Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Q&A with Tim Wendel




Tim Wendel is the author of the new novel Rebel Falls. His other books include the novel Castro's Curveball. He is a writer in residence at Johns Hopkins University.


Q: What inspired you to write Rebel Falls?


A: Confederate spies John Yates Beall and Bennet Burley are mentioned in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and a few other works. I had never heard of their attempt at piracy on the Great Lakes in the waning months of the Civil War. Also, I was intrigued because I grew up near Niagara Falls, New York, where many of these spy activities took place.


I enjoy studying such moments in history. When things could have gone in a totally different direction. I explored this in several of my earlier novels, notably Red Rain and Castro’s Curveball. So, that’s how my journey with Rebel Falls began.


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


I discovered intriguing information about Beall and Burley, who are based on real-life characters. Beall was a Southern sympathizer and served for a time in the Stonewall Brigade. In comparison, Burley was a soldier of fortune from Scotland, who was drawn to our Civil War.


The two of them combined forces with great success, first on the Chesapeake Bay and then along the northern border with British Canada. They were like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of that conflict. Seemingly destined to make headlines but soon ushered into the shadows.


To do the novel justice, though, I needed a notable protagonist on the Union side. Rory Chase is a composite of several real-life people, like Sarah Emma Edmonds, who disguised herself as a man to fight for a Michigan infantry unit.


I decided I wanted someone who was close to the Seward family. During the Civil War, William Seward was the U.S. secretary of state. Arguably, the second-most powerful politician in the north after President Abraham Lincoln. Seward had a daughter, Fanny. So, what if Fanny had a childhood friend, who was determined to help the Union cause? Someone named Rory Chase?

Q: What did you see as the right balance between fiction and history as you wrote the book?


A: I follow Thomas Mallon’s “burden of truth” approach. He has written such historical novels as Henry and Clara and Fellow Travelers. Tom believes in doing deep research, which I did with Rebel Falls, and allow the facts to be the underpinnings for your story.


Certainly, you’ll embellish some aspects, perhaps move a character front and center whom the history textbooks have relegated to the shadows. But the facts do matter.


In researching Rebel Falls, I found Beall’s papers and testimony from his trial for treason. I read Burley’s file at the British Library in London and discovered that he had reinvented himself as a war correspondent for The (London) Telegraph after escaping the Civil War.


Now, of course, not all of this material will make it into a novel. For me, the story needs to move along. But I believe the reader will sense how much research you’ve put into the project.


Q: The writer Mary Kay Zuravleff said of the book, “Wendel's riveting take on loyalty, freedom, and mercy is a lesson for our time.” What do you think of that description?


A: I was so fortunate to receive superb cover endorsements for Rebel Falls, including Ken Burns, E. Ethelbert Miller, and others. There are few things more humbling than asking writers you admire for a cover blurb.


What Mary Kay is addressing is we’re still, in many ways, fighting the Civil War today. It’s been called our most complicated of conflicts. That’s because we continue to debate its narrative today. How our nation should best remember that tumultuous time.


At times in Rebel Falls, when Rory has infiltrated the rebels’ spy ring, she becomes caught up their rhetoric, what will soon become the Lost Cause.


When I was writing the novel, I saw some of this play it out in real time. After many years in the D.C. area, I now live in Charlottesville, Virginia. And much of what happened here during the Unite the Right tragedy in 2017 leads back the contentious issues that helped ignite the Civil War. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I enjoyed writing and researching about this period, the 1860s along the Canadian border. I may spend more time with several of these characters because the life in Niagara Falls didn’t settle down much after the Civil War ended.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: One of the backdrops for Rebel Falls involves the Cataract House. This was one of most luxurious hotels in the world during this era.


And, in the years before the Civil War, it was an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Most of the wait staff were freedmen or escaped slaves, and they helped hundreds of freedom seekers reach Canada. I found such records while doing my research.


And then it was great fun to bring a few of these characters into opposition with the Confederate spies.


Our northern border with Canada was much more active and dangerous during the Civil War then we were ever taught in high school.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Tim Wendel.

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