The just-released Tim Curious is the first in a series of murder mysteries for young adults. It’s set in 1777 on the “neutral ground” that lay between British-held Manhattan Island and the American lines thirty miles to the north. Tim, a sixteen-year-old carpenter’s apprentice, had tried to enlist in George Washington’s army but was told he was too young and too short. When winter’s cold ended the fighting season, the violent death of a friend put Tim on the trail of a killer. He fell in with smugglers and spies, and found out how he could use his courage to contribute to the cause of freedom.
Q - It is not often that a Canadian writer sets his novel in the American Revolution, and especially not with a lead character who is sympathetic to the Patriot Cause. What inspired you to write Tim Curious?
A – A visit to Colonial Williamsburg. My wife had heard there were nice Christmas displays so we drove down. For me, it was like a child’s first visit to Disneyland. And what got to me wasn’t the men dressed as founding fathers and debating the great issues. It was the tradesmen’s shops – especially the gunsmith. And I loved the farm and the people playing the roles of servants and slaves. And too, we went to the site of the Battle of Yorktown. All I knew was that it was the battle that ended the war. I started wondering what had made it so decisive. Since then I’ve read a stack of history books but they’ve only got me wondering about other things. And that’s what started me thinking about a novel.
Q – Novels that are set in the American Revolution and aimed at the young adult market haven’t been selling very well. Why do you suppose that is?
A – When you think of how many schools and libraries there are, you have to wonder whether some are never bought by young adult. But the revolution ought to be the perfect time for a novel. You’ve got action and conflict and danger. You’ve got modern ideas taking on medieval traditions, like monarchy, and military leaders being chosen from the high-ranking nobility. It ought to inspire lots of really good novels.
Q – Are you saying it usually does not?
A – Well… some of the novelists who set their novel in the revolution seem to be on a mission to improve the reader’s moral character. They’ll dwell on suffering and self-sacrifice with the implied suggestion that the reader ought to feel ashamed of how easy he’s had it.
Q – But that’s a good thing, though, isn’t it?
A – I guess we could all stand some moral improvement. But a dose of literary bitter medicine isn’t what most teenage boys want in a novel. And not many old boys either.
Q – Suffering and self-sacrifice are not mentioned in Tim Curious?
A – They are but I don’t rub it in your face. And I guess in a murder mystery there’s always some poor guy who has to get killed to launch the plot. But if you want a reader to finish a book and buy the next one, then you need a more than bitter medicine. In Tim Curious, along with the hunt for the murderer, there’s the threat of Tim getting hanged as a spy or a smuggler. And there’s the need for him to look good in front of his friends, which for a teenage boy is often more important than avoiding death.
Q – But doesn’t the use of these devices lower it to mere entertainment?
A – Well, if an author doesn’t entertain the reader then he might not even sell to schools and libraries. I’ve tried to avoid long descriptions and heavy-handed sermonizing, and the only time it reads like a history book is in short bits at the end of chapters. And they’re indented, as a warning. And when one of my characters can come out with a good one-liner, I don’t stop him. A teenage boy doesn’t seem real if he hasn’t got a sense of humor.
Q – Tim Curious is a book of humor?
A – It’s a book of suspense that includes characters who have a sense of humor. And to be real they also need a sense of pride, envy, anger, gluttony, despair, greed and lust. And fear too. If you read a book where the bad guys are pure evil and the good guys have nothing to offer but the nobility of their spirit, then you might not be able to find the time to finish reading it. I’m hoping Tim Curious isn’t like that.
Q – But this is the American Revolution we’re talking about. And don’t Canadians see it as a patriotic duty to read novels that stress the suffering and sacrifice of the pioneers who built their nation?
A – Wow— I honestly don’t know. There are a lot of dismal literary novels, but I think the goal there is to improve the reader’s political philosophy, and not their patriotism. Maybe back during the World Wars there was something.
Q – You prefer novels set in the American past?
A – Most of my inspiration comes from Bernard Cornwell, and his books are mostly in the Napoleonic Wars. It’s only since I’ve been writing a novel set in the revolution that I’ve been reading ones set it that era. And I find they’re… well, I find that sometimes the author avoided mere entertainment a bit too effectively. An American I know said that in high school they had to read the novel called My Brother Sam is Dead. He told me they called it My Brother Sam Says I’m Depressing.
Q – It is a bit poignant. But poignance is a good thing though, isn’t it?
A – If poor Sam hadn’t been shot, he likely would have died of poignance. It’s way too much of a good thing.
Q – So, out of these novels set in the revolution, which one do you consider to be the best?
A – Oh, April Morning by Howard Fast, easy. I wonder if it would have pushed Johnny Tremain aside if Fast hadn’t been a communist.
Q – Yes, that was unfortunate. In your novel, I was interested in discovering a non-American perspective on the revolution. But Tim Curious is clearly sympathetic to the Patriot Cause.
A – Well, that is one non-American view. I suppose it’s like I’ve gone to a home game and cheered for the visiting team. And it’s hard to pin down any single Canadian perspective on any topic. Some say there’s a Canadian tradition that opposes resorting to war and violence to settle an issue. But the great Canadian tradition of pacifism doesn’t go back any further than the war in Vietnam. Canada’s almost always been willing to send troops to fight. And they’ve been back to it again, in Bosnia and Afghanistan. And they’ve never had trouble getting volunteers. There was over a half a million who served in World War I, and that’s when Canada’s population was only eight million. One in every thirteen Canadians was in uniform. It wasn’t far short of the one in nine Americans who served in the Civil War. And you, at least, had a major stake in the outcome.
Q – I’ve often heard conservatives tell of anti-American attitudes in Canada. I didn’t see any anti-Americanism in your novel.
A – Well, they say that Canada has a love-hate relationship with the U.S. Just like the rest of the world, I guess. We love your music and movies and novels, and we like to keep up on your politics, but at the same time, a lot of Canadians oppose your economic and foreign policies. Though it’s mainly the left-wingers who hate them, but that’s still most of us. And they like to find fault with America in spite of the fact that Canada, more than any other country, has been following America’s lead.
Q – Has it? In what way?
A – It started when they took in a large number of American refugees after the Revolution, and they brought American ways with them. They were Tories, but they were still Americans. And they maintained their hold of government and education for a long time. The next big step was when the provincial chapters of the Church of England started declaring independence in the 1850s. Then, during World War I, the government started to suppress the awarding of titles like “Sir” or “Lord.” But the biggest leap came in 1982 when Canada got a new constitution. It had to be voted on by the Parliament in England, and then the Queen came over here to sign it into law.
Q – The Queen of England?
A – It was required by the old constitution. And it classed up the event, too. The new constitution has a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that’s a lot like America’s Bill of Rights, except for guns. And there’s a lot in it that’s in other amendments, too. Plus the equal-rights amendment that never got through. But what it really did was to give Canada’s Supreme Court the power to start making the sorts of major decisions that we’re used to hearing about down in the States. And there’s many smaller ways we’ve imitated you and, taken together, they’ve made Canada a lot like the U.S. and not so much like England. There was a deal they struck back in the thirties where Canada promised wouldn’t support a feature film industry in return for Hollywood mentioning Canada in their movies. That’s why you used to see a lot of Mounties. Ask your grandmother about it. But the funniest thing is the influence of American religion on Canadian socialism.
Q – Socialism?
A – Exactly, evangelical socialism. Historians say that the “revival movement” in religion has had a major impact on America politics, ever since the 1740s. They say it’s infected everything, and that it’s this style of religious fervor that stands as a real difference between America and England. And the Canadian political party that’s gone furthest in adopting the American revival method is the socialist New Democratic Party. Their first leader was an actual Baptist minister. Oh, and they call themselves socialists. It’s not taken as an insult up here. Down where you are socialism means communism. Up here it just means strongly liberal.
Q – And they have socialist revival meetings?
A – Practically. But they don’t use the r-word. But ever since the start of it they’ve made that sort of emotion-packed rally a central part of keeping up member support. It’s a quintessentially American way of doing things and they’re the ones doing it up here.
Q – So you aren’t alone in your admiration of America?
A – I’m just a bit more honest about it.
Q – So, is the anti-Americanism of Canadians a myth too?
A – Oh no, it’s here. Plenty of times I’ve heard people railing against “the Americans.” But if you listen carefully you’ll notice that, when they say “the Americans,” they really mean “American conservatives.” And if I press them on it they’ll admit that it must have been majorities who voted in Obama and Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt. And actually, it would be hard for you, an American, to get to hear an anti-American tirade, because the Canadian tradition of politeness will almost always trump the Canadian tradition of anti-Americanism.
Q – Canadians are as polite as we say you are?
A – I know a left-wing Canadian who’s worked for years for a polling company that phones all over North America, doing all sorts of polls – contracts with private companies, usually. She said that Canadians are almost always very polite, right from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island. And she said it like she was reluctant to admit it.
Q – I’ve heard it said that only a native-born American could truly understand and appreciate the love of freedom that inspired the founding generation to sacrifice so much to achieve their independence. Can novels set in the Revolution, but written by a Canadian, truly grasp this fundamental essence of American national identity?
A – Oh, who knows? Probably not. The Americans who set their novels in the Revolution might grasp it, but still they don’t seem to have grasped the essence of American marketability. But their grasp of the fundamental essence can be a problem. The sort of American author who chooses to write a novel in the Revolution often seems to have a reverence for the heroes the stands in the way of their writing. Starting 150 years ago there’s been a lot of authors writing a “life of Jesus” novel. Even great authors, like Dickens and Graves. These novels were more often purchased than read they tended to be tedious. A saint can’t be a saint and still experience more than a narrow range of human emotions. Imagine if a Communist was to write a fictionalized “Young Carl Marx” novel? How good could that be? Of a New York sports fan writing “Young Mickey Mantle” ? Or a 75-year-old woman writing “Young Elvis Presley” ?
Q – How has your pro-rebel murder mystery been received by your fellow Canadians?
A – Actually, not too badly. Most who’ve started Tim Curious, the first one in the series, have finished it. And really, that’s the most any author can hope for. And especially when it’s a book they didn’t pay for. But some of the ones who finished it said it’s good but... their approval seemed a bit reluctant. And they wouldn’t say why. But two people who didn’t finish it were mad at me when they realized I wasn’t going to vilify America and all that it stands for. And they actually sounded angry! Some will ask why I don’t write a historical novel set in Canada, or why I didn’t tell about the loyalists. They were refugees who had supported the King. I’ll say that if I wanted Canadians to read a historical novel set in Canada, then I’d be better off doing it as a ghostwriter for an American author because it’d only be then that Canadians would want to read it.
Q – Is it that bad?
A – Well, it sure seems so sometimes. It’s hard to uncover the root causes of popularity but for some reason novels set in Canada’s glorious historical past usually don’t sell.
Q – They say that a historical novel that proclaims a nation’s virtues will usually not sell as well as a novel that exposes its ugly truths. Did you have to come to us to find ugly truths?
A – Our ugly truths just don’t have much pizzazz. You’ve got more war, and more activism, and more idealism. The most you can say about Canada’s historical past was that it was a good place to raise your kids.
Q – But don’t Canadians do the same with their loyalist and socialist heroes?
A – They try to, but not that often and not very well. Canadians prefer their self-promotion to be implied rather than direct. And I guess that might be why Canadians would rather hear a foreigner tell them about Canada’s past. Which would you rather hear? A stranger saying, “Everybody in your family is so good-looking,” or your sister looking at a family portrait and saying, “Aren’t we all so good-looking?”