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Interview with Paper Lantern Writer Mari Anne Christie

By Rebecca D’Harlingue
February 14, 2024

I found Mari Anne Christie’s novel, Blind Tribute, to be a fascinating and unique perspective on the Civil War. (I reviewed it here.) I jumped at the chance to hear more of Mari’s thinking on the novel’s background and history.

Rebecca: Mari, please give us a brief introduction to Blind Tribute.

Mari: Blind Tribute is about a famed newspaperman with conflicted loyalties during the American Civil War. The well-known Executive Editor of the Philadelphia Daily Standard has a long family history in the Southern states, so he is deeply conflicted and takes his conscience and ethics out on everyone nearby. The novel starts on the first day of the Civil War; by the end of the war (and the book), Harry Wentworth is a changed man, body and soul.

Rebecca: What prompted Harry to believe he could be effective as a centrist voice at the outbreak of the war?

Mari: Harry is used to being a man of some influence, who commands the ears of important men around the world, so not being able to influence outside events is something of a surprise to him. He is, in the main, a financial writer, so he expected (he would say quite reasonably) his readership would follow his counsel, if only to keep making money. And to be perfectly frank, he wanted very much not to have to pick a side between North and South. After growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, and leaving his family there, spending most of his adult life in the Northern states, he is understandably conflicted about the direction of the war. Being a centrist is not a comfortable position, but it is the only place that allows him to not decide one way or the other. Harry does a lot of courageous things during this book, but his centrism is not one of them.

Rebecca: As historical fiction writers, we all struggle with the dilemma of the relationship of our story and characters to actual events and real people, places, and groups. What criteria did you use in deciding how your fictional characters would interact with historical people and events? How did you decide to include Harry’s friendship with William Seward? Was it a difficult decision to include him?

Mari: Harry was an influential newsman, who had access to presidents, generals, and noblemen, so I felt like I had to show (not tell) some of those sorts of relationships. It made sense to me that he would interact with cabinet members in both governments, as well as higher ranking military men, and (in my short, “The Press Wrestles with the President”) even President Lincoln himself—other men at the tops of their respective fields. Harry needed to have some “intimate” relationships, which he clearly was not having with his wife or children, and it stood to reason that his contemporaries and friends would be well-known in their own right.

Harry’s relationship with William Seward is loosely based on a real relationship between Seward and a local newsman in Rochester, New York, Thurlow Weed, who came to Seward’s aid after a carriage accident in 1824. Weed later opened the [Albany] Evening Journal, which would become the most widely circulated political newspaper in America and would help Seward into state government. (Which, for the record, is not something Harry would ever do.)

Rebecca: In doing research for my novels, I sometimes came across a piece of information that not only informed, but even inspired parts of the plot. In your notes, you explain the historic situation of the barrier islands just off South Carolina, and how these islands would have provided a place for Harry to safely stay, at least until the Union troops withdrew. Did you come across this situation first, then realize it would be a good place to put Harry, or did you go looking for a place for him to shelter?

Mari: I have a long family history on Edisto Island, South Carolina, so the stories of the barrier islands are something I grew up with, and of course, that included the stories of the War Between the States. On November 7, 1861, the Union Army occupied South Carolina’s Sea Islands, headquartered in Port Royal. The white Confederates (my ancestors among them) evacuated the islands. This left the enslaved—approximately 10,000—to be the first freed by Union forces and the plantation houses to be occupied by the military and government (and, in the case of Blind Tribute, Harry). Harry has favors to be called in and the support of important men on the Union side, so when the Union takes the islands, Harry can claim shelter and provide work for a few of the formerly enslaved.

Rebecca: In your Author’s Notes you describe the many people who served as inspirations for your protagonist, Harry Wentworth. How difficult was it to mold all of those into one cohesive character?

Mari: That was remarkably easy, as it happened without my conscious involvement. Having “grown up” at the Denver Press Club and in journalism, it was probably inevitable I would at some point write about the news media, and that the “generations of gentlemen at the Denver Press Club bar” would influence the direction. I didn’t realize how much until after I had written Harry’s story (the first time). I did, in the second and third drafts, go back and add in particular personality traits or incidents from my history with my friends and mentors from the Press Club, but their initial inclusion was not planned.

As I was writing, I was primarily trying to model Harry on P.H. Whaley, my great-great uncle, who I really feel guided this project, in a mildly paranormal way. The start of Blind Tribute was a picture in my mind, of “Uncle Percy” sitting at a desk writing something and he never really left the room. (When it comes to the editorials in Blind Tribute, I will only claim to have edited them. The writing was very much his and automatic.) However, since he died seven years before I was born, it is not surprising that I would also draw from my real-life experience when writing a famous newsman.

Rebecca: Harry sees himself first and foremost as a newsman. How does the news media then compare to today’s?

Mari: Although partisanship is one of the hallmarks of our modern news media, our media environment is quiet on that front compared to the early 19th century. An argument can be made that it was newspapers that drove us into the American Civil War—and that the news media today is driving us in that direction again.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that we began to see ethical norms codified in the news business, and 1927 before the Federal Radio Commission (which would later become the Federal Communications Commission [FCC]) instituted the Fairness Doctrine to ensure broadcast stations did not present a single perspective on controversial issues of public importance. The Fairness Doctrine remained in place for 60 years.

At the beginning of the Civil War—much as now, but without broadcast journalism or the internet—if a man could afford a printing press and ink, then it was assumed he would use them to advance his own political views. Every political party had their newspapers to entice voters, and most newspapers were tied up with a political party to boost readership. Much like we now have Fox News juxtaposed with MSNBC, the political nature of the news media had an enormous influence on the general populace.

Rebecca: Did the Civil War’s influx of cash into the news business help or hinder the direction of the industry in the long run? What about advancing telegraph and railroad technologies?

Mari: The American news media would not be where it is today—for good or ill—without the money that poured in during the Civil War. Newspapers could suddenly afford exponential expansion, which only increased their influence, leading to further expansion. Newspapers (and their respective moguls, like Harry’s Publisher, Jim Calvin) made investments in advancing technologies, like the transatlantic telegraph, the transcontinental railroad, and ultimately radio, which begat television, which begat the internet. But at the time of the Civil War, even transatlantic steamships were a relatively new innovation. Finding and printing the story first drove an enormous amount of our communications infrastructure, an industrial undertaking the American newspaper business began during and after the Civil War. Harry pegs it in Chapter One when he is talking to his Managing Editor:

“Mark my words. This war is at home. No steamship delay on the death notices.”

Because the war was at home, newspapers could easily afford to send reporters to cover “the front lines wherever they may be.” The [New York] Associated Press had begun syndication of strictly nonpartisan journalism among a consortium of five New York newspaper in 1846, covering the Mexican-American War through a combination of stagecoaches, couriers on horseback, and telegraph wire (much like Wentworth and Hoyt’s later communication network around the world). By the time the Civil War came around, the AP claimed access to 50,000 miles of telegraph wire, a network Harry most assuredly would have been a part of, from his distant telegraph at Riverwood.

Rebecca: Harry repeatedly refers to the past wars he has covered as a journalist. When he is deciding to move to the South, you write, “He finally admitted to himself that, beyond the sense of destiny slowly enveloping him the past few years, he wanted – needed – to be closer to the weapons and the screaming, closer to the man he’d been the last time he’d gone to war. He might lose everything to do it, but he had been waiting a lifetime for a story only he could tell.” Please comment on his motivations here.

Mari: Not to put too fine a point on it, but Harry is experiencing something of a mid-life crisis. He wants to feel young and vigorous again, instead of being weighed down by his responsibilities. (He is on the verge of opening his own company, after all, even without the catalyst of the war.) He feels disconnected from his wife and children. And added to that, he has known for several years now, as the conflict between North and South has slowly reared its head, that he was the best placed person on the planet to comment on war—if and when it broke out. Finally, he sees the war as his last chance to make a mark as a war correspondent (as opposed to a financial writer). His move to South Carolina was 100% inevitable, no matter what he might have told his wife.

“But it should not go unsaid, as I prepare to go to war once more: were I the man hiring a newspaper correspondent to place at the center of this conflict—as I have many times before—there is no person on earth better suited to this job. By birth, by proximity, by training and expertise—by destiny, I daresay—there will never be a man better placed by history to bring you the information and context of this new American war.”

Rebecca: Has Harry ever been in love? Will he be? Is he a lovable person?

Mari: I suspect Harry once thought himself in love, with Alexandra Porcher, from whom he stole his first kiss under the live oak at Vista Point. But I doubt he has ever really understood the concept of romantic love. Even then, Miss Porcher would have been an “acceptable choice for a bride,” not truly a love interest, and he still had years of university to accomplish before he would have thought of marrying. As he says, “My mistress has always been my pen,” and work has been his most enduring relationship. “…he could turn his attention to the wife of his heart: the leather sack, his writing desk, and the work always waiting.” While I like to think Harry is lovable—he has many endearing qualities, honor and self-deprecation among them—he is decidedly not a cuddly man. He makes it hard to love him, mostly because he finds it difficult to be vulnerable.

Rebecca: How do you think the characters’ lives played out after the end of the book?

Mari: I actually know the answer to this question, because I started and abandoned a sequel called Lost Tribute, beginning ten years after the end of Blind Tribute. By 1875, after publishing several non-fiction books and expanding the Nebraska Star, Harry has died of natural causes, leaving a large piece of his fortune—and his decades of journals—to Billy O’Riordan and John Hoyt. During the ten-year span between the end of one book and start of the next, Billy spent his summers in Nebraska with Harry, and attended Oxford (like Harry) upon his graduation from the private high school Harry arranged in Blind Tribute. Ten years later, Bill has written a novel, his mother has died, and he is in no way prepared to be installed on the editorial staff at the Nebraska Star, nor to edit Harry’s posthumous biography. But with John’s forceful encouragement, and in deference to Harry’s memory and last wishes, he complies.

Rebecca: Thanks so much for your in-depth answers, Mari!

Intrigued? Here’s more about Blind Tribute:

Every newspaper editor owes tribute to the devil… Harry Wentworth’s bill just came due.

Freedom of the press is in peril. Families are torn apart by politics and principle. Opposing political parties manipulate the public in speeches, public meetings, and the media, grasping for votes and consolidating power. Foreign nations peddle influence in all directions to achieve their own ends. The struggle between citizens and government tugs at the threads of the American Constitution… and democracy itself. In a matter of moments, the United States will shatter, beginning the long march of the American Civil War.

Harry Wentworth, gentleman of distinction and journalist of renown, spends a lifetime of social and financial capital, exploiting his position as Executive Editor of the Philadelphia Daily Standard to try to arrest the momentum of both Union and Confederacy. To his sorrow and disgust, his calls for a peaceful resolution are worth no more than the ink he buys to print them.

Accordingly, he must finally resolve his own moral quandary: comment on the war from his influential position in Northern Society or make a news story and a target of himself in a Southern city he has long since left behind. His choices, from the first day of the war to the last, will irrevocably alter his mind, his body, his spirit, and his purpose as an honorable man.

 

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Rebecca D’Harlingue

Written by Rebecca D’Harlingue

Award-winning author Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women forging a different path. Her debut novel, The Lines Between Us, won an Independent Press Award and a CIBA Chaucer Award. Her second novel, The Map Colorist, won a Literary Titan Award and a Firebird Book Award.

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3 Comments

  1. MommaFoxFire

    Mari is not just a wonderful author, she is a wonderful PERSON! I wholeheartedly recommend any of her books, and generally anything that supports her efforts and work!

    Reply
  2. Dena

    Great interview. The questions invoked some good discussion about Harry and gave even more depth to his character. Mari’s answers showed she knew this character, from her past, her experience, and her in depth responses to the questions. I enjoyed reading Blind Tribute and this interview.

    Reply
  3. Anne M Beggs

    Excellent – Blind Tribute is such a great book! Sharing =—->

    Reply

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