Author Interview: Drew Carlson

Drew Carlson is a former magazine columnist, newspaper reporter, corporate writer, and editor who currently works as the director of public affairs for the Federation of State Medical Boards in Dallas, Texas. Drew says his fascination with obscure facts from American history led him to write Attack of the Turtle, which is his first published novel.

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Where did you get the idea for Attack of the Turtle?
Drew Carlson: The book grew out of a short story I wrote about five years ago, which actually didn't have anything to do with the American Turtle submarine or David Bushnell. The story was about the miraculous fog that cloaked the Continental Army's retreat across the East River after the Battle of Long Island in August 1776. I was fascinated by what I believe was the providential deliverance of Washington's army from almost certain destruction. Without that fog, the Revolution might well have ended then and there. This became what I call the "fog chapter" in Attack of the Turtle.

Later, after I had decided to write a novel set during the Revolutionary War, I stumbled upon the fascinating story of the Turtle. As it turned out, the Turtle's mission took place one week after the Battle of Long Island and only a few miles away in New York Harbor. I knew then that I had the historical framework for a book.

Have you always had a fascination with the Revolutionary War, or has your interest emerged over time?
Drew Carlson: I got interested in the Revolution in recent years after experiencing "Civil War burnout." My father was a Civil War buff, and I caught the bug as a youngster. After about 30 years of studying that grisly war off and on, I needed a break. The Revolution is wonderful, especially the characters like Washington, Franklin, Knox, and the common soldiers. Their courage, resolve, and faith are incredibly inspiring to me.
What's a typical workday like?
Drew Carlson: I set a goal of writing 30 minutes at some point every night after getting home from work. Sometimes I write for only a few minutes; sometimes for a few hours. I write with a laptop sitting in a cat-clawed easy chair in our living room with a movie in the VCR set on low volume. I learned to write in noisy newsrooms, so I like some low-level noise when I write. It's usually not distracting, although I must admit I stopped in the middle of writing this to watch Jackie Chan whip up on some thugs.
How much research did you do before you began Turtle?
Drew Carlson: I read quite a bit, maybe 15-20 books and some articles. With limited time to conduct research, I learned to rely on historians whom I trust to accurately capture the historical facts for me. To get the "lay of the land," I tramped around David Bushnell's birthplace near Saybrook, Connecticut (or at least what I surmised was his birthplace from a map the local librarian drew for me; the actual birthplace is unmarked). I also "test-drove" a life-size replica of the Turtle in the USS Intrepid naval museum in New York City. An awesome experience.
Is Nathan Wade in the Turtle based on anyone you know? On yourself?
Drew Carlson: There is a lot of me in Nathan Wade. The scenes with the bully, Butch Hyde, I'm embarrassed to say, are straight out of my adolescence. A neighborhood bully, who I was bigger than, haunted my days. In exasperation, I finally punched him one day and knocked him down, then ran in terror at what I had done.
Which is your favorite illustration from the book?
Drew Carlson: David Johnson did a marvelous job with the illustrations. I especially like the cover. Inside, it would have to be the scene where Nathan and Butch shake hands.
Do you have any advice for would-be authors and illustrators?
Drew Carlson: I highly recommend the writing correspondence courses offered by the Institute of Children's Literature. I took two courses with them, the second one which resulted in the Turtle. The Institute matches you with established writers who mentor you. They are very professional and encouraging. Also, I recommend you try to write 30 minutes every day, whether you feel like it or not. If you keep at it, the momentum you can develop is incredible.
What characteristics do writers need most?
Drew Carlson: I have what I think a lot of writers have — a compulsion to write. It's something I simply must do to feel fulfilled. When I'm writing consistently I feel more whole. It also helps to be passionate about your subject, so much so that readers will find it contagious. I think a willingness to be honest about your own life, including weaknesses, is important — it helps give your characters authenticity. Perseverance is important to see your story through when you hit dead ends.
Can you tell us one thing people may not know about you?
Drew Carlson: I almost died when I was an infant when my older brother Curt, age two, tried to "off" me by rolling my baby carriage down a steep hill toward a busy street. My parents had gone inside the house for a minute to check on dinner. A little old lady saved me, breaking her glasses in the process.
Do you have any plans for future books that you'd like to share?
Drew Carlson: Despite my previous allusion to Civil War burnout, I'm working on a new book set during the battle of Gettysburg. I guess I've recovered.