I have been a fan of NY Times bestselling author William Martin since the last century, BC: before children. My late mother-in-law, Mary, used to send me her recent reads, and we bonded over books. She first sent me Martin's Annapolis, knowing I would dive right in, being married to her son, a '91 US Naval Academy alumnus. And I loved it! Martin's masterful blurring of the lines between fact and fiction made it an instant favorite. I've read most of his back list and can recommend all. Imagine my delight when we became Facebook friends and now this interview. Mary Boyd would have gotten such a kick out of this!
CHRISTINA: When did you first think you had a book to write and how did you start?
WILLIAM: I went to Hollywood to become a movie director. I figured out that the quickest way into the movie business was to write a good screenplay. So I wrote three, none of which got produced (although one of them won the Hal Wallis Screenwriting Fellowship and forty years later became my 11th novel). Finally, a well-known Hollywood executive, after listening to me pitch a story, said, “The way you write, you ought to write a novel.” Well, I had an idea for buried treasure beneath the streets of Boston that I thought would make a good novel. And being well-supplied with something that every young person entering the arts needs, something I call “the arrogance of naivete,” I said, I’ll write a novel. Oh, and I also had an agent who had an office in New York City and said she could sell my book there. The result was Back Bay, which would go on to defy all the odds and spend 14 weeks on the NY Times Bestseller List. It also meant I never had to have a real job again.
CHRISTINA: Wow! You are living every newbie author's dream. And so well deserved. By the way, I loved Back Bay. Anytime I have been in Boston, I look for Back Bay sites, according to your novel.
What comes first, plot, or characters?
WILLIAM: Every book has a different genesis. It may be a good plot hook. It may be a big idea that you want to write about. It may even be a good first line. I’ve written books that began in all those ways. The truth is that character creates plot and plot becomes character in action. With every good story, the author must be asking, from the beginning, what does the main character want, and who stands in their way? The "want" defines the character. It is their reason for being. And the one who stands in their way creates the conflict, which creates the plot. It’s all very circular, very chicken-and-egg.
CHRISTINA: Makes perfect sense. Creativity meets logic meets creativity.
Is there one of your characters you most identify with and why?
WILLIAM: I suppose Peter Fallon, in the six novels that feature him. We have the same Boston-Irish background, Catholic high schools, Harvard, etc. When he first appeared in BACK BAY, he was a graduate student trying to prove to his father that his studies in history had not been a waste, and I was a recent graduate student trying to prove to my father that going to film school hadn’t been a waste. Later, when he reappeared in Harvard Yard, Peter was an established guy. So was I. Peter was counseling his son on getting into Harvard. So was I. We both told our sons the same thing: “Some guys never get over the fact that they didn’t get into Harvard, and some guys never get over the fact that they DID. I don’t want you to be either kind of guy.” Peter and I both enjoy the Red Sox and serve on the boards of Boston cultural institutions. And there are a lot of other points of contact, too. However, Peter is divorced and back in an on-again-off-again relationship with his old girlfriend Evangeline, while I’ve been married for fifty years. And Peter sometimes has to fight hand-to-hand, which I gave up a long time ago. But of course, his love of history and its challenges make him easy for me to identify with. He is a dealer in rare books and documents who goes after lost treasures like the Shakespeare Manuscript in Harvard Yard and a Gold Rush Journal in Bound for Gold, because he believes that history matters. In the process, history comes alive for him, as it comes alive for me in the writing, and for you, I hope, in the reading.
CHRISTINA: I can see that. Like you, Peter Fallon is an amazing researcher, historian, who follows the clues, the details, till he has the whole story. I like when writers give a little of themselves to a character. Keeps the reading honest.
What is your current project or latest release?
WILLIAM: My latest novel is called December ’41. It’s a WWII thriller that begins on the day after Pearl Harbor as a German agent evades an FBI dragnet in Los Angeles. His job? To get to Washington DC to shoot Franklin Roosevelt on the night that he lights the national Christmas tree. Complications ensue, of course, leading to a spectacular climax on the Christmas Eve, when Winston Churchill joins FDR on the South Portico to light the tree, while a German assassin stalks them out on the Ellipse. Reviewers have called it “propulsive,” “a devilishly complex and lusciously detail-rich thriller,” and “a bullet train of thrills speeding toward a spectacular conclusion.” It came out in June of 2022. I’m now working on another with those characters, called Chain Reaction. More on that one later.
CHRISTINA: Oh yes, I loved December '41. I liked all those characters! And so much page-turning tension. For whatever reason, Amazon didn't allow my review. (Not one curse word or spoiler in my entire review. Go figure.) Looking forward to hearing more about Chain Reaction.
What is your favorite of your own novels?
WILLIAM: The next one. That’s the easy answer. The longer form answer is that every book I’ve written has parts where I felt I was really rolling and totally in charge and other places where I was just fighting to put words down on a page. The real question should be, which books get me as close to my goal, to my vision of what I could do? I think Citizen Washington, my biographical novel about George Washington achieves something special in its depiction of our first icon. And I think that City of Dreams, my novel about New York City, may be the best Peter Fallon novel. But picking a favorite is like picking a favorite child. I’m not doing it.
CHRISTINA: Too true. For me, it's a toss-up between The Lost Constitution and Back Bay and Annapolis. But then I also really loved Bound for Gold. Any of your books would translate well to film. Hear me, Hollywood execs?
If you were to revise any of your books, which would you choose and why?
WILLIAM: I would probably revise The Lost Constitution, my 2007 NY Times bestseller about a lost draft of the Constitution, an annotated draft on which the framers have left their thoughts about a Bill of Rights. Everybody wants to find it in the modern story because there’s a big repeal movement brewing over the Second Amendment. In the novel, I didn’t spend a lot of time explaining the Second Amendment and its historical context.
If I had it to write over again, I’d dig more deeply into the history behind the Amendment and into its language. What, for example, did the framers really mean by the oft-ignored first clause, "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of the free state…” I owed the readers more of a discussion on the matter, but I just played it down the middle, because I was giving the readers a series of interlocking stories about the importance of the Constitution in our national life, but I could [give] them more.
CHRISTINA: I see what you mean, but for me, that book reads perfectly as is. Pacing, authenticity. Excellent balance of historical research and current topics.
Favorite contemporary author?
WILLIAM: I like British author Robert Harris, who has written many historical novels set in many eras, from ancient Rome.
CHRISTINA: Have you gone on an author pilgrimage or research trip? Where and what was the most memorable moment?
WILLIAM: I’ve gone on many research trips. Trips are one of the best parts of writing because you’re out there having fun, doing actual work, while not killing yourself at a desk. I decided a long time ago that I would only ever write books in which the research was fun. I made this decision in an operating room, while watching a kidney transplant for my second novel, Nerve Endings, about a kidney recipient who becomes fascinated by the donor and begins researching his life. Nah, observing incisions and surgery was not for me. So, for my next book, The Rising of the Moon, an adventure yarn about gunrunners smuggling guns to Ireland for the Easter Rebellion of 1916, I sailed on a three-masted schooner and drank in the pubs of Ireland. For Harvard Yard, which features Shakespeare, we all traveled to Shakespeare’s haunts in Stratford-on-Avon and in the Southwark section of London. Very cool stuff. For The Lincoln Letter, I visited Civil War battlefields like Antietam, Gettysburg, Manassas, and Ball’s Bluff. And when I wrote Bound for Gold, I wandered the California Gold Country and even found a few flecks of gold while learning to pan in the American River. But I suppose the most memorable research came when I was writing Annapolis and the US Navy opened its portals to me. I flew off the deck of an aircraft carrier and cruised on a 688 fast-attack nuclear submarine. I’ll never forget the ‘emergency blow’ on the sub, when they demonstrated how quickly a 688 could get to the surface. Of course, for every hour of research fun, I’ve had countless hours of harder book-and-archive research, but that’s fun, too, if you find what you’re looking for or get ideas from the research that inspire story and character.
CHRISTINA: Wowww...not many can say they've had such opportunities, especially with the Navy. I've read and reread Annapolis; your world building seems effortless without seeming so. What amazing experiences to color the pages.
So far, what is your greatest accomplishment as a writer?
WILLIAM: Well, I have managed to survive for over forty years as a writer of fiction. I’ve paid a mortgage and three big college tuitions. I’ve had a lot of wonderful vacations. And I’ve done exactly as I wanted, all as a novelist. Beyond that, I know that right now, as I write this and as you read it, there are people in every state in this union seeing the world through my eyes and the eyes of may characters. And even after I’m gone, there will be people who read my books from time to time. That’s pretty cool.
CHRISTINA: Profound, really. What a legacy. Must be kinda heady to know you have contributed to literature, that your body of work represents a genre and will continue to entertain readers.
Now that we are Facebook friends, you might know, my daughter is a mid at the US Merchant Marine Academy. I was at Kings Point in September and came across “The 142” WWII memorial and thought it might lend to a multi-era storytelling, given all the changes in shipping industry, good and ugly. Maybe a historical intrigue wending its way from early merchant tall ships to US flag ships to now modern-day DoT--it gave me ideas for another Peter Fallon book. Just throwing that out there...in case you needed a new writing project...after your current project, of course. [wink, wink]
Anyway, thank you for your time and candor. I've been a longtime fan and am thrilled you did this interview for me. Looking forward to reading Chain Reaction. Am all anticipation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
William Martin is the New York Times bestselling author of twelve 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 Codto Ford's Theater in The Lincoln Letter to the South Tower on 9/11 in City of Dreams. Bound for Gold (2018), sweeps readers back to California in the legendary year of 1849 and "solidifies his claim as king of the historical thriller" (Providence Journal). And his latest, the "propulsive" December '41, captures the atmosphere in the United States int he weeks after Pearl Harbor.
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.