So19 talks with JAMES McGEE

The youthful hours I spent studying the War of 1812 were not a high point of my education. An enthusiastic student generally, I never understood that particular conflict and I never grasped why I should have to. Had some kind of time-travel gizmo lifted James McGee’s The Blooding (Pegasus, 2015) from the (distant) future and dropped it on my desk back when I was suffering over its profound lack of appeal, I might have felt differently. McGee’s novel wouldn’t displease Mr. Mungenast, who labored with such little effect to engage me in that moment of American history; the book depicts the complexity of the war, the breadth and challenge of its landscapes, the tragic destruction of its native peoples, and the brutality of its era with an unflinching eye, rich detail, and scrupulous accuracy. It’s what the author adds, of course—a suspenseful story, a cast of varied and engaging characters, a sure sense of language—that makes the difference. With McGee’s Hawkwood in it, the War of 1812 became human; it became exciting; it became moving; it became fun. A former “army brat” with what he calls a “varied—some might say chaotic—career,” British author James McGee is the author of four previous Hawkwood books (Ratcatcher, Resurrectionist, Rapscallion and Rebellion) as well as three contemporary thrillers. Find out more about McGee and the Hawkwood books on the author’s website as well as his lively blog. Society Nineteen is delighted to talk to James McGee about the early life of Matthew Hawkwood, the literal and metaphorical terrain of the War of 1812, and the twists and turns of fiction. —SF

So19: Let’s start with the inception of the series. Your first three books were thrillers set in the 20th century. What drew you to the period around 1800 for a new series?

JM: Well, to put it bluntly, it was because my fourth novel—a “thriller” with an IRA theme— was roundly rejected by my publisher. Not that surprising, because it was, frankly, atrocious. Which left me with the eternal question: now what?

It was time, as they say, for something completely different.

I’d wanted to write an historical yarn for a while. I’m a huge film buff and loved the old Errol Flynn and Burt Lancaster movies. I’d grown up with Hornblower, Ramage and Alexander Kent’s Richard Bolitho stories and, having studied the Napoleonic Wars and read Forester’s The Gun at school it was a period that held a particular interest for me. It seemed the logical place to start.

So, I had my setting, but what about a character?

My problem was the huge number of novelists who’d had arrived there before me. From C. S. Forester to Bernard Cornwell, the list is formidable. How could I bring anything new to the genre? Military men were thick on both battlefield and quarterdeck so I knew I had to find a new kind of hero.

And then I read Donald Low’s The Regency Underworld and that gave me the idea of making him a Bow Street Runner. If I then gave him an army background I could span the gap between the world of the soldier and the criminal fraternity. Because of that, I also needed Hawkwood’s world to be as far removed from the usual Regency setting as possible. At the time, behind the bright salons and the masked balls, London was one of the most violent cities in the world. I wanted shades of darkness, dirt and deprivation. In many respects the Rookeries—London’s criminal districts, also called the nurseries of crime— were like the old frontier towns of Deadwood, Tombstone and Abilene; founded by men and women on the fringes of society, who lived by their own rules, with little regard for the law.

Which is why, as I got further into the first novel, my perception of Hawkwood altered. When I began, I’d envisioned him as a James Bond figure but the more I got to know him I realized he’s more like a Regency gunslinger. There are references to his past that suggest he’s a man who has known violence, both as victim and perpetrator. He walks a thin line between light and shadow. He lives by his own moral code and he’s no stranger to dispensing justice.

His description when we first meet him is even reminiscent of a Western hero; tall, dark, dressed in black, including a long riding coat. He’s more at home stalking the dregs of society down London’s moonlit alleyways than he is rubbing shoulders with the aristocracy. He’s certainly not a man who’s comfortable in frills and finery.

I’m reminded of Raymond Chandler’s marvelous phrase "… down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid."  I’d say that describes Hawkwood pretty well: a cross between Wyatt Earp and Philip Marlowe. Interestingly there’s one Amazon reviewer who’s referred to Hawkwood as the 1800s version of Jack Reacher. I’ll happily settle for that description, too!

So19: What about Hawkwood himself? From the start, you gave him a character that spanned several different worlds—he’s a sort of shape-shifter, without a single rigid, defining identity. Could you talk a bit about what inspired, and how you developed, his character?

JM: With regards to the development of Hawkwood as a character and the world in which he operates: interestingly (or not), despite our hero being a Bow Street Runner, I’ve never considered any of the books to be crime novels. I’ve always regarded them as historical adventures; which is why I gradually opened up the stories to include the wider conflicts being waged at the time the stories are set.

Hence, in Rebellion, he was sent to Paris on a secret mission, while in the sequel he travelled to America—albeit inadvertently—where he became embroiled in the War of 1812.

Which brings us neatly to The Blooding.

But how and why?

At the end of Rebellion, I’d left Hawkwood all at sea, literally. Having successfully evaded the clutches of the French police, he had blagged his way onto an American merchantman.

The plan was for the vessel to be boarded by the Royal Navy, enabling him to hitch a lift back home.

Woody Allen once said that if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans. That wheezing sound you can hear is the Almighty stifling hysterics.

The thing is, I always felt it would have been a tad boring if I’d simply sent our man back to England. After all, he was on an American ship and America was at war with Britain and there had to be a story there somewhere. The problem was: I knew very little about the War of 1812—it’s certainly not part of the UK school curriculum. Talk about leaving my comfort zone.

There was also another pressing matter to address. After four books, I reckoned it was about time I revealed more of Hawkwood’s background.  Unfortunately, I knew even less about that than I did about the war. That’s the thing about writing fiction. We make it up as we go along, and therein lies the folly (and the fun). So, when I did put pen to paper it occurred to me that if I could combine those two elements—the war and Hawkwood’s origins—I might be able to kill two birds with one stone.

So19: I appreciated your comments, in the book’s Historical Note, about the obscurity of the War of 1812. As noted it my introduction to this talk, I confess to finding it horribly murky myself despite having suffered through many lectures on it in school.

JM: It was while looking for inspiration that I had occasion to re-watch Michael Mann’s adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of The Mohicans, and it was at that point I thought, hang on a sec…what if?

And that brought me to the ticklish subject of the background detail.

I mention in The Blooding’s appendix that little is known of the War of 1812 both in the States and here in the UK. There is, of course, the danger of doing too much research and if you’re not careful it’s easy to bog down the reader with too many extraneous (for that, read boring) historical facts. I might have overdone that slightly in Rebellion and I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. But I still had to make it interesting.

As far as reference material was concerned, I chose, therefore, what I perceived to be the best-regarded, most readable books on the conflict, which for me were Donald Hickey’s excellent single volume: The War of 1812: A forgotten Conflict and Carl Benn’s immensely informative The Iroquois in the War of 1812. They were invaluable and I used them as reference points for my Internet searches.

Recently, I totted up the number of bookmarked websites I still have on my laptop and which I visited during the writing of the novel and it’s well over two hundred. That’s excluding the sites I didn’t bookmark and which I was never able to find again because I’d forgotten how I’d landed on them in the first place!

The trouble with web-surfing, of course, is that you do find that a lot of material is duplicated and you can spend hours poring over stuff which you will never use. But it’s all grist to the mill and I hope the end result was worth it. As a Brit writing about American and Canadian history I knew I had to get my facts right. I’d be in deep trouble if I didn’t. I do try my best, honest!

So19: The young Hawkwood’s bond with the Mohawk chief Tewanias is central to this story, as is role of the Native Americans in the war. I know that some of the novel’s characters are historical people, notably Sir John Johnson; was Tewanias a real figure, or based on one? How did you build his character and the larger world of the culture from which he comes?

JM: The Hawkwood novels are all based on real events, which means I can introduce real characters into the plots. The Blooding is no exception.

The main historical character is Sir John Johnson, whom I confess I’d not heard about until I began my research. His exploits during the War of Independence were both heroic and extraordinary. I’m sure he must have appeared in other novels as he’s such an intriguing entity. I only hope I’ve done him justice. Other true characters pepper the pages: Captain Thomas Scott, Zebulon Pike, Captain Winans, Colonel Cromwell Pearce, Lieutenant-Colonel de Salaberry and Sir George Prevost.

The rest, for the most part, are fictitious, including the Mohawk war captains, Tewanias and Cageaga, though I did take their names from real Kanien’kehá:ka warriors. Having stated that, my inspiration for Tewanias was undoubtedly Fenimore Cooper’s wonderful creation Chingachgook.

In creating Tewanias and Cageaga and the world of the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk), I make no apology for my sympathetic rendering of their characters and their culture. In reading the Historical Note at the end of The Blooding I think I make it obvious where my sympathy lies with regards to the Native American history and that of the Six Nations in particular.
The Kanien’kehá:ka were always going to form a pivotal part of the story and I had to create characters with whom the reader could relate. Hawkwood’s personality is partly forged by his boyhood relationship with Tewanias and Cageaga and so their portrayal was critical.
As was the use of Mohawk vocabulary: I wanted the few scenes where the Mohawk language is spoken to come across as authentic as possible. I’m not sure they would work if the entire dialogue was in English. I’ve used the vocabulary sparingly, but I believe it goes a long way to enhance both the setting and the characters.     

So19: This novel is vividly grounded—excuse the pun—in the landscape of the American Northeast, particularly the Adirondack region. As The Blooding makes clear, it’s terrain that is at once beautiful and very testing. Did you visit the novel’s locations, or use other forms of research to evoke it so powerfully? How did you keep the myriad logistical details involved—distances, for example, and the duration and timing of movements—straight as you drafted the book?

JM: As for the landscape, that’s also a crucial part of the story. As I researched the culture of the Six Nations and their involvement in the wars fought across the North American continent and as Hawkwood’s history gradually took form it was the country that drew me in. The lakes and forests of the Adirondacks are a great setting. They helped shape my characters and became integral to the plot due to the huge influence they had on the historical events upon which the novel is based. 

I confess here and now that I wasn’t able to visit the novel’s locations. I’ve travelled to the States many times but not to that region and not for a while and so I had to rely on research for my background detail. Logistically, I found it very testing. It can be quite hard to move the action along when it takes so long to get anywhere—often a major problem for writers of historical fiction.

Knowing I had to get my characters from one end of New York State to the other without slowing down the plot was a huge task as all they had to rely on was either foot, horseback, carriage or boat. That meant there were inevitable limitations with regards to the speed at which they could travel between points A and B. In the interest of historical accuracy I did try and place my characters in locations that had viable transport links.

Maps of the period proved extremely useful—there are even old stage and ferry timetables available online if you know where to look—and so you can work out speeds and distances in order to facilitate the intricacies of the plot. It can be good fun and a great mental exercise but immensely frustrating when you find that something you wanted to include in the story can’t be reconciled. With The Blooding, given that the story takes place in the wilds and in winter, there was a lot of lateral thinking involved!

The Internet was a fantastic help with regards to gaining details about specific locations.  I made use of travels journals from the period and another great resource, among others, (I might as well give them a mention!) was, the Lake Champlain and Lake George Historical site, which provided me with photos, maps and articles, and links to other historic sites. I corresponded with museums, too, and received a massive amount of help from their experts who very kindly responded to my requests for information; often going out of their way to connect me with colleagues on other sites whom they thought might be able to help. I couldn’t have written the book without their assistance. I’m only sorry I wasn’t able to give them all a mention.

So19: The Hawkwood novels have moments of lightness I always enjoy: scenes in which Hawkwood and, here, Douglas Lawrence respond to grave danger not only with sangfroid but also a bit of amused banter. You give us permission, as it were, to relish the swashbuckling aspect of the story along with them. Is that a fair reading? If so, was it part of your intention for the books from the start, or something that developed more intuitively?

JM: Interesting that you brought up the moments of lightness that occur in the Hawkwood novels as that’s something I’ve always tried to inject into the stories, though I do try to ensure that the humor arises from a situation rather than dumping it into the plot willy-nilly. Otherwise, it wouldn’t ring true.

Banter’s always present when characters are comfortable in each other’s presence. Black humor usually surfaces in moments of crisis and invariably occurs when Hawkwood and whichever comrade he happens to be paired with at the time are in danger. In the London-set novels it’s usually Jago. In Rapscallion it’s the French privateer, Lasseur. In Rebellion it’s Colquhoun Grant and in The Blooding it’s Major Douglas Lawrence.

I think it would be fair to say that although the stories are set in the early 1800s, the dialogue—and the humor—does have a contemporary slant, though I do try to remain faithful to the period and stay well clear of using modern idioms. Hawkwood’s undoubtedly a modern hero in a period setting but I think I’ve got the balance about right. It’s up to the reader to decide if I’ve over-stepped any boundaries in that regard.

Maybe that’s what prompted the Jack Reacher comparison.

Not that I’m complaining…!

So19: With The Blooding just published in July, the human being in me hopes you’re enjoying a well-deserved break. But the fan in me demands: what’s next for Hawkwood?

JM: As for where we go next, I’m not entirely sure. The Blooding took two years to write and nine months turning the manuscript into the finished book. I’m of a mind to return Hawkwood to England for the next one and I am working on a new story. Without wishing to sound pretentious, The Blooding was fairly epic and I’m not sure I can match it in terms of scale and location. I always try to make each story completely different from its predecessor so we’ll have to wait and see what comes up.

Watch this space….

Thomas Kensett's 1812 map of Canada, courtesy