May's Author of the Month: John McCavitt
Back in March, Innovative Editing began its “Author of the Month” program to highlight engaging writers who deserve to stand out for their skills and/or messages. These authors can be self- or traditionally published in fiction or non-fiction. The only qualifiers for consideration are that I’ve read their work and they’re available for an interview.
If you'd like to be considered for an upcoming Author of the Month spot – or if you have a story idea burning a hole in your brain – then shoot an email over to email@example.com with details about you and your book. Either way, I’d love to hear from you!
In the meantime, I’m excited to feature Dr. John McCavitt, co-author of The Man Who Captured Washington: Major General Robert Ross and the War of 1812. And before you fiction-only readers roll your eyes and click somewhere else, I’m telling you, this is one fun and fascinating read!
April’s Author of the Month: Dr. John McCavitt Featured Title: The Man Who Captured Washington Genre: Historical Non-Fiction Age Appropriate: 12+
Bio: A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Dr. John McCavitt completed his Ph.D. at Queen’s University Belfast in 1988. Besides writing a range of articles, he’s the author of four books, including Sir Arthur Chichester, Lord Deputy of Ireland, 1605-16, The Flight of the Earls and The Flight of the Earls: An Illustrated History. Most recently, he co-authored The Man Who Captured Washington: Major General Robert Ross and the War of 1812 with Christopher T. George from Baltimore.
His public speaking engagements have taken him throughout Ireland, as well as to Oxford and the House of Lords, Lisbon, Rome and Chicago. He’s also been invited to appear at prominent D.C., sites such as the Folger Shakespeare Library, the White House Historical Association, the Navy Yard and the Irish Embassy, along with the North Point Visitor Center near Baltimore. In particular, McCavitt’s lecture to the U.S. Capitol Historical Society on the British capture of Washington in 1814 was broadcast on American History on C-Span in August 2012.
Jeannette: I suppose the best way to start out this interview is with a personal confession.
I love history in general and pre-1830 American history in particular. Yet as far as I can remember, before I read The Man Who Captured Washington, I never once heard of Robert Ross – an all-around fascinating figure and someone who played an enormous role in a major U.S. moment.
I mean, we’re talking about the person who burned down Congress and the White House! You’d think I would have known something about him. But apparently not. Not until I spotted your book while doing research for my next historical novel.
So I’m very curious. How did you learn about Ross, and what was the major motivating factor that made you decide to write a whole entire book about him?
John: I live in his hometown of Rostrevor, County Down, in Northern Ireland. It features a monument that was erected to his memory in 1826, though that was allowed to become rather rundown until recent years. And even local knowledge about him was extremely limited.
I simply wanted to know more about this man, and I had the historical skills to do so. His career was a remarkable one in so many ways and in so many theaters of war that it was obvious there was enough to fill a book.
Jeannette: Okay, so other historians might not automatically recognize Ross either. That might make me feel a little better. Though I still think standard history books do students a major disservice not describing him at least a bit.
He was such a compelling character that this little patriotic American reader found herself rooting for him as he advanced against Baltimore in the fall of 1814. Not Rear Admiral George Cockburn, mind you. I really can’t stand that guy. My last historical villain, Sir Banastre Tarleton? Oh, I had a ton of fun with him. Cockburn though, not so much.
But again, I definitely found myself caring about Ross. As the author, how attached did you get as you researched and wrote about his life? And what was the aspect about him that stood out most to you?
John: As an author, you have to try to get into the mindset and worldview of your study – someone living over 200 years ago, in this case. That doesn’t mean you’re for or against him though.
For example, I described the subject of my first book, Arthur Chichester, as a man guilty of genocide. So I tell it as it is without fear or favor. The fact that Ross happened to be an officer and a gentleman – an amiable, witty, personable character whom friend and foe (for the most part) admired – does makes him a more appealing subject, of course.
I’ve since become great friends with his descendants here in Rostrevor. Visiting them during my research process, I came across a fascinating letter in a book in their library, which had never been seen by a historian before. It was written by an American officer who fought against Ross at the Battle of Bladensburg and was later wounded at North Point near Baltimore when Ross was killed.
The letter showed that this officer actually travelled to Rostrevor to pay his respects to Ross’s family.
Jeannette: That’s quite the statement about his character. You mention, of course, in The Man Who Captured Washington how he was a brave and fair commander with his own men as well. Actually, considering how he died, he was probably too brave.
I love the intimate backstory you were able to give Ross, describing his sense of humor and family life, personal doubts, and commitment to king and country. It makes for a truly great read – more like a novel than a textbook.
In order to accomplish something like that, I imagine your historical research has to be more in-depth than it otherwise would be. What was the process like? How did you go about collecting your sources?
John: No matter what style of book I write, I apply the most rigorous academic research and standards. But I think that some subjects lend themselves more readily to a broader readership. In those cases, it would be a pity to suffocate such fascinating topics in a writing style that would turn off most people.
In terms of the research process, it’s a matter of reading up on all the secondary literature, following leads to the primary sources they mention, and using skills honed over many years to eke out evidence that’s never been previously seen. That involved research trips to London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Dublin, and multiple trips to Washington, D.C.
We’re talking about processing tens of millions of words, then tailoring and tapering them into book form.
Jeannette: When you put it like that, it sounds downright daunting. Worthwhile and quite the adventure, but daunting nonetheless.
John: Well, in this modern digital age, I found Google Books to be a remarkable resource. So many highly specialized books and printed records can now be easily accessed online; whereas before, you would have to visit specialized libraries. Being able to search for online databases of American and British newspapers has also been an important breakthrough.
Jeannette: Yeah, I’m extremely grateful for the internet in that regard. I love buying up actual books – including yours – to read and mark up when I’m doing my initial rounds of research for a historical novel. But sometimes the nitty-gritty details are best found in original sources that aren’t so easily accessible outside of online collections.
I also imagine it helped that you live where Ross was born and that your co-writer lives where Ross died. Which brings me to my next question, this one about the collaboration process. How did you come to co-write with Christopher George?
John: I contacted Chris by email a number of years ago. We both were interested in writing a book about Ross and reckoned that we should pool our knowledge and skills. Chris had been working on the War of 1812 for some 25 years at that point, whereas I took the study up in 2008, having previously focused on early modern British, Irish and European history.
He and I have become great friends since then, and we’ve met up on numerous occasions both in Maryland and here in Ireland.
Jeannette: Well, I’m very happy you found each other, because the result is impressive – as the University of Oklahoma University Press clearly saw, since it published your joint effort.
You’re actually the first traditionally published author I’ve featured here. So I’m sure Innovative Editing readers and followers would like to know how you got your publishing contract in the first place.
John: It’s not easy, and making the first breakthrough greatly helps.
For my part, I chose a topic that was a wide open field – a hugely important era in Irish history on which very little had been published. My first book on Sir Arthur Chichester was described as a “model monograph” in English Historical Review.
After that, your reputation goes before you to some extent in terms of interesting publishers. That being said, academic presses apply very high standards and have your initial manuscript peer-reviewed by recognized experts in the field.
Jeannette: Sounds like quite the process, though I kind-of wish they would do something similar with fiction. I might get my money’s worth more often that way when I’m buying up novels.
That aside, do you have any advice or words of wisdom for other non-fiction writers who want to be traditionally published?
John: If you’re in it for the money, prepare to be disappointed. But if your project gives you a sense of personal achievement and makes a substantial academic or literary contribution, then it’s still worth it.
I wrote two books by the time I was 40 and thought it was time to give others things in life a go. I’m afraid, however, that my creative urge hasn’t been satiated yet; I think my brain needs to be engaged in highly stimulating research and writing.
Plus, you never know. some day your book might be made into a blockbuster film. I’m still waiting!
Jeannette: Maybe we can start a petition for the History Channel to pick up The Man Who Captured Washington. I know I’d watch it in a heartbeat! And I’m definitely looking forward to the new book I know you’re writing. Care to share the highlights?
John: I’m working on a sequel to the Ross book with Kevin Chambers, a colleague who works in the National Archives in London. We’re preparing a manuscript on the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.
We reckon that researchers haven’t utilized some 80% to 90% of British sources yet. This would be evidence that not only sheds light on the British side of events, but is also highly revealing in detailing what the Americans did.
For an American readership, this book will make for more palatable reading – since many of the men Ross led to attack Washington met their doom at the hands of Andrew Jackson and his “dirty shirts!”
Jeannette: I wish that included the irritatingly self-assured Admiral Cockburn. But I already know he went on to lead a long and distinguished life after the War of 1812.
And speaking of arrogantly destructive individuals, I wish I had room to ask you your thoughts about Andrew Jackson. Now, he was a piece of work! We’re running out of space though, so I suppose I’ll just have to wait to read your academic opinion on him when that New Orleans book comes out.
Thanks again so much for your efforts and insights! And for all of you Innovative Editing followers, I really do highly recommend The Man Who Captured Washington. It reads so well with such a strong plotline and vivid characters, you won’t even know you’re learning something along the way!
You can read more about John McCavitt and his works at www.theflightoftheearls.net, www.themanwhocapturedwashington.com and www.battleofneworleans.uk. While you’re at it, feel free to spread the word around social media for all of your history-loving friends – or just anyone looking for their next good book. You can find him on Twitter specifically @john_mccavitt.