August 28, 2012
An interview with Becky Akers, author of Halestorm
Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Superior Book Promotions is pleased to interview Becky Akers, who is here to talk about her first novel Halestorm, a novel about American Revolutionary War Hero, Nathan Hale.
When I asked Becky how to introduce her, she told me, “I’m a freelance writer and historian who’s outta here for the eighteenth century the instant someone invents a time machine.”
Tyler: Welcome, Becky. What first made you interested in Nathan Hale’s story?
Becky: Oh, goodness…hard to remember a time when I wasn’t interested!
My mother’s sixteen-year-old brother died in a car crash two weeks before I was born. Among my earliest memories are the anecdotes I heard of my uncle Dale. I don’t remember how old I was when I first learned about Nathan Hale—maybe four or five?—, but for a while, he and my uncle sort of coalesced in my mind—and not just because their names rhymed.
Premature death is always tragic. But I was probably more susceptible to Nathan’s story than most little kids because of my family’s grief. I saw first-hand the yawning wound a young son and brother leaves when he dies.
Tyler: Did you dive into writing the book or feel doubtful or overwhelmed by the prospect of covering such a notable figure?
Becky: I dove into it! What gal wouldn’t? The guy was a major hunk! (My husband is fond of reminding me that if Nathan hadn’t hanged, he’d be 257 years old by now and no doubt wearing dentures and Depends…)
Nor did I have to worry about his being a notable figure. Believe it or not, modern historians don’t consider him one (probably because only some of them are female. And these bozos apparently don’t collect autographs, either. I’ll have to sell a boatload of books before I can even begin to consider purchasing anything Nathan signed). They scorn the Captain as an idealistic but bumbling kid, too stupid to realize that his mission was hopeless and totally ignorant of spycraft. I grant them that last: people in those days before James Bond held spies in about the same regard that we do pedophiles now. No decent, honorable person would have known or wished to know how to convince folks to trust him so he could betray their secrets. But I strenuously and vehemently protest historians’ other denigrations of the stellar Nathan Hale.
Tyler: Besides being a “hunk,” what about Nathan do you think makes him remarkable and a reason why historians and the public in general should admire or know more about him?
Becky: Nathan owned such a constellation of virtues that we’ll be here all day unless I content myself with focusing on just one. I’ll choose his honor, or as we would call it, his integrity.
Integrity was very big in eighteenth-century America. When a man gave his word, he kept it, no matter what. Marriages lasted until death. You earned your keep; you didn’t sponge off your neighbors via Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, food-stamps, subsidized housing or governmental loans at below-market rates. Nor did you legally plunder your way to wealth as “victims” do now (a la the customer, as greedy as she was clumsy, who sued one of McDonald’s restaurants some years ago after spilling its hot coffee on herself).
Nathan’s death shines with the integrity he prized and practiced all his life. He was the same man, espousing the same principles, on the gibbet that he had been while recruiting troops to fight for freedom. Nor did his imminent execution for those principles sway his commitment to them.
This despite the fact that from his perspective, the Continental Army and its battle for liberty were pretty much finished. Wherever he spent his last night (some say it was on the Beekmans’ property, perhaps in the greenhouse; others believe the Sugar House in New York City was a likelier prison, though I doubt that because of the fire then raging), he would have had plenty of opportunity to realize how easily the British Army would triumph over its disintegrating, ragged, diseased, and starving enemy. In defying His Majesty’s forces, the Continentals faced odds similar to those our much-maligned militiamen would if they banded together to fight the U.S. Army for our freedom: would any of us bet on the militia? Yet the certainty of defeat never dissuaded Nathan from defending liberty’s principles.
And while millions of people have heard of his awesome courage since that dreadful day, he couldn’t have guessed that anyone ever would. Indeed, if he thought about it at all, he probably wondered whether news of his death, let alone how he died, would even make it back to American lines.
One witness to his execution, a British officer named Captain John Montresor, revealed that “but a few persons were around…” New York City and environs were chaotic then, with a devastating fire consuming blocks of the town the day before. Most people were concerned with salvaging whatever of their belongings they could, not watching yet another rebel die.
Then, too, it’s a fluke that we have Montresor’s testimony. He happened to go under a flag of truce to the Continental lines, apparently on other business, later that day. And one of the American officers who happened to meet with him was Nathan’s friend, Billy Hull. Two big and unpredictable “coincidences,” right?—like the fog that happened to rise just as the Continentals needed to evacuate Brooklyn after the disastrous battle there. Hull not only immediately repeated Montresor’s story—including such details as Nathan’s last words that would have been missing from whatever “official” report British General Sir William Howe might have filed—, he later wrote and published it. Nathan could have hardly foreseen any of that. Yet he spoke as bravely and truly with that noose around his neck as if he expected just that concatenation of events, as if a vast multitude were listening.
That’s integrity. Such incredible, inspiring integrity that it gives me goose-bumps every time I think of it. And I think of it a lot.
Tyler: Halestorm is the first novel for adults about Nathan Hale. Why didn’t writers of historical fiction seize on his dramatic life and death long before you did?
Becky: I haven’t the foggiest. I actually hunted for a copy of the novel I was sure someone must have written about him—Ken Roberts, say, or Gladys Schmitt, or another author from the glory days of historical fiction in the 1940s and ’50s —for several years before I finally realized that I’d have to write the book first if I wanted to read it.
On the other hand, Nathan as a fictional hero does violate one standard rule: he dies. Readers supposedly hate that. Good thing Charles Dickens (Sydney Carton), John Knowles (Phineas), and Herman Melville (Billy Budd) didn’t know about this prohibition.
Several children’s authors have fictionalized Nathan’s life, intriguingly enough. And while I was writing Halestorm, a couple of friends independently suggested that I turn it into a kids’ book. I guess folks figure honor, courage, idealism, and loyalty to liberty are fine for young’uns, but we ought to know better by the time we’re grown. Then they wonder why children’s novels out-sell those for adults.
Tyler: In the novel, Nathan is in love with his stepsister Alice, but they don’t know they are really half-siblings. Was this blood relationship between Nathan and Alice true or was it something you invented?
Becky: Their supposed love is just so tragic and doomed, isn’t it? I simply had to use this tradition, though there’s no factual basis for it, any more than there is for a biological relationship—which I invented in its entirety because the legend also includes the adamant refusal of Nathan’s father, Richard “Deacon” Hale, to allow their marriage, and I needed a reason for his hostility to their romance. A one-night stand for the Deacon with Alice’s mother provided the motivation—though I felt badly about sullying the Deacon’s good name. He did, too: while I was writing that scene, a porcelain planter sitting well back on my bookshelf leaped off it and shattered on the floor. I most firmly disbelieve in ghosts, but it did seem as if the Deacon were breaking my stuff to avenge his ruined reputation.
That wouldn’t be the first time the Deacon’s phantom stalked the living. In the early twentieth century, Nathan’s most enthusiastic, thorough biographer bought, restored, and lived at the Hales’ homestead. He and a guest swore they saw the Deacon walking about one dark and stormy night….
Tyler: I love the ghost possibilities, Becky, but how about Alice—what happened to Alice after Nathan’s death?
Becky: She eventually married, had many children, and lived to the age of eighty-eight. But her last words on her deathbed were supposedly either “Write to Nathan” or “Call Nathan.” Whatever, it’s enough to make you sit down and bawl a while, isn’t it?
Tyler: Yes, indeed, Becky. Where in telling this story did you have to use your own imagination, invent things, or fill in gaps you couldn’t confirm from research?
Becky: Chapter 17—the one that didn’t make it into the final manuscript, alas. That’s where I reveal the surprise body-double who takes Nathan’s place at the hanging. Nathan not only survives; he runs away with a time-traveler from the twenty-first century after she tells him Alice is cheating with Guy Daggett….
Tyler: I can just imagine who the time traveler was. I hope when you figure that time travel thing out, you’ll let me in on the secret so I can do research for my own historical novels. But speaking of research, what was the most exciting or surprising fact you discovered in doing your research?
Becky: That the Revolution was highly anarchic! Americans weren’t fighting the British, nor were the British fighting Americans. Rather, people who wanted to live free of government on both sides of the Atlantic battled politicians, bureaucrats, and corporate titans (though they didn’t call them that then) who claimed political power over them. It’s a war that’s raged throughout history and continues today, though sadly, liberty is very much losing.
I’ve always hated government, ever since I was about four years old and told my mother I wanted to find a job so I could earn some money. She laughed and said “they” wouldn’t let me. “They” had laws to “protect” children. I’d never asked anyone to protect me, and I deeply resented “them” for intruding into my life.
So I’ve always understood that “that government is best which governs least.” But my studies of the anarchic Revolution and the anarchic Founders turned me into a full-fledged anarchist (and let me clarify I use the word in its literal sense to mean “without a government—no politicians, no bureaucrats, no taxation, no war,” rather than as a synonym for “communist,” as do so many folks, particularly those in the media). Why should politicians and bureaucrats get away with stealing our money in taxation so they can foist abusive, incompetent, and wasteful “programs” on us while lording it over us? Let them leave us alone and find honest work for a change.
Tyler: Why do you think this story matters today? Do you see any parallels between the American Revolution and the United States today?
Becky: Oh, gracious, big time! The parallels are so vast in number I could write another book…hmmm….
Let’s take a single example: Bostonians’ heaving chests of the East India Company’s product into their harbor during their famous Tea Party.
You see the drawings of them disguised as Indians, wielding torches and hatchets, all because of a little ol’ tax on tea, and their dudgeon seems so quaint, doesn’t it? So different and remote from our world, where the government taxes everything up the wazoo all the time.
But start digging and you discover that the Tea Partiers were in some respects the earliest Occupiers of Wall Street, protesting cronyism and corruption. That’s because the East India Company was a corporation in bed with the British government—just like their American counterparts today. You can find examples of virtually all the corruption and abuses that characterize American politicians’ coziness with corporations in the Crown’s relationship to the East India Company: His or Her Majesty chartered it (i.e., granted it a monopoly on India’s trade, just as state and local governments do with “public” utilities and our trade in electricity or gas now); protected it from competition (today, licensing laws and onerous regulations defeat small businessmen before they ever enter the marketplace to compete with large corporations); extracted huge amounts of money from it (campaign contributions, anyone?); and endowed it with special privileges over other, smaller businesses and consumers. In colonial America, the Company controlled the sale of tea through various laws, which is another way of saying they controlled the consumers buying that tea—just as governments and corporations today jointly control us (to cite just two of hundreds of examples, they force drivers to buy automobile insurance, and we’re fighting multiple wars against villagers in the Middle East who’ve never harmed us for the benefit of Big Oil). The Company even had its own lobby in Parliament.
When the colonists threw the Company’s tea into Boston Harbor, they were protesting this whole rotten system. The difference between the Sons of Liberty and later Occupiers is that the former understood how complicit the State was, that it was just as guilty as and in complete cahoots with the East India Company. But the Occupiers foolishly expect politicians and bureaucrats to deliver us from—rather than to—their invaluable cronies and partners. Ain’t never happened yet, and ain’t gonna.
Tyler: Becky, I understand you are busy writing another book about Benedict Arnold, who makes a short and unflattering appearance in Halestorm. Will you tell us a little about that book?
Becky: Nathan still so besotted me when I finished Halestorm that I itched to prolong our relationship, second-hand and imaginary as it might be. I was so forlorn and lonely for him and for those times; I moped that I hadn’t been born in the 1750s. Then again…what if I were and stumbled across his execution while fleeing my home in burning New York City? What would I have thought and felt as I witnessed the hanging of this magnificent hero? Bingo, there’s my first—in the sense of seminal—scene, the one from which the rest of the book flows: a woman chances upon an incredibly gorgeous guy standing on a ladder about to hang. His last words, and his serene courage as he speaks them, thrill her to her core. His glance even rests on her as his executioners pull the linen hood over his face. Who is this woman, and what happens to her thereafter? How do her few moments at Nathan’s death inspire her to fight for freedom? And what does she think later, when scoundrels like Benedict Arnold betray the Cause?
I didn’t know much about Arnold or his treason. As I began researching both, the many ties and coincidences between his story and Nathan’s intrigued me. For instance, we meet Nathan’s friend, Benjamin Tallmadge, again. He’s now head of the Continental Army’s intelligence (inspired by Nathan!), and he’s the one who guards Arnold’s British go-between, Major John Andre, after the Continentals catch Andre behind their lines. This capture happened on September 23, 1780—four years almost to the day after Nathan hanged. Andre and Nathan were both charming, very well-educated, handsome men in their twenties, too. The coincidence just kept rolling on….
But a funny thing happened as I delved more and more deeply into the whys and wherefores of the treason and the man who was Benedict Arnold: I discovered that most of what we “know” about his alleged crime is either propaganda or an outright lie, promulgated by Arnold’s political enemies (when he became military governor of Philadelphia, he ran afoul of the powerful Radical Patriots there). Arnold was never the greedy arch-demon these politicians portrayed. Rather, he was a hero trying to save Philadelphia first and then America from the Radicals’ tyranny, which was worse than George III’s. (Tragically, that tyranny not only survived the Revolution, it still plagues us today. The Radicals were socialists who loved a strong, central government—so long as they were in charge of it.)
So my novel follows the adventures of Clem Shippen, who joins the Patriots after witnessing Nathan Hale’s execution. When her cousin marries Benedict Arnold and the treason begins unfolding, Clem agrees to deliver Arnold to the Continentals—until she discovers an explosive secret binding her fate and that of a new country to his….
Tyler: That’s fascinating, Becky. I can’t wait to read that book. But back to Nathan, when people finish reading Halestorm, like that young woman you envision witnessing his death, what result do you hope it has on those readers?
Becky: I hope it inspires them, too, with a love for liberty so intense they’ll fight—and, if necessary, die, but most certainly live—for it.
Tyler: Thank you again, Becky, for the interview. Before we go, will you tell where we can purchase Halestorm or find out more information about it?
Becky: Halestorm is available for Kindle on Amazon, for Nook at Barnes & Noble, and for iPads, Sony or even your computer (in pdf and other formats) at Smashwords. All are $2.99. If you’re a troglodyte like me who still enjoys the feel of an old-fashioned book in your hands, a hard copy is only $9.95 plus shipping (and whatever taxes politicians steal on this transaction).
Thanks very much, Tyler. We’ll have to turn the tables sometime so I can interview you about your novels!
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