Hurricane Sandy hit the New York metro area while he was promoting his latest book. On top of that, his flight back to Florida was delayed, wasting valuable time he had intended to volunteer to the Obama campaign. (Tuesday’s victory must have been a bright moment.) With all of his book promotions, political work, and upcoming appearance at the Miami Book Fair International, Heffernan is a busy man. Still, he managed to take the time to answer some questions about his career, inspirations, and latest book, When Johnny Came Marching Home, a historical novel about three men who head off to the Civil War and the tragedies that come from the horrors they face.
Your latest novel, When Johnny Came Marching Home, takes place during the Civil War era. What attracted you to that time period?
When Johnny Came Marching Home is first and foremost an anti-war novel. For the past ten years I watched our nation send its young men and women off to war. I saw many of those who survived return with their bodies and minds mutilated by the horrors that were forced upon them. As the father of three daughters and three sons I wanted to speak out about the madness of it all. I chose the Civil War because it is historically regarded as a “good and noble” war. For characters I chose three young men who grew up like brothers in an idyllic rural Vermont village. Then I marched them off to this “good and noble” war. One returned a cripple, one returned a monster, and one did not return at all. For me, the parallel of what we, today, have done to so many of our children, is clear.
How much historical research was necessary?
About six months, prowling the Internet and reading everything I could get my hands on about the Civil War, along with visits to many of the battlefields. The Vermont village where much of the novel takes place is the same village I used in my novel, Beulah Hill.
What challenges are there in writing historical fiction versus novels that take place in contemporary times? Do you prefer one to another?
Historical fiction is much more delicate in the sense that there are many readers who are experts about certain periods and who often have difficulty with some of the liberties that are inevitably taken in an historical novel purely for dramatic effect. Contemporary novels are far easier to write, so which I’d prefer would depend on how lazy I’m feeling at the time. My good friend, the late Mickey Spillane, was once asked how long it took him to write a novel. His answer: “It depends on how much I need the money?” It’s sort of the same, although this was a novel I felt I had to write.
You’ve written 18 novels, but prior to that you were a journalist who was nominated three times for the Pulitzer Prize and won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. What prompted you to shift to creative writing?
It was what I always wanted to do. I started out, after college, writing short stories that were published in literary magazines. Unfortunately I was paid in copies of the story and I simply couldn’t survive and the copies weren’t very tasty. Newspapers paid a living wage and allowed me to eat and to feed my growing family. When I finally wrote my first novel, and found it well received, I left journalism and never looked back.
Have things you’ve written as a journalist ever played into plotlines in your novels?
What is your favorite book that you’ve written?
I find that my favorite book is always the last one I wrote.
Are there any characters that you’ve created that you consider a reflection of yourself?
No. My characters are separate, living beings to me. They constantly surprise me by the decisions they make and the directions they choose during the course of the novel. It is what makes writing fiction so much fun. I never know what is going to happen. Publishers always want to see a synopsis of a book before they agree to publish, which I of course provide. Then I throw the synopsis away and start writing.
Who are your favorite authors and how have they influenced your writing?
Henry Miller was the literary hero of my youth. He made me want to write. Then, of course, there were the greats of American literature: Mark Twain, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. Graham Greene taught me that a writer could write serious fiction as well as “entertainments,” as he called them. Most critics haven’t figured that out yet. They need to put writers in neat pigeonholes. It makes it easier for them. Today I read mostly my friends: Martin Cruz Smith, Nelson DeMille, the late great Stuart Kaminsky, Peter Robinson, Eric Wright, Paco Tiabo II and many others. Some of the writers who influenced me were the most terrible writers who I shall not name. They taught me how not to write.
New Novels: A Reading: William Heffernan on When Johnny Came Marching Home, with Leonard Pitts, Jr. on Freeman and William Martin, The Lincoln Letter. 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17 at Miami Book Fair International in Room 8051, building 8.