As promised, I’m leaving you for the week with a question-and-answer with David Jones, author of Two Brothers: One North, One South, a story of the American Civil War. David has a website here and has recently been interviewed over at Michele Moran’s History Buff.
Q. What motivated you to write your novel?
A. The Civil War has always held special meaning for me as my father related interesting stories that he heard from his maternal grandfather, who served in the 10th West Virginia Infantry. However, the real impetus started about twelve years ago when I documented all aspects of my genealogy, including details of the Civil War regiments of my ancestors. My paternal great great grandfather served as quartermaster of the Federal 6th Maryland Infantry and Clifton Prentiss was another officer in the regiment. I discovered that Clifton’s younger brother, William, served in the Confederate Maryland Battalion and was written about by Walt Whitman in Memoranda During The War. I was captivated by the story and launched a three-year research effort that amassed a considerable stack of historical data on the persons and events involved. With the breadth and texture of the tale fully revealed, it was quite evident that this was a story that must be told.
Q. Apparently you could have written Two Brothers as a non-fiction. Why did you write it as an historical fiction?
A. Despite being aware that many Civil War buffs are biased “to the hilt” against historical fiction, I believed that the Prentiss brothers’ story could achieve greater readership as a novel, rather than as a non-fiction. After all, the circumstance of “brother fighting brother” is the quintessential story of the American Civil War. Further, the Prentiss brothers’ story is quite remarkable because they met during the Breakthrough Battle at Petersburg just one week before Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox. These dramatic events were recalled in a number of somewhat contradictory memoirs and eyewitness accounts that do, nevertheless, confirm the substance of the story. Clearly much would be lost if this poignant tale was presented as a stark non-fiction, based entirely on official records and supplied with extensive footnotes.
Q. Did you create many characters and events to benefit the telling of the story?
A. All but two of the characters in Two Brothers were real people and many of their experiences were recorded in post-war memoirs, books, and articles. Some literary license was employed when several anecdotes were stretched to include primary characters. My standards for creating these fictional aspects were 1) it could have happened that way; and 2) there was no evidence that it didn’t happen that way.
Q. Did these standards prevent character development?
A. Probably. I was careful not to indulge in too much character development beyond what was clearly suggested by historical record and genealogical evidence provided by a Prentiss family member. These were real people, living in difficult times not that long ago, and their memory should be respected. I believe that it’s wrong for an historical fiction author to take excessive liberties with the personality and character of historical figures. My hope is that the reader, despite the lack of character development, would become emotionally involved with the characters given their authenticity.
Q. The dialogue sounds very authentic for a mid-nineteenth American setting. Is it based on letters and journals written by the people portrayed?
A. Yes, the dialogue is often based on the words and phrases of the participants that they recorded in letters, memoirs, and journals. In some instances, the dialogue is close to the record of what was actually said in those moments. I wrote in nineteenth century style to harmoniously blend the dialogue and narration as much as possible, although this format creates difficulty for a few readers.
Q. Your book appears to focus more on the Confederate brother William rather than the Union brother Clifton. Is that true, and if so, why?
A. My goal was to be even-handed in the treatment of the Prentiss brothers as I related their wartime experiences and explored their reasons for choosing opposite sides. My own sense of the Civil War is that soldiers of both sides were honorable Americans. Whitman revealed a similar view in “The Wound Dresser” when he declared them all to be “unsurpass’d heroes” and “equally brave.” As research yielded more usable material on William and the 1st and 2nd Maryland Battalions than on Clifton and the 6th Maryland Infantry, it does appear that there is a bias in favor of the South. However, this factor is mitigated by the shift of focus from South to North as the story progresses toward the climax at Petersburg. Also, the viewpoint of the surviving brothers around Clifton’s hospital bed is clearly for the Union.
Q. The southern characters seem to be somewhat ambivalent about slavery and its connection to the Southern cause. Is this a common attitude among the Confederates that you researched?
A. Both North and South, the central issue in most people’s minds at the beginning of hostilities was not slavery. The average Northern soldier was fighting to preserve the Union and his Southern counterpart was fighting a second war for Independence from what was perceived to be the political and economic tyranny of the North. In fact, racial attitudes were essentially the same throughout the country. Nevertheless, recognition grew as the war progressed that slavery was at the heart of the conflict between the states. The Southern characters in Two Brothers were well-educated people of the upper class who held strong religious beliefs. It’s clear from their writings that they recognized the evil inherent in the institution of slavery and believed that slavery would wither away of its own accord over time. They even worried about the difficulty of transition for former slaves when freedom was inevitably achieved. Their slaves were mainly household servants, who, despite being well treated, were simply making the best of a bad situation. It should also be acknowledged that the plight of field slaves on large plantations was often much worse, but that sad circumstance does not fall directly within the Two Brothers storyline and the purview of its characters.
Q. What do you hope readers will gain from reading your book?
A. The realization that these soldiers, both North and South, were American patriots. They were the children and grandchildren of Revolutionary War patriots, yet they strongly disagreed on the major political, economic, and social issues of the period. The Civil War transformed this nation and we should celebrate our history by striving to achieve a better understanding of it. Historical fiction, properly done, can contribute greatly to that knowledge, and entertain at the same time.