Saturday, September 9, 2023

Brian Carso

Brian Carso, a lawyer and historian, has studied the American Revolution and the life of Benedict Arnold for more than two decades. Gideon's Revolution is his first novel.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Early on, I needed a working title. One of the many sources I used for this historical novel was Benson Lossing’s monumental Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution (1860), commonly referred to as “Lossing’s Revolution.” My narrator is named Gideon, so I began to simply refer to the work as “Gideon’s Revolution.”

Over time, the title grew on me. The story is Gideon’s account of his activity as a soldier in the American Revolution, but make no mistake: his revolution is as much internal as it is external. So I think the title hints at some process of change, of revelation.

The name “Gideon” has a biblical reference that I conjure up at the end of the story in the hope that it promotes a bit of an epiphany. The best title I know is Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. For nearly the entire story, the reader assumes it’s an allusion to the anger the Joad family feels about the many depression-era indignities they suffer. But when you hit the last few pages (an ending much different from the 1940 film), you can follow the breadcrumbs Steinbeck provides to connect the name of Rosasharn (for “Rose of Sharon”) and her extraordinary act of mercy with a biblical passage that turns the phrase “grapes of wrath” into an unforgettable gut punch.

In that spirit, I hope the meaning of the title Gideon’s Revolution evolves by the end of the novel.

What's in a name?

Because Gideon’s Revolution is a historical novel, most of the names refer to actual people who participated in the Revolution. I named the narrator Gideon Wheatley because I had a plan for the biblical resonance that the name Gideon brings.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

I wrote a short story for an English assignment in high school. There’s not another person in the world who would ever read that long-lost story and this novel and see a common thread, but I bet there is one or two. If there’s something about the human experience that really grabs you when you’re seventeen, it’s probably still grabbing you decades later, one way or another.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

The beginning took a lot of work. Because it’s a historical novel—about a true but little-known secret plot to capture Benedict Arnold—I had to give the reader enough historical context to get the ball rolling. Amidst this, I also needed to establish the tensions that would power the plot for 257 pages. I workshopped the beginning at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, shared it with some trusted friends, and rewrote it numerous times.

But the ending: On the day I began writing, I knew the basic outline of the entire plot, except for how it would end. I took it on faith that at some point, maybe on a long car ride, maybe in the shower, maybe in a dream, somehow the problem would resolve itself into a powerful ending. Eventually—I don’t remember when or where—it did.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

One way or another, my characters share some of my DNA. Think of it this way: I have cousins I don’t see very often (although I wish I did). Some live several states away, and others on the opposite coast. Recently I visited California and had dinner with a cousin who lives in San Jose. To my best recollection, I’ve only met him four or five times in my life. To be sure, we’re different people: I have blond hair, his is black; he’s a computer scientist, I’m a historian/writer. But as we sat there on his patio, I’m sure we were studying each other for things that were familiar—the way we walked, perhaps, or some barely noticeable similarity of appearance, or speech. Certainly, the stories we told about our respective parents were rooted in the same family history.

My characters are like my cousins. We come from the same place, and if I look hard enough, I’ll find things that are familiar, no matter how different we might seem.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I thought a lot about the film Citizen Kane, because, like Gideon’s Revolution, there’s a mystery at the heart of the film, which inspires a quest to understand the complex motivations of Charles Kane. Similarly, the complicated character of Benedict Arnold has invited inspection and conjecture for nearly 250 years. Why did America’s best battlefield general choose to betray his cause and comrades? Unlike the narrator of Citizen Kane, however, who says “I guess we’ll never know,” (right before the camera reveals a stunning revelation that he, and everyone else, has missed), I think Gideon Wheatley understands Arnold’s character, which makes his mission more difficult, even though we’re inclined think it would make the mission easier. As Gideon gains insights to Arnold, I think the reader, too, can better understand the troubled character of Benedict Arnold, and perhaps find an answer to the question, why did he do it?
Visit Brian Carso's website.

--Marshal Zeringue