Q & A #66 – Nick Arvin, “Mad Boy”

You won’t forget Mad Boy.

You won’t forget Henry Phipps, his wild adventures through the War of 1812, or Henry’s dead Mother, whose postmortem involvement in Henry’s actions and thinking is truly unique.

You also won’t forget Nick Arvin’s stellar way of storytelling.

You might, in fact, end up being more curious about that overlooked war and its three years of destruction and misery that included the gutting and burning of The White House.

Mad Boy is one of those books that declares its turf in such an unusual way and with such colorful characters that you know from the first few sentences that you’re in for a serious ride.

A full review follows this e-mail exchange with Nick. As you’ll see from Nick’s thoughtful answers, the origins of Mad Boy and some of the issues on Nick’s mind are as unusual as the story itself.

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Question: The War of 1812 was a big mess and it’s been said that Americans know so little about it because we lost. Maybe. At least, it was a draw—right? No territories changed hands.  What’s clear from reading Mad Boy is that the average citizen didn’t have much of a clue as to the purpose of the war and the ground-level view of events was quite chaotic. That war grew out of failed diplomacy, correct? “Madison’s steaming and Republican rabble,” as Henry’s father puts it. The war involved a squabble among leaders and not the people. Some have called that war perverse. What drew you to writing about that overlooked war and, I have to ask, were you saying anything about the disconnect today between “our” wars and soldiers out there fighting for vague purposes (say, Afghanistan after 17 years)?

Nick Arvin: Technically, the War of 1812 began over the issue of the impressment of sailors, which is a fairly uninspiring slogan to fight for.

I think part of the reason that the War of 1812 is “forgotten” is that it’s hard to distill its causes or consequences, who won or lost, down to a sound bite or a tweet. We remember the wars of clear purpose and outcome¾the War of Independence, the Civil War, and World War II¾and forget the others. I hate to say this, but if history is any guide, the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be largely forgotten by the general public, too, in a few generations (assuming that the latter eventually come to an end). The Korean War is already described as another “forgotten” war.

Before the War of 1812, there was a not-completely-unreasonable feeling that Britain was pushing the U.S. around, and they needed to be stood up to. But the Americans then declared war and began hostilities with an invasion of Canada, fully expecting to be greeted as liberators. So the “we’ll be greeted as liberators” idea is a tragic mistake that we’ve been repeating time and again for 200 years.

When the Canadians didn’t welcome us in a friendly manner, the war turned into a quagmire and a debacle. Within two years the American federal government was completely broke, and the northern states, who depended on Britain and Canada for trade, felt (not unreasonably) that the southern states had foisted a disastrous war on them. Many American soldiers were ill-equipped, unpaid, and poorly trained. It’s generally forgotten now that the northern states began to discuss seceding from the Union in 1814.

But America lucked out. Britain was never fully committed to the war (they were preoccupied with Napoleon), and when the Americans won the Battle of Baltimore, Britain agreed to settle for a return to more-or-less the status quo preceding the attempted invasion of Canada.

One aspect that is remarkable to me is that President Madison, who had orchestrated this war that accomplished basically nothing was able to spin it as a huge victory for American sovereignty, and did so with such success that it entrenched his political party, the Republicans, in power for years to come.

That was a long answer! You see how it won’t fit in a tweet.

Question: Much shorter second question: how did you settle on the Henry Phipps character and the centerpiece effort of giving her a proper burial all while he listens to her ongoing commentary despite the fact that she’s dead? Was he inspired by anyone particular person you ran across in research? And pickled and stored in a barrel? Did it happen?

Nick Arvin

Nick Arvin: First question last – none of it “happened,” as such. Henry, the pickle barrel, and his mother are story elements that I made up.

The origin of Mad Boy, and of the character of Henry (this also touches on your previous question) was in 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq. After the fall of Baghdad there was a significant amount of looting. Some American commentators at the time wondered what kind of people would engage in such behavior, destructive to their own neighbors and countrymen? This seemed silly to me; I thought, “I bet Americans did the same thing when the British invaded Washington during the War of 1812.” I did some research and found that, in fact, there had been Americans looting in Washington at that time. That research inspired me to write a short story about a boy in Washington during the invasion who becomes a looter. My agent read the story, and his comment was that it felt like a chapter from a novel.

Years later, I was working on a sci-fi novel, but it wasn’t coming together; I suspected it was too bloodless and over-intellectualized. And my son and I began listening to an audio book version of Treasure Island, and I fell in love with it. I thought that’s what I want to write an adventure story, a boy running around with muskets and cannon and buried treasure… And I thought of the story I’d written years earlier, set during the War of 1812. How had that boy come to be alone in Washington as it burned? And what had happened to him afterward? And those questions turned into Mad Boy.

Question: Okay, back to the war. Mad Boy deals with how black slaves had the choice of whether to fight for The British or fight alongside Americans, their oppressors. Was Radnor based on any individual story in particular and were you ever tempted to write extensively from Radnor’s point of view? The hundreds of Chesapeake Bay slaves who joined the British and marched on Washington D.C. against their former masters seems ripe for fiction (but maybe it’s already been done).

Nick Arvin: The role that slaves played in the War of 1812 was wholly new to me as I researched Mad Boy, and having learned of it, it seemed to me to be an absolutely essential element to any story about America in the period. I made up the specifics of Radnor’s story, based on elements from this and that, but it is true that many slaves escaped to fight with the British.

Mad Boy does actually go into Radnor’s point of view, but only briefly. I don’t know of a novel that focuses entirely on the slaves who joined the British during the War of 1812, but I hope someone will take it up. There’s a tremendous story to be told there.

Question: How much research did you do for this, Nick? How many books did you read? The detail is stunning—the little bits and details of clothing, food, medicine, weaponry along with the battles too. Was the research process similar to Articles of War or did you learn something from the work on that book that helped you with the background work in Mad Boy?

Nick Arvin: Well, I read all or parts of dozens of books, maybe about a hundred altogether, but who knows really, because I’m not terribly organized about it. I was looking for anything that had the detail of daily life in it, books of history, memoirs, letters, novels, period newspapers, maps, art. I visited the locations in the novel. I read some books cover to cover, but many more I would flip through, looking for things I could use, reading a chapter here or there, and then going to the bibliography for more books of interest.

I probably learned some things from Articles of War about what kind of details to look for, how to find them, and how use them in fiction, although I don’t know if I could articulate those lessons. The process feels pretty intuitive and organic.

After Articles of War, I hesitated for a long time to take on another work of historical fiction, because I have a day job and felt that it would be too time consuming to research and write. But when I finally dove in, it really went quickly. I found that the research fed the writing, so that the writing itself went more quickly than it would have if I were making all of it up out of my own head. It took three or four years, altogether.

Question: If one were further prompted by Mad Boy to want to read a few more books about the War of 1812, what three or four titles would you recommend?

Nick Arvin: If I can encourage people to read one book, it’s The Internal Enemy, by Alan Taylor, which won the Pulitzer in 2014 and is an incredible work of history. It deals with the role of slavery in the War of 1812 specifically and in America in general. Taylor is extremely lucid in describing how the institution of slavery was woven through America’s politics, economy, and culture, and the examination of the War of 1812 is illuminating because the war caused disruptions in that weave. I found it revelatory. Read it.

After that, to be honest, the literature of the War of 1812 is fairly thin. Amateurs, to Arms! by John Robert Elting is idiosyncratic but a pretty good survey of the military actions. The Perilous Fight, by Neil H. Swanson, is also a bit quirky and long out of print, but it has the best feel for the soldier on the ground that I could find. Swanson had a novelist’s eye for detail, and I stole his details whenever I could.

Diary of an Early American Boy, by Eric Sloane, isn’t about the War of 1812, but it is a wonderful illustrated book that gives many details of daily life in the period.

Question: Without giving too much away, it seems to me that many of the characters around Henry come and go. Mother, of course. Even after she’s dead she gets left behind and is then found again. Franklin, of course. Henry’s father is gone at first (in jail) and then found and then out of sight again. Suthers. Radnor. There are others, too.  And then there’s the less-than-smooth burial at sea. Is this just the chaos of war? Or were you trying to isolate Henry as much as possible to show us what he could handle? Or was it something else.

Nick Arvin: I just always thought of this book as a story about a boy who is thrown onto his own resources, and as an adventure story. It’s not much of an adventure if people are holding your hand along the way. Henry has people who love him–his mother, his father, and his brother–but due to their own circumstances and choices they cannot help him. So, he has to go it alone.

Question: The writing is so crisp and clean. I don’t really have a question here other than to offer you the chance to pass along tips and insights.

Nick Arvin: Two things that I found helpful. I thought a lot about the narrative structure of Jim Harrison’s novella, “Legends of the Fall,” which is a miracle of compaction and efficiency in storytelling.

And, secondly, I took a class on screenwriting. Before that class I thought I was a pretty efficient writer, but screenwriting is about truly distilling a story to its bare essentials, and I discovered that this was a whole new level of storytelling efficiency. It taught me a lot.

Question: Heck (from Articles of War) and Henry from Mad Boy. Youths at war. Did you think much about Heck while writing this? Do you see comparisons? Or did you while you were writing?

Nick Arvin: The biggest difference is the relationship to fear. Fear is a central feature and driving impulse of Articles of War, where Heck is often incapacitated by fear. In Mad Boy, on the other hand, Henry’s fear is almost always overridden by his other impulses.

To be fair to Heck, the nature of war was awful enough in 1812, but by 1944 the machinery of war was considerably more terrifying.

Question: The title. I have to ask about the title. Henry is mad, perhaps, in the crazy sense for many reasons including that he hears his mother’s ongoing commentary despite her status as dead. But he’s not angry. He chalks most of the events up to “ill fortune.” Can you tell us how you settled on the title?

Nick Arvin: You’re right that Henry isn’t driven by anger; he’s fundamentally humane and forgiving. But in the moment, when something unexpected happens, his instincts are often irritation or anger, and certainly kinetic. In my writing I tend to be drawn to characters who are more introspective, contemplative, likely to observe a situation before acting. The title Mad Boy came to me early, and it was a reminder to me that Henry was a boy who reacted viscerally to situations.

Question: What are you working on next?

Nick Arvin: I’ve been working for a while on a collection of stories, drawn from my career as an engineer, about engineers losing control of their lives. That’s still in progress. I’ve also begun doing some preliminary research for a novel that would be set on the Mississippi River in the 1820s or 18330s. We’ll see if it comes together.

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REVIEW:

Mad Boy is crazy good.

It’s wild, loose, free-flowing, funny, grim, and warm-hearted all at the same time. Mad Boy takes us to an unusual place, The War of 1812, and gives us this messy war through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy, Henry Phipps. For one-fifth of Henry’s life (the last two years before this adventure starts) America has been at war with Britain, “mostly losing.”

We meet Henry angry; mad.

Sentence No. 3: “Someone has lied—the slave Radnor has lied to Henry, or someone has lied to Radnor: some liar has lied to someone a terrible lie.”

Which might just sum up this elusive, whacky conflict from U.S. military history, a war that continues to cause debate among historians (according to Wikipedia) over its ignition point. Wars are about something, right? Today, in 2018, we know that deception plays a role in kindling war (hello, Iraq; hello, Vietnam) but In The War of 1812 it could be tariffs on trade or British support for American Indians and their armed resistance to the expansion of the American Frontier. All we know today is it was a mess.  And a waste.

Henry is our eyewitness to the confusion. Henry is convinced that Radnor claim—that Henry’s brother Franklin is dead—can’t possibly be true. Franklin has been executed for desertion, the claim goes, but both Henry and his mother don’t believe that’s possible. Maybe they should all get themselves to Baltimore and reunite the family. Henry’s father is in debtors’ prison and maybe they can find Franklin along the way if he hasn’t, in fact, been shot.

“An hour later, the thing happens that is the worst thing.” And, in a moment: “A wide section of roof swings as if on a hinge, a huge strange shape slides through, bleating, and Mother disappears.”

Mother is dead. Yes, Mother is dead but she continues to speak and have conversations with Henry. And Mother still wants to go to Baltimore—or, more precisely, to be buried at sea. She won’t be buried in the “filthy swamp dirt” and tells Henry so. At least, that’s what Henry hears. After a brief encounter and scuffle with a couple of redcoats from a temporary encampment on the plantation where the Phipps make their home, Henry puts Mother in a barrel with pickle brine and starts dragging her toward the sea on a cart.

The only thing standing in Henry’s way is The War of 1812 and the resulting mayhem from citizens, soldiers, slaves, prostitutes, thieves, and anyone else who might yank Henry from his path, tempt him with a delay, or pull him into a questionable scheme. Mad Boy is episodic but episodes intertwine and interplay with each other in a neat braid. Among the characters is Franklin, who turns out to be very much alive; Franklin’s girlfriend Mary and their baby; plantation owner Jeremiah Suthers; a British soldier named Morley who switches sides to fight with the Americans ; the aforementioned Radnor who takes his chances with the redcoats; and Father, whose gambling has led to the family’s long decline. (And many others.)

The Phipps’ family long decline is tragic.  At the end, Father had sold a wheelbarrow and a musket for a small stake. But Father literally lost everything, including his hat and instead “bore upon his head a sort of floppy mat that he had woven out of cattail leaves.”  It’s in the face of such family financial misery that Franklin announces his intention to join the army for the fifty-dollar bounty, the eight dollar monthly salary and the potential for 160 acres at wars’ end. Before dying, it was Mother who stirred feelings of “national honor” in Franklin but Father takes a broad swipe at Franklin’s motives to fight.

“The national honor?” says Father. “Did the national honor give birth to your very enormous self? Will the national honor tend your hurts? Will the national honor be there when you are in a position of need? National honor! As useless as a rock in a field.”

Father lashes out at The Republicans for starting the war. “They said Canada would welcome our liberating army! The Southern Republican poltroons who’ve never in their lives met a Canadian. So we marched into Canada, and lo the Canadians smash us and slaughtered us and threw us out on our ears, and for good measure took our forts along the Lakes and roused the Indians against us, so that we have spent the last two years scrabbling to get back to even, never you mind conquering Canada. Because we’re led by steaming idiocy and the Republican rabble, promoting incompetent allies in the army, enriching their friends, spending the nation into fathomless debt, propelling our boys into a hell of death and illness and amputations.”

It’s into this “steaming idiocy” that Franklin runs. It’s into this war that Henry heads to find Franklin, to reconnect with his father, all carting Mother along in a pickle barrel. The White House burns. Fort McHenry is attacked.  The Battle of Bladensburg, a devastating setback for American forces, plays out.  Arvin doesn’t flinch from the misery on the gritty battlefields. Henry sees plenty of death—and of course is dragging his dead Mother along in the cart, occasionally letting others take a peek at her decomposing corpse.

Arvin’s writing is as crisp and cool as dawn at first frost. Fresh imagery abounds. “When the clouds go, they leave the atmosphere rinsed clean, and that night Henry traces the movements of bats by the flicker of stars that they cross before. He wakes in the darkest hour to find the light that takes the color out of the world, leaving only blacks and grays.”

Touching on issues from loyalty and looting to honor and ownership (both property and people), blacks and grays are everywhere in Mad Boy. Every-plucky and resourceful Henry Phipps is our ray of light in the wilderness.

Brisk, taut, colorful, inventive and lively, Nick Arvin drops us into the fog of war with a mad boy we will never forget and makes us think about the “steaming idiocy” of the present day and whether “some liar has lied to someone a terrible lie.” Mad Boy is killer stuff.

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Previously reviewed (and includes Q & A from 2012):

The Reconstructionist

 

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