Interview conducted July/August, 2014
John Bush is the author of the exciting new Civil War novel, Patriots and Rebels, reviewed here last month. The story takes readers inside the daily life of a North Alabama family and tells the adventures of the father, Tom Files, who became a Union Soldier. Sincere thanks to Dr. John Bush for taking time from his busy schedule to do this interview. Many readers share his interest in the ordinary and extraordinary lives of those who lived during the Civil War era. John’s brief bio appears at the end of the interview.
Tell us about your new book and how you came to write it.
The idea for this book was planted in my brain 30 years ago, which is when my wife Sara and I learned that her great-great-grandfather Tom Files was in the Union army. My first response to that news was, “There has to be a story in that somewhere.” I was busy with an active career and a growing family, so that thought was just filed away, but it kept presenting itself now and again as a gentle reminder.
How did this writing experience begin for you?
My exploration into the story of Tom Files began as genealogical interest. Several years later I had a researcher in Washington, D.C. get the war record for me from the National Archives. When he sent it to me (along with several other files) he commented: “Looks like there could be a book in this one.” That was the nudge I needed to start putting the story together. It turned into a five-year project, with Patriots and Rebels as the final product.
Much of your story is set in Northern Alabama. I know you were raised in the South. How did your background inform your writing.
My wife is from North Alabama. I grew up in Montgomery — 200 miles to the south. That is solidly “Old South” — “The First Capitol of the Confederacy” where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as President. They are different worlds in a lot of ways. I knew nothing of this story until I married into a family of Southern Patriots. What my background brought to the writing of Patriots and Rebels was a sense of the language. When you hear Mattie’s voice in the novel, you are hearing my Grandma Bush, whom I knew well. She died when I was in my teens, and as a child I stayed with her quite often.
What obstacles did you face in writing this book and how did you find solutions?
For starters, how does a 76-year-old man create a believable voice for a 14-year-old girl? How did I do it (assuming I did)? I did it with a lot of help and advice from friends and editors, and with writing and rewriting and rewriting. Further, there was the challenge of having these people speak in their own language styles, but also be understandable to readers who are living 15O years later.
What are you most proud of regarding Patriots and Rebels?
It is in print and being read — even enjoyed by some, so I hear!
Is historical fiction a favorite genre for you? Please tell us about some of your favorite books and authors in that category.
I do enjoy historical fiction, and have read quite a bit of it. I especially enjoyed The Secrets of Mary Bowser, by Lois LaNreen, and Lalita Tademy’s Cane River. All of Michener, of course. Barbara Tuchman’s The First Salute, One I wish every American would read, in light of our current involvements with the Muslim world, is James Reston, Jr.’s earthshaking Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade. That one, along with the Mary Bowser book, are my all time favorites.
How does what you read inform your writing?
For the most part I read for the pleasure of it, or to gain information or insight into a subject rather than as a tool to guide my own writing. That being said, I am always interested in seeing how other fiction writers handle plot and character development, pacing and dialogue. Especially dialogue, because it is the most difficult aspect of writing for me to grasp.
I’ve begun work on a “prequel” to Patriots, set in the American Revolution, and am experimenting with James Michener’s style in The Covenant, to see if it works for me. Michener moves between the narration of the novel and providing the “backstory” — interspersing more contemporary observations. We’ll see how that works out!
Do you buy books? What have you been buying lately?
Do I buy books? The house is full of them. I count nine bookcases full, and a couple of those are double shelved — books behind books. My most recent purchases include Winston Groom’s Shrouds of Glory, (yes, it’s about the Civil War); Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings: Britain. The Slaves and the American Revolution, Tracy Thompson’s The New Mind of the South, and Breena Clark’s River, Cross My Heart. Oh, and there are the two novels by a friend in my writers group: Like a Fox, and Like Sheep by Judy Mitchell Rich.
Is Civil War History a particular interest of yours?
One cannot grow up in the South and not be “interested” in the Civil War. It is in the air you breathe and the water you drink. But I can’t say my interest in it has been anything out of the ordinary. I’ve not made a particular study of it, and have no interest at all in the minutia of particular battles and strategies of warfare. The stories of ordinary and extraordinary people of that era do interest me.
I’m interested in how you conducted your research. Tell us about that.
When I got serious about writing this book I spent a good deal of time researching the places. Much of this was done on-line, some at my local library. I had the advantage of having Tom’s military record in hand, so I knew about some of the specific incidents and locations. The basic outline of where he was between when he mustered out of First Alabama Cavalry at Camp Davies, Mississippi and the time he arrived home more than two years later was available to me in the documentation from the National Archives. Much of this is in his hand, or transcribed from his own words. My task was to fill in the blanks, and that was the challenge. How did he actually get from northern Mississippi to southern Illinois and then back down to LaVergne, Tennessee, and finally into a Federal prison in Nashville? I had to create much of that detail, but I tried to keep as close to the actual history of those times and places as I could. When I described actual events in the war, I drew on actual documentation. In some cases there is a difference in how these are described in Union documents, as compared with Confederate documents. (The massacre at Fort Pillow is the most dramatic example of such differences.) I had to stay focused on Tom’s point of view. I decided that the best way to sort this out for my readers was to include a set of “Author’s Notes” at the end.
How do you see the relationship between researching and writing?
It is important to keep in mind that this is a novel, but a historical one. I came at this project as a storyteller, not as a historian. Thus, the history informs the story, not the other way around, but without distorting the history unreasonably (I hope). The research informs that delicate process. I do not want to mislead the reader regarding the history; what I say about that is as accurate as I can make it. But it is also there to inform the story and move it forward.
Tell us about your writing day?
I’ve heard other writers say you should devote specific time every day to writing, or you should write at least 1000 words every day. I write when I have something to write, which means some days I don’t write a single word and other days I stay at it for 2 or 3, 8 or 10 or 12 hours. Which is not to say I’m neglecting the project. When I’m not writing, I am often into serious creation. My mind is almost always working on the plot, the timeline or character development. Some of my most creative time comes when I’m driving along the Interstate.
What would you most like readers to know about Patriots and Rebels?
It is very important for the reader to know that Tom Files and his family were real human beings. They lived, breathed and died just as we do, but in extraordinary times when extraordinary demands were made upon them.
How can readers obtain your book?
Any bookseller can get it for you. I am a strong believer in local bookstores and encourage people to buy the book locally if they can (even though that way I earn the very least on sales.) It is also available both in print and for Kindle from Amazon.com. If people want a signed copy, they may contact me via message at the PATRIOTS AND REBELS Facebook page, and I will arrange for that.
What writing projects are you currently working on?
In addition to the prequel dealing with the Files family during the American Revolution, which I mentioned earlier in the interview, I’m also playing with the idea of a story similar to Patriots, but written for elementary young people — fourth grade or so.
Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you’d like to comment on?
My previous book was published in 2002. The entire publishing universe has changed since then! Publishers no longer consider book proposals directly; they must go through an agent. The problem is that getting an agent is far harder today than finding a publisher was in the “old” days. The “new kid on the block,” is what is called independent publishing. I did it with CreateSpace, the publishing arm of Amazon. It has been a good experience so far. The book was for sale on Amazon (both print and Kindle) very quickly. However, sales other than through Amazon are entirely mine to do. That’s a pain, but that’s the way the industry is going these days, unless you are an established author.
About the author
John C. Bush is a retired Presbyterian minister now living in Decatur, Alabama, near where much if this story takes place. He was born in northwest Florida and grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. His ancestral roots are in Virginia Colony, 1670. He holds a BA degree from Samford University in Birmingham: M. Div. from Midwestern Theological Seminary in Kansas City; and a D. Min. degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary, San Anselmo CA. His ministerial career took him to Kansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Alabama, Michigan and back to Alabama. He and Sara have two children, six grandchildren and one great grandchild. He is the author or editor of five books in the field of religion. Patriots and Rebels is his first novel.
And to Dr. Bush, I say, “Yes, many are enjoying your book. Thanks for telling your story.”