Sunday, January 21, 2024

Q&A with Tim Piper




Tim Piper is the author of the new historical novel The Powell Expeditions, the first in a new series. He retired from an information technology career, and he lives in Bloomington, Illinois.


Q: What inspired you to write The Powell Expeditions, and how did you create your character Jubilee Walker?

A: One of my favorite places in the world is the Colorado Rocky Mountains. I feel an unexplainable spiritual connection to them. Over the years, I’ve taken many trips to hike there.


Several years ago, I hiked the challenging Longs Peak Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. Afterward, I purchased a book on the history of the mountain.


I was surprised to learn that the first person to summit it was Major John Wesley Powell, a professor at Illinois Wesleyan University in my hometown, Bloomington, Illinois. Powell was able to summit Longs Peak (something I was unable to do) even though he had lost most of one arm during the Civil War.


As I read more about Powell’s expeditions in his early years, I felt as though I were reading an adventure novel. When I searched for novels based on his exploring trips, I didn’t find any, so I decided to write one myself.

I wanted to describe Powell’s adventures, but it seemed too daunting to tell the story from the point of view of a historical figure. While I was considering a point of view other than Powell’s, I created Jubilee Walker, my fictional protagonist.


I then had to figure out how Jubilee would cross paths with Major Powell. I decided that Powell would be a friend of Jubilee’s family. When Jubil’s mother dies, he turns to Major Powell for advice, and when he learns that Powell is going West on an exploring expedition, he wants nothing more than to join him.


I put Jubil in the outfitting business to give him a purpose on Powell’s expeditions.


Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I started at the library. The archive librarian at Illinois Wesleyan University’s Ames Library allowed me access to their John Wesley Powell Special Collection. These materials, along with other resources suggested by the librarian, provided a wealth of information about Powell.


As I started to develop my other characters, I found I needed to know what everyday life was like in Bloomington and in the wider United States during the post–Civil War years. I began reading through newspapers in online archives and seeking out books about that era to fill in these details.

As I worked on the novel, I was surprised to find that Powell is most famous as the first explorer to follow the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, though that was only one of his many important expeditions.


Over Powell’s lifetime, his adventures, scientific expeditions, and geographic surveys of America’s developing western frontier led him to conclusions about land and water use that were far ahead of his time. He was one of the first to espouse conservation policy that still struggles to protect our natural resources against America’s drive to exploit them.


Q: The novel includes both fictional and historical figures--what did you see as the right balance between fiction and history as you wrote the book?

A: As I mentioned, the accounts of Powell’s expeditions read like adventure fiction, so it was straightforward enough for me to closely follow the historical facts of his 1867, 1868, and 1869 expeditions and then recreate pivotal scenes using the elements of fiction. Similarly, there is a clear record of the people who participated in Powell’s expeditions.

I did have to create conversations and interactions between these historical figures and between them and my fictional characters.


Putting words in the mouths of historical figures is an unavoidable challenge of writing historical fiction, but I do my best to keep their dialogue true to their nature. Having heroic historical figures talk to everyday fictional characters helps me bring them down to earth and make them more human, both for myself and for the reader.


I hope the fictional characters I’ve created add layers and liveliness to the historical story and deepen the reader’s awareness of what life was like during the period.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?

A: I hope readers enjoy accompanying the protagonist, Jubilee Walker, as he searches for his purpose and place in the world. Jubil is enthusiastic, reliable, and calm in the face of difficult circumstances, characteristics that win him the support and friendship of many of the people he meets.


However, he also runs into people whose goals conflict with his own and who want to stop him at any cost. Even when threatened by such characters, Jubil depends on his heart to tell him what is right. I think this is a worthwhile message for anyone.


Q: What are you working on now?

A: When I first started writing The Powell Expeditions, I didn’t know where the story might lead me. As I wrapped up the book about Jubil’s participation in Powell’s expeditions, it seemed there was plenty of room for his life of adventure to continue.


I did some initial research about what was happening in the years after The Powell Expeditions ends, and the Jubilee Walker series was born.


The next book in the series is The Yellowstone Campaign. In this story, Jubil is drawn into the 1870 Washburn expedition that paved the way for the first formal geographic surveys of the Yellowstone Basin in 1871 by Dr. Ferdinand Hayden and Captain John Barlow.


Jubil and his fellow adventurers find themselves in a wonderland of exotic geography that can be as deadly as it is awe inspiring.


The Yellowstone Campaign will be released in July 2024.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Connect with me at, or on Facebook: @Tim-Piper-Author


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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