I’ve known Joe Epley most of my adult life. He was one of my first bosses. I experienced September 11th with him and his team at Epley Associates. He trusted me with projects at his PR agency that helped form my career. So, when he asked me to review his latest book, A Passel of Trouble, I said, “yes.”
But, I felt a bit of trepidation.
I know what it’s like to write and put your hard work into the hands of the masses for their opinions to run rampant. They’ll never know how much of you, your soul and spirit, exude in every well-placed word. The masses can be kind and the masses can be cruel.
Sometimes it’s easier to hide from the masses. I knew if I reviewed Joe’s book, the masses would read it. And, being the over-protective protegé that I am, I didn’t want any mass cruelty hurled at Joe.
Luckily, Joe’s way tougher than me and also knew how great his latest novel is. A Passel of Trouble proves to be well-researched, well-written, and an all-around winner of a novel. I caught up with Joe recently and he agreed to an interview for you all.
ARDEN: Thank you for agreeing to an interview for Arden’s Book Club. Throughout the book, I keep thinking… why did you choose David Fanning as your main character?
JOE: The more I read about the Revolutionary War in the Carolinas, the more I became intrigued about Fanning. Little had been written about him except by 18th-century historian who categorized him as the worse villain ever to roam the state. Then I read the narrative that he wrote in 1790 that provided a chronological listing of his adventures and accomplishments during the war. Most were just a listing without much detail. With further research, I was able to see his unique skills in leadership, strategy, tactics, etc. that propelled him to a commanding position in North Carolina. But the more I read, the more questions I needed to answer. For example, How did a young man with no formal education get as far as he did? What motivated him? Why did he go to central North Carolina where he had no contacts? Why was he so readily accepted when he arrived in Randolph and Chatham Counties? How effective were the Whig militias in that area? Why was he considered to be such a villain by historians? How involved were Quakers in Fanning’s life and in the war in the Carolinas? How did he compare to Francis (Swamp Fox) Marion as a partisan leader? These are but a few questions that had to answered, but as you solved one puzzle, two more cropped up.
ARDEN: Swamp Fox constantly came to my mind as I read about Fanning. It’s interesting how we cheer for Marion, but boo Fanning. Was it difficult to portray him fairly knowing he was choosing to fight for the King instead of the country you served?
JOE: No, it was not difficult. I approached my study of Fanning as a reporter would look at a story– objectively and without bias for either side. Particularly when I found him to be more resourceful and more compassionate that history would have you think. I also felt that most writings about the American Revolution were biased for the Independence movement. Few people had tried to look at from the Tory point of view. The view North Carolina historians who wrote about him described him as a murderer, villain, scoundrel of the worse sort. Yet as they vilified Fanning, you could also read between the lines a begrudging respect. Here are three examples:
“No wild beast ever better loved the shedding of blood, and in the catalogue of crimes, there was not one in which he was not adept. He was swift and sly and tireless as a wolf, and beyond all comparison, the greatest villain America has ever produced.” – John W. Moore (1833-1906) History of North Carolina: from the Earliest Discoveries to the Present Time -1880
“Had he been on the Whig side his fame would have been more enduring than that of any other partisan officer whose memory is so dear to all patriots. Foraging on the country, seizing what he wanted, slaying, slaughtering, burning homes, and butchering in cold blood according to his mood, he became a terror and a scourge.” – Samuel A. Ashe (1840-1938), History of North Carolina, 1908
“As a partisan leader, Fanning had no superior on either side in the Carolinas. He had all the dash and daring of Sumter, the fertility and dispatch of Marion, and the resourcefulness of Davie, without possessing, however, those qualities of moral character, which make these men much his superiors. Crafty and treacherous, cruel and vindictive, sparing neither age nor sex, he openly boasts of the brutality with which he destroyed his enemies and desolated this country.” – Robert Digges Wimberly Conner (1878-1950) History of North Carolina published 1919
ARDEN: Aaahhh… you’re constantly teaching me, Joe. So, how much of your own experience as a Green Beret filtered into the writing of this book?
JOE: One of the things that intrigued me in my initial research was that Fanning’s area of operations in North Carolina was much the same as the area used today by the US Army to train the modern-day Green Berets in guerrilla warfare. I spent a considerable amount of time training in Uwharrie Forest back in the 1960s. So the field craft, survival techniques, stealth, ambush planning, and unconventional war thinking came naturally to me. The concept of partisan warfare today is similar to that in the 18th century, except weaponry, communications and technology are drastically different. We studied Francis Marion, the great Partisan fighter in South Carolina who became known as ‘The Swamp Fox.’ I didn’t know about Fanning then, but later research showed he shared similar skills to Marion’s.
ARDEN: History continues to repeat itself, I see yet again. This book is rich with details… from the characters’ personal lives to battles along the way. How did you learn so much and pull all of the details together into such an intriguing novel?
JOE: Reading, talking to knowledgeable people, hanging around revolutionary war era reenactors, walking battlefields and other locations, more reading, genealogical studies. For instance, I found the archives at Guilford College rich in information about Quaker life during that time and had original minutes of monthly business meetings of the major Meeting Houses. I also talked to modern-day Quakers who explained how life was different and more simple 200 years ago.
I got to know the Lindley family that played prominently in the story and 236 years later, are still prominent in the area around the Chatham – Alamance (then Orange) County line. I talked with county historians. I reviewed archeological studies. In short, to get the details, you must become a sponge absorbing information from many sources.
ARDEN: How long did you take you to research and write this book?
JOE: From start to finish once I decided to write about Fanning, a little more than three years.
Do you have any tips for aspiring historical fiction writers reading this interview for you?
1. Know your era and the details of events that shape your story.
2. Understand that people talked differently, write differently, thought differently and acted differently than as today. Avoid slang unless you can verify it was used in that era.
3. Your story must be plausible and true to the period.
4. Good historical fiction does not change the outcome or drastically change how events unfolded. If there is not a recorded record, then you have some room for creative writing — but it should be believable. That is a difference between historical fiction and alternative history.
5. Verify information by seeking another source. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.
6. In addition to the typical editor used to review your work, have a historian read it for historical accuracy.
7. When in doubt, research some more.