William Martin is the New York Times bestselling author of eleven novels, a PBS documentary, book reviews, magazine articles, and a cult-classic horror movie, too. His first Peter Fallon novel, Back Bay, established him as "a master storyteller." He has been following the lives of the great and anonymous in American history ever since, taking readers from the Mayflower in Cape Cod to Ford's Theater in The Lincoln Letter to the South Tower on 9/11 in City of Dreams. His latest, Bound for Gold, sweeps readers back to California in the legendary year of 1849 and "solidifies his claim as king of the historical thriller" (Providence Journal). He was the 2005 recipient of the prestigious New England Book Award, given to an author "whose body of work stands as a significant contribution to the culture of the region." In 2015, the USS Constitution Museum gave him the Samuel Eliot Morison Award, for "patriotic pride, artful scholarship, and an eclectic interest in the sea and things maritime." And in 2018, the Mystery Writers of America (New England Chapter) gave him the Robert B. Parker Award. He serves on the boards of many of Boston's historical and cultural organizations, lives near Boston with his wife, and has three grown children.
Here is an interview in Quarterdeck, an online magazine devoted to nautical and historical fiction:
1. At what point in your life did you decide to become a writer? I wanted to be a moviemaker first. I made that decision in March of 1963, when I saw How the West Was Won, an unforgettable cinematic experience for a twelve-year-old boy who had already been steeped in big movies with historical themes. Eleven years later, I went to Hollywood. I wrote scripts with historical themes, couldn’t sell any of them, so I wrote a novel with one. It became a best seller and is still in print thirty-two years later. It’s called Back Bay.
2. Were there specific influences in your early years that drew you to write historical fiction? The books I read, the movies I saw, the streets I walked. Boston is a city where you feel history vibrating beneath your feet. If you loved, say, Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes when you were eight or nine, and then realized that it all happened in your own city... you might start looking for stories on every street corner.
3.Have you considered writing in another genre? I’ve written history, mystery, thriller, biography, Michenerian chronicle, Bildungsroman, western, high adventure, low comedy, war story, love story, sea story, and horror story, all under the general heading of “Historical Novel.” In ten novels, I’ve written just one straight contemporary thriller. History sets me free.
4. How did you develop your gift as an intriguing storyteller? The honest answer: I’m not sure. The long answer is too long for this space. The short answer: Put people in motion. Make them want things – material things or metaphysical things. Put obstacles in their way. Let them reveal themselves through the struggle. And remember that every struggle has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
5. How difficult is it to blend factual details with a fictional storyline and still retain historical integrity? I honor the old adage: never let the facts get in the way of a good story. But I find that the facts make pretty good stories in themselves. I usually introduce fictional characters who live their own lives in the shadow of history. I don’t change the facts of history, the truth of events, or the character of those who lived the events. In The Lincoln Letter, there are no vampires.
6. Your characters – particularly those taken from history – are extremely well drawn. How is this accomplished? See the answer to question number 4. Characters in motion, in their own world, confronting the obstacles that their world throws in front of them. Those characters live in their time. They are participants in its great events. They possess or are victims of its prejudices. They speak in its metaphor and idiom. They express themselves physically through its details.
7. Reading history for some is like having to take a dose of cod liver oil. Yet your historical fiction has reached best-seller status over the past thirty-plus years. To what do you attribute this popularity of your novels? I always tell a story. I try to make the stakes high and the big scenes big. And I try to show readers the events of history through the eyes of my characters. In The Lincoln Letter, I put you in the dress circle at Ford’s Theatre on Good Friday, 1865, a place and time we have all read about, but I show you the events of that night from an entirely different perspective.
8. The Lincoln Letter focuses on a long lost letter written by Abraham Lincoln. What sparked this latest historical "treasure hunt" for your protagonists Peter Fallon and Evangeline Carrington? I have always wanted to write a novel about Lincoln. With the Civil War sesquicentennial upon us, I decided that this was the time. Then I wondered, what would my treasure-hunting duo go looking for. I chatted with a few historians who agreed that a Lincoln diary would be one of the great treasures of history. And I was off. But this time, I decided that it would be one story in the past and one in the present. And the story would be set in Washington DC in two eras. It's a city where the more things change, the more they stay the same.
9. How did you research it ? The way I research all of my novels. To get rolling, I read some great books, including Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, as an introduction to Lincoln himself; The Fiery Trial by Eric Foner as an introduction to his evolving beliefs on race and slavery, which figure in the plot; and two social histories of Washington, Freedom Rising by Ernest B. Ferguson and Reveille in Washington, the 1942 Pulitzer Prize-winner by Margaret Leech, to get a picture of the city that I was writing about. I read primary sources like Walt Whitman’s Hospital Sketches. Online, I read the Washington Daily Republican for 1861-65. I studied photos. And my wife and I walked the ground. We visited Ford’s Theatre, the Georgetown Canal, the remnants of the forts that once ringed Washington, and the battlefields, of course. That kind of tourist research is the most fun.
10. Please describe where you write. In a skylit, sun-filled third-floor office, with a roof deck and, on a nice June morning, the sound of the breeze in the trees outside. It beats fighting the traffic.
11.Do you have a set writing routine? I write every day. I put in eight hours most days. A little less when the pressure is off, a lot more when the pressure is on.
12. Has your approach to writing changed much since your first novel, Back Bay, was launched in 1980? Well, I have found that writing never gets easier, but you may get better at it. I’m always trying to create richer characters, write more appropriate prose for each scene, control my point of view more effectively. But one thing I understood instinctively with Back Bay is still of paramount importance: narrative thrust. Drive your characters through events. Make stuff happen. If stuff is not happening, your readers will not be turning pages, your characters will not be alive, and neither will your story. I lived by that motto in 1980; I live by it now. Or as F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote on the back of an envelope: "Action is character."
13. Is a new Fallon and Carrington novel yet in the works? Yes, but it’s still emerging in my mind, so we won’t say more.
14. At this point in your writing career, what has been your greatest joy? Knowing that right now, as I write this answer and as you read it, people in all fifty states are seeing the American experience through my eyes. They might be reading The Lincoln Letter. They might be reading a book I wrote twenty years ago, or thirty, or more. I have lasted… and I’m not finished yet.