What if Abraham Lincoln recorded his innermost thoughts as he moved toward the realization that he must end slavery? What if he lost that diary, but a recently discovered letter suggests that the diary is still out there? Such is the premise of “The Lincoln Letter” (Tor/Forge, 2012) by William Martin, his latest mystery novel featuring treasure-hunter Peter Fallon. Martin was at the Library today talking about his book, which he also researched here. I also had the opportunity to speak with Martin on his writing and his experience using the Library’s collections.
Q. What inspired you to write “The Lincoln Letter?”
A. You don’t need a lot of inspiration to want to write about Lincoln. He’s such an interesting character, a man of great convictions and greater contradictions. I had written a bit about Lincoln in a novel called “Annapolis” (1996) and had decided then that some day I would come back to him in a larger way. My editor and I had talked a lot about the Emancipation Proclamation, too. So, I thought, a novel about Lincoln and the Proclamation, in its sesquicentennial year? It’s time.
Q. What about historical fiction appeals to you most?
A. The opportunity to live history before it becomes history, when no one knows how it will all turn out. You do that through fictional characters whose fates are intertwined with the historical events of their era and, sometimes, the historical figures of their time. That way, you also get to look the giants of history in the eye and see that they were as human as we are, and if they could endure and succeed, so can we.
Q. How do you stay true to the facts while incorporating the fiction?
A. In my books, historical characters never act contrary to what we know about them. And historical events never unfold in a way that leads to a different outcome. Other than that, well, never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
Q. Tell me about the research you did at the Library for “The Lincoln Letter.”
A. The digital revolution has been great for those of us who do not live in Washington. We are still able to access some of the remarkable Library of Congress materials on an instantaneous basis. Two places that I turned: to the online newspaper collection and to the image catalogue. I read the Washington Daily Republican on the Library’s site for most of the Civil War. I didn’t read it for the battle reporting. That was usually inaccurate or incomplete. I read it for the ephemera, the argot, the prose style and the advertisements. In essence, I read it to find out what people were thinking about and talking about when they weren’t talking about the war. I know, for example, that the Gosling Restaurant on Pennsylvania Ave. is a “happenin’” place. And Miss Laura Keene will be playing a week’s engagement at Ford’s Theater in “Our American Cousin,” which closes Friday. And that’s part of the excitement of reading the newspapers. You have a wonderful sense of dramatic irony as you read, because you know things that the people of the time didn’t.
Then there were the photographs. People have no idea of how many images of the Civil War you can find on the Library’s website, which is superbly arranged and very accessible. Creating Washington D.C. in 1862 became a much easier task when I had the images on the site to use. This is not, like most historical image collections, a pile of usual suspects. Some are extremely rare. There was one shot, for example, looking out from the Capitol at the [National] Mall, which was cut by a canal and covered at Seventh Street with the barracks of the Armory Square Hospital. I have never seen it before, anywhere, and it expressed how incomplete the Washington of 1862 was – like the nation.
Q. While researching this book, what did you learn about Lincoln and the Civil War that helped you develop your book?
A. I learned that Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, was also the Great Politician. And he had to be because the war he was fighting was not simply against the Southern slaveholders and their States Rights supporters. He was also fighting “the fire in the rear,” a collection of politicians, opinionators and other Northern opportunists who were advancing their own agendas – even at the nation’s expense – throughout the war. I had never considered any of that before I started researching.
Q. Some of your other books feature key American historical figures and documents. What is it about the nation’s history that inspires you in such a way?
A. I suppose that the clash of high ideals and base desires is a hallmark of all human history. But we see it vividly in American history. Take Civil War America. It was a nation that, as Lincoln often commented, proclaimed its commitment to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and yet enslaved 10 percent of its population for profit. High ideals and base desires clash and create spectacular drama from 1861-65 and throughout our history.
Q. Have you used the Library’s collections for your other works?
A. Always, though not always directly. Everyone who does any kind of research touches upon the Library’s collections, even secondarily, through the work of other scholars. We are all beholden to the work of the Library of Congress.
Q. Are there any other periods in American history or historical figures you’d like to write about?
A. I have covered American history from the Pilgrims to 9/11, but there are still plenty of periods and events that I would like to drill more deeply into, like World War II or the building of the transcontinental railroad, And my imagination is inspired by place. We are products of the places we build, the places we destroy and those that we restore. Washington D.C. is a powerful character in “The Lincoln Letter.” I’d love to write about the rich history of California.
Q. Why do you think it’s valuable for the Library to preserve such historical items and what do you think the public should know about using them and doing research here?
A. Not only are we the products of the places we inhabit, we as Americans in the 21st century stand on the shoulders of all those who have thought, written, photographed, built and dreamed before us. Institutions like the Library of Congress are the great repositories of all those earlier aspirations. It is essential to a society’s sense of itself and its mission in history that those materials be preserved. They are national treasures, like the natural treasures we can visit in our national parks. Even if we never see Yellowstone, it’s important to us as a people to know that it’s there and that it’s part of our heritage. And that goes double for the materials that the Library has collected and catalogued. And all Americans should know that those collections, which help to define us as a people, are open to them in Washington and on line.