Friday, July 14, 2006

Sparrowhawk: The Project

At the suggestion of Nick Provenzo, I will occasionally discuss various aspects of my Sparrowhawk novels here.

I wrote nine novels before embarking on the Sparrowhawk project: three suspense novels and six detective novels; only two of the nine have been published. The Sparrowhawk series of six titles, each a full-length novel in its own right, will total over 2,000 pages and some seven million words.

There comes a point in any writer's career when he knows he is ready to tackle a book idea that has perhaps simmered in the back of his head for years. A novel about the causes of the Revolution was mine. The point for me was reached in 1992, when I attended an Objectivist conference in Williamsburg. I had just finished a second Roaring Twenties detective novel, and Whisper the Guns, my first suspense novel, had been recently published by the Atlantean Press.

What convinced me I was ready to begin work on what I imagined would be a two-volume novel was a combination of three things: John Ridpath's moving lecture on the founding of Jamestown; my discovery of Colonial Williamsburg, just down the road from the conference's hotel; and the most recent remake of James Fennimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, which devoted about five seconds to the conflict between colonial Americans and the British during the French and Indian War. All that served to click in my subconscious and tell me: Now is the time to begin it.

Thirteen years later, in the spring of 2005, I finished Book Six-War. My purpose from the beginning was not to write about the Revolutionary War itself. That had been done in numerous novels by other writers. What I saw lacking in American fiction was a serious treatment of the causes of the move for independence. The causes were ideas, ideas taken seriously, and for the ideas to be taken seriously, meant, of course, a sea change in men's thinking about their relationship with government and with each other. More importantly, it implied a change in how men thought about themselves. If men simply regarded themselves as members of a collective, or simply resented their servitude, they would hardly be drawn to a political philosophy that encouraged a radical individualism. No, a revolution would have had to occur first in the men themselves, they would have had to acquire the virtue of self-esteem first before they could ever act on those ideas.

In drawing up an outline and making notes for the first title of the series, I almost immediately discarded the idea of introducing the principal heroes as American colonials. That would have been too easy. The colonials had a head-start in that respect, separated from the mother country by an ocean and living on a continent that demanded more of their actual independence, ingenuity and self-sufficiency. To better dramatize the role of ideas that led to the Revolution, I decided to make the principal heroes British, or English, if you prefer, born and raised in the milieu of British culture and politics, and then brought to America where they become Americans. Why do they come to America? Because they will not relinquish their minds or their self-esteem, they alienate themselves from the culture they were born into.

At the same time, I wanted to give them both an anchor for the ideas. Ever conscious of the role of art in my own life, and in that of others, I created a fictive novel that dramatized what both thought ought to be: Hyperborea. Just as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged served to help shape my own character and convictions, Hyperborea served in the same manner for Jack Frake and Hugh Kenrick. No actual 18th century novel could have done that. At the same time, however, this fictive novel had to be of the 18th century but anticipate the Romantic novels of the 19th century. Jack and Hugh could hardly be inspired by Samuel Richardson's or Rousseau's novels, nor by Voltaire's. Moreover, the novel could not credibly be written by an "establishment" writer of that time. It had to be penned by a literal and moral outlaw.

I should stress here that I did not set out to write an "Objectivist" novel, nor to create, in Jack and Hugh and in the minor heroes, such as Glorious Swain or Dogmael Jones, prototype Objectivist heroes. How could I? The most brilliant minds of that period were not Objectivist -- not Jefferson, not Adams, not Franklin, not Washington or any of the other great men to whom we owe thanks. The task was to imbue my characters with the best received wisdom of their time, and then carry it only a little bit further as a measure of their own intellectual efforts. The fundamentals of a correct political and moral philosophy had to wait two hundred years for Ayn Rand to think of them.

One reader commented on Amazon, in response to Book One, that it was a "turgidly argued apologia for Libertarianism"! This person completely missed the point, and descended to a personal attack, as well. If I wanted to write an "apologia," I'd have written a satire, and Libertarians would have hated it. I will mention that there have been very, very few displeased readers of the series, and their comments on Amazon and elsewhere are of a caliber I would expect of a New York Times reviewer: malicious, irrelevant, snobbish, blind, and possibly even envious. And all I will say to those persons is: Match it. In the context of today's literary environment, in the context of new novels, there is nothing else like Sparrowhawk.

Furthermore, the series was not written exclusively for an Objectivist readership. The overwhelming number of fans and people who appear at my book-signing table are not Objectivists, but they love the series for the right reasons. If I wanted to summarize the response of non-Objectivist readers, that is, why they value the series so passionately, I would say it is because I told them, in the story: This is what we have lost, and this is what we must regain. To the extent that readers, Objectivist or non-Objectivist, value the series and are inspired by it, that is how much they have regained.

1 comment:

Neon said...

I am increasingly curious to what extent you have the fictional Hyperborea book outlined in your head. Is it mostly just an abstract or do you have in your mind the basic plot the book would have followed.