The America we never knew

Novelist tells riveting alternative history

By Tim Anderl

Photo: Author TJ Turner

Yellow Springs resident TJ Turner is a renaissance man. In addition to his career as a research scientist with the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, he’s also a federal agent, and as a reserve military officer, he has served three tours in Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal in 2013. His essay about his deployments to Afghanistan, “The Power of Teddy Bears,” was accepted and read on NPR’s This I Believe national essay series. The husband and father of three also recently became a published novelist.

In “Lincoln’s Bodyguard,” Turner creates an alternative version of American history. President Lincoln is saved from assassination due to the heroics of his bodyguard, Joseph Foster, who is a biracial mix of white and Miami Indian and makes himself an enemy of the South by killing John Wilkes Booth. Though the book provides a look at what the country could have been without the loss of the president, Foster’s nail-biting story, one of revenge and redemption, takes center stage here.

Dayton City Paper recently spoke with Turner about the novel, Lincoln’s history and legacy, and his experiences as a reservist.

How did the Antioch Writer’s Workshop help you to grow in your craft?

TJ Turner: My involvement with the Antioch Writer’s Workshop is the single biggest influence I’ve had as a writer. I first attended the workshop as a scholarship winner back in 2006. I won the Bill Baker award. Without it, I wouldn’t have attended. And at the workshop I truly learned the whole of the writing life, from the mechanics of writing, to character development, and plotting, and even the business end. I owe everything to the Antioch Writer’s Workshop.

When did it occur to you that this “what if” scenario was one you would write about?

TT: What I was really going for was an interesting story, one that had some relevance to our current world. I love the time period of the Civil War, as it’s so ripe with drama and conflict, on so many levels. On top of that, the Lincoln narrative always fascinated me. He was a man that if you really look at his background, should never have become president. He didn’t have the education, or the politics or even the experience in an executive office. But he was absolutely the perfect man for the job.

We never would have come through the Civil War in the same manner without him. He steered the ship, weathered us through the storm, and then before he could see the nation made whole again he was taken from us. So I wanted to re-tell that narrative, but this time let him see the nation come back together and start the healing process.

His death, particularly the manner and timing of it, is one of the great injustices of our nation’s history. If he’s looking down on us, I hope he likes the alternative outcome I created for him.

It is easy to overlook the fact that Lincoln’s assassination resulted in the surrender of many of the confederate generals and put an end to the war. How important was this part of the history to your story?

TT: That’s an absolutely pivotal point. We may never truly know how the end of the war would have unfolded with Lincoln still at the helm. But what we do know is that the Confederate President Jefferson Davis wrote to both General Lee and General Johnston and pleaded with them to not surrender, to carry on in guerilla warfare and bog down the North to make the war effort grind to a halt. General Lee considered it, but then felt he had to surrender or the South would face partisan warfare and strife like Missouri had seen before the war.

General Johnston only learned of Lincoln’s death upon his first meeting with Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, and when he heard about the assassination he knew the North had found its martyr. The only way his beloved South would heal would be through a negotiated peace.

But if Lincoln had lived, Johnston might have taken his 90,000 men and disappeared all over the South. With the amazing terrain over the southern portion of our country – the mountains, forests and swamps – the Union would have had to send in a huge occupying army. And that’s the premise of where the book opens. Insurgent warfare reigns supreme, the nation is crippled and still torn apart even seven years after the failed assassination attempt.

Did any of your personal experiences as a reservist leach in to your writing?

TT: Absolutely. I’ve witnessed first-hand how even the greatest military on the planet can be held at bay by a much smaller force. I spent three tours in Afghanistan, and even ten years from our initial deployment of boots on the ground we don’t have complete freedom of movement there. The enemy blends back into the fabric of society. They know the land, the people, the language, the culture … and that would be exactly what an occupying Union Army would have been facing in my alternative narrative to 1872.

And to be honest, that was totally intentional. I think every good story, no matter the setting, relates back to the current world in some manner. That’s what makes it relevant, and keeps the reader engaged – seeing those parallels to the modern world. So that was exactly what I was striving for, and the experience of seeing it first hand was invaluable.

This year is a significant anniversary for Lincoln’s assassination. Did that timeline play in to the release of this novel?

TT: It wasn’t necessarily intentional, meaning that I didn’t set out to write a Lincoln novel with the forethought that the anniversary might be good for the sale of the work. But once my agent (Liz Kracht) sold the manuscript to Oceanview Publishing, they came back and said they had an April publication slot opened! There’s that aspect of fatalism coming back in again! Maybe that was Lincoln’s way of looking out for the novel that let him live!

Lincoln’s Bodyguard was released by Oceanview Publishing in April 2015. For more information, please visit tjturnerauthor.com.

Tim Anderl is the web editor and a contributing writer at Ghettoblaster Magazine and maintains his own music blog at youindie.com. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Anderl at TimAnderl@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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