Today I’m welcoming Francis Hamit to my series of author interviews. Francis is the author of The Queen of Washington, a Civil War spy thriller about Confederate spy and Washington hostess Rose Greenhow, and The Shenandoah Spy, another Civil War thriller about Confederate Army spy and scout Belle Boyd. Additionally, Francis has a film forthcoming, based on his 1988 stage play Marlowe: An Elizabethan Tragedy, about the poet and playwright, Christopher Marlowe, and his career as a spy for the Crown.
Q: Francis, do I detect a theme here?
A: The usual rule is to write about what you know. I do have some background in Intelligence that informs my work.
Q: So you were a spy?
A: I was part of the largest spy agency of the U.S. Government, but my duties were mostly clerical. That is the dirty little secret about intelligence work. Most of it is paper-pushing and not that interesting, day to day. I did learn how such organizations work and that’s important if you write spy thrillers.
A: In the early 1980s, I was one of about four thousand people hired to help revise the Micropaedia part of the Encylopaedia Britannica. I started researching her story, thought it was deserving of more than a paragraph and decided that I would do more with it, later. Belle’s story is a true one, about a young woman fighting, against the prevailing conventions of her time, for what she thought of as her country, the State of Virginia, against a foreign invader. The documentation is pretty spotty but she did shoot and kill a Union soldier at the beginning of the war who was part of a party of home-invaders, she did spy from the middle of a Union Army headquarters in Front Royal and have an affair with a Union Army Captain named Daniel Keily, and she did use intelligence she gathered to alert Stonewall Jackson and Turner Ashby to Union Army plans in order to trap them. She also ran across the battlefield on May 23rd 1862 at the Battle of Front Royal to give them a report about how lightly defended the town was, which was the start of Jackson’s famous Valley Campaign that pushed the Union lines back. Later historians, all of them male, disputed this, but there are two eye-witness accounts and a historical marker where she delivered that report. This is the reason that they commissioned her as a Captain of Scouts at age 18. She was the first woman in American History to be commissioned an army officer, which has made her something of a feminist icon despite the fact it was the wrong army. It is a terrific story.
A: Rose and her husband, Robert, were power-players in Washington. There are indicators that she was working for the French and the British as an agent of influence, and probably as a spy, while he was the number three guy in the State Department in the 1840s. James Buchanan, who was later her great friend before the Civil War, was suspicious of her when he was the Secretary of State and Robert got promoted out of his job and sent to Mexico on a fruitless mission having to do with California land claims after the Mexican War. He’d written a book on the history of California and Oregon, and that was part of the dialog about the ultimate boundary between the U.S and Canada. Rose had been a great friend, and possible lover of John C. Calhoun, and was very pro-slavery, so spying for the South was simply part of what she’d been doing all along.
Q: Why did you entitle the book The Queen of Washington?
A: Because she was, during the Buchanan Administration. She’d been mentored by Dolley Madison, who also had that title, and created that entire society in Washington where the men were above politics and the women did the deals. Rose couldn’t vote, but she could get you a government job…or a spouse. It was a very corrupt system and the secessionists infiltrated the government before the Civil War and started to steal information and assets. Weapons were shipped South. Documents and maps disappeared. Money disappeared. And Rose was up to her neck in most of it. She was very dangerous. Rose went to great lengths to get intelligence for the South. One of her lovers was Senator Henry Wilson, Chairman of the Senate Military Committee. Another was a Union Provost Martial responsible for the defenses of Washington city. That last relationship led to her arrest by Allan Pinkerton and eventual imprisonment with her eight-year old daughter in the Old Capitol Prison. There is a famous photo by Matthew Brady of the two of them there. You have to ask, why is that child there? They played rough, but that really is indecent, since Rose had relatives nearby who might have taken that child in.
Q: Why didn’t they?
A: Read my book and you can read my theory of the case, but it’s Alternative History without many facts to back it up.
Q: So it’s not all true?
A: It’s mostly true with a lie or two thrown in to make it more entertaining. I don’t pretend to be a a historian, just a novelist trying to provide an entertaining read. When a reviewer calls it that and says they really enjoyed the book, that’s when I know I’ve accomplished that goal. It’s the highest compliment I can receive.
A: The Marlowe story is another one I found when I was working for the Britannica. Another terrific story about a spy who was also one of the most brilliant writers in history. It’s true. He was a spy for the Crown, and it’s probably what got him killed. He was betrayed by his lover, Thomas Kyd, and then assassinated by his friends for reasons of state. I conceived of it as a lights and levels show with costumes. It went through staged readings in Chicago and Los Angeles, and someone suggested I take it to Thad Taylor at the Shakespeare Society of America in West Hollywood. At the time SSA was a producing organization with its own Globe Theater. Thad wanted to produce it and suggested I direct it since there was so much background knowledge that has to be known to make it work. We had a one-month Equity Waiver run, got good reviews, but it didn’t get picked up because it’s hard to do. Last year, my old friend Mike Donahue, who is now directing films, read it. He saw its potential as a film, optioned it and asked me to write the screenplay. We’ve published that in a first draft reading copy and republished the original script as an e-book.
Q: How is writing a play different than writing a novel?
A: A play or a film, unlike a novel, is a collaborative work. It requires a lot of other talents to realize for an audience. You have to be open to sharing the process. A film is different from a stage play because of all the other things you can do with close-ups, jump cuts and editing to drive the story, and the format is different even if the dialog is pretty much the same.
Q: Why did you decide to write this story as a play and not as a novel?
A: For several reasons. I always saw it that way, and with a play you can stand back from the character and be somewhat objective. A novel is more intimate. You have to get into people’s heads. Kit Marlowe’s is not a head I want to spend much time in. He was a very cruel man, a bully and murderer, a social climber and he was also homosexual, which I am not. That’s an entire emotional context I know nothing about, and am not going to try and fake. To know Kit Marlowe is to not love him. A writer has to recognize his or her limitations. I think it will make a great film, and that Mike Donahue will do a terrific job with it because he does understand that character and emotional context. It’s high drama. We’re in pre-production and Mike has other projects and obligations. He’s done four films in the last year. We also have to find financing and distribution and all that, and are still working on casting.
Q: How are you filling the time until this is ready?
A: Several ways. I was very ill last fall, just as The Queen of Washington was published, and the entire promotional scheme got trashed. So we’re playing catch-up on that, mostly through social media such as Facebook. We’ve turned some of my shorter fiction into audiobooks in collaboration with some terrific and talented narrators we found through ACX.com. Those are available on Audible, iTunes and Amazon.com. I have a book of security essays that will soon be out in e-book form. These are columns I originally did for Security Technology & Design magazine in the 1990s, but still relevant in out post 9/11 world,and some of the best writing I’ve done. And I’m still writing new fiction and raiding the files and knocking the dust off some of the stuff that never got published.
Q: Who is your publisher?
A: Technically, I am one of those horrid people who self-publishes. My roommate, Leigh Strother-Vien, and I own Brass Cannon Books. She’s also my editor and has been for the last 23 years. We hope to eventually publish work by other writers, but for the moment I will have to do. We use a team approach and hire others, such as George Mattingly, who designs some of our book covers, to help out. We’re careful about providing a superior product. We expect to make a film or television rights deal for The Shenandoah Spy soon.
We’ve now reached the time in our interview for the crowd-pleasing, rapid-fire questions:
Coffee or tea? Both.
Ocean or mountain? We live in the mountains.
Hiking or shopping? I’m physically disabled, so neither appeals as entertainment. We buy what we need, but don’t make a big deal of it.
Violin or piano? I don’t play an instrument, but if I did, it would be piano.
Mystery or fantasy? Both. I don’t restrict my reading by genre. It is intellectually stultifying.
Hester Prynne or Scarlett O’Hara? Neither. I dislike drama queens.
Love scene or death scene? Love scene.
Thank you, Francis.
Readers, if you want to learn more about Francis and his writing, visit brasscannonbooks.net or the Facebook pages and Youtube videos for The Queen of Washington, The Shenandoah Spy or Brass Cannon Books. Don’t forget to hit the like button.