Follow by Email

Thursday, June 26, 2014

"Hate Speech" and Literature

Let me say right off: I do not believe in the idea of hate speech. One person's "hate speech" is another person's "free speech."

In that regard, the American Civil Liberties Union and I are in 100 per cent agreement. More on the ACLU later.

In a previous post I talked about Political Correctness in Historical Fiction novels. I argued that there can be no PC in an historical novel because if there is, the novel will be devoid of reality. PC is a 20th and 21st Century phenomenon. It didn't exist in the 19th Century or any other prior century. So to purge a book set in the 18th or 19th Century of offensive expressions used in 18th or 19th Century America is to be dishonest.

A direct offshoot of PC is the concept of "Hate Speech."  Just as with PC there are unofficial Hate Speech police out there who like nothing more than to be the final arbiters of what can and cannot be said publicly in America.

Of course, that is in complete opposition to an individual's First Amendment right to speak freely and openly about any and all topics--be it race, gender, homosexuality, abortion, gay marriage, radical Islam, traditional marriage, war or peace.

You may even criticize the President of the United States--though, today, if you do, you are likely going to be accused of being a racist. That is when you will experience the PC Thought Police and their close relatives, the Hate Speech Gestapo, at their narrow-minded worst.

If you were to go back in time to 19th Century America or Europe you might be appalled at the terms used openly and without remorse to describe blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, the Irish, Italians, Catholics, Jews, Asians, etc.

That was life back then. Was it right to use those terms? Of course, today we would say "No." But using racial, ethnic and religious slurs in the past was simply the way things were.
So if you are writing an historical novel about that period do you eliminate dozens of objectionable terms and phrases to satisfy today's PC Thought Police and the Hate Speech Gestapo?

The answer: an emphatic NO!

If you do clean up a novel about slavery and use words like "African-American" instead of the range of hurtful expressions commonly used in the 19th Century, your book not only will lack integrity, it will be a ridiculous fabrication.

Now back to the ACLU.

Rather than paraphrasing the ACLU's position on Hate Speech I will let that organization itself explain why it says there is no such thing as Hate Speech in a nation where speech is protected by the First Amendment of our Constitution.

The Q & A that follows is taken directly from the ACLU's own website.

Q: I just can't understand why the ACLU defends free speech for racists, sexists, homophobes and other bigots. Why tolerate the promotion of intolerance? 

A: Free speech rights are indivisible. Restricting the speech of one group or individual jeopardizes everyone's rights because the same laws or regulations used to silence bigots can be used to silence you. Conversely, laws that defend free speech for bigots can be used to defend the rights of civil rights workers, anti-war protesters, lesbian and gay activists and others fighting for justice. For example, in the 1949 case of Terminiello v. Chicago, the ACLU successfully defended an ex-Catholic priest who had delivered a racist and anti-semitic speech. The precedent set in that case became the basis for the ACLU's successful defense of civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s and '70s. 

The indivisibility principle was also illustrated in the case of Neo-Nazis whose right to march in Skokie, Illinois in 1979 was successfully defended by the ACLU. At the time, then ACLU Executive Director Aryeh Neier, whose relatives died in Hitler's concentration camps during World War II, commented: "Keeping a few Nazis off the streets of Skokie will serve Jews poorly if it means that the freedoms to speak, publish or assemble any place in the United States are thereby weakened." 

Q: I have the impression that the ACLU spends more time and money defending the rights of bigots than supporting the victims of bigotry!!?? 

A: Not so. Only a handful of the several thousand cases litigated by the national ACLU and its affiliates every year involves offensive speech. Most of the litigation, advocacy and public education work we do preserves or advances the constitutional rights of ordinary people. But it's important to understand that the fraction of our work that does involve people who've engaged in bigoted and hurtful speech is very important: 

Defending First Amendment rights for the enemies of civil liberties and civil rights means defending it for you and me. 

Q: Aren't some kinds of communication not protected under the First Amendment, like "fighting words?" 

A: The U.S. Supreme Court did rule in 1942, in a case called Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, that intimidating speech directed at a specific individual in a face-to-face confrontation amounts to "fighting words," and that the person engaging in such speech can be punished if "by their very utterance [the words] inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace." Say, a white student stops a black student on campus and utters a racial slur. In that one-on-one confrontation, which could easily come to blows, the offending student could be disciplined under the "fighting words" doctrine for racial harassment. 

Over the past 50 years, however, the Court hasn't found the "fighting words" doctrine applicable in any of the hate speech cases that have come before it, since the incidents involved didn't meet the narrow criteria stated above. Ignoring that history, the folks who advocate campus speech codes try to stretch the doctrine's application to fit words or symbols that cause discomfort, offense or emotional pain. 
Q: What about nonverbal symbols, like swastikas and burning crosses -- are they constitutionally protected? 

A: Symbols of hate are constitutionally protected if they're worn or displayed before a general audience in a public place -- say, in a march or at a rally in a public park. But the First Amendment doesn't protect the use of nonverbal symbols to encroach upon, or desecrate, private property, such as burning a cross on someone's lawn or spray-painting a swastika on the wall of a synagogue or dorm. 

Q: Aren't speech codes on college campuses an effective way to combat bias against people of color, women and gays? 

A: Historically, defamation laws or codes have proven ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst. For one thing, depending on how they're interpreted and enforced, they can actually work against the interests of the people they were ostensibly created to protect. Why? Because the ultimate power to decide what speech is offensive and to whom rests with the authorities -- the government or a college administration -- not with those who are the alleged victims of hate speech. 

In Great Britain, for example, a Racial Relations Act was adopted in 1965 to outlaw racist defamation. But throughout its existence, the Act has largely been used to persecute activists of color, trade unionists and anti-nuclear protesters, while the racists -- often white members of Parliament -- have gone unpunished

Similarly, under a speech code in effect at the University of Michigan for 18 months, white students in 20 cases charged black students with offensive speech. One of the cases resulted in the punishment of a black student for using the term "white trash" in conversation with a white student. The code was struck down as unconstitutional in 1989 and, to date, the ACLU has brought successful legal challenges against speech codes at the Universities of Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin. 
These examples demonstrate that speech codes don't really serve the interests of persecuted groups. The First Amendment does. As one African American educator observed: "I have always felt as a minority person that we have to protect the rights of all because if we infringe on the rights of any persons, we'll be next." 

Q: But don't speech codes send a strong message to campus bigots, telling them their views are unacceptable? 

A: Bigoted speech is symptomatic of a huge problem in our country; it is not the problem itself. Everybody, when they come to college, brings with them the values, biases and assumptions they learned while growing up in society, so it's unrealistic to think that punishing speech is going to rid campuses of the attitudes that gave rise to the speech in the first place. Banning bigoted speech won't end bigotry, even if it might chill some of the crudest expressions. The mindset that produced the speech lives on and may even reassert itself in more virulent forms. 

Speech codes, by simply deterring students from saying out loud what they will continue to think in private, merely drive biases underground where they can't be addressed. In 1990, when Brown University expelled a student for shouting racist epithets one night on the campus, the institution accomplished nothing in the way of exposing the bankruptcy of racist ideas. 

As a former Dean at the University of Illinois I was often amazed at the number of people who disagreed with the ACLU's position on Hate Speech.

Their remedy in dealing with so-called Hate Speech was to advocate some form of punishment for the offender--firing a non-tenured instructor, expelling a student, censoring a tenured-professor or administrator.

About the only thing missing, I used to think, where the ducking stools once used in Salem, Mass, or the public humiliation of the pillory and stocks on the university quadrangle.

In any case, literature and other forms of creative endeavor, should never be restricted by those who believe THEY are the final arbiters of what can and cannot be said, written or shown.

If that ever happens, then our Constitution's will begin with the 2d Amendment--because the First Amendment will be but a distant memory.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Political Correctness & Historical Fiction

I belong to an online Historical Novels discussion group. It is a lively assemblage with lots of discussions ranging from how one researches historical novels to selecting book titles.

Most recently someone started a discussion about being politically correct in historical novels. The result has been a long thread of comments from authors of historical fiction books.

Almost to a person, authors of historical fiction say political correctness should NEVER influence how we write about the past. To do so is to be disingenuous to those who read our books.

Our job as authors of historical fiction is NOT to "clean up" or rewrite history so the sins of the past are expunged from our consciousness. The fact is overt racism, religious oppression and other forms of discrimination have been part of life for several thousand years. They still are. Look at what's happening in Iraq right now--Sunnis butchering Shia Muslims.

You can see how political correctness has distorted the literary landscape when writers of historical fiction attempt to cleanse offensive language in their books that was once used to describe certain races, classes, religions, and ethnic groups.

As one group member said: "Let's not only get political correctness out of historical fiction, let's get it out of society. If you wrote a Civil War story and had a character refer to a black person as an African-American, you ought to be horsewhipped." 

Let me say it forthrightly and plainly: political correctness has no place in historical fiction. If you are striving to create accurate characters and events in a novel about the past you must create characters that think, speak, and act the way they did during the period in which the novel is set.

To inflict political correctness on literary art is to censor and suppress creativity. PC has already overrun and dampened free speech and innovative thought in our schools and on college campuses. God forbid that the thought police should be successful in invading the province of historical fiction too!

Yet the PC thugs have already been successful getting books like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain and Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe removed from some school libraries because of their use of language and racial characterizations prevalent in 19th Century America. They have even convinced a few publishers to issue "cleansed" versions of Mark Twain's work with some passages and descriptions rewritten and some offensive words removed.

Taking this a step further, I think one of the most egregious phrases that the PC Gestapo has inflicted on our society is: "hate speech." Even the ACLU, that great liberal bastion, says there is "NO SUCH THING AS HATE SPEECH. THERE IS ONLY FREE SPEECH." 

The way to deal with so-called "hate speech" is to have more free speech, the ACLU says--not to shut down speech that YOU may think is offensive.

When we begin to label speech that may be offensive to a particular group as "hate speech" it has a widespread chilling effect on all of us. Yet, I saw classes being taught at the university where I was a dean that discussed the issue of racial prejudice without using the epithets and pejoratives commonly used in the past to describe black people, Hispanics and other minorities.

This is just silly. The only words that were allowed in class were the defamatory ones used to describe immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland, France, Germany, etc.

The assumption, I guess, is that it is OK to use words like mick, honkie, wop, kraut, pollack, frog, etc. because, after all, those people are white. But you may not use words like nigger, beaner, chink, raghead, slopehead, etc. in a history class about racial relations because saying them, even in an educational setting, may offend someone. 

That's like teaching music, but banning certain notes the music teacher didn't like from being played. How would Mozart sound if double flat notes or tuplets were not allowed to be played?

Professors who impose PC on students in the classroom are shortchanging their education by eliminating viewpoints they don't like. Sadly, I have seen this pattern of behavior too often. I will not abide it in my own writing, nor should authors who seek honesty in their work.

This is where all of this PC nonsense has led us: to a disingenuous, hypocritical America where truth is suppressed in favor of mandated diversity and inclusiveness.

There is nothing wrong with promoting a more diverse and inclusive nation--but I think this country, despite its less than stellar racial history, has done a pretty good job of creating a nation of people who get along pretty well. There will always be anomalies, there will always be racism, there will always be people who hate others who are different from them, but all in all, I think the United States is doing OK. Case in point: the current two-term occupants of the White House.

As writers of historical fiction, it is incumbent upon us to be truthful in our depictions of times past--ugly warts and all.

For the PC thought police it is not the only the politically incorrect word or name that is the problem. It is a person's attitude, an individual's mindset, his/her ability to think freely and express himself/herself in a certain way that the PC bullies want to control. If an individual's opinions do not conform to THEIR Weltanschauung then those opinions should not be expressed. This is intolerance in the extreme.

The PC police believe everybody should think EXACTLY like they do. Does that remind you of Nazi Germany or the USSR under Stalin, or China under Mao, or North Korea today? It should, because by suppressing and controlling the way people think and express themselves the PC thought police are destroying the very intellectual diversity that engenders creative thought.

To paraphrase another author in one of our discussions: "We in the USA are now in our own oppression era, quite similar to Hitler's Germany, Stalin's USSR, or Mao's P.R.C., where you can lose your job, your promotion, your chance at tenure, or even an opportunity to get a job, because of a 'traditional belief,' or a belief that doesn't toe the line of the PC thugs currently in charge of the media and 'special' interest groups.

"Let there be no mistake, the oppression is real and it's not just about what we write, or our hopes/goals of being published and selling our work (which is after all, an extension of our selves in part); it's about what we are ALLOWED to say or write, either by the 'guardians of PC' or government."

The underlying question is this: are we really 'free' in what we choose to write and say? Do we indeed still have 'freedom of speech' as guaranteed by the First Amendment, or do we now SELF-CENSOR because we are afraid of 'the backlash'?

For those who write or who create other forms of art these are critical questions that need to be considered. I for one will not be bullied by the PC thought police in my historical novels.

Politically correct speech and its offshoots of intolerance, censorship, and social intimidation are the greatest dangers to free speech since the First Amendment was inserted into our Constitution in 1791.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Whither the World of Book Publishing?

For decades traditional publishing houses were the steadfast sentinels guarding the formidable gates to book publishing. They and they alone determined what got printed and what didn't.

Unknown authors (and even some who were not so unknown) were often frustrated and disheartened by the deluge of rejections spewed out by the "Big Houses" who published something like 70 per cent of all books in America.

To demonstrate how that tightly controlled system worked, here is the way my last two non-fiction books were published:

  • With book number one, I used an agent, wrote a 30 page detailed proposal, flew to New York, made the rounds of some 8 major publishers with my agent and pitched the book. I sold it to a publisher and got a $35,000 advance.
  • With my next book I did not use an agent. Instead I queried a few editors I knew at different publishers and wrote a 5-page proposal. One editor liked the idea of the book and I walked away with a $100,000 advance.
With a track record like that you might think I would have done the same thing with the novel I just published. I didn't.

Why? Because as much as I enjoyed working with the two traditional publishers I have seen major shifts in the world of book publishing--shifts that tell me we have entered a new universe of egalitarian publishing.

For example, the book I just published is the first in a trilogy. I know exactly how I want the stories in each book to unfold and I don't want some editor telling me to change the plot or recast it in some other way. I also want to manage the way the book looks inside and out. In other words, I want to be in control. If the books are successful then I know I am on to something. If not, then I will change my approach.

The point is I and I alone made that choice. It wasn't made for me by an editor thousands of miles away.

It's that kind of creative freedom that I think is one of most exciting things about the new world of book publishing. For the first time since the pamphleteers of 200 years ago, authors are back in control of the art they create.

Today just about anybody can publish a book. The once formidable gates to the book publishing universe have been ripped open and anybody with a computer and access to The Internet can walk through. It is a phenomenon that is driving nothing less than a rebirth of creative writing.
Amazon and the e-book tsunami are largely responsible for that and for the resulting evolution of the Independent ("Indie" or "Self-Published") Author.

The exponential growth of Publishing on Demand (POD) companies and the emergence of small and medium-sized publishers, who are not as picky when it comes to taking a chance on a new author, have all opened up new opportunities for authors whose work otherwise would never see the light of day.

Add to that the vast array of self-publishing companies that will publish just about anything if an author can come up with the cash, and suddenly readers have more choices than ever before.

Granted, some (and I am being kind here) of what gets self-published today would not have made it out of the slush pile or past a first reader in the Big Five houses (Penguin-Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan).  

But history shows us that publishers don't always recognize good writing or a book's market potential.

Take look at these examples--and these are just the tip of the iceberg: 

  • Louis L 'Amour received 200 rejections before Bantam took a chance on him. His books have now sold 330 million copies.
  • Zane Grey received the following advice from a publisher: "You have no business being a writer and should give it up." His books have sold 250 million copies.
  • After five years of continuous rejections a mystery writer in Great Britain finally wins a publishing deal. Today Agatha Christie's book sales are more than $2 billion.
  • “I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years,” one publisher told this author about his manuscript. But Vladimir Nabokov persisted and his book "Lolita" went on to sell 50 million copies.
Inept assessments like those are what keep a lot of writers writing. There is always hope that SOMEONE will recognize your amazing talent.

If you trawl through the millions of books Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple have in their online stores you are sure to find some gems written by unknown authors who have collected their share of dispiriting rejections.

This vast literary cafeteria is filled with books featuring just about every known writing style and device--and then some. A few of these devices and styles work. A lot more don't.

Some novels lack the most basic elements of acceptable storytelling--plot, pacing, character development, tension, climatic release, etc.  And some non-fiction books are deficient in trustworthy reporting, reliable research, credible sources, and compelling writing.

Yet there they are, ready to be downloaded into somebody's Kindle or Nook or Sony Reader. In this new egalitarian world of books the bulwarks that once stood between authors and readers are collapsing as never before.

Book blogs, specialized book websites such as Goodreads, Createspace, Smashwords and social media sites such Facebook, Twitter, Google-Play, and LinkedIn all provide readers and authors with places to meet and interact with one another.

I belong to several of these groups and I am amazed at the zesty exchange of ideas--many untried and unproven--that flow freely through the Ethernet. Unlike the "push" world of traditional publishing, this new "pull" marketplace of ideas is allowing readers to vote with their wallets. They are deciding which new gimmicks, genres, and ideas will flourish, not Big Publishing. 

In short, readers who rummage through the millions of today's online titles will themselves decide if a new book about bloodsucking hummingbirds or a team of time-travelling trollops will find a global market.

And much to the amazement of traditional publishers many self-published POD and e-books that never would have made it over the transom, let alone onto the slush pile, are selling and selling well.

Readers know what they want and market savvy indie authors are learning to write for them.

Lesson learned!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Q & A with Novel PASTimes (Part 2)

I was recently interviewed online by NovelPASTimes [], a blog for those who love to read Historical Fiction.  Here is Part Two:

What would you like readers to gain from reading your book(s)?

Because Finding Billy Battles is historical fiction and is set in the 19th Century, I would like readers to get a sense of the time and place of the story. I would like them to have an appreciation of the way people lived, how they thought, and how they dealt with both adversity and triumph in a very different era. Finally, I would like readers to finish my book and think to themselves: "Damn, I didn't want that story to end!"

Thanks for joining us here on Favorite PASTimes. Any final words for readers or writers?

For Readers: Please DON'T STOP READING! Those of us who love telling stories need you. And when you read a book, don't be shy. Write a review on Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes & Noble, etc. and let us know what you liked and didn't like about a book. I value the reviews I get from Amazon Verified Purchase customers more than I do from professional or editorial reviewers. After all, customers spent money on the book and that gives them the right to tell the author what they think.

For Writers: Please Keep Writing. The world needs good storytellers today more than ever. I know that many who write are frustrated by letters of rejection from agents and publishers. Don't be discouraged. If you can't get a book before the reading public going the traditional publishing route, consider self or indie publishing. Publish on Demand (POD) books are everywhere these days and so are e-books. Writers today don't have to consider a rejection letter the last word in their aspiration to publish. You have options to reach readers that didn't exist 10 or even 5 years ago.

Having said that, I must be honest. Many self-published books are not well done. The writing may be poor quality; the covers are often inferior and the proof reading and editing is shoddy. Frankly, some books should never have made it off the printing press or into an e-file. However, there are enough gems coming from self-published authors to offset the marginal efforts.

My advice to beginners: Give yourself time to learn the craft of writing. How do you do that? Read, read, read. If you want to write well, read well. Learn from the best; imitate (and I don't mean plagiarize). Listen to the words! You don't have to spend thousands of dollars on writing seminars, conferences, etc. Gifted writing can't be taught. It must be learned. And we learn from doing it; from experience.

To be a good writer you need to be confident in your ability to use the tools of the craft: research, vocabulary, grammar, style, plot, pacing, and story. A confident writer is typically a good writer. We gain confidence by being successful in our work--no matter what work we do. We also learn from failure. Why was a book rejected 40 times? Why isn't it selling on Amazon or Goodreads or Barnes and Noble? There must be a reason. Find out what it is and learn from it. Then go back to work and make the book better.

Pearl S. Buck
And remember: Writing is a discipline that you can learn at any age. Unlike ballet or basketball or modeling, writing is not something that if you missed doing at 16, 18 or 20 you can never do again. You are NEVER too old to begin writing!

I recall interviewing Pulitzer and Nobel prize winning author Pearl S. Buck once. It was late fall, 1971, and at the time she was living in Vermont. We were talking on the phone and suddenly she began describing her backyard and what she said was the first snow of the season."You should see this, Ron. From my office window I am watching a leisurely shower of white crystals floating, drifting, and landing softly onto a carpet of jade. I wish you could see it."

"I do," I said. "Thanks for showing me."

I never forgot that conversation with the first American female Nobel laureate. She was 79 and still writing.

Finally, writing--as difficult as it is--should also be fun. When you turn a beautiful phrase or create a vivid scene, you should feel a little flutter in your heart, a shiver in your soul. If you do, that means you have struck an evocative chord with your writing. Nothing is more rewarding than that!  

Write On!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Q & A with Novel PASTimes (Part 1)

I was recently interviewed online by NovelPASTimes [], a blog for Historical Fiction Lovers.  Here is Part One.

Tell us a little about what you write.
I write both fiction and non-fiction. My current book falls into the historical-fiction/action adventure category. My previous books have been journalism textbooks, a corporate biography on Japan's Kikkoman Corp. and a compilation of columns I wrote while covering Japan.

My writing plans these days are devoted to historical fiction. Finding Billy Battles is the first in a trilogy of novels about William Fitzroy Raglan Battles, his early days in 19th Century Kansas and his eventual journeys and adventures in the Far East, Latin America and Europe.

When I finish Book #3 in the trilogy, I will probably spend time writing my own adventures as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Latin America.

Are you a full-time writer or do you hold a day job? 
Writing is my day job. I have been a full-time writer since graduating from the University of Kansas and joining the Chicago Tribune in 1969. I have written thousands of newspaper, magazine and opinion columns from more than 65 different countries. As a dean and professor at the University of Illinois, I wrote textbooks, newspaper columns and articles in various journals.

What is the biggest challenge/obstacle you face in protecting your writing time?
The biggest obstacle in protecting my writing time is Southern California. The weather here is almost always beautiful and sunny. The fact that I live in the Southern California wine country just north of San Diego doesn't help either. The temptation to get out of the house, go to the beach or enjoy a long leisurely lunch at one of the nearby wineries is sometimes too great to ignore.

What historical time periods interest you the most and how have you immersed yourself in a particular time period?
Growing up in rural Kansas I was always fascinated by the state's 19th Century history. Kansas was a pivotal state prior to the Civil War because it entered the union as a free state and was populated--especially in the Northeast--by abolitionists. 

Kansas was a terminus for the Underground Railroad. After the Civil War it became about as wild and violent as any state in the union. Cattle drives from Texas, wild cow towns, outlaws, legendary lawmen and fraudsters of every stripe gave the state a wicked reputation. At the same time, the 19th Century in America was a time of amazing growth, invention, progress and expansion. 

For some, such as Native Americans, this growth was not a pleasant experience and in some cases, it was quite deadly. For others, the possibilities seemed limitless. Prosperity seemed restricted only by one's own determination and effort.

Introduce us briefly to the main characters in your most recent book.
William Fitzroy Raglan Battles is the main character in the book. His father is killed during the Civil War so he is reared by his mother, Hannelore, a second-generation German-American woman who has to be both mother and father to her only son. It is a tall order, but Billy grows up properly and is seemingly on the right path. His mother, a hardy and resilient woman, makes a decent living as a dressmaker in Lawrence, Kansas. An ardent believer in the value of a good education, she insists that Billy attend the newly minted University of Kansas in Lawrence. She is a strong influence in his life, as are several other people he meets along the way.

There is Luther Longley, an African-American former army scout who Billy and his mother meet at Ft. Dodge in 1866. He escorts them the 300 miles to Lawrence and winds up being a close friend to both Billy and his mother. There is Horace Hawes, publisher and Editor of the Lawrence Union newspaper who takes Billy with him to start a new newspaper in Dodge City. 

There is Ben Minot, a typesetter and former Northern Army Sharpshooter, who still carries a mini ball in his body from the war and a load of antipathy toward The Confederacy. There is Signore DiFranco, the Italian political exile Billy meets in Dodge City. There is Mallie McNab, the girl Billy meets, falls in love with, marries and hopes to live out his life with. There is Charley Higgins, Billy's first cousin, who sometimes treads just south of the law, but who is also Billy's most devoted camarada.

Then there is the Bledsoe family--particularly Nate Bledsoe, who blames Billy for the deaths of his mother and brother and who swears vengeance. Book one of the trilogy ends with Billy meeting the widow Katharina Schreiber, a woman who in Book Two, propels Billy into a series of misadventures and dubious situations.

What drew you to write this story?
I was intrigued with the idea of a 19th Century Kansas boy forced to deal with a string of tragedies and misadventures who eventually makes his way to the Far East in search of himself. How would he handle himself in such strange places as French Indochina, the Spanish-controlled Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc?

I spent most of my career as a foreign correspondent in Asia and I often wondered what it would have been like to have been in that part of world in the 19th Century. This book gives me (and my readers) an opportunity to find out.

What are you working on now?
I am working on Book #2 of the trilogy. It begins with Billy aboard the S.S. China headed for Saigon from San Francisco. Aboard the S.S. China Billy meets the mysterious Widow Schreiber who may or may not be a good influence on him. He also meets a passel of shady characters as well as some old friends from his days in Kansas, etc. 

Events conspire to embroil him in a variety of disputes, conflicts and struggles in places like French Indochina and the Spanish-American War in The Philippines--events a Kansas sand cutter is hardly equipped to deal with. How will he do? You will have to read Book #2 to find out!

A reader once asked me this question, and I thought it was a good one. Is there ever a time when you feel like your work is truly finished and complete?
I don't know if that ever happens. I do know that at some point, YOU MUST LET IT GO! Writing a book is a bit like rearing a child. Eventually, after you have imbued the child with as much of your worldly experience and wisdom as he or she can grasp and absorb you have to allow your creation to encounter the world. It's the same with books. 

Writers can fiddle with plots, characters, endings and beginnings ad nauseam and never feel the book is really finished. My advice. JUST FINISH THE DAMNED BOOK! Get over it and get the book out into the public domain. Readers will let you know if you have finished the book--and if they like it.

If you could be a character from your favorite historical novel, who would you be?
Woodrow Call from Lonesome Dove OR John Blackthorne from Shogun.

What is the biggest misconception the general public has about authors?
I don't know if those who do not write for a living understand just how difficult writing is. Many believe that writers work from inspiration and that the words simply leap onto the page (or into the computer). In fact, while inspiration is a wonderful thing, it is not what makes a good writer or book. Writing requires significant research, whether fiction or non-fiction. It requires a facility for organization and a keen sense of plot, pacing and story. 

I don't believe writers are "born." They evolve over time as a result of significant experience in the craft. Finally, not all writers are brooding, intractable alcoholics or unbearable misanthropes who feel their creations contain irrevocable and definitive truths that most of humanity is too stupid to comprehend. In fact, most successful writers are excellent storytellers and they like nothing more than to have their stories read by as many people as possible--even if those stories don't always possess immutable truths.   

Monday, June 2, 2014

Tiananmen Square Diary

On Wednesday much of the world will pause to remember the Tiananmen Square tragedy—or massacre—depending on one’s perspective. It occurred 25 years ago June 4, 1989 in the world’s largest square with much of the world watching. It was among the more horrific and heartrending stories I covered during my career as a Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent.

The post that follows contains my recollections of that terrible event—one that is indelibly etched into my memory. It is a little longer than most of my posts, but that night in Tiananmen Square was also one of the longest I ever spent. I hope you will read on....

China was the world’s biggest story in the summer of 1989 when several hundred thousand students, labor leaders and other dissidents occupied the 5 million square foot concrete piazza known as Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing. For seven weeks as the world watched, some 500,000 “pro-democracy” demonstrators descended on Beijing’s most sacred site to protest corruption, human rights violations and one-party rule.

The protest would ultimately end in the early morning hours of June 4 with the deaths of at least 800 demonstrators (the Chinese Red Cross puts the number closer to 3,000 with 12,000 wounded) in what the world has come to know as the “Tiananmen Square Massacre.”
Demonstrators in Tiananmen Before the Massacre
Today all evidence of that bloody night has been obliterated. Tiananmen Square is scrubbed and shimmering as it awaits the hundreds of thousands of summer visitors who will wander past the colossal portrait of Mao Zedong that hangs above the Forbidden City's Gate of Heavenly Peace on the north end of the plaza and through the mausoleum that displays his waxy remains on the south end.

China today is relatively sanguine and confident. Profits, not protests are the driving force among most Chinese. However, that was not the case in 1989 when Tiananmen Square was turned into a squalid, fetid tent city of protestors.

For many young Chinese, the tragedy that unfolded in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago is ancient history—an event that has been glossed over, covered up and generally purged from the national consciousness by a nation eager to put forth its most dazzling and alluring face for tourists and the international business community.

But on June 3, 1989 as I walked through what is generally regarded as the planet’s largest city square, the world was just a few hours from seeing China at its most ruthless and ugliest.

The square that day was a hot, grubby place, strewn with refuse, canvass tents and other makeshift dwellings. Under the towering “Heroes of the Nation” obelisk demonstrators cooked rice and soup while others linked arms and sang a spirited rendition of the “Internationale,” the world socialist anthem. Thousands of others dozed under flimsy lean-tos or blasted music from boom boxes.

Near the middle of the square, the 30-foot tall “Goddess of Democracy,” a pasty white statue constructed by art students and made of styrofoam and papier-mâché, stared defiantly at Mao’s giant portrait—almost mocking the founder of modern day China. A truck swept by periodically spraying billowing clouds of insecticide and disinfectant over everything and everybody in its path.
Goddess of Democracy Statue

Hawkers guiding pushcarts containing ice cream, soft drinks, rice cakes, candy and film encircled the students doing a brisk business. Even if the students in the square had not been able to topple China's ruling hierarchy, at least there were profits to be made.

One enterprising entrepreneur raked in several hundred yuan within a few minutes after he began renting stepping stools for the hundreds of amateur photographers and tourists who arrived to have their pictures taken next to students or standing at the base of the "Goddess of Democracy" statue. Tiananmen, I wrote at the time, had evolved into a “Disneyland of Dissent.” 

By June 3 the number of students occupying the square had dwindled to about 20,000 as thousands had already packed up and headed back to their provinces. But some students I talked with that afternoon were not ready to leave and a few shared an intense sense of foreboding.

One of those was Chai Ling. Chai, who had been elected "chief commander" by the dissidents, was the only woman among the seven student leaders of the pro-democracy protests. As we sat cross-legged on the hot pavement she talked about the protests and just what the students had accomplished during their 7-week-long occupation of Tiananmen.
Chai Ling in Tiananmen Speaking to Students 1989 

“There will be a price to pay for all of this,” the 23-year-old child psychology graduate warned, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Some people will have to die for democracy, but it will be worth it.”

Chai, the object of a year-long nationwide search by the Chinese government after the violence in the square, would eventually escape China to Hong Kong sealed for five days and nights in a wooden crate deep in the hold of a rickety ship. She managed to elude capture in China by adopting a series of disguises, by learning local Chinese dialects and by working variously as a rice farmer, laborer and maid. Eventually she would come to the United States, be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and graduate from the Harvard Business School.

Barely eight hours after my conversation with Chai her warning would become reality. Late in the evening of June 3 and during the early morning hours of June 4 the lethargy of weary demonstrators and the cacophony of boom box music would be replaced by shrieks of terror, gunfire and the guttural roar of tank and armored personnel carrier engines as the People’s Liberation Army rolled into the square, crushing tents and firing indiscriminately at protesters and anybody else who got in their way.

A couple of hours before the violence erupted a few of us foreign correspondents had enjoyed a quiet meal together in the venerable Beijing Hotel on Chang’an Avenue a few blocks from the square.

While dining we discussed the events of the night before when several thousand young unarmed military recruits were sent marching toward the students in Tiananmen Square. Before they got very far an estimated 100,000 Chinese civilians poured from their homes near the square and confronted the soldiers—berating them for even thinking of entering Tiananmen to clear it of the thousands of students who had occupied it since late April.  

This rather benign event was nothing more than a probe to determine what kind of resistance armed troops might face when they stormed the square. For several weeks some 200,000 Chinese troops—most from provinces far away from Beijing—had been massing on the outskirts of the city.

As Beijing entered its 15th day of martial law, it was also obvious that the government was still unable to enforce that decree. The government did admonish members of the foreign media to "observe regulations on news coverage" as they relate to martial law.

"Foreign journalists must not talk with student protesters and any news coverage of any kind in Beijing must receive prior approval," said a statement by Ding Weijun, spokesman for the city.

The statement also warned the hundreds of foreign reporters still in Beijing against inviting Chinese citizens to their offices, homes or hotels to conduct "interviews regarding prohibited activities." Several foreign reporters had been expelled from the country for violating those rules.

Many of us ignored those edicts and talked to anybody who wanted to talk anywhere that was deemed away from the prying eyes and ears of government authorities. I also ignored the curfew, often riding my red and white Sprick bicycle down dark streets from my hotel to the Tribune's offices that were located in a foreign housing compound a half-mile away. I got to know most of the Chinese police who were supposed to enforce the curfew. They would smile and wave as I peddled past.   
Aboard my Sprick Bicycle

The morning of June 3, once again ignoring marital law rules, I took the Tribune car and my nervous Chinese driver and we drove outside of the square and into several neighborhoods where streets leading toward Tiananmen had been shut down by angry civilians intent on keeping the Chinese Army from reaching the students. Dozens of intersections were blocked with buses, trucks, and makeshift barricades. Neighborhood leaders proudly showed me their arsenal of weapons—rows of gasoline-filled bottles complete with cloth wicks, piles of rocks and bricks, shovels, rakes, picks and other garden tools.

“We will protect the students,” a man named Liang Hong, told me.

“But how?” I asked. “The army has tanks, machine guns and armored personnel carriers. They will kill you.”

“Then we will die,” he replied. Several dozen others quickly echoed his words. “Yes, we will all die. These are our children in the square. We must help them even if it means death.”

Several days after the attack on the square when the authorities allowed people to travel once again in the city, I drove back to this same neighborhood. True to their word, I was told that Liang Hong and several of his neighbors had died or were wounded attempting to keep the army from entering the square.

After dinner in the Beijing Hotel I decided to take one more stroll through the square. As I rode into the square on the bicycle I had purchased after my arrival in Beijing from Tokyo two weeks before, I could see that many of the students were obviously spooked—not only by the unarmed incursion of the night before but by the intelligence pouring in from the neighborhoods surrounding the square that the army was on the move.

“I think something will happen tonight,” one of them told me. “I am very afraid.”

I stopped at the foot of the Goddess of Democracy. The statue was illuminated by a couple of small spotlights as it looked toward the Forbidden City and Mao’s portrait. On the edge of the square I bought a bottle of Coca Cola then pushed my bicycle toward the four-story KFC restaurant on the south end of the square. It was about 8:30 p.m. and the restaurant (the largest KFC store in the world) was almost empty.

I then rode the 2 miles down Jinguomenwei Avenue to the Jinguo Hotel where I was staying. I needed to file a story on the day’s events—specifically my conversation with Chai Ling and the other students that afternoon. I finished writing my story around 10 p.m. and decided, despite the curfew, to ride my bicycle back to the square for one more look around. I parked my bicycle on Xuanwumen Dong Avenue near the hulking Museum of History and Revolution on the east side of the square and began walking toward the “Heroes of the Nation” obelisk which had become the headquarters for the students.

I hadn’t gotten very far when the sound of gunfire erupted. The firing seemed everywhere, amplified by the massive buildings that surrounded the square. I ran toward my bicycle, not wanting to be trapped in the square should tanks roll in. Moments later I ran into BBC correspondent Kate Adie who was walking toward the square with her camera crew.

“What’s going on,” she asked.

“Looks like the army is making a move tonight,” I answered. I explained that I hadn’t seen any troops or tanks in the square at that point, but I did see muzzle flashes from the roof of the Great Hall of the People on the west side of the square. A day before several hundred troops had massed behind the Great Hall and I assumed they had been positioned on the roof.

I rode my bicycle north toward Chang’an Avenue and hadn’t gotten very far when I noticed a line of Armored Personnel Carriers moving toward the square flanked by hundreds of soldiers with fixed bayonets. Seconds later the dark sky was interlaced by red and yellow tracer fire and I could hear bullets ricocheting off of concrete. I turned my bike around and raced back toward the south end of the square. Like a lot of my fellow correspondents I never thought the government would use deadly force against the students.

As the firing intensified thousands more residents poured out of their houses and formed human blockades where streets entered the square. They quickly became targets for the machine gun and small arms fire. As the casualties mounted, the crowds became increasingly belligerent. They armed themselves with bricks, bottles, iron rods and wooden clubs and attacked some of the military contingents, including tanks.

An infuriated mob grabbed one soldier and set him afire after dousing him with gasoline. They then hung his still smoldering body from a pedestrian overpass. It was one of the many examples of instant justice meted out that night. The crowd accused the soldier of having shot an old woman to death.

I watched the wounded and the dead being carted from the square and the area surrounding it on the flatbeds of three-wheeled vehicles. The stinging stench of tear gas hovered over the embattled city and burned my eyes.
Carting the Wounded out of the Square

“Tell the world!” the crowds screamed at me and other foreign journalists they saw. “Tell the United States! Tell the truth! We are students! We are common people-unarmed, and they are killing us!”

Around 2 a.m. at the height of the armed assault, a maverick tank careened down Jianguomenwai Avenue in an attempt to crack open the way for troop convoys unable to pass through the milling crowds.

With its turret closed, the tank was bombarded with stones and bottles as it sped down the avenue. Young cyclists headed it off, then slowed to bring it to a halt. But the tank raced on, the cyclists deftly avoiding its clattering treads by mere inches.

On the Jianguomenwai bridge over the city's main ring road, where a 25-truck convoy had been marooned for hours by a mass of angry civilians clambering all over it, a tank raced through the crowd. It sideswiped one of the army trucks, and a young soldier clinging to its side was flung off and killed instantly.

The worst fighting of the night occurred around the Minzu Hotel, west of the square, where grim-faced troops opened fire with tracer rounds on milling crowds blocking their access to the square. Bullets ripped into the crowd and scores of people were wounded. The dead and wounded were thrown on the side of the road among a pile of abandoned bicycles as the troops moved on to take the square.
Dead and Wounded Amid Abandoned Bicycles

One tank ran into the back of another that had stalled on Chang’an Avenue. As they hurriedly bounced apart, the machine guns on their turrets began to train on an approaching crowd of about 10,000. The machine guns erupted, sending tracers above the heads of the crowd. Men and women scurried for cover, many crawling into the piles of dead and wounded along the side of the road.

In my haste to return to the square I had forgotten to bring my camera. Even though it was night, the square was illuminated by street lamps and the sky above it was lit almost continuously with tracers and bright flares. I decided not to ride my bicycle in order to avoid becoming a larger target. At the same time, I didn’t want to lose the only form of transportation I had, so I pushed it wherever I went, sometimes crouching behind it. Finally, I found a small tree and padlocked it to the trunk.

For most of the night I found myself caught between trying to cover the tragedy unfolding in and around the square and watching my back. I didn’t want to be caught in the sites of some trigger happy soldier.

At one point several hundred troops successfully occupied a corner of the square and I watched as a crowd of some 3,000 howling unarmed students surged toward them on foot and by bicycle, intent on breaking through their line with their bare hands. A few in front of the main body rammed their bikes into the troops and were quickly beaten to the ground by soldiers using the butts of their rifles or clubs.
Dead Demonstrators Piled in a Hospital Hallway
“Fascists! Murderers!” the crowd chanted.

As the main body of the crowd got within 50 yards of the first line of troops, an army commander blew a whistle and the soldiers turned and fired volleys of automatic rifle fire. Screams of pain followed.

The protesters threw themselves and their bikes on the pavement of the Avenue of Eternal Peace. Dragging their bikes behind them, they crawled to safety, pursued by rifle fire and the throaty war cries of the soldiers.

When the firing momentarily stopped, the crowd regrouped and slowly crept back toward the square. Then the volleys rang out again, more intense this time. Two lines of soldiers began to chase the mob, alternately firing tear gas and bullets. I watched several people stagger and fall to the ground.

The acrid smell of tear gas triggered a paroxysm of coughing in the crowd. People ripped off shirt sleeves and used them as handkerchiefs over their mouths. The bodies of three women were laid out on the pavement of a side street to await transport. A crowd gathered around them, waving fists and cursing the government.

“How many people did you kill?” they shouted at steel-helmeted soldiers who stood stonily with AK-47 assault rifles cradled across their chests.

The fighting continued throughout the night as exhausted students and other dissidents engaged in hit and run battles with soldiers, tanks and APC’s. Some students, many of them wounded, scrambled aboard abandoned buses seeking refuge and aid. I watched soldiers pull them out and beat them with heavy clubs.
Students Confront APC's in the Square

Several of the students, bleeding from head wounds, ran toward where I had taken cover behind a low stone wall. One of the students, a girl of maybe 16, had been shot through the shoulder and was bleeding profusely. She was falling in and out of consciousness and looked to be in shock. I looked behind me to see if there was some way to get her assistance.

In the distance I saw a man waving at me from a doorway of a brick wall. He was motioning me to bring the girl and other wounded students to him, all the while carefully watching for soldiers. I pulled her up and with the help of another reporter, dashed with her and several other wounded students to the gate. The man quickly wrapped a blanket around the girl and took her inside the compound with the other students.

“Thank you,” he said. “I am a doctor. I will take care of them.”

I jogged back to the low wall where I had been kneeling before. I recall thinking that if I were wounded at least I now knew where I could go for help. For the next few hours I moved from one location to another, trying to find a spot where I could see what was happening while making sure I had an escape route should I come under fire.

The square was finally cleared at dawn when four personnel carriers raced across it, flattening not only the tents of the demonstrators but the “Goddess of Liberty” statue. I looked at my watch. It was about 5:30 and dawn was breaking over the city.

Ten minutes later a negotiated settlement allowed the hard-core remnants of the democracy movement—some 5,000 students and their supporters—to leave by the southeastern corner of the square. As they left singing the Internationale, troops ritually beat them with wooden clubs and metal rods.

 The army had been ordered to clear the Square by 6 a.m and it had done so, but at a terrible cost.

As daylight broke over the Avenue of Eternal Peace dazed knots of Chinese, many of them weeping and all of them angry at their government, stood at intersections, reliving the events of a few hours before when tracer bullets and flares turned the black Beijing sky into a deadly torrent of crimson.

Along the roadside leading into the square lay several wounded, some perhaps already dead.

“They murdered the people. . . . They just shot the people down like dogs, with no warning,” said a man whose shirt was soaked with blood. “I carried a woman to an ambulance, but I think she was dead.”

“Please,” he said, “you must tell the world what has happened here. We need your protection from our government.”

Perhaps the defining moment of the massacre came a bit later that morning when a student jumped in front of a column of tanks on Chang’an Avenue and refused to move. This student, as yet still unidentified, shouted at the tank commander: "Get out of my city. … You're not wanted here." Each time the tank would attempt to maneuver around the student, he would jump in front of it. The column of tanks turned off their motors and then several other students ran out and pulled the student to safety. To this day nobody is sure who the student was or what happened to him. Most Chinese still refer to him as the “tank man.”
The Still Unidentified "Tank Man" Confronting Tanks

I walked back to where I had left my bicycle and rode to the Jianguo Hotel. As I peddled along mostly deserted streets I tried to make sense out of what I had seen. With the students already dispersing from the square or planning to, the attack by the army was unnecessarily brutal.

There was little doubt that what I had witnessed was an assault designed to punish the demonstrators for embarrassing China’s leadership—Premiere Li Peng and Deng Xiaoping, the ailing leader of China’s Communist Party.

China's hard-line rulers, clearly in control after the bloodbath, issued a statement that morning that said:

“Thugs frenziedly attacked People's Liberation Army troops, seizing weapons, erecting barricades and beating soldiers and officers in an attempt to overthrow the government of the People's Republic of China and socialism.”

China’s leaders have not forgotten the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989. Unnerved by turbulence among Tibetans and always nervous about the possibility of human rights protests in the heart of the capital, China barred live television coverage from Tiananmen Square during the 2008 Beijing Olympics—just as it had in 1989. It will probably do the same on the 25th anniversary of the slaughter.

However, it remains to be seen whether or not such a ban will exorcise the ghosts of June 4, 1989 that still hang over Tiananmen Square. There is little doubt that time has not healed the deep wounds inflicted on China’s people that terrible night 25 years ago.