An Interview with
Ernest Hebert

For his first novel in seven years, Ernest Hebert has turned from the contemporary setting of his critically-acclaimed “Darby” series (including Live Free or Die and The Dogs of March,) to the New England and Canada of the French and Indian Wars in The Old American. The experience, he says, has allowed him to feel “reborn as a writer.” Kirkus Reviews has already proclaimed it “a brilliant work, destined to be one of the great American historical novels.”

Author Photo The Old American is set during the French and Indian Wars, but your previous novels are set in the present. What made you decide on an historical setting? How was the experience of writing about the past different from writing about the present?

The story of Nathan Blake has haunted me since I was kid and discovered the Blake monument right beside my school in my hometown of Keene, New Hampshire. The Monument says, “1736 Nathan Blake built the first log house in Keene on this spot. 1746 Blake was captured by Indians and taken to Canada. 1749 Blake was ransomed by his wife Elizabeth Graves.” The very idea—Indians in my hometown!—took hold of my imagination. When I decided to become a writer that was the first story I wanted to do, but at the time I didn’t have a clue how to go about telling the tale.

The hardest part about writing a historical novel was dealing with how people talk. You can’t have your characters talking in modern vernacular English—“I’m going to, like, run the gauntlet.” And standard English can sound stiff. I tried to deal with this problem by shaping a voice for the novel after its protagonist, Caucus-Meteor, which is formal but also ironic and, on occasion, humorous.

What sort of research did you have to do and how did you go about it? What were some of the things about this period in particular that interested you? What surprised you in your research?

I didn’t do any writing for two years. All I did was read. I never could have written this book without the Dartmouth College library and the Cheshire County Historical Society. One book that was especially useful was a very lengthy journal kept by a Swedish scientist named Peter Kalm, who traveled from New York to Quebec in 1749. He reported in a clear dispassionate way everything he saw, from the kinds plants, to clothes that people wore. For example, he mentioned that Indians in the Lake Champlain vicinity wore birch bark hats.

My reading not only helped me to decide how my characters should look like and live, but it also transformed my thinking about what it means to be an American, which then turned my original idea for my book upside down, sideways, and inside out. I started out thinking, like most Americans, that American values and ideals were derived from English law mixed in with those from various immigrant cultures. I still think that’s true, but only in part. What we think of today as the American way of life—a belief in the individual before the group, a do-your-own-thing ethic, a passion for participatory democracy, one person, one vote—comes mainly from native American culture that the English and the French internalized and made their own. It’s no coincidence that the two European countries that suffered major revolutions in 18th century, England and France, were those directly affected by the North American natives.

The character of Nathan Blake is based on an historical figure. What do we actually know about Blake and his experiences? How common was it for captured Europeans to join the communities of their captors?

What amazed me about Blake was how he told his story, with many details but without judgment. He neither excoriated nor praised those who kept him prisoner; he never tried to profit from his experiences in any way; he appears to be a reliable witness. He was captured when he left the stockade to let his animals out of the barn during an Indian attack; on his way to Canada as a captive he had a chance to kill his captor and escape but he couldn’t bring himself to kill; he ran the gauntlet; he raced Indians in “tests” and beat them all except for one; he had an Indian wife and family; he built a house for the tribe that captured him. I found it remarkable that the man who built the first log house in Keene also built the first timber frame dwelling for a tribe of nomads in Canada.

The Indians approached the subject of captives with two agendas. Captives could be sold to the French, who then would trade them for French captives held by the English in New England, or captives might be incorporated into the tribe as slaves or even as full fledged citizens, depending on their behavior. Because of disease, war, and the difficult lifestyle of a nomadic existence, Indians suffered from a declining population base, so they worked hard to bring captives into the tribe as replacements. A good number of English captives found the Indians’ lifestyle attractive. Samuel Allen, a young man released with Blake in 1749, lived into his eighties in New England, but said that his time with the Indians was the happiest of his life.

Which of the other characters are based on historical figures?

Many of the characters in the book—for example, Captain Warren, St. Blien, the Intendant—are based on real life people. We know what they say, what they do, but who they really were inside is unknown. That’s the part, the secret heart, that interests me in transubstantiating historical notation into fictional characters. The Indians in the Blake tale are the least known from the historical record. All that’s known of Blake’s captor and his tribe are the few tidbits he left behind in casual conversation recorded by others. He said his captor was an older man with “pretty daughters.” He reported that he had an Indian wife, but, perhaps in deference to his English wife, no details about her personality.

Although Nathan Blake may have been the inspiration, Caucus-Meteor is the central figure of the novel. How did this character develop? Did you originally intend to focus on Blake?

The first half dozen drafts of this novel were from Blake’s point of view, but something was missing and then it struck me that the novel, as it was being created per order of my muse, was less about Nathan Blake’s captivity as it was about the efforts of his captor, the “old American” to hold his tiny tribe together in the face of North American politics of the time.

Caucus-Meteor is Native American. What were the challenges of creating a character from another culture? What were the pleasures?

Though Caucus-Meteor is Native American by blood and heritage, he was torn from his people by war at the age of nine and raised as a slave by another culture; he’s really a mixture of cultures with all the flexibility and confusion that mixture brings. I too am a mix—Yankee, Yuppie, and Franco-American. Caucus-Meteor has two daughters; I have two daughters. Caucus-Meteor is at times consumed by ambition, which invariably makes him unhappy. That bit of psychology is right out of my personal bag of hangups. And on and on it goes. I didn’t set out to create a character who mirrored me. It wasn’t until I finished the book that I realized that Caucus-Meteor is the me I picture in about twenty years, if I should live that long.

I never saw cultural or chronological gulfs to cross. French, English, Indian—they all kind of melded together with me into a narrative in my imagination.

Were you concerned about how readers might respond to the idea of a white man writing from the point of view of a Native American? Why or why not? Which was the greater challenge to cross: the cultural or the chronological gulf?

You have to be a bit of a horse’s ass to write any fiction at all, because so much of it is about crossing lines into territory where you don’t belong. Am I concerned about how readers might respond to the idea of a white man writing from the point of view of a Native American? Yah, I’m concerned, but at this point, now that the book is finished, it’s not up to me any more. It’s up to the readers to decide how much of a horse’s ass I really am.

What is the significance of the line “It’s a poor Englishman that cannot go to Canada without his breakfast”? How did it inspire you, or what sense of the character if Caucus-Meteor did it give you?

The historical Nathan Blake left the stockade during an Indian raid to let his animals out of the barn. He achieved that goal and tried to sneak out a back door, but an Indian with a musket was waiting for him. Nathan, apparently trying to keep his cool, said something to the effect of that it was mighty early in the morning for this kind of thing, and he’d had nothing to eat. He never expected to be understood, but the Indian said to him in perfect English, “It’s a poor Englishman that cannot go to Canada without his breakfast.” So, then, Blake’s captor not only knew a foreign language, he knew it well enough to quip in it. I built the character of Caucus-Meteor on that one line.

In your author’s note, you say that Nathan Blake’s story touches on your own heritage. In what way? How is this significant for you?

I’m a great believer in the idea that to be an American is to be a cultural and ethnic mongrel of one kind or another. Until this book I’ve thought of myself as a mix of French-Canadian and New England Yankee in my make-up. But after doing research for this project, I realize that much of my character and beliefs is derived from the native America. To be American is to be in part, by blood or by turn of mind, Native American.

Can you tell us a bit about your own life as a writer? Do you write every day? You were a journalist when you published your first novel and now you are a college professor—how has your life as a writer changed as a result?

I do write every day. I like to say that writing is my trade and my salvation, but there are time when I think the right word is not salvation but damnation, especially when I feel driven to write. My job as a college professor has been very good for me as a person and for my family, because it’s allowed me to make a living, but I think, too, the work of teaching has hindered my art. I’ve written five novels about rural New England, with the emphasis on the working class people and on poor folk. When I was a newspaper reporter, I kept bumping up against such people, which enriched my fiction. But as a college professor I’ve lost touch with those folks who had given me my material, and therefore I could no longer write New England novels. That’s why I turned to historical fiction. The Old American has allowed me to feel reborn as a writer.

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