Yellow Springs, Ohio, resident TJ Turner is a renaissance man. In addition to his career as a research scientist with the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson AFB, he’s also a federal agent, and as a reserve military officer, he has served three tours in Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal in 2013. In fact, his essay about his deployments to Afghanistan, “The Power of Teddy Bears,”was accepted and read on NPR’s This I Believe national essay series. The husband and father of three also recently became a published novelist.
In Lincoln’s Bodyguard, Turner creates an alternative version of American history. President Lincoln is saved from assassination due to the heroics of his bodyguard, Joseph Foster, who is abiracial mix of white and Miami Indian and makes an enemy of the South by killing John Wilkes Booth. Though the book provides a look at what the country could have been without the loss of the president, Foster’s nail-biting story, one of revenge and redemption, takes center stage here.
You Indie recently spoke with Turner about the novel, Lincoln’s history and legacy, and his experiences as a reservist.
I think most of us have wondered “what if,” although it is probably more common for imagination and tweaking to take place on one’s own personal history. When did it occur to you that you could tweak someone else’s history in print?
What I was really going for was an interesting story—one that had some relevance to our current world. I love the time period of the Civil War, as it’s so ripe with drama and conflict, on so many levels. On top of that, the Lincoln narrative always fascinated me. He was a man that if you really look at his background, should never have become president. He didn’t have the education, or the politics, or even the experience in an executive office. But he was absolutely the perfect man for the job. We never would have come through the Civil War in the same manner without him. He steered the ship, weathered us through the storm, and then before he could see the nation made whole again he was taken from us. So I wanted to re-tell that narrative, but this time let him see the nation come back together and start the healing process. His death, particularly the manner and timing of it, is one of the great injustices of our nation’s history. If he’s looking down on us, I hope he likes the alternative outcome I created for him.
Where did the idea for the story come from?
I had been writing for a while, and had found very little success in getting signed by a literary agent for an earlier novel. In fact, I was getting a bit depressed and was considering giving up the whole writing life. But one day in the car on the way home from work, I turned the radio to NPR’s Fresh Air with Terri Gross. She was speaking to some guest about the Lincoln assassination, and they were talking about why Lincoln had no “real” bodyguard that night. I put the “real” in quotes because he actually had a bodyguard, who obviously failed miserably at his job. But Terri said the phrase “Lincoln’s Bodyguard”, and it was like a flashing neon sign in my head. I knew it would make a great title for a book, one that I would want to pick up and read. And almost immediately the character of Joseph Foster knocked on my subconscious and helped me craft the story. Many authors I’ve heard speak will tell you that their characters are alive, dictating the story. I had never experienced that before, but I did with this novel.
It is easy to overlook the fact that Lincoln’s assassination resulted in the surrender of many of the confederate generals and put an end to the war. How important was this part of the history to your story?
That’s an absolutely pivotal point. We may never truly know how the end of the war would have unfolded with Lincoln still at the helm. But what we do know is that the Confederate President Jefferson Davis, wrote to both General Lee and General Johnston and pleaded with them to not surrender—to carry on in guerilla warfare and bog down the North to make the war effort grind to a halt. General Lee considered it, but then felt he had to surrender or the South would face partisan warfare and strife like Missouri had seen before the war. General Johnston only learned of Lincoln’s death upon his first meeting with Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, and when he heard about the assassination he knew the North had found its martyr. The only way his beloved South would heal would be through a negotiated peace. But if Lincoln had lived, Johnston might have taken his 90,000 men and disappeared all over the South. With the amazing terrain over the southern portion of our country—the mountains, forests, and swamps—the Union would have had to send in a huge occupying army. And that’s the premise of where the book opens. Insurgent warfare reigns supreme, the nation is crippled and still torn apart even seven years after the failed assassination attempt.
As an Air Force reservist who has been deployed several times I imagine that you’ve seen the results of guerilla warfare and insurgencies. Did any of your personal experiences leach in to your writing?
Absolutely. I’ve witnessed first hand how even the greatest military on the planet can be held at bay by a much smaller force. I spent three tours in Afghanistan, and even ten years from our initial deployment of boots on the ground we don’t have complete freedom of movement there. The enemy blends back into the fabric of society. They know the land, the people, the language, the culture…and that would be exactly what an occupying Union Army would have been facing in my alternative narrative to 1872. And to be honest, that was totally intentional. I think every good story, no matter the setting, relates back to the current world in some manner. That’s what makes it relevant, and keeps the reader engaged—seeing those parallels to the modern world. So that was exactly what I was striving for, and the experience of seeing it first hand was invaluable.
How long did it take you to research the subject before beginning the story?
I actually started the story right away, and then morphed into the research phase as I began to hit those “historical walls”, things I didn’t know and would need to research to keep any kind of authenticity. Once the research started, it took me several months. I read voraciously, even going into Google Books and finding texts written during the time period. I definitely have two parts to my writing personality. One is creative, imagining the story and all the plotting and conflict. The other is much more analytic. They never operate at the same time, and they’re always fighting for attention! I think the scientist in me would have done research for years and never wound up writing a novel, while the creative side finally had to kick him out and start in behind the keyboard!
Have you received positive or negative input from history buffs about your alternative history?
I have—both positive and negative! It really depends on the person, and it seems to be highly correlated to how much fiction someone reads. There are whole communities dedicated to the study of Lincoln, or the Civil War, or even one specific battle of the war. Those folks are amazing, exactly the kind of person the analytic side of me wants to become! But I found that I have to approach those communities carefully. It’s almost viewed as sacrilegious to fictionalize the accounts of people from that time period, and then I went and did it to no lesser of a figure than Lincoln himself! So many of the hardcore history buffs have a hard time with the fictionalized aspect, not to mention the alternative timeline. One prominent scholar told me he would never read my book because if he did, then people might believe that the story was real and that Lincoln never died at Booth’s hands. But others in the community, especially those who enjoy historical fiction, have been overwhelmingly positive about it. They see the level of research, and they enjoy the story for what it is—drama and conflict set in an amazingly tumultuous time.
I found it interesting that although Lincoln survives his assassination attempt, the protagonist still encounters the people and places involved in Booth’s escape, and ultimately, his death. Was this a nod of acknowledgement to the history buffs?
Absolutely! It’s more like a nod to History herself, and maybe a bit of fatalism mixed in. That alone is also a tip of the hat to Lincoln, who was quite the fatalist to begin with. He had premonitions of his own death, so it felt right to let that familiar story of Booth’ escape become part of the new narrative for Joseph. Even though the novel is an alternative historical, I wanted History to right herself, which happens 7 years after the timeline that we all know is disturbed in the opening pages. How we get back to the actual past we all know is part of the fun!
In your novel Lincoln isn’t necessarily the romanticized character that history books have made him out to be. He’s flawed and has a lot of demons. Do you believe that our western culture leads us to over romanticize people like Lincoln and their legacies?
Certainly. Lincoln was not the popular president that he is made out to be today. Even in the North he was not universally loved. We look at him with this lens of hindsight and time and believe that he was considered as great then as we know him to be today. He truly was a great president—in my mind the greatest—but he evolved tremendously from his first days in office, and those transformations were not necessarily popular. For instance, he always opposed slavery but at first openly stated that he would have preserved the institution if it would have saved the Union. Then he advocated the return of African Americans to Africa. But in his final year and a half he made tremendous strides, admitting former slaves as soldiers, helping guarantee them equal pay, and even advocating for an absolute end to slavery through constitutional amendment. We tend to forget that he was a flawed man, who lost two children he loved dearly. He was certainly haunted by demons. In fact, he was still wearing the mourning band around his top hat for the loss of his son Willy on the night he died. So I think we look back on him today and don’t want to see or hear that he was just a man—albeit a great one—but still a man with his own troubles, and worries, and flaws.
This year is a significant anniversary for Lincoln’s assassination. Did that timeline play in to the release of this novel?
It wasn’t necessarily intentional, meaning that I didn’t set out to write a Lincoln novel with the forethought that the anniversary might be good for the sale of the work. But once my agent (the amazing Liz Kracht) sold the manuscript to Oceanview Publishing, they came back and said they had an April publication slot opened! There’s that aspect of fatalism coming back in again! Maybe that was Lincoln’s way of looking out for the novel that let him live!
Can we expect to see Joseph Foster pop up in any of your future work?
Possibly! I have a prequel for Lincoln’s Bodyguard in mind, which explains the backstory to Joseph. He’s an amazingly complicated character, and his mother was a huge influence on the man he became. Besides, the years leading up to the Civil War are just as rich in drama and conflict, especially when you’re escaping along the Underground Railroad!
How did the Antioch Writer’s workshop help you to grow in your craft?
My involvement with the Antioch Writer’s Workshop is the single biggest influence I’ve had as a writer. I first attended the workshop as a scholarship winner back in 2006. I won the Bill Baker award. Without it, I wouldn’t have attended. And at the workshop I truly learned the whole of the writing life, from the mechanics of writing, to character development, and plotting, and even the business end. And maybe even more importantly, I met amazing writers who I stay in touch with, and whom I use as sounding boards for advice and writing help. I owe everything to the Antioch Writer’s Workshop. It’s a magical place.
Your very first story as a 10-year-old was a science fiction tale, can we expect to see you try your hand at that again?
Maybe! I have a novel outlined along those lines as well…at least a more speculative science fiction vein! I need to flush it out a bit more…too many projects, not enough time!
(Lincoln’s Bodyguard was released by Oceanview Publishing in April 2015. For more information about Turner, visit www.tjturnerautor.com.)