I might as well write about the past. My mind spends time there. The Authors Collection.
May 18, 2013
I don’t live in the past. But my mind wanders there quite often, and my imagination hardly ever wants to leave.
Why? I asked myself.
Maybe, it’s because I’m bored with the present, I told myself.
Life has its hardships still. Life has its conflicts still.
But life is too easy for fiction.
Need to go cross-country? Grab a plane.
Car broke down in the middle of the desert? Call AAA roadside assistance.
Scared on a lonely street in the middle of the night? Fish out a cell phone.
Someone following you? Call 9-1-1.
Where is the fear?
Where is the panic?
Where is the threat?’
Where is the suspense?
For me, it’s all buried somewhere in the dark and murky shadows of the past, which is why my last two published novels have all been set during the early days of World War II, when villains wore the faces of evil, and we never forgot the way they looked or the travesties they committed, and we knew who our enemies were.
As I wrote in Secrets of the Dead:
The German’s eyes were bright and beginning to dilate. A sudden rush of unbridled adrenaline had shot through his veins. His hands were trembling. He had killed from afar. He had hidden in trenches and behind hedgerows and shot down soldiers who had no names and no faces, only forms marching across an empty field.
Now he must kill face to face.
Now he must kill close enough to smell the garlic on the dying man’s breath.
Now he must kill close enough to watch life depart from a man’s eyes.
A man who hesitates always dies long before his appointed time.
It was a thriller that could not have been set during any other period of history.
For those under forty, it might well be regarded as historical fiction.
But for those of us who remember World War II, even as young children, the events, the memories, the fears are still as vivid as if they had happened yesterday. For us, it’s not history at all. It is a black and white snapshot of our lives, taken when the world was black and white with no gray lines to smear the two.
I can still remember our family gathered around the radio at night, listening to Edward R. Murrow reporting from the bombed out streets of London, Walter Winchell’s coming on each evening saying, Good Evening Mr. and Mrs. America and all ships at sea, and Gabriel Heatter signing on with, There’s good news tonight, no matter how bad the news might be.
My father worked at a bomb plant, and he and my mother would speak in hushed, whispered tones about America frantically trying to invent a big bomb that would end all wars. They were just random rumors, of course, but my father believed them. He stuffed metal cylinders with TNT every day. If the Germans had the big bomb first, then Hitler would rule the world. And we would suffer a similar fate if such a weapon fell into the hands of the Russians.
I did not understand it all, but even as a little guy, I was intrigued by what they said. As Thomas Paine had written so many years earlier and I would learn later, these were definitely the times that tried men’s souls.
The battle for the bomb became the underlying thesis of my thriller, Conspiracy of Lies. As I wrote:
The scholars, the chemists, the physicists had all been scattered from one end of the country to another, working on isolated projects in labs at Berkeley, Chicago, and Columbia. All had ventured into a great unknown where only dreamers and theoreticians dwelled, and, for the first time in their lives, their dreams bordered on fission and atomic energy that could destroy whole cities with a single bomb. General Leslie Groves, in charge of the project, needed a protected and remote location, a private place where the newest secrets could be hidden away and kept from the prying eyes of German and Russian spies
The race was a simple one for the general and the scientists to understand. The Atomic bomb would end and win the war. Germany, from all reports, had a head start on building such a destructive weapon. Russia was working hard to catch up. America possessed the greatest minds – even if they did all speak with foreign tongues.
General Groves ordered Robert Oppenheimer to bring the best and the brightest to a unified separate laboratory deep in the mountains of New Mexico, a place where the scholars, chemists, and physicists could design, build, and test the bomb without the danger of valuable military secrets escaping outside its walls.
Oppenheimer became the director of the Manhattan Project. Only he had access to every detail of the project. Only he was married to a beautiful woman who just happened to be a communist.
Groves had one fear. He hoped that Robert Oppenheimer didn’t talk in his sleep at night.
I was asked a month or so ago whether or not I wrote historical fiction. I had never thought about it, but I don’t think I do. It is fiction about the past, and the events are real, the places are real, the basic conflicts are real, and some of the major players are real.
But it the story is a lie. The story is fiction.
It didn’t happen.
It could have.
But it didn’t.
“No,” I said, “I don’t write historical fiction. I write fictionalized history.”
“What’s the difference?” I was asked.
“Historical fiction is written to satisfy professors and historians,” I said. “I simply write novels about times, places, and characters that I would like to read.”
“But they’re in the past,” he said.
“They weren’t when I lived them,” I said.