Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Interview with Geoffery S. Edwards, author of FIRE BELL IN THE NIGHT

Geoffrey S. Edwards' debut novel FIRE BELL IN THE (Touchstone/ Simon & Schuster. 2007. $15.00. Trade paperback. ISBN:1-4165-6424-1) was the first runner-up in's First Chapters Contest, which is in of itself an extraordinary accomplishment. In addition, however, Geoffrey Edwards' book is a riveting read, conjuring a sweltering summer in 1850 in Charleston, where a series of allegedly random fire attacks coincide with the trial of a poor white farmer accused of harboring a fugitive slave and the growing divide between North and South. With a a graceful precision and eye of detail, Edwards immerses us in a cauldron of racial unrest and secrets seen through the eyes of an ambitious young reporter from New York, who travels to Charleston to cover the trial and finds himself swept into the dangerous, deceptively genteel world of slave owners -- which might just harbor a lethal conspiracy.

Geoffrey S. Edwards is thirty one years old and a full-time educational editor living with his wife in Chicago, Illinois. A passionate love of history and mysteries led him to write his first novel, FIRE BELL IN THE NIGHT. He enjoys reading, travel, and the Chicago Cubs. I'm honored to feature Geoffrey as my first author in 2008.

1. Congratulations on the publication of FIRE BELL IN THE NIGHT. It's a pleasure to have you with us. Set in Charleston, South Carolina, in the summer of 1850, this novel is a riveting account of a New York journalist who travels to the south to cover the trial of a farmer accused of harboring a fugitive slave and finds himself plunged into the racial and political tensions that led to the Civil War. What inspired you to write about this troubled period in U.S. history?

Thanks so much for inviting me. In response to your question, I have always felt a stronger attraction to the moments just before calamity than the calamitous events themselves. In retrospect, one can see the lead-up to the Civil War etched into the pages of the Constitution. However, I feel that the Crisis of 1850 marked the point of no return for the nation. It was the decisions made, and left undone, that cemented the path to dissolution of the Union. Beyond that, some tremendously mysterious events in Charleston that summer provided excellent fodder for what I hope is a thrilling story.

2. FIRE BELL IN THE NIGHT offers a fascinating look at a southern city in a time when slavery was an economic necessity. What challenges did you encounter while researching Charleston’s history? What surprising or interesting facts did you discover about Charleston and/or the south in general?

In researching the time, it becomes difficult to formulate opinions outside of the context of slavery. Personalities, rivalries, socialization, and even city aesthetics are hard to view outside of that prism. Of course, it was important to create vivid characters that felt they were not defined entirely by the system in which they lived – after all, I believe we all believe our own actions define us and not our place and time. I hope that my characters come across as individuals, not mere caricatures.

As for the surprises, they were around every corner. For example, when I began researching, I had no idea that almost a quarter of all the blacks living in Charleston were free. They operated in a social structure as varied as their white counterparts. In fact, a black “carriage class” existed; one whose members dressed with opulence, traveled by coach, and exhibited sophisticated tastes. Some of the stereotypes are true, of course. As a lot, white southerners drank excessively and were armed to the teeth. But, their opinions were as varied as their northern counterparts. By 1850, the rhetoric was warming up, but it had not devolved to the downright sloganeering that existed just before the start of the war.

3. The heart of the novel is John Sharp’s association with Tyler Breckenridge, a plantation owner with a mysterious agenda. Through them, we learn about the complexity of the relationship between the free and slave states. How did you go about creating fictional characters that fit into this era? Can you tell us about any methods you employ to give your characters authenticity? If you had to choose, which character or characters were the one (s) you most enjoyed creating?

Fortunately for writers of historical fiction, people are very much like they have always been. Therefore, we have a leaping off point into which we can throw the cultural values, morals, and aspirations of the day and blend them all together. The composite result, hopefully, is an authentic recreation of an individual of that time. In the case of Fire Bell, I created a main character from the North who came to the South to report on a trial. His world-view more closely mirrors our own, and I think this allows for an “outsider” perspective into an era into which the reader themself is an outsider. He is in awe of the beautiful mansions, elegant parties, and code of honor, just as he is appalled by the foundation on which all of that was built on: slavery.

Darcy Calhoun was my favorite character in the story. Darcy is the reason for the story, but far from the main character. It is his trial that precipitates all other events. Darcy is a simple man caught harboring a fugitive slave. However, John Sharp, the northern reporter, discovers there is much more to the man that one simple, fated event. Darcy is the one character that neither I, nor my editor, ever touched. Not a line. He exists in the pages of the book the same way he was created. He spoke, and I simply transcribed.

3. Your novel offers a personal, haunting storyline that represents a nation headed for an inevitable and ultimately tragic confrontation. We know the old south was constructed on unimaginable suffering yet we can still be seduced into seeing it as a vanished time of benign plantations and courageous hearts, despite the evil of slavery. Your book offers a fascinating look at this illusory world through the eyes of an ambitious reporter who knows it’s based on lies yet cannot help but be swept up in its vision of itself. Like the world he seeks to expose, John Sharp is a man of secrets and flaws. What is so remarkable for me about your novel is that it goes beyond the obvious clichés to examine the grayer areas of this period of time. How did you go about achieving this? Were you concerned that your analogies might stir controversy, even if it reflects historical reality?

This is the actual dichotomy I was hoping to create, and I’m glad you recognized it. Things are rarely as black and white as they appear to be. For example, even a moral individual born into this system would be hard-pressed to dent the foundation of a society dependent economically, socially, and spiritually on the suppression of another race. I hope the book makes the reader consider their own course of actions in such a system. And to be honest, I consciously tried to avoid the clichés you just spoke of.

Additionally, as with the eve of most catastrophes, no one had any idea of the scope of what was coming. This train wreck that would claim hundreds of thousands of lives would have been fantasy to most. In that respect, it’s important to view individual actions in relation to what they perceived as the possible outcomes, not what we know they were.

I think that my analogies in the book might surprise some. They offer more universal condemnation of the empowered whites in America, and not merely the slave owners. However, if anyone wishes to debate northern complicity or their own entirely unique set of horrors put into place by the advance of industrialization, I would be happy to debate them.

4. Can you tell us about your journey to publication, which is a rather unique one?

About a year ago, while questioning myself and my book for the thousandth time, I came across a blurb for the First Chapters Contest. It was a contest that offered publication to the winner but with a different little twist – the public would be the initial judges. I entered without expectations, but with a little bit of hope. That hope began to evaporate when I found out the number of entrants reached 1,600; just slightly above the 250 expected. However, I advanced through round after round of voting until my book and four others were sent to the Big Wigs from Borders and Simon and Schuster for the final decision. That’s when I found out… I didn’t win. But the judges thought 2 books deserved publication. I tell you what, I think I am the happiest Runner-Up ever!

5. How do you think your novel speaks to today’s reader or how do the events you evoke resonate for today’s world?

I did not set out to write a novel that tackled contemporary political issues. Rather, I wanted my readers to look at history from a different perspective. If you consider some of today's significant issues - war, national security, immigration, privacy - people have very different opinions. By the same token, there was no clear consensus in 1850; certainly not on the issues of slavery, the Western territories, or even the value of all the states remaining together as one Union. So, my point with Fire Bell was to transport the reader back in time to when everything was seen the shade of grey you mentioned before. By grasping that it gives the issues more immediacy, which I think allows people to feel more connected, as they do to their present circumstances.

6. Please tell us about your next project.

It’s set in the time just before the American Revolution in Boston. The main character is a ghost writer, or Pamphleteer, who writes inflammatory articles attacking the Crown and her policies using an alias. When things begin to deteriorate, a wild series of real historical events fall into place, and the main character finds himself in the middle of a possible conspiracy…with his life on the line. It will hopefully be a tremendously exciting story with a thrilling, and unexpected ending.

Thank you, Geoffrey, for visiting with us. I'm looking forward to your next book, as are your many readers.

GIVEAWAY! Geoffrey will be interviewed by Kelly Hewitt on and offering three lucky readers a signed copy of his novel. I'll notify readers here as soon as the contest is underway.


justin said...

Great interivew. Sounds like an interesting book. Yet another one to the ever growing list. :-)

I'm definitely intrigued by his second project. Being a Boston-boy myself, and a fan of stories that take place in colonial times, I'll be keeping in eye out for that one.

C.W. Gortner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
C.W. Gortner said...

Hi Justin,
FIRE BELL is a great read! I must admit, I don't read much historical fiction set in the US, but this book has changed my mind. I couldn't put it down. I'm looking forward to his next book, too.