Monday, February 11, 2013

Becky Akers Brings Famous Spy Nathan Hale to Life

Becky Akers, a historian and freelance writer, has kicked up a "Halestorm" (you might say) with a debut novel set in her favorite period, the American Revolution. Akers' focus is on Nathan Hale, the schoolteacher-turned-soldier-turned-spy, who has gone down in American history as perhaps the most famous hero to be hanged. Akers' writings have appeared in several publications, including The Washington Post, Barron's, Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Post, but she's turned to fiction with Halestorm, her first novel.

I had the privilege of interviewing Ms. Akers via email, and I'm delighted to bring our online conversation to the attention of my readers. My questions are bold and in italics. I hope you'll pick up a copy of Halestorm and that you'll enjoy the interview.

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"Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview. My blog readers will, I know, appreciate it. So....this is your first novel, correct?"

Thanks so much, Rev. Tubbs. I appreciate the opportunity to chat with you and your readers today.

To answer your question, Halestorm is not only my first novel, but some of my first writing-for-publication ever.

I’d always wanted to write fiction, especially historical novels (my favorite genre!), but I wasn’t sure how one makes a living at that. So when I graduated college, I went to work as an editor, figuring that was the next best thing. Boy, was I wrong! Several jobs later, I quit to write full-time, and Halestorm was among my first efforts. Surprise: the publishing world wasn’t eagerly awaiting The Next Great American Novel from an unknown writer, so I spent the next years compiling a portfolio, with articles in The Washington Post, The New York Post, the Christian Science Monitor, Barron’s, lewrockwell.com, forbes.com, etc.

"Why Nathan Hale?"

I have loved Nathan Hale since I was a child of 4 or 5 and first heard or read about him – I can’t remember which it was.

My mother’s 16-year-old brother died in a car crash two weeks before I was born. So my earliest memories include the agony a family suffers when a young man dies. My uncle’s name happened to be Dale; somehow, as little kids will, I conflated that with “Hale” in my mind. Nathan Dale-Hale was more than a mere historical hero to me: he was an absent but utterly beloved brother.

"What lessons can Americans today take from someone like Nathan Hale?"

That liberty is among God’s greatest gifts to us, more precious even than life.

Many folks mistake Nathan’s sacrifice for nationalism – the “my-country,-right-or-wrong” mentality. And while that’s tragic, it’s understandable, given the warped version of his speech on the gallows bequeathed to us. That famous line – “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country” – actually originated with Capt. (later Gen.) William Hull, one of Nathan’s buddies from college. He heard an account of the execution from an eyewitness, which he included in his memoirs as an old man. And then he paraphrased – inaccurately – the quote from a report on Nathan’s death the Boston Chronicle published just six years after the hanging: “I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged, that my only regret is that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service.” Obviously, Hull’s condensation packs a greater punch, but it also changes “cause [of liberty]” to “country” – an unfortunate and nationalistic rewrite.

"How long did it take you to write Halestorm?"

Not long enough! I loved Nathan even more when I had finished writing the book. In fact, I came up with the idea for my second novel in part because I was so lonely for him and those glorious Revolutionary times – I longed to continue my immersion in both.

"How much research did you do in writing Halestorm?"

Enormous amounts.

Though Nathan has been my hero forever, I didn’t really know that much about him. And while I’d always loved the American Revolution, ditto. I majored in Greek and Latin in college (partly because the Founding Fathers were fluent in both), so I hadn’t studied American history then either. Ergo, I started from scratch – but that may have been a blessing. Far too many history departments are bastions of Marxism whose professors denigrate or pervert the Revolution.

"In writing historical fiction, how do you balance facts and true events with the need for creative license?"

Nathan is the ideal subject in that respect (and so many others!) because we know enough about his life and death to provide the plot for an incredibly dramatic, exciting novel – far more dramatic and exciting than anything I could invent – yet we know little enough that there’s plenty of room for imagination. For example, we know that the Redcoats captured him sometime on Saturday, September 21, 1776 and hanged him the next morning at 11 AM. But how did they capture him? And what happened between his arrest and hanging? My task was to fill those gaps while remaining true to the period, to Nathan’s character, and to the general pathos of a 21-year-old boy’s confronting certain, shameful death.

"Is the Revolutionary War era your favorite period of American history? If so, why?"

It absolutely is!

I adore the Revolution because of its fierce devotion to human freedom. Now, all three million Americans then weren’t anarchists, hating politicians, corporatism, government and bureaucracy, but most of them were pretty close. They understood that government is our direst enemy, not the benefactor that too many of their descendants consider it.

"Tell us what you're working on next."

My second novel follows the adventures of Benedict Arnold (who makes a cameo appearance in Halestorm – and some of Halestorm’s characters likewise figure in this next book). I was astonished at what I found while researching his treason: Arnold was in fact a hero, not the greedy, villainous traitor so many historians paint him. While he was military governor of Philadelphia, he tangled constantly with the Radical Patriots – early communists and totalitarians. Arnold fought them valiantly; then, when they seemed about to triumph and hijack the entire Revolution, he turned to the British as a lesser threat and the only agency that could save Americans from the worse tyranny of the Radicals.

Combine that with a tale of espionage, heartbreakingly close calls, and profound betrayal, and again you have a story far more riveting than any novelist could invent.

"I'm sure the novel on Benedict Arnold will provoke lots of discussion. Can't wait to see that. In the meantime, best of luck with Halestorm and, once again, thank you for your time and for bringing such an important hero to life."

Thank you. Like I said, I appreciate the opportunity to chat with you and your readers today as well as all your scholarship on the American Revolution.

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