Hi! Welcome to Zigzag Timeline. Can you tell us about your background as an author?
Before Glenfiddich Inn my writing was non-fiction in two unconnected areas. I was an on-air public radio programmer of Afro-Cuban music in Los Angeles. I was asked to write several pieces for music publications which I did, and found it to be an especially exciting experience as I was able to utilize my first hand access to musicians, producers, and journalists in the U.S., Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Later, I was asked to produce CD compilations for Rhino Records, and I wrote the extensive liner notes for those releases. I also produced two CDs, one of which, Late Night Sessions, received two Grammy nominations, and I wrote those liner notes as well.
I have, and I suspect, always will have, a perverse interest in the massive international bank frauds enabled by the U.S. Congress and, in Europe, by their governing bodies. As I have an M.Sc. in economics from the London School of Economics, I found myself writing for several websites about these frauds, which have essentially impoverished much of the world over the past thirty years.
What was the first idea you had for your book, and how did the story grow from there?
I was working with an HBO producer on a treatment about the life and times of Carlo Ponzi—for whom the now often referenced “Ponzi Scheme” was named. His scam, perpetrated in Boston, was based on an absurd moneymaking proposition—yet one that resulted in $10 million of losses to its many investors, and that was in 1920 dollars! Ponzi, a smalltime con man, was eventually done in by the unexpected success of this transparently fraudulent scheme.
While the film project did not make it to production, I was drawn to the events taking place in pre-WWI Boston. For one, Tufts College, outside of Boston, was a center for early experimentation in broadcasting—the transmission of wireless audio. Its’ enthusiasts called it “radio.”
Two of the female characters of Glenfiddich Inn are certain this new technology will soon connect the world in ways never before imagined—maybe even music could some day be heard in one’s home. However, the detractors dismissed these transmissions as a mere novelty—after all they asked, who would invest in a radio station if anyone with a receiver could listen to the content for free? Of course this was a precursor to the same argument made about the internet seventy years later.
Another thread in the pre-Great War Boston social tapestry that interested me was the arrival in 1914 of a teenage simpleton to the Boston Red Sox. His name was George Herman Ruth, who because of his size and adolescence was simply called “Babe” by the local sports writers. He was to become America’s first sports icon.
Babe Ruth, in my novel, becomes intertwined with two of the fictional characters and his trajectory from naïve pre-war teenager to a more cynical businessman by the end of the war parallels a similar transformation in American society.
One of the most dramatic events of the era is the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat. Several of the characters in Glenfiddich Inn are aboard that doomed voyage and their fate is not known until well into the story.
Coincidentally, this May 7, 2015 will be the centennial of that tragedy. That day I will be offering free Kindle copies in commemoration of the event.
These are just some of the historical signposts that attracted me during the writing of this novel.
Among your characters, who's your favorite? Could you please describe him/her?
Joe Finnerty is a young Boston Irish Catholic bank president—with a strong disdain for anything British. He has a cheerful amorality with which William Morrison, the protagonist and bank vice president, has a growing discomfort.
Finnerty is as at-ease with war profiteering as he is with dipping into widows’ trust accounts deposited at his bank for safekeeping. My first vision of Finnerty was as a minor character. However, Finnerty propelled himself into the story and emerges playing a greater role. Ultimately, he redeems himself in an unexpected (by me also) manner left for the reader to discover.
Another favorite is Margaret Morrison, William’s wife, who is a sophisticated Bostonian of that era—one fully charged with indignation about the plight of working people and the surrounding cynicism or indifference regarding the destructive war still far away in Europe. Her commitment to the future of radio, and its’ misuse by the government when the war starts, impels Margaret down a dangerous path.
What's your favorite scene from your novel? Could you please describe it?
I never thought of that before you asked this question. I would say the scene that begins with Helen Townsend on the train from Boston to New York. She has been working as a graphic artist for President Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 re-election campaign. The trip to New York promises to be a great adventure for her for two reasons—
The next day’s presidential election is expected to be the closest in American history and the results will be, for the first time ever, read over the radio. Helen has been involved in the growth of this technology and so she has a special interest in hearing the presidential elections results being broadcast as the returns are counted. It is expected that the signal will even be heard many miles from its radio station in Highbridge in the Bronx.
Equally exciting for Helen is a growing interest in Vincent Chelios, a member of Wilson’s re-election team. Although Helen is married, her husband Byron has left her on several occasions to seek boyish adventures as a foreign war correspondent. She is uncertain how Vincent feels about her, but she is excited just at the thought of being near him again—and away from the family in Boston.
What's your favorite part of writing? Plotting? Describing scenes? Dialogue?
My favorite part of writing this historical novel came to be the interaction of the fictional characters with the quick moving real events of the story. This period was so lush with drama and conflict that profoundly affected each character—I was never certain how they would react. All too often I was surprised by where they took me as the events unfolded.
How long does it take you to write a book? Do you have a writing process, or do you wing it?
I wrote this novel over several years. I didn’t sit at the computer for that amount of time and I often left the story while tending to the rest of my life. These intervals away from writing seemed to reinvigorate me as I many times found myself thinking about a character and a specific situation that I left them in. I felt like I had to accompany them through the moment and resolve it to still my own disquiet.
What is it about the genre you chose that appeals to you?
I have always been attracted to historical novels as well as narrative non-fiction. I remember the deep impression Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August had upon me. Similarly, I found Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead to be a profound reading experience. I can think of Cold Mountain as well. All of these are but few examples of terrifying moments in American and world history in which the authors gave the readers an insight unavailable in the dry historical context that are often presented to us.
Are there any books or writers that have had particular influence on you?
Beside the above, I have been deeply moved by the historical works of Gore Vidal. I can’t think of anyone who described so many eras in history in such illuminating brushstrokes.
As far as narrative non-fiction, another favorite author of mine is Erik Larson. His Devil in the City of Lights is a masterpiece of the genre—he integrates two parallel stories —the culture-changing Chicago World Fair of 1892 with the hunt for one of America’s first depraved serial killers stalking the Chicago train stations for young women attracted to the bright lights of the world fair.
His latest work Dead Wake is next on my reading list as it tells the story of the last voyage of the Lusitania—coincidentally a key historical moment in my novel. I’m looking forward to reading his account as I have done extensive research on that subject.
Did you ever surprise yourself when you were writing your book? Characters who took on lives of their own? Plot elements that took unexpected turns?
Actually all of Glenfiddich Inn took on a life of its own. As I mentioned before, the actual historical events shaped the characters as the story evolved. Of course, I always knew the war would end but how would the characters be transformed? So many surprises awaited me, including the Great Influenza Epidemic that swept the world just as the war came to a conclusion. But I may be giving too much away—so I’ll stop now. Thanks for having me!
Thanks for stopping by!