it in the mail at the very next opportunity.

Tj Turner

At first the arrival of this e-mail pissed me off. But then I thought that maybe there's a silver lining. Obviously FC made it though most of the novel, if not all. And as misguided as his viewpoint is, it made him feel something. (I'm quite pleased with myself that it pissed him off!) Ultimately that is the goal of any novelist—to highlight the human condition, and make your readers feel. If you're really good, the writing can challenge their beliefs, though I think my new “friend” above is a lost cause. So ultimately this e-mail made me think about my novel in a different way.

When I sat down to write LINCOLN'S BODYGUARD, I did not explicitly intend to write a story about race in America. I knew from the historical setting that race would be a factor—a large factor. But the intent was not to highlight some truth about the time period, or to relate it back to today's challenges surrounding race. Perhaps that's because as a white male I often don't feel like I have the perspective to say anything profound that will help us understand or alter the societal behavior underlying our racial tensions. Of course, it's hard to write anything set in the 1860-1870s without dealing with race in some manner. So while I set out to write a compelling story that would capture the imagination, and at times turn history on its head—such as with the role reversal of the Underground Railroad—I hadn't thought of the novel as significantly highlighting the issue, as there are far greater writers than me peering into our nations lurid past (and even present) racial history. But maybe what this example highlights is the fact that when you release a piece of work—particularly a piece of artwork like writing or poetry, songs, or maybe even paintings—the consumer is free to interpret the meaning in their own context. It no longer belongs solely to the artist, but to the person enjoying (or not enjoying!) the work. 

Maybe it’s fitting that some of the themes in LINCOLN'S BODYGUARD resonate with today's world. I've heard it said that all great works of historical fiction tell us as much, if not more, about our own time then the time period they are set in. Maybe what we learn from this today, what “FC” shows us, is that we still have a long way to go in order to fulfill the dream that is America—a land where everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.

TJ Turner is the author of LINCOLN'S BODYGUARD, an alternative history that rights one of the nation’s greatest wrongs—the death of President Abraham Lincoln. Told from the perspective of the bodyguard who saves Lincoln, it presents an alternative dystopian view of the nation that would be, and one man’s attempt to find redemption while saving the nation. 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

150 Years Ago...Part II

In my last post I wrote about the national tragedy that was the loss of Abraham Lincoln (150 Years Ago – PartI). For our country, this single event was one of the largest tipping points contained in our history—an event so enormous that it resonates still today, shaping the very fabric of our society. This is exactly why I find tipping points so fascinating (For more on what I mean by the term see my much earlier post—Tipping Points). There’s something compelling about a moment in time that changes the world we all know.

If we step back 150 years we find a nation in turmoil. (I would ask you to close your eyes and imagine it but then that would probably be a hindrance in reading any further!) Our Civil War was dying, though not dead. And the entire nation, not just the North, reeled from the shock of Lincoln’s assassination. John Wilkes Booth expected to be heralded a hero, but instead, even Confederate President Jefferson Davis expressed remorse for the loss of Lincoln. He knew—as did others in the South—that the North had their martyr. Further fighting would be met by a stiffened resolve, and the most favorable terms for any surrender were to be had right then. Instead of energizing a failing Confederacy, Booth had driven the final nail into the proverbial coffin. 

The Lincoln Funeral Train

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the capture of John Wilkes Booth. In what was the greatest manhunt in the history of our nation, the final chapter of the Civil War began to close with the death of a Shakespearean actor on a tobacco farm in Virginia. Though the angst felt by the nation might be hard to comprehend today, there are historians who bring it back to life in such glorious detail that you might as well be reading a taut paced thriller. At times, it is hard to improve upon real life as the source of drama, conflict, and ultimately insight into the human condition. 

For anyone interested in our nation’s history, especially as we pass this important anniversary in American history, I highly recommend the following works. They were both instrumental to my research. 

1. April 1865: The Month That Saved America By Jay Winik

Winik brings to life the very last month of the Civil War, tracing the fighting from the fall of Richmond, General Lee’s retreat, the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, President Lincoln’s assassination, and ultimately the final surrender of Confederate General Joe Johnston. This is a brilliant look at thirty-days that shaped America forever, with a masterful account of the politics, the figures, and the outcome that gave us a new-birth. 

Of particular note, Winik outlines the last-ditch plan forwarded by Confederate President Jefferson Davis, to fight a guerilla war. If successful, it would have paralyzed the United States and forced exactly the type of outcome I used as the premise of my novel—an insurgency that threatens to tear apart the nation, something very similar to what our country has experienced in our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

2. Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase to Catch Lincoln’s Killer By James Swanson

While Winik covered the entire month of April 1865, Swanson zeroed in on the specifics of hunting Booth and his conspirators. This is a gripping tale of the greatest manhunt in American history, and Swanson does not disappoint. Sharing a birthday with none other than Abraham Lincoln, Swanson writes with a passion that few could rival, bringing to life a tale of murder, betrayal, and intrigue. Follow the chase from Washington DC, to a lone tobacco farm where Booth meets his end.

Once again, a well-written account of actual history was critical for my research, as I altered the outcome of the greatest historical injustice in our nation’s past—the death of Lincoln. Understanding the past, in particular all the politics swirling around the assassination, allowed me to craft a new narrative where our greatest President survives in Ford’s theater…only to unleash unexpected outcomes.

TJ Turner is the author of LINCOLN'S BODYGUARD, an alternative history that rights one of the nation’s greatest wrongs—the death of President Abraham Lincoln. Told from the perspective of the bodyguard who saves Lincoln, it presents an alternative dystopian view of the nation that would be, and one man’s attempt to find redemption while saving the nation.

Monday, April 20, 2015

150 Years Ago...Part I

On April 15th, 1865—150 years ago—America lost our president to assassination. The nation was just beginning to exit the most costly war in American history, with over 600,000 soldiers killed and an untold number of civilians. The destruction of the nation, especially the southern states of the Confederacy, was incomparable to anything seen before. And yet, through the despair, there were glimmers of the hope to come—the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th amendment to the Constitution, and a leader who plotted the direction in the uncertain times ahead. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds…”

In one of the great injustices in American history, the man who guided our nation would not live to see those wounds bound up. It is little consolation, though important to note, that we would be an entirely different country, a different people, without him. Even today, President Lincoln is still trapped in our national consciousness—a figure and a story that provides endless fascination. As we approach the 150th anniversary of his passing, a new crop of books attempts to make sense of his story, his impact on the nation, and ultimately why he perished in sacrifice to our people. 

Many of the Lincoln-related books occupy the shelves of non-fiction in your local bookstores. This year is no exception. Among the better offerings are a pair that are sure to cast new light into the most tumultuous time period in American history.

1. President Lincoln Assassinated by Harold Holzer

There is little doubt that Harold Holzer is one of the preeminent Lincoln scholars of our time. He has written numerous accounts of all aspects of President Lincoln’s administration. And he does not disappoint with his latest offering.

President Lincoln Assassinated recaptures the dramatic immediacy of Lincoln’s assassination, the hunt for the conspirators and their military trial, and the nation’s mourning for the martyred president. The fateful story is told in more than eighty original documents—eyewitness reports, medical records, trial transcripts, newspaper articles, speeches, letters, diary entries, and poems—by more than seventy-five participants and observers, including the assassin John Wilkes Booth and Boston Corbett, the soldier who shot him. Together these voices combine to reveal the full panorama of one the most shocking and tragic events in our history. (From his Publisher’s Information)

2.    Fortune’s Fool by Terry Alford

Terry Alford is a professor of History at Northern Virginia Community College. He is the author of Prince Among Slaves, which was made into a PBS documentary in 2007.

In Fortune's Fool, Terry Alford provides the first comprehensive look at the life of an enigmatic figure whose life has been overshadowed by his final, infamous act. Tracing Booth's story from his uncertain childhood in Maryland, characterized by a difficult relationship with his famous actor father, to his successful acting career on stages across the country, Alford offers a nuanced picture of Booth as a public figure, performer, and deeply troubled man. The textured and compelling narrative gives new depth to the familiar events at Ford's Theatre and the aftermath that followed, culminating in Booth's capture and death at the hands of Union soldiers 150 years ago. (From his Publisher’s Information)
But Non-fiction doesn’t own the Lincoln narrative. At times, our creative imaginations long for more than the history we find in text books or even the compelling books listed above. Maybe it’s to right a historic wrong, to bring a voice to the voiceless or just as pure story set in a time period wrought with drama and conflict.

3. Lincoln's Assassin: The Unsolicited Confessions of John Wilkes Booth by Jeffrey Francis Pennington

In his debut novel, Pennington explores an alternative narrative where John Wilkes Booth survives the manhunt after he assassinated President Lincoln. Capitalizing on our love of conspiracy theories, Pennington delivers a story that probes the political landscape of Lincoln. 

Written in a confessional style, it aims to offer an insight into the true motivations at the heart of the Lincoln assassination, an event that continues to be the subject of much theorising and interest (From his publisher’s info).

4.    O Captain! My Captain! By Walt Whitman

Perhaps however, the greatest work of fiction in honor of Abraham Lincoln remains that of Whitman, in a poem written for our fallen captain. While it is not new, and might in fact be the first creative work written about the passing of our president, it is just as relevant today as it was 150 years ago.

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

TJ Turner is the author of Lincoln’s Bodyguard, an alternative history that rights one of the nation’s greatest wrongs—the death of President Abraham Lincoln. Told from the perspective of the bodyguard who saves Lincoln, it presents an alternative dystopian view of the nation that would be, and one man’s attempt to find redemption while saving the nation. 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Road to Published – Part III: Rejection & How NPR Made Me a Writer

I know I left some of you hanging in the last edition of this mesmerizing mini-series (The Road to Published—Part II: How to Survive a Rocket Attack). So I’ll go ahead and drop the ending on you…I made it through that first rocket attack—with all my fingers and toes. Hopefully that wasn’t too much of a spoiler. In fact, I’ve been back to Afghanistan twice since then, and lived through plenty of other attacks, all without forgetting to duck when I ran into the bunkers.

Keep reading...I promise it will make sense why I have a picture of Terry Gross in here!
Since I already let out the spoiler, let’s recap—I have no idea how to get published. It’s some wonderful combination of hard work, more hard work, pain, hard work, lack of sleep, self-doubt, luck, and rejection! And somehow all of it makes you a better writer…if you keep going. So far we have, in order:

  1. Start writing
  2. Finish writing
  3. Get honest feedback (from someone who DOESN’T love you)
  5. Never Give Up (Corollary: unless you truly suck, then you should quit…or go to a workshop or find a good writing course)
You got it…REJECTION is step four, and dusting yourself off and trying all over again, that’s step five. Remember how I said that my first novel sucked? Well, it did. After I learned what a literary agent was…I wrote to them ALL. (I can’t actually confirm that I wrote to every literary agent in the world, but it was damn close to it if I didn’t). Half decided my novel was so bad they never responded. Half sent back form letters. The third half (90% of the time I’m really bad at fractions all the time—think about that one!) sent back form letters with the wrong name on them. And then finally, one agent, one very special agent, she sent me a form rejection with my name! And it was hand written! Of course, my name was spelled wrong…which is fairly impressive since it only has two letters, but it was progress! That’s when I decided to move on, and write a new novel. I ignored the corollary to step 5.

Calling on my inner Hemmingway by using all my Afghanistan experience, I wrote about the war. That novel has a chance—it’s Catch-22 meets the Kite Runner. It may someday see the light of day—once significantly revised. But more important to me at the time, I was armed with two novels. I could finish these things! And by going to a few writers’ workshops, I knew what I needed next…more rejection. And this time it went better. I pitched to a few agents. One even asked for the first 50-pages. That’s like sticking your big toe in the tepid pool just to figure out if you really want to swim, but hell…it was progress. And she spelled my name right! After she read the first 50-pages, she asked for the whole thing. I thought for sure that was it, literary destiny awaited. But then it fell through. I got the whole…”I loved the story, but it’s just not right for me.” In other words, the pool was just a degree or two off!

And that’s how it goes. I quit. I gave up, went back overseas for another tour, and decided I wasn’t going to keep beating my head against the brick wall of literary failure. But there was a glimmer of something in there. I still wanted to write. And one evening after I came back from that tour, I was listening to NPR’s Fresh Air on the radio. Terry Gross was interviewing someone, and they were discussing Lincoln. In fact, I think they may have been talking about critical moments in history (Historical Tipping Points). And someone mentioned President Lincoln. I think Terry even said something to the effect of “Imagine if Lincoln had a bodyguard that night in Ford’s Theater…” (He actually did! Just a completelycrappy bodyguard) Now, that’s hardly an original thought. Tons of people have asked the same thing. But for some reason the phrase “Lincoln’s Bodyguard” stuck with me. It wasn’t even the idea of the “what-if”. It was just the fact that it would be a great title for a novel. And that’s where it started.

So when someone asks me where do they start in publishing, how do they get their next great American novel written and published? I tell them that I start at the beginning—the title. For me, there’s something about the title that defines the work, what it becomes as the story evolves, maybe even how I write it. I’m not certain. But for me…those first two little words were what forced me back to the keyboard and pushed me down Step 5: Never Give Up. be continued.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Road to Published – Part II: How to Survive A Rocket Attack

As I sit and write this, I am seated at the same exact table at my parent’s house where I started Lincoln’s Bodyguard 4 years ago. When I say it out loud, it seems like such a long time ago. But in reality it’s been a whirlwind. Of course, the current novel is the third I’ve written, so I’ve been hacking away at this writing gig for a lot longer than 4-years…a lot longer!

A Russian 107mm Rocket with the optional launching kit!

So where to begin? How about with a rocket, one of the lethal variety? The picture above is of a 107mm rocket, a nasty little bugger that wakes you up in the middle of the night with sirens scratching and makes you leave the comfort of a nice warm bed to find a concrete bunker.  You may be asking: what the hell does that have to do with writing, or even getting published? Well, it has everything and nothing to do with my writing—at the same time. After Nancy taunted me to start my first novel, I was in the enviable position of receiving orders for the first of my taxpayer-funded vacations to Afghanistan. It was on that very first tour that I finished that manuscript. And in typical rookie writer fashion, I expected the literary world would soon come crashing my door to see the masterpiece. I had no idea how the publishing world worked. I couldn’t even spell literary agent, let alone know what use I might have for one. In short, I had no idea how to get published. And that was where Nancy kicked again. She discovered that I needed a publisher (I told you I was publishing stupid), and that there was this intermediate broker who facilitated finding publishers, called a literary agent! I didn’t quite know what one was, but I knew I wanted one (in the end I got the best literary agent in the whole world, but that’s a whole different story). 

So back to the rocket… Since I had no idea what to do after finishing my first novel, but suspecting that I had made the magical first and second steps in both STARTING and FINISHING a manuscript, I knew I needed to show it to someone who didn’t love me. That’s actually a great THIRD step along the publishing lines…seek out honest feedback. And once again Nancy, ever so more in-tune with the literary world than I, realized that the Antioch Writer’s Workshop took place right in our hometown of Yellow Springs. As luck would have it, they had scholarships available through a competitive process. And that is where the confidence drained…I would have to send a sample of my glorious writing (trust me, I use the term in mocking derision to the work I pecked out at the time—maybe even now!) I must have filled out that application twenty times, writing and re-writing to get it just perfect. Each time I re-read what I had written, it some how devolved and became even more amateurish in my mind. In fact, I had just given up my literary aspirations (not for the last time, I might add) and thrown the application in the burn bin when the first rocket struck.

I'm super biased as this is where I started...but I love this workshop!

A 107mm rocket attack is an interesting thing. And by interesting, that’s a relative term depending on how far away you happen to be standing when it lands. Sometimes you can hear them launch, and then if the night is just right (they almost always come at night), you can hear the whistling as they pass overhead. We used to say, if you hear the boom on landing, then you’re going to be okay! But that night was my very first rocket attack. Back then I was still na├»ve enough to run to the bunkers—now I’m more resigned that if it’s my time to go then it’s just my time. But run I did, just about the same time as the alarms sounded and more booms echoed across base. I made it into the bunker, and as luck would have it, I was the only one who reached that particular concrete monstrosity. Everyone else was smarter and chose the bunker across the camp, which did not have six inches of standing water. To understand what happened next, you have to realize that the bunkers are inverted concrete forms in the shape of a “U”, which we then cover in sand bags for extra protection. But they’re only about four feet tall. So in my enthusiasm to get inside, I forgot to duck. Yep, I clear knocked myself flat on my back, staring up at a dull concrete ceiling, laying in stale muddy water. And that was when I thought:

“Fuck it, I’m turning that application in!”

Make sure to DUCK! Or wear your helmet...or both!

Although I didn’t know for months that I had landed one of those scholarships to the very best writer’s workshop I have ever attended, I credit that rocket attack with yet another kick in the ass that will shortly land Lincoln’s Bodyguard on bookshelves in real live book stores.  

To be continued…