“Tinkering” with History
I was in a large bookstore a few months ago and had one of those unfortunate experiences that are commonplace among us “midlist” authors. (“Midlist” is, incidentally, a common euphemism in the publishing business; it’s a relatively nice way to say “bottom of the pecking order, and apparently it applies to everyone who has had a book published but who cannot retire in luxury from the proceeds.)
In other words: nearly all of us.
We who reside on the midlist are doomed to haunting the bookstore aisles in search of prospective readers who seem to be searching for reading matter, with an eye toward enticing them into picking up our latest effort and, perhaps, falling in love with it. It happens just often enough to raise our hopes and fails to happen just enough to plunge us into despair.
She followed me eagerly as I led her to the books that had my name on them.
“I think my books might interest you,” I said. “I wrote a number of books with historical settings, mostly American and mostly set before the Civil War. My protagonist is a New England lawyer, a friend of Andrew Jackson, who . . .”
“Oh, I don’t care for historicals,” she said. “I want a nice murder mystery!” And off she went.
By the time I had formulated a suitable response, she was gone. I’m still unsure that I would have come up with a suitable response, but it seemed appropriate at the time. I’d be interested in what – if anything – I might have said. In any event, I doubt that it would have mattered.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve come up against this objection. Readers of cozies (as traditional mysteries are sometimes characterized) seem to think historicals lack the requisite romance element, as if the whole boy-girl thing began with Rock Hudson and Doris Day. Readers of romances apparently believe that historical mysteries produce an insufficient number of ripped bodices.
Of course, murder is a fact of life today, as it was in the past. Regardless of what we may believe about the “rightness” of it, murder happened, and it happened frequently.
The fact is that we are all to some extent the products of our previous thoughts and actions. And not only our thoughts and actions.
Everyone’s past is our present. As an example, I present to you the subject of my current book, the Mississippi River.
The Mississippi River: native Americans called it the “Father of Waters.” It served the youthful United States as a major transportation artery in a time before the existence of railroads, aircraft and Interstate highways. It fostered territorial expansion, watered any number of farms, and developed international trade. It also led to the development of steam-powered railroads and riverboats and made the United States a major exporter of agricultural commodities.
But Americans are tinkerers by disposition, and we couldn’t leave well-enough alone. We took over the river and systematically “improved” it by removing logjams, deepening channels, and straightening many of the river’s twists and turns – in the service of efficiency.
In the process, we very nearly destroyed it. We didn’t foresee the inevitable consequences of our efforts, which would have been disastrous for New Orleans – not to mention for the millions of people who depended on the river for their livelihood.
The Army Corps of Engineers recognized the problem, fortunately, and cobbled together a solution that has held the river in check for half a century. But it’s only a temporary solution, and it could easily be reversed. My new book, Old River, is a fictional conjecture about an attempt to do just that. I think (he said modestly) that, in telling a fictional story. it explains the problem and the possible consequences of inaction.
Old River, as I said, is fiction. But it could be fact with a little bit of tinkering. And Americans – as I believe I’ve said – are tinkerers.
Clyde Linsley was born 1942 in Little Rock, Arkansas. He graduated from Little Rock Central High School in 1960 (at the height of the desegregation controversy). Linsley attended Little Rock University (one year), then transferred to the University of Missouri. There, he received a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the Missouri School of Journalism in 1964. That was followed by two years of graduate study in theology and social ethics at Colgate Rochester Divinity School where he didn’t get a degree but gained interesting knowledge and significant expenses and considered it worth every penny.
When asked what inspires his writing, Clyde quotes a favorite writer:
“William Faulkner wrote that the past isn’t irrelevant, and that it is “not even past.” As a Southerner who has lived most of his adult life in the east, I keep finding the past encroaching on the present, wherever I go. If there is a single theme to my books, it’s probably that what happens tomorrow is directly related to what happened yesterday. Europeans are probably more aware of this, because they have so much more history, but it’s just as true on this side of the pond.”
Most of his stories have echoes from the past.
After school, he worked on state and national political campaigns, two presidential inaugurations, and wrote radio news for a small New Hampshire broadcaster. He was also a reporter for a (now defunct) daily newspaper, a freelance writer and a mystery novelist. Clyde is married with three offspring (now adults) and lives with his wife in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC.