Give Me Liberty
1."Give Me Liberty" offers an intriguing insight into the beginnings of the Revolutionary War. What made you choose to tell the story through the eyes of an indentured servant, for whom the liberty that was sought has a different meaning?
I thought Nathaniel should be an indentured servant for a number of reasons. We forget about the fact so many people willingly sold themselves into bondage, often to brutal circumstances, to come to the colonies. The promise of the New World, of its new life, was that strong. (At one point, nearly half of Virginia’s residents were bound servants!) Nathaniel’s indentureship makes him a symbol of colonists’ quest for liberty, really. The underlying precept of the Revolution was that every person—no matter how poor or ill-educated—had the in-born ability and intelligence to govern himself. It was a truly radical notion. I hope that Nathaniel’s journey from a frightened, timid servant to a willing volunteer in the 2nd Virginia Regiment really illustrates how immense a leap it was to go from being a king’s subject to someone who could potentially participate in carving out new laws for a new country. When offered his liberty, Nathaniel asks with amazement: “Free to make my own choices? Free to make my own coming and going?” A whole new universe opened up to him at that moment—the American Revolution’s gift was that basic, that pervasive, that challenging, and that earth-shattering.
2. I really enjoyed the character, Basil, and his intelligent insights. Was he influenced by anyone in particular that you discovered in your research?
I am so glad that you like Basil so much. He is one my favorite characters! The day-to-day circumstances of Basil’s life came from reading two journals kept by schoolmasters, John Harrower and Philip Vickers Fithian. His personality, his infectious enthusiasm, just came as I wrote. Good characters are amalgamations—combinations—of people you’ve met, characters you’ve read, information about an era, pure imagination. The American Revolution evolved during such a phenomenal time in man’s growth—the Age of Enlightenment. We were learning about so many different things so quickly. Our leaders were true “Renaissance thinkers.” Thomas Jefferson, for instance, was a brilliant and innovative farmer, lawyer, architect, scientist of nature and mechanics, musician, writer, and philosopher. New ideas, new concepts of man’s worth were being discussed with huge and awed excitement. Suddenly—for the first time—man seemed limitless. Basil’s delight in ideas, his innocent idealism, and his contagious belief in Nathaniel as a blossoming human being are born of the times.
His endearing quirks? Well, let’s just say I’ve had some terribly inspiring but slightly befuddled or absent-minded professors in my day and known some intellectuals whose common sense is not as high as their flights of philosophy.
3. The characters, setting and dialogue ring so true for the times. What research did you do to prepare?
I read and read and read! I read histories and biographies plus journals and newspapers of the time. Everything needed to be dictated by that reading, since I didn’t live in the 1770s. For instance, Nathaniel’s name was picked from a list of passengers who arrived in Leedstown in 1774 with John Harrower. The description of his clothes (and others) came from re-enactment guides and ads for runaways posted in the Virginia Gazette. Edan Maquire’s ads and tirades against the patriots sprung from ads truly run by a Williamsburg carriage-maker, Elkanah Deane. Cold remedies came from housewives’ accounts. Events such as the fact that a hurricane had ripped up the James River, torn apart the Tidewater, and caused Lord Dunmore to fall off a boat and get “dunked” or that recruits were using town doors as target practice for their tomahawks and not using the “necessaries” or that during a ball at the governor’s palace the oversized wigs of the affluent (the “big wigs”) fell off as they danced—all stemmed from newspaper accounts of the time.
I also spent a lot of time watching and talking with historical re-enactors from the 1st and 2nd Virginia Regiments and artisans at Williamsburg, who truly know and practice their crafts as they were done in the 1700s. At the Rockefeller Library, I was able to read guides written for and by these interpreters as well as see original letters and journals. I was blessed to meet librarians who are so excited about the material and happy to dig up interesting documents. One librarian at the Rockefeller Library was so concerned about Maria Rind after hearing my tales of her that she researched Williamsburg census records to find out what happened to her. The entire sequence of events involving Nathaniel’s friend Ben and the explosion at the gunpowder magazine stemmed from her sending me a one page testimonial from a Revolutionary War veteran, written in the 1800s when he was requesting back pension. There were two lines about what happened on Whitsunday 1775, but they completely corroborated what I wanted to write as being completely plausible.
All these things fill a writer’s head with revealing details that “show rather than tell” how life really was at that time and hopefully bring it vividly alive for the reader.
4. The music is discussed in such great detail that I could almost hear it played. Are you a musician yourself and did you learn to play any of the colonial instruments?
I am a musician. How nice that you can tell! I play piano and flute. Actually, throughout high school and much of college, I wanted to be a professional musician rather than a writer. (But, in truth, I am a better writer, so it’s good I made that choice!) Because I am a flutist I had played colonial-period recorders (English flutes) a great deal. And I was very familiar with the composers of that time through my own musical studies. So those passages did come very much from the heart as I wrote.
I am in the process of learning to play a fife so I can demonstrate it to student groups. Like most flutists, during school, I played piccolo—a very small, shrill flute, about the size and sound of a fife. So I thought picking the fife up would be a snap. I was wrong! Because it only has holes, no keys, and because it’s one continuous piece of wood (with no head joint to adjust for tuning), it is extremely hard to finger and play on pitch. I really admire those long-ago fifers who could manage to sing out music well enough for companies of men to understand what they were supposed to do next.
I also knew from personal experience how music can draw out the shy, help integrate them into a group, and show a young person that he or she can stand up and face a challenge with success. It seemed the natural way for Nathaniel to grow out of his shell, called by the music, much as “fife calls” pulled men into action. I included songs as the openers to each section to show readers how people back then used poetry and music to express political ideas—a lot like the anti-Vietnam war protest songs of the 1960s.
And as a side-note on the craft of writing, I think studying music is one of the best influences on a writer, because it teaches you about pacing, rhythm, building tension, climbing to a crescendo, and then resolution—all things that good writing needs. Words, like notes in music, can have a sound effect of their own—short, active, percussive words connote urgency and push a reader through a chapter’s action much like a drum beat. Longer, more fluid, descriptive words slow a reader down and help them absorb philosophies or the conflicting emotions of a character. I always read my passages aloud to myself to test for that kind of musicality and sense of timing.
5. Will there be a second book about Nathaniel and Basil?
I would love to follow Nathaniel and Basil through the Revolutionary War, I like them so much. Characters continue to walk beside a writer, talking, even when the writing is done. You worry about them and wonder what they’d do under new challenges. I think Nathaniel is now ready, strong enough, to get into some true heroics, don’t you think? Currently, I am working on a sequel to my WWII novel, Under a War-torn Sky. But after that, who knows?