When I get to Heaven, should my beliefs of grace and forgiveness actually allow me to reach the Pearly Gates, I’m going to look up my old Uncle JJ McBride, the Civil War soldier-ancestor whose life inspired my Honor Trilogy of novels. Uncle JJ endured three years of arduous, and in the end, futile and tragic warring--150 years later, my wife endured three years of my writing about his three years of soldiering.
I want to ask Uncle JJ straight-up if he read the books I wrote with him in mind. If his heavenly presence tells me he has read them, he’ll likely be laughing. Here’s a possible transcript of that conversation in Heaven, starting with JJ adapting one of the best repeated lines from HBO’s Game of Thrones series.
Uncle JJ: You seem like a pleasant enough fellow, and I do surely appreciate your remembering your old uncle. But the fact is about your books, You know nothing, Phil McBride. Things back then weren’t at all like what you wrote. All that stuff with me and Levi? He was slave. And me going to bed with a married Jewish woman? Really? Not to mention my making friends with the most famous Jew in the Confederacy. And that soldier who dressed like a man, but was really a girl. Come on, man.
Me: Well, Uncle, I was writing for an audience 150 years later in time. Things are different now. Readers expect different things from the good guy characters in the novels they read. People like a main character who has a good heart and is brave, but who also has a mischievous streak running through him.
Uncle JJ: Well, at least you made me a good guy. Not like that Samuelson fellow. I admit you created one bad hombre there.
Me: Uncle, I’m glad you appreciate the villain. What about the battles? And camp life? Did I do better there than I did with Levi and Faith?
Uncle JJ: Not so hasty, young fellow. I didn’t say I don’t like Faith. Hell, boy, I’m flattered you put me next to such a fine woman. Too bad she’s only a character living on the pages of your books. If she were a real angel, I’d look her up. As to Levi, well, we all wish not a single African had ever been brought in chains to the New World. And it was best not to think about who begat who back in my day. Anyway, I had more pressing matters to worry over than my body servant.
Me: Like the Yankees?
Uncle JJ: “Yeah, like them. You did right well with the battles, for a guy who wasn’t there, that is.”
Me: And camp life as a Civil War soldier?
Uncle JJ: Wasn’t so bad. Of course I was an officer and had Levi taking care of my needs.
Me: What about your two battle wounds?
Uncle JJ: Hmph. I wouldn’t recommend getting shot to anybody.
Me: If you could change anything I wrote about your character in my books, what would it be?
Uncle JJ: Well, in your books you left me in the fight until the end. I’m glad you did that. I hated not to finish the thing. I owed it to the boys to have been there with them that last long year.
Me: Thank you. But what do you wish I’d written differently about you?
Uncle JJ: Well, it would have been good if we’d won after all that killing and dying.
Me: I couldn’t change the outcome of the war in my books, Uncle. That’s not historical fiction. I could only fill in gaps where there’s no record of what happened. That’s why I could create Faith and have you befriend Judah Benjamin, but I couldn’t let Lee win the war. Now, is there anything you wish I’d written differently about you?
Uncle JJ: I wish you’d made me younger. You pegged the real live me pretty good with all that bleeding blister and bloody boot stuff. I was just too danged old to be marching all those miles month after month for three years.
Me: Thanks, Uncle. Let’s talk again.
Uncle JJ: I’m sure we will since we’re both on duty here for the duration.
Uncle JJ: The duration of eternity, Nephew.
Me: So there’s time for me to write another novel?