Historical Fiction: A Conversation with Jim Bollenbacher, Author of “The Signers: The Adventures of the Cushman Family”

I recently partook in an email “conversation” with Jim Bollenbacher, the author of The Signers: The Adventures of the Cushman Family, an intriguing work of historical fiction. What follows is a slightly-edited version of that discussion. It’s a longer article than my typical posts, but I’m positive you will find it enjoyable and enlightening, especially if you are, like me, a fan of historical fiction and a fan of Jim Bollenbacher.

Jim Bollenbacher

The amount research required to write such a long, detailed, and historically accurate text as “The Signers” must have been overwhelming. Could you briefly discuss your process for completely such a daunting task?

I think it was Confucius that said “the most difficult part of a thousand mile journey is the first step.” I was a government and history teacher and football coach my whole adult life. I had never even written an article let alone a novel. When I retired and took the ‘first step’ into writing, I had a couple things going for me. I had taught American history for 11 years and American government for 20, so I had a pretty good background for the American Revolutionary period. I had read several biographies on Jefferson, (Fawn Brody, John Boles), John Adams, and George Washington. My motivation to write a book surrounding the Signing of the Declaration of Independence was first inspired from a lesson I taught in my government class. It was a three day lesson plan, where on day one, we read aloud and discussed the Declaration. On day two we read a 4 page article written by Rush Limbaugh’s father (a lawyer and school superintendent), detailing the huge sacrifices the Signer’s were forced to endure. Each student would then write an essay regarding the magazine article. On day three, we talked about the impact the Declaration had throughout history.

I then crafted an adventure tale around the signing, introducing Thomas Jefferson’s fictional best friend from childhood. From there it was more research, mostly by reading historical books around that era like, A.J. Langguth’s Patriot, David McCullough’s 1776, James Flexner’s Washington, and several others.

As the book started to come together, I realized I had to become an “expert” in 1800 century weapons, military strategy, 1800 century British sailing vessels and tactics, uniforms, clothing, all the way to common slang and vulgarity. Luckily the internet provided a wealth of websites dealing in such areas and I soon had a very large folder of sources.

I’m a huge fan of historical fiction as it combines two of my favorite academic disciplines. I find that the difficulty in authoring such a novel is the balancing of the two, and the danger is avoiding slipping too much into either discipline. In other words, if the author leans too heavily on the historical half, the text can very easily slip into sounding like a dry lecture in a high school history class. On the other hand, if the author slips too heavily into the freedom allowed by writing fiction, they risk coming completely unmoored from the debt they owe to remaining true to history. What are your thoughts on this conundrum, and how did you maintain a proper balance between history and fiction?

Attempting to balance history and fiction was probably the toughest part of weaving the tale of The Signers. I decided early on in creating the Cushman family, especially Jefferson’s best friend Ben, to try to keep their relationship believable. Jefferson’s early life is well, known, he was gifted with intense curiosity and was a student that thrived in every discipline, from science to foreign languages. What few people probably don’t realize about Jefferson is that he was also a skilled outdoorsman, a horseman with few peers, a gifted swimmer, and an excellent shot with both pistol and musket. He enjoyed cards and gambling, like many Virginians. The fictional Ben Cushman is a reluctant farmer, more skilled as a warrior, but also more intelligent than he would let on. I think the reader can relate to these two becoming best friends despite the totally different trajectory of their chosen professions.

My hope was to weave an adventure tale, (mostly fictional, but there were many rumors of assassination plots against the founders, large bounties on all the signers by the British government and of course the real life harassment’s that follow almost every signer and George Washington.) while exposing the reader to a thorough history lesson concerning colonial America during this time period.

I found that a fun way to keep from making the history to “dry” and fiction too “unbelievable” was to divide many chapters into multiple story lines. Bouncing back and forth from each story helps to move the book along and allows the reader to escape into each layer.

Without providing any spoilers, which of the fictionalized characters is your favorite, and what role do they play in the novel?

Wow, love this question, tough choice, but probably Ben Cushman. He is Jefferson’s best friend and would do anything for him. Ben is reluctant warrior who has been on a personal vendetta for the past 10 years (hinted at throughout the book, you’ll need to read the prequel and later the sequel to fill in all the dots). He, more than anyone, knows how vicious and deadly the British Army is and believes that Colonial school teachers, shopkeepers, artisans, and farmers will be no match for the professional and experienced British Army and Navy. He arrives in Philadelphia, two weeks before July 4, 1776, to surprise his best friend. He stumbles on a British and Tory plot to kill the leaders of the Continental Congress. Of course, it’s like the movie Titanic: you know the boat is going to sink and you know the leaders will survive, but it places Cushman in the center of one of the most important two weeks in human history, not just American history. The Declaration of Independence is more than just a notice of separation. It championed a political theory that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This political philosophy, that rights come from God, flew directly in the face of the current philosophy through most of the world known as the “divine right of kings.” Cushman knew the King of England, George III, would never let such a philosophy take hold and the Colonies would feel the full brunt of the mighty British Empire.

Two close seconds of fictional characters to Ben Cushman, would be his partner throughout the book, the mysterious spy, Major Jacob Hall and Cushman’s eventual love interest, the spoiled and confused, Deborah Johnson.

Major Jacob Hall is a spymaster, reporting only to Benjamin Franklin. His involvement with Ben Cushman goes back 15 years to the French-Indian War, the two shared many a close call with both the French and the Indians. I love his character, (for more of Major Hall, you’ll need to read the prequel America at the Abyss, The Adventures of the Cushman Family) and try to keep his role as mysterious as possible.

Deborah Johnson, spoiled daughter to the wealthy Tory David Johnson winds up on the wrong side but still falls for Cushman. Her vulnerability contradicting with her strength makes the attraction to Cushman an interesting sideline. She is a rare breed, working as a waitress-barmaid in the most popular new tavern in Philadelphia. A beautiful and fun loving young woman right in the middle of the approaching storm.

Let me ask the reverse. Which of the characters drawn from history is your favorite and why?

Thomas Jefferson. John Kennedy once commented at the White House honoring Noble Prize winners, that “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” The “Da Vinci” of the 1700’s, Jefferson deserves to be one of the four figures on Mount Rushmore. Most importantly he chose to serve his fellow citizens throughout most of his adult life. Jefferson served on the 2nd Continental Congress, wrote the Declaration of Independence, wrote the Virginia Statutes of Religious freedom (serving as a model for the 1st amendment in the Bill of Rights), was our 1st Secretary of State, our 2nd Vice President, and our 3rd President. In addition, he founded the University of Virginia. Any single one of those accomplishments would have been of major significance, but all of these makes Jefferson an American Icon. Despite these amazing achievements, Jefferson was very shy and at times unsure of himself. He dreaded speaking in public, (probably because a slight lisp) and preferred to let his writings spread his unique ideas.

Another challenge faced by the writer of historical fiction, especially if the writer is a fan of the historical figures of whom they write, is to provide an honest, 360 degree portrait of the those who play a major role in the novel and not to “whitewash” them in a way that ignores their human frailties. For example, the Founding Fathers are often given a pass for some of their questionable behaviors so that they come off as borderline superheroes rather than as real, imperfect men. The opposite is true as well. It’s just as tempting for some writers to villainize historical figures far more than they deserve. I’m thinking particularly of a man like Thomas Jefferson. What are your thoughts on this dilemma faced by writers of HF, and how did you attempt to navigate through it?

Another great question. My very first rule was not to put myself into the 18th century with 21st century morals. For instance, slavery has existed on planet Earth probably longer than civilizations themselves. It has existed in every human society, in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Ancient philosophers often claimed it was a natural order of things. Christians were probably the first group who questioned the practice of slavery. But, It wasn’t until the 1600’s that some philosophers began to lament the condition of slavery. Still, by the 1770’s very few were speaking out against slavery with some exception in the American colonies. Puritans in the northern colonies were quite outspoken against the practice of bringing African slaves to the Americas. John Adams spoke out against slavery quite often as did Benjamin Franklin. In Pennsylvania, the Quakers were adamant in their campaign against slavery. John Dickinson, a key member of the Pennsylvania delegation was constantly scolding his Southern brethren concerning the issue. Even Jefferson, a slave owner, was conflicted. One of his grievances against George III in the Declaration was the importation of African Slaves. Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Dickinson fought hard to keep the passage in the Declaration, but the Northern states eventually gave in to the Southern slave states in the spirit of compromise and deleted the key passage. In my research about Jefferson, he was clearly conflicted and wrote about this conflict when he and Adams were near the end of their lives. (Of course, in one of the great ironies in history, both men died on July 4th, 1826).

I know it is popular to attack the founding fathers in today’s hyper sensitive media, but I refused to do that. In fact, I believe that the Declaration of Independence was the beginning of the end of slavery in the world. Jefferson’s words were electric and sparked conversation around the world. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”! These words not only sparked an American Revolution, but revolutions continuing to this day, (demonstrations in Cuba this weekend is the latest example). All men are created equal in the eyes of God, rights that come from God and not man. These ideals appealed to the American colonists and have continued to appeal to generations of people ever since. Jefferson’s words sparked a movement. Within 11 years, the American Congress voted to end the slave trade. Within 80 years a civil war and amendments to the Constitution ended slavery in the United States, and within 100 years of the Declaration of Independence, slavery had disappeared from most of the planet.

In The Signers, I tried to humanize all of the founders. Most were young men, literally fighting for their lives. They were filled with doubts, imperfect men who made incredible decisions under extraordinary circumstances. Jefferson’s fear that his fellow delegates would reject his Declaration, Washington’s multiple doubts regarding his army and the strategies he was about to employ. John Dickinson’s fear in sending young men off to fight an unwinnable war. John Hancock’s commercial fleet, which made him one of the richest colonists, was about to be hunted down by the world’s greatest navy. Despite their many imperfection’s, these men came together and orchestrated the greatest upset in human history. History should absolutely look at these men, imperfections and all, but history should never disregard their tremendous achievements, bravery, and foresight in the incredible difficult times they faced.

One of the things that most interested me was the way many of the issues your novel addresses are echoing in the present. Do you agree? If so, which issues were conscious of doing so at the time of your writing or today?

Absolutely. As a government teacher, I always taught my students that the freedoms we have today are not guaranteed tomorrow. Our founder’s words have been tested through time and there are millions of examples of people fighting for their freedoms. If you read The Signers, you’ll notice a quote at the beginning of each chapter. Some are humorous or clever, but most of them serve as a warning to future Americans and other freedom loving people. One of my favorites is a John Adams quote about all government whether democratic or dictatorial. “The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing.” Think of what is currently happening on college campuses, where free speech is constantly squelched. Wokeness, political correctness, speech codes, are all examples of limiting free speech right here in America. These are just some examples of powerful institutions (government, media, big business, and even churches) abusing their powers and eroding our “unalienable rights.” So, like our forefathers, modern Americans have to have to be constantly aware of this overreach. As Thomas Paine wrote so eloquently, “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil: in its worst state, an intolerable one.”

I can’t say I agree with Paine’s assessment of the role of government, but that’s for a different conversation. It is a truism that the majority of novels are purchased by women; whereas, men, much more so than women, gravitate towards historical texts. Did that influence the writing of the novel? I don’t mean to come off as stereotyping female readers in any way, but I’m wondering if the romance elements of the novel were a conscious strategy on your part intended to entice and satisfy female readers?

Not necessarily, I wanted to write an interesting adventure story that would hold everyone’s attention, while reminding the reader what an amazing set of circumstances occurred to allow our founders to accomplish what they did. These people were not Marvel Superheroes; they were real men and women who did extraordinary things at an extraordinary time. Life did not stop at this time: people got sick, children died of childhood disease, they fell in love, they got spurned, they made friends, they made enemies…

So no, it wasn’t a strategy to include the love stories, but I must admit I enjoyed including them. I thought it made the characters more realistic.

You’ve already hinted at this, but what’s next for Jim Bollenbacher, the author?

I am currently editing the prequel to The Signers: The Adventures of the Cushman Family. This second novel is complete and will answer some of the things brought up in the first. The Signers, America at the Abyss: The Adventures of the Cushman Family will follow the Cushman family into the French Indian War in the colonies. Ben Cushman’s father, Ben Sr., will follow George Washington and the Virginia Militia into the Ohio Country to confront the aggressive fort building by the French. When Washington’s militia fire the “shot heard round the world,” the story will race through the war, with Ben Jr. and his brother James, (14 and 13 years old at the time) coming face to face with the horrors of war. New characters, love interests, and some old favorites will follow a young George Washington into what most historians refer to as the real first World War.

What’s the best way for readers to get their hands on “The Signers?”

The best way is to go to http://www.pagepublishing.com/books/?book=the-signers. This personal website will allow anyone interested to order the book in hard copy, soft copy, or download. This website will direct you to Amazon (hard copy, soft copy or download to Kindle), Barnes and Noble (hard copy or soft copy), Apple I-Tunes (download to Apple Music), Google Play (download to Google Play) or Reader House (soft copy). Or you can always go to Amazon or the others and search Jim Bollenbacher.

Is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to share about yourself or “The Signers?”

I’d just like to thank you for all your help and advice. As a kid growing up and living my whole life in northern Ohio, I never really thought I would ever write a book. I thought maybe I’d play professional baseball or football or basketball (ha-ha). It has been a great adventure, and I want to thank my wife, Patty, and the rest of my family for putting up with me all these years. Interestingly, people who have been the most help through this process all had a huge connection to sports and especially football. Marc Munafo wrote a self-help back and has been extremely helpful through this whole process. Of course, Marc played football at Huron and at the Air Force Academy, and his father, Tony, was my high school coach, friend and mentor. Dave Brown wrote a book about Huron Football and gave me sage advice. Tony Legando, Huron football coach, high school teammate, and childhood friend, recently wrote a motivational book and has been a great help. Both Dave and Tony played and worked with Tony Munafo. Lastly, Ty Roth, a St. Mary’s rival, ex-football coach, and coaching colleague, you have been a great help, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all you’ve done and the time you have given me.

I can’t thank Jim enough for his thoughtful responses, and more importantly, for undertaking the daunting task of penning The Signers. If you’ve read this far and you’re like me, you must wish you would have had the opportunity to sit in on Jim’s history classes. The next best thing, however, is to read The Signers. It just so happened that I read my copy over the Fourth of July holidays, which lent a special significance to my experience.

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order my most recent novel, Island No. 6, below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

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Published by tyfroth

My primary passion and vocation is teaching literature and composition on both the high school and university level. My avocation is writing novels that explore contemporary themes/issues relevant to both young adult and adult readers.

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