Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Interview: David Parrott

Today we have the chance to learn more about what inspired this novel, and how author David Parrot turned his musings about "what if" into a novel. 

1. What was your inspiration for "The Last Best Hope?" On the day I attended my nephew’s wedding at Gettysburg I had what I can only describe as a “ghost experience.”  The sun was setting and my wife and I were slowly driving through the battlefield, and right at that moment Paul Robeson began singing “Swing Lo, Sweet Chariot” a capella on our car radio. Also at that moment, a pink tinged mist flowed down from the nearby mountains and made all the statues in the park appear to go into motion.  I felt the hair on the back of my neck raise up and a feeling that “they’re all still here” came over me. 
This was the impetus to begin a story about the men that died  (or were wounded) in that field on that day. In a bizarre twist, when I began to do serious research of the men involved in the events of the first day at Gettysburg, I found that the very spot I was at in my car ride that evening was where the Bucktail regiment made their last stand on July 1st, 1863.  I didn’t know that until after I had decided to base my story on the men who came down from the oilfields of Western Pennsylvania to fight there on that day.

2. How did you decide what would happen to the actual historical characters, like Lincoln, in this book? As I researched the battle more, I was influenced by a book on the events of the third day of Gettysburg that showed that only an extreme act of heroism by George Armstrong Custer and his Michigan cavalrymen kept the tide from turning for the South (see the book Lost Triumph: Lee's Real Plan at Gettysburg--and Why It Failed  by military historian Tom Carhart.) This was typical of nonfiction history accounts which I read in my research. Very often the authors would say “if events had not happened in just this way, the South might have won at Gettysburg and turned the tide of the War.”  
Following that line of reasoning, I looked at some of the plans that had been made if the South did win at Gettysburg.  There was an army, led by Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard that was poised outside Washington, ready to assault the capital and Lincoln.  My story accepts that premise, that if the Confederates won at Gettysburg, they would have concentrated their forces on capturing Washington, DC, and deposing Lincoln.  
In my story, the White House is sacked and Lincoln is shot.  His bodyguards (who were Pennsylvania Bucktails) spirit him off into the woods. Most people think he is dead. These events have a profound impact on him, and he is bitter and angry about what has happened to his family, himself, and his nation. 

3. How much research was involved in writing this? I spent several years writing and researching drafts of this story. I have a master’s degree in historical theology, and that training helped me know how to do the research. I was given excellent access to historical material at the Drake Well museum in Western Pennsylvania, including rare and restricted archival writing, maps, and photographs.  I also spent time with Titusville historian and author Steve Karns. 
My nephew owns a farm at Gettysburg, so I used that as my base for on-site research at the battlefield.  In addition to that, I have a number of friends who are Civil War re-enactors who read drafts of this story and made pointed criticisms of any inaccuracies they found in the text. I was also given access to documents and materials by the county historical societies in my area, and read dozens of books, including regimental histories and first person accounts of the early days of the oilfields in Western PA. 

4. Can you tell us a little about the main character, Ezekiel Edwards? Edwards is a combination of historical figures. In my research on the Civil War I learned that there were a number of men who showed up in their hometown after the war, to find that everyone thought they were dead. (Some even had graves and tombstones to visit.)  This accounts for the part of his story that concerns his wife thinking him dead and remarrying (that actually happened to some soldiers.) His New England background is based on several historical figures. The first was Jonathon Edwards  the famous Puritan preacher and philosopher. The other two men were both named Chamberlain – Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top, and another Captain Chamberlain who was the leader of the Bucktails, was from New England, and who was injured on the first day of the battle and carried to McPherson’s barn. He was shot in the shoulder, but recovered to write the 150th Bucktails regimental history. 
Each of these characters lent some of their story to my invented character Ezekiel Edwards. The parts about being taken to Pittsburg (old spelling) to recover are authentic, and I think he is fairly typical of the educated class of men who were prominent both in the Civil War and in the oilfields like Pithole, PA. 

5. Chastity Stottish is another important figure. Can you describe the role she plays? She is a nurse in Pittsburg, and is also the somewhat spoiled daughter of a wealthy iron mill owner, her father Solomon Stottish.  She is headstrong, independent and unconventional (few young ladies were allowed to become nurses then, it was too risqué.) She is also extremely unconventional in that she is in love with an African American slave when the story begins. But the conflicts inherent in that situation come to a head when she gets further involved as a love interest of Ezekiel Edwards, who is sent to “fetch her” by her wealthy father. She also plays a key role as Abraham Lincoln’s nurse. He is grouchy and morose, and she must put up with not only his moods, but his reputation and position. If she loses this patient to his injuries it will have a dramatically bad effect on the nation.  
Through the romantic relationships that she has with Marcus the slave, and later with Ezekiel Edwards, I try to show that she grows as a person – from being something of a brat, to someone who plays a key role in the development of the story and the unfolding of events. 

6. How did you chose the setting for this book? I’ve mentioned the events which led to me writing about Gettysburg, and Pittsburg,  but the main setting for the story is in Pithole, PA.  I first heard about Pithole while riding a tourist train through the Oil Creek Valley. The docent on the train pointed to a stream coming down a hillside and said “Up that valley is Pithole. A million dollars a day in gold changed hands in that town in 1865, and there was a murder a day.”  Just that chance remark made me think it was a great setting for a suspense novel.  

7. Even with the South winning the civil war and slavery remaining legal in this book, there is still a desire for many to live differently. How is that portrayed in this book? I think the fact that Lincoln survives, and his dream for an America really built on the ideals that he believed in – that America could not be “a house divided – it shall have to be all slave, or all free” animate this story. When he later talked about a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the principle that all men are created equal” I think it was a watershed moment in American history and thought.  
With hindsight we are able to look back and say that the triumph of freedom for all people in America was inevitable.  But it was not inevitable for those who had to fight to end slavery –  many of the historians I have read see the outcome at several key points in the struggle to be in doubt.  I think what my story tries to suggest is that even if the cause was lost, the struggle would have continued on, and that spirit of liberty and freedom that is at the heart of the American experiment would have prevailed. I think that is portrayed by the events at the end of the book when General Grant appears on the scene. 

8. Who are your favorite authors? I grew up reading American authors like John D. MacDonald and Taylor Caldwell. I later came to be very interested in British writers like J.R.R. Tolkein, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis. I like their combination of myth and fantasy in their work.  But I still have some American favorites like that I like to read currently, like Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson, who do a mix of fantasy and science fiction, and the Gorky Park author, Martin Cruz Smith.

9. Do you have any interesting rituals or habits when you write? Nothing very special, although I do like to put on music from the period I am writing about and I find that inspiring. 

10. Can you tell us about any future projects?  I have thought about a sequel to my current Civil War novel that features U.S. Grant, but the main thing I currently have on the back burner is an apocalypse story that combines elements of the Christian view of the “end times” with elements of the what I call the “scientific apocalypse” – massive climate change, plagues, etc.  

The Last Best Hope is available now from Amazon