Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Interview with Stephen E. Yoch, author of Becoming George Washington.

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Stephen E. Yoch to Flashlight Commentary to discuss Becoming George Washington.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Stephen.  It’s great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about Becoming George Washington.
This is the story of the least known part of Washington’s life, and in many ways the most interesting.  It reveals the progression from an insecure, and fatherless boy to becoming an action hero at the center of the French & Indian War.  By the time the book ends, 20 years before the American Revolution, Washington has all the tools to be our indispensible founding father.

As a novelist, what drew you to George Washington?
I’ve always been fascinated by Washington.  He is unique in history in his ability to lead a revolution and then repeatedly give up power.  I wanted to understand that decision, and that drove me into his youth, where I found an amazing story that almost no one knows.  Once I found it, I was “hooked” and felt compelled to write the book.

Most people know Washington’s historical significance as a founding father and first US President, but is there anything in your novel that you feel will surprise your audience?
His early life was incredibly difficult.  The “cutting down the cherry tree” story is misleading, not only because it’s a complete fabrication, but also creates the false impression of an idyllic early life with a loving father.  In fact, George’s dad died when he was only eleven, and Washington always had a very strained relationship with his mother.  His formal education ended at approximately age 13 and he had little resources.  Despite all these challenges, Washington, through grit, persistence, and some luck, grew to become one of the most known and respected men in the country before age 30.

Sally Fairfax is a well-known name to those of us who’ve studied Washington. Why do you think Washington was attracted to her?
Virtually all historians agree that George loved Sally and most agree that she loved him.  The reason for the attraction starts with the fact that she was widely described and beautiful and the only painting that exists depicts her as a beauty.  But more importantly, she was everything that George wasn’t and aspired to be.  Classically educated, she grew up in a wealthy home, spoke French, and was known to be witty and vivacious.  Quite simply, it was “love at first sight.”

What sort of research went into Becoming George Washington?  What sources did you find most valuable? 
My book is a little different than many historical fiction books, in that I have a detailed bibliography and extended author’s notes in the back of the book allowing the reader to the position of non-fiction authors on the major events described in the story.  I relied heavily on the leading non-fiction scholars, including Chernow, Ellis, Ferling, Flexner, and others, but my best resource was the multi-volume The Papers of George Washington compiled by the University of Virginia.  This contains all of the available letters which were sent and received by Washington, as well as extensive scholarly annotations.  These letters were often used in the book and cited directly, or the language informed my dialogue.

You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly enjoyed writing?
The Battle of the Monongahela.

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author?  Why was it troublesome and how did you work through it? 
Washington’s trip to Barbados with his brother Lawrence was the most difficult part of the book for me.  There is a tremendous amount of written material, including Washington’s own journals, which discuss this trip.  It’s very important because it shows Washington’s intensely personal relationship with his brother Lawrence, as well as the brush he had with death when he contracted smallpox.  However, I did not want to spend too much time on this trip, and worked hard to make the section relevant and engaging.

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story.  Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time on? 
The short answer is no and yes.  No, I don’t believe I sacrificed any character.  But yes, I adored Christopher Gist.  He was Washington’s right-hand man throughout the story, was a tremendously interesting person and his “back story” has been written extensively, but I wished there had been time in the book to tell more about him.    
Historical novelists frequently have to adjust facts to make their stories work.  Did you have to invent or change anything while writing Becoming George Washington and if so, what did you alter? 
Again, this is where my book is different from many historical fiction novels.  It is a “novel” because you get to hear what George thought, and the conversations he had with people around him.  However, to the maximum extent possible, I tried to keep my story close to the historical record.  In those instances where there is controversy, my extended author’s notes allow the reader to understand the line between “fiction” and “non-fiction.”

If you could sit down and talk with any one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why? 
The obvious answer would be George Washington himself.  However, Washington was not a very welcoming conversationalist with strangers, and abhorred the concept of personal biography, so a “sit down” with His Excellency General George Washington would likely be disappointing.  Thus, it is Christopher Gist, his fascinating companion throughout the story that I think could give me the best insight to the matriculation of the remarkable young Washington.

Just because I’m curious, if you could pick a fantasy cast to play the leads in a screen adaption of Becoming George Washington, who would you hire? 
Ugh – this is a topic of much discussion and argument among my family, and I struggle with a good answer of who could play our young George.  Liam Hemsworth might fit the bill (although keep in mind he is “only” 6’ 3” which was Washington’s height at the time – George would be the equivalent of 6’ 9” today – I don’t have an actor of that height that I think would be the right fit).  Natalie Portman would be a great Sally Fairfax (she looks like the only painting that exists of Sally) although my family prefers Emma Watson and Anne Hathaway.

Finally, what’s next for you?  Do you have a new project in the works?
I’m working on Becoming Benedict Arnold.  It is a first person account of how one of the most respected and leading patriots, and most able generals, became our greatest traitor.

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"All of the how’s and whys of George Washington’s relationships with family members, political adversaries and the women in his life as well as his military accomplishments and defeats are explored and Stephen Yoch has done more than just his homework. He has managed to delve into Washington’s psyche and put a very human face on the man who became the first President of the United States." - Red Rock Bookworm, Top Amazon Reviewer

"I was won over in the first pages. The book is an engaging read, and George Washington we come to care about in this book is a most interesting man of many facets. The book is weighted on the historical side of historical fiction, and that makes me think we need to revamp a lot of text books to give George Washington the vigor and life he deserves." - Amazon Review

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Steve doesn’t golf or fish and is a below average hunter, but his love of history and writing compelled him to pick up his pen and tell the little-known stories behind the men that made American history. After years of extensive research, Steve wrote his first book on young George Washington.

Steve lives in a suburb north of St. Paul, Minnesota with his supportive wife and two fantastic teenage sons. He graduated with honors from Boston College and the University of Minnesota Law School. He has enjoyed over two decades of practicing law in the Twin Cities, helping individuals and businesses solve complex problems.

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Heather C said...

Awesome interview and I LOVE that he is working on Benedict Arnold! Despite the traitor turn, I am truly fascinated by him and the amazing things he did prior to what he is known for now!

Erin Davies said...

I know the feeling! I'm really excited about the Benedict Arnold book. I've read a few adaptations, but I think a hard hitting historical would satisfy me more than what I've sampled in the past.