Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Q&A with L.M. Elliott

L.M. Elliott is the author of Suspect Red, a new novel for older kids. Her other books include Under a War-Torn Sky and A Troubled Peace.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Suspect Red, and for your main character, Richard?

A: The idea for Suspect Red began with the deadly Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 as I listened to the heated debate about surveillance and how to prevent horrific tragedies like it. The issues: National security versus Americans’ right to privacy, proactive caution regarding travel visas versus unfair racial profiling.

As a historical fiction writer, I’ve learned the past often gives us the perfect prism through which to view issues of today. It takes away the heat of immediacy and diffuses the human tendency to dig in and not listen when presented arguments that we already have an opinion about, pro or con.  

One of the most powerful metaphors for McCarthyism, for instance, is the play The Crucible. Yes, it’s about the Salem witch trials, but Miller also meant it as a poignant, powerful statement about the mob mentality he was witnessing during the 1950s Red Scare.

So McCarthyism seemed the perfect springboard for me to explore the debate we’ve been grappling with since September 11, 2001. How do we protect our citizens from those who plot to harm us while still maintaining our core democratic principals and freedoms? How to recognize “clear and present dangers” but NOT succumb to unfounded suspicion, xenophobia, and hysteria?

The same questions had been raised during the 1950s Red Scare, when a handful of people endangered the United States by spying for the Soviet Union.

Much like recent terrorist groups, the USSR was infiltrating and taking over its neighboring countries, aggressively spreading anti-American fervor across the globe, and trying to plant agents to “radicalize” our citizens. Like Hitler, Stalin was rounding up and sending political dissidents, Jews, and ethnic groups he didn’t like to Siberian gulags to labor and die.

We had just witnessed the atrocities caused by our dropping an atomic bomb on Japan. Now the Soviets had developed their own—aided in part by Americans.

Physicist Karl Fuchs confessed to spying for the Soviets while he worked at the Manhattan Project that developed our bomb. The Rosenbergs were also convicted of passing our atomic secrets to the Russians.

State Department official Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury while denying he was a Soviet mole. And a double agent named Elizabeth Bentley accused 37 federal employees of secretly working for the communists. Add to that tension the Cold War and its terrifying nuclear arms race, plus the Korean War.
So the danger was real. As was our national paranoia that Senator McCarthy exploited and fanned, resulting in thousands of innocent people losing their jobs and reputations.

Convinced by McCarthy and fellow Red-hunter, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, that communists were lurking everywhere, Americans turned on one another.

Anyone with “radical” thoughts or untraditional life styles, anyone who signed petitions, protested deportations, or spoke up for civil rights or labor reform; anyone who read the “wrong books” (Steinbeck, Thoreau, Langston Hughes are examples), had “the wrong friends” (social activists, Eastern European immigrants), listened to the “wrong kind of music” (jazz or Russian classical), or liked “the wrong kind of visual art” (cubist or abstract) was suddenly suspect.

Such “subversives” were hauled in front of Loyalty Review Boards or McCarthy’s Senate subcommittee to answer questions about their beliefs and activities, their friends and romances, AND to “name names” of others the government should target for investigation.

If they didn’t, they could be smeared as “Un-American,” fired, blacklisted, or jailed for contempt of Congress. 

“There are no degrees of disloyalty. A man is either loyal or disloyal,” McCarthy barked.

In this kind of world, “guilt by association” or simply looking “soft on communist” was enough to land someone on an FBI watch list. (“If it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it must be a duck” became a favorite euphemism.)

As former president Harry Truman said—when McCarthy accused even him of being “a communist dupe”—McCarthyism is the corruption of truth, the abandonment of due process of law. It is the use of the big lie and the unfounded accusation in the name of Americanism or security.

Because I was a journalist first, I wanted to create a novel presenting both sides of the Red Scare—the legitimate concerns versus unfair stereotyping and targeting.  

Suspect Red became the story of two teenage boys caught up in the maelstrom of McCarthyism—one (Richard) who might be pushed to investigate or persecute the other (his best friend Vladimir).
I set it in Washington, the eye of the hurricane.

Richard belongs to an All-American family. His WWII veteran dad works for the FBI and believes deeply in American freedoms. Don is an archetype, a patriot who fought Hitler, sincerely dedicated to making the world safe for democracy.

The Bradleys are the type of family whose admirable principles and sense of service could be exploited by a demagogue. Don might overlook his misgivings about a leader because “he believes in the cause, not the man.”

Then there’s Vlad, whose career foreign service father works for the State Department—one of McCarthyism’s biggest targets.  I added in an Eastern-European immigrant and artist mother, and a bodacious, beatnik sister, so that the White family brings bold, cosmopolitan about culture and politics—(what many would label “radical” or “subversive”)—to Richard’s neighborhood.

Vlad’s family represents those Ivy League intellectuals McCarthy and Hoover hated. (Those “coastal elites” many today distrust and want “drained” away.) 

Vlad is a jazz-loving saxophonist, a sophisticated, well-traveled newcomer who can so expand another teen’s perspectives—if that teen is not conditioned to be prejudiced against differing cultures and lifestyles. Vlad is the kind of promising kid whose future and idealism could be ruined by the juggernaut of McCarthyism-style rumor.

The boys, in essence, are foils to one another. Richard is quickly drawn to Vlad’s musical sensibilities and passion for books, which he shares. “Geeks” rule in this novel!

But as pressures mount on his dad at the FBI and Richard sees things at Vlad’s house that many would suspect “Red,” the lines between friend and foe, to whom Richard owes loyalty, blur.

Richard has to weigh the country’s political definition of patriotism and the needs of his dad as a “G-man” against his best friend—whose father could be ruined by gossip or any hint that he might be sympathetic to Eastern European communists.

I hope Suspect Red shows in very human terms the devastating influence of hate rhetoric on ordinary people. It is a coming of age story in turbulent times, a parable of choices. A look at the heroism it takes to not succumb to pack-mentality, alarmist rhetoric, power cliques, or gossip (stories that have “gone viral”).

It exposes the consequences of blindly accepting insinuation as fact and spreading that innuendo to others; the unfairness of profiling/labeling a group indiscriminately because of the actions of a few; and failing to question the motives or verify the statements of national leaders who preach such condemnations.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: Oh my gosh—so much! For both questions.

I always research my novels heavily before deciding what to write. For Suspect Red, I read 1950s newspapers and magazines, scholarly analysis of the Cold War, and bios on McCarthy, Hoover, and journalist Edward R. Murrow.

I watched Youtube clips of McCarthy’s speeches, Murrow’s See it Now broadcasts and witnesses’ testimony in front of McCarthy’s committee.

I re-read The Crucible, Fahrenheit 451, and Lord of the Flies—all written during and about the Red Scare—as well as books like I Led 3 Lives, Herbert Philbrick’s chronicle of his experiences as a FBI secret-agent embedded in a communist cell.  

I interviewed former State Department and congressional officials. I watched 1950s TV shows and movies to get the lingo and pop culture details to make my dialogue, clothes, food, music, and settings authentic.  

Current movies like George Clooney’s Good Night, Good Luck and Bryan Cranston’s portrayal in Trumbo of the blacklisted screenwriter infused my thinking.

So much of what I learned surprised (and sickened) me—the loyalty oaths Americans were required to take to keep their jobs, the review boards that could dismiss employees on the flimsiest hints of impropriety or lack of patriotic zeal, defined in Executive Order 10450 as “complete and unswerving loyalty to the United States.”  

In October 1953, Eisenhower announced that 1,456 federal employees had been fired as potential subversives or susceptible to coercion from communist recruiters.

Reasons included having friends or extended family trapped in communist countries; interest in Russian literature, music, or travel; once attending a party where suspected communists might have been; donating money to left-leaning political organizations, charities or refugee funds; or being homosexual (labeled “perversion” at the time).

More people were dismissed from the Library of Congress, for instance, for their sexual preference than for their political beliefs.
Speaking of libraries—books were banned and even burned during the Red Scare if they contained “proletariat” themes. Books like Robin Hood! In 1953, an Indiana State textbook commissioner called for banning all references to Robin Hood in schools because he “robbed from the rich and gave it to the poor. That’s the Communist Line. It’s just a smearing of law and order.”

Across the country, librarians pulled copies of Robin Hood—fearful of local councils, trustee boards, or neighborhood watchdog groups. By that point dozens of librarians had been fired or hounded out of their jobs.

The reasons? They might have refused to remove liberal magazines like The New Republic. Or they wouldn’t sign affidavits swearing they’d never “been a member of, or directly or indirectly supported or followed” a long list of organizations the FBI tagged as suspect. (In California, the list included 146 groups.)

No library was safe from scrutiny. The Boston Post attacked the venerable Boston Public Library for displaying Lenin’s Communist Manifesto. The insinuation being the librarians were facilitating, even encouraging communist thought.

The Post demanded Boston follow the lead of countless other libraries across the nation and “label its poison”— all books by any author thought to have any communist associations should bear a stamp.

Works about socialist governing should be quarantined in reference rooms so their messages could not be carried out into the community. That also required the reader to sign for it, leaving his/her name emblazoned on a list of people interested in Soviet philosophies.

Remarkably, the famous FBI double agent Philbrick said the library should actually stock more pro-Soviet materials to provide the public a way to study communist dogma “to better know the enemy.” 

Another, more inspiring surprise: Against this pervasive inquisition and hysteria rose up five Indiana University students.

Banning Robin Hood was their tipping point. The coeds had been looking for a symbol to use in protesting McCarthyism’s siege on freedom of speech. They found it in the legendary feather-capped green hats worn by Robin Hood and his Merry Men. The IU students went to local farms, gathered bags of feathers, and dyed them green in a dorm room bathtub.

In early March 1954—when McCarthy was in his height of power, arrogant and confident enough to accuse the Army and a decorated WWII general of coddling communists—these daring students proclaimed themselves “The Green Feather Movement” and spread their Robin Hood-defiant feathers across campus.

They were immediately attacked as being “communist dupes” and radical “longhairs.” Newspapers denounced them. Some student groups jeered them. Hoover’s FBI began watching them. 

But even with such intimidation tactics, the Merry Men protests spread. To fellow Big Ten universities, to Harvard, to UCLA (where my fictional character, Natalia, joins its ranks). Their feathers helped knock over that terrifying king-of-the-hill bully, Joseph McCarthy, and his minions.

Their legacy continued into the next decade. Many historians credit these five feather-wielding students with initiating campus-activism that would prove so important to the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.

Their example prompted me to make my two teenage boy protagonists book-lovers. Richard and Vlad often find their answers, their courage, in what they read. Isn’t that what books are all about? 

Q: The book includes photos and documents from the 1950s. How did you decide on what to include?

A: Each chapter is a self-contained month. The news accounts and photos punctuating its opening are historic fact, occurring in that month.

I begin June 1953, with the Rosenbergs’ execution as spies, and end June 1954 with an attorney’s impassioned outcry during a particularly egregious round of questioning by McCarthy during the televised Army hearings: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty….Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

That timeline traced McCarthyism’s influence from its height to the beginning of its unraveling. Including photos, posters, headlines, and events of those months added a graphic, first-hand experience and potent immersion for my readers into those disturbing twelve months of American history. Far better to show rather than tell!

Q: Do you see any parallels between the period you write about in the novel and today?

A: Oh my, yes. I didn’t set out to write a novel that would have such relevance to our current political scene—as much as the journalist in me would like to claim such prescience.

Many political pundits and historians have written on the echoes between President Trump and Senator McCarthy. The following is a synopsis of much discussed similarities:
A nation primed: when McCarthy burst into celebrity, a mere five years after the end of WWII’s carnage, the country was weary of what they saw as European-born crises. Many were “fed up” with FDR’s New Deal liberals and their international interests and tolerance. McCarthy played off that by dismissing East Coast Ivy-Leaguers who permeated Washington, D.C., as weak “egg-heads.” 

Compare that to what many term as this past election’s “white-lash” against our first African American president, his progressive policies and erudite diplomacy, plus Donald Trump’s blustery promise “to drain the swamp,” and his dismissal of “coastal elites” as clueless snobs.

Both McCarthy and Trump exuded a brash, irreverent outsider image, a renegade persona, that appealed to the disenfranchised and to voters deep in our nation’s heartland who felt ignored by the Washington establishment.

These were often voters with less personal exposure to immigrants or cultures outside the United States and potentially more susceptible to xenophobia and fear-mongering stereotypes.

Both men used conspiracy theories to whip up support. For McCarthy, it was the specter of Soviet spies embedded in our communities, Eastern Europeans, Jewish intellectuals, the media, and “radical,” anti-establishment writers and artists. Compare that to Trump’s Muslim bans, his promise to build the wall to keep out “bad hombres,” and his birtherism claims about President Obama.
Coining catchy, character-assassination labels. McCarthy’s favorite: “Pinko,” “dupes,” “5th Amendment communists,” “fellow travelers,” and the not-so-veiled threat of “Better dead than Red.” For Trump: “Lying Ted,” “Crooked Hillary,” “criminal aliens,” and the chilling, witch-burning chant: “Lock her up.”
Deflecting criticism by attacking the questioner. When Murrow broadcast his expose on McCarthy, the senator tried to smear the reporter as being a “pinko,” citing Murrow’s involvement with Russian student exchange programs in the 1930s.

McCarthy threatened another reporter by saying he’d hate for that journalist to give McCarthy a reason to investigate him considering the man had six kids, adding, “When you write stuff like that, you’re helping the communists.” 

Trump implies journalists are essentially an enemy of the people and discredits them by demeaning—“fake news,” “lightweights,” “over-rated,” and even debasing female reporters as having “blood coming out of her wherever.”

The irony is both men knew media attention was their ticket to power. At first, the press covered them as titillating sideshows they didn’t take seriously, unwittingly lending them credibility. In 1953, the managing editor of the Raleigh News and Observer said, “The press made McCarthy. We go hog wild whenever he speaks. How long are we going to quote irresponsible statements?” 

Unsubstantiated innuendo and outright lies: McCarthy was all about strategic exaggeration, what Trump himself would later dub “truthful hyperbole” in his Art of the Deal and his staffers would call “alternative fact.”

Bullying: McCarthy browbeat witnesses—sometimes asking if they felt they deserved the same fate as the executed Rosenbergs. Trump egged on crowds to boo or manhandle opponents as he did in Iowa, telling his rally listeners to “knock the crap out of” protestors who had tomatoes, and promising, “I will pay the legal fees.” 

McCarthy urged Americans to boycott businesses that advertised in newspapers critical of him. He threatened to have the FCC review licenses of radio stations that didn’t carry his speeches.

When millions of people were in terrible danger from hurricanes and Kim Jong Un threatened nuclear holocaust—Trump worried about whipping up boycotts to force the firing of NFL athletes exercising their first amendment rights as proof of his “making America great again.” Suddenly standing for the national anthem seems proof of loyalty required for employment.

I would simply add, as Murrow said, we must never “confuse dissent with disloyalty.”

Both McCarthy and Trump seemed determined to dismantle the State Department and target the LGBT community. During the 1950s’ “lavender scare,” any hints of homosexuality became grounds for dismissal from federal agencies.

Compare that to Trump’s recent attempts to bar transgender service members from the military, Vice President Pence’s opposition to gay rights, and Trump’s emptying the State Department.

Finally: The direct connection of Roy Cohn. An attack-dog style attorney, Cohn was an assistant U.S. attorney in the 1951 espionage trail of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In his autobiography, Cohn claimed it was he who influenced the judge to order Ethel’s execution as well, despite the scant evidence against her and the fact she was the mother of two small boys.

Cohn became McCarthy’s chief counsel and right-hand man. His zealousness and legal expertise turned McCarthy’s investigations into harrowing prosecutions.

After the Senate finally censored McCarthy, Cohn returned to private practice and became one of the most feared lawyers in New York City. He would be indicted and acquitted four times on charges including bribery, extortion, conspiracy, securities fraud, and obstruction of justice.

Right before he died in 1986 from AIDS, Cohn was disbarred for “unethical, unprofessional and particularly reprehensible” conduct. 
Trump was 27 when he met Cohn at a Manhattan club and asked how he and his father should respond to the Justice Department suing them for housing discrimination. The 46-year-old Cohn replied: hit back harder, countersue. Muddy the waters so the actual substance of the allegations was entirely lost.

 For the next 13 years, Cohn was one of Trump’s closet allies, representing him in scores of contentious lawsuits. He tutored Trump in his credo: never settle, never admit fault; attack, counter-attack; counter-sue any plaintiff or person who criticizes you. Play the martyr and claim detractors are simply persecuting you. McCarthy tactics.

Our system, eventually, worked. Those televised Senate hearings let Americans see for themselves McCarthy’s bullyboy tactics. They didn’t like it. Journalists like Murrow and Washington-cartoonist Herblock bravely pointed to the emperor’s lack of clothes as it were—and we finally looked. 

Perhaps the same will happen as Mueller’s investigation progresses and Senate committees hold more televised hearings.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My ninth historical fiction, Hamilton and Peggy!: A Revolutionary Friendship, comes out in February!

The past year has been a bit manic—research and writing these two books overlapped. But I have to say it was a wonderful thing to counterbalance thinking on one of our nation’s darkest and least admirable eras with its awe-inspiring beginnings.

And while a bit schizophrenic, it was great fun to toggle between such different voices, male/female protagonists, and historical periods almost two centuries apart!

Hamilton and Peggy was dictated by research and primary documents as well—beginning with the impassioned letter Hamilton wrote to Peggy in February 1780 to solicit her help in his courtship of Eliza.

Their friendship and his immediate affinity with her—calling her "My Peggy" in his correspondence to Eliza—is the unifying thread that binds the novel.

But my focus is on Peggy herself, her wit and patriotic sensibilities, as well as her witnessing first-hand Philip Schuyler's work as war strategist during the Northern campaign and the Battle of Saratoga, and as GW's most trusted spy-master, negotiator with the Iroquois nations, and liaison with Rochambeau’s French troops. 

So it is not a rehashing of the story we all know so well from Lin-Manuel Miranda's brilliant Hamilton. It is an adjacent and little explored narrative of Hamilton's much loved "little sister" and confidante, a woman who was just as smart and eloquent as the better-known Angelica.

Aide-de-camp James McHenry, for one, wrote to Hamilton of Peggy taking him aback with her keen and insistent interest in talking politics with men. My kind of girl!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with L.M. Elliott.

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