Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Author Q & A: Raymond Mulesky (Part One)

I reviewed Raymond Mulesky's book Thunder from a Clear Sky: Stovepipe Johnson's Confederate Raid on Newburgh, Indiana earlier in the week, and was interested in an author's view of Print-On-Demand (POD) publishing. Ray has graciously agreed to answer a few questions about his own experience.

DW: Before we get into publishing, I wanted to ask you about your central figure in Thunder From A Clear Sky and your website. You speak to this in your source essay to some extent, but, in the pantheon of self-serving memoirs, how would you rank Adam R. Johnson's The Partisan Rangers of the Confederate States Army as a source?

RM:(pictured at left) Johnson’s memoir is no doubt self-serving, but I’m extremely glad he passed it on to future generations. In my first read-through, I could barely digest the breadth of this person’s life. I found myself asking why America is relatively unaware of this man. However, when a researcher approaches any personal account as a source document for a larger work, I think he/she should proceed with care and skepticism. The written interpretation of human events is always colored by the cumulative experiences of the writer. To some extent, the researcher needs to become knowledgeable about the author of a first-person account before he/she can properly assess the approach taken toward that account. One of the most important things I’ve come to understand with almost any source document, and particularly with first-person accounts, is that “reality” and “truth” are personal. The sooner a researcher accepts this, the sooner one can get on with the business of placing the account in context and cross-checking the author’s facts and perspective.

At first I had no idea how accurate Johnson’s memoir was, so I decided to do some cross-checking on some verifiable details. The very first thing I checked became indicative of the author’s general method. Johnson says that on June 29, 1862, he attacked a garrison of Union troops in Henderson, Kentucky, and infers that he killed a lieutenant named Lyon. In my research of this event, I found that Adam Johnson did attack a Union garrison on that date, but he did not kill an officer named Lyon. He killed a lieutenant named George B. Tyler, which I was able to confirm through newspaper accounts and a letter describing his death written by Tyler’s commanding officer. This is how it goes throughout. Johnson gets the big picture correct but is shaky on timing and details.

After long analysis, my belief is that Johnson’s book is more a late in life, “stream-of-consciousness” epic than an attempt to stake claim to a strict, objective, accurate chronology. Partisan Rangers documents Adam Johnson’s truth in Adam Johnson’s way. He led a long life and was witness or participant to many important events. The book is about his life as he remembers it.

Adam Johnson’s memoir was written sometime during the last decade of the nineteenth century. I know that he met with his publisher for the first time in 1902, and the book was published in 1904. By that time, Johnson was nearing 70 years of age. Even with the best intentions, it is not surprising that a person trying to recall experiences forty years in the past would be able to remember the grand outline of events but make numerous factual errors. In the end, I used Partisan Rangers as a guide but grew to understand that many details were suspect. It was my Iliad in the search for my Troy. It’s a great place to start, but read with care.

DW: In a recent interview, publisher Ted Savas mentioned that he requires his authors to be proactive, part of which includes the creation of a professional website. After originally finding out about your book by chance from Amazon, one of the factors that led me to actually purchase your book was your website (a rather uncommon tool for Civil War authors at the time). Did your publisher encourage the development of your website or was the idea your own?

RM: The website, www.thunderfromaclearsky.com, was totally my idea. I thought it would be fun, useful, and a great learning experience for me. I knew absolutely nothing about establishing a website when I first started thinking about it in 2004. I didn’t know how to get a domain name, I knew zero about what it took to build a website, and I knew nothing about the software needed or about organizing content. Luckily, the Internet has all the answers, but it takes time, some money, and a bunch of patience. Everything I know about building a website is self-taught, and I’m still learning what it takes to establish a site that gets good traffic.

DW: Have you found the website to be important in terms of driving book sales?

RM: Yes, but not in the way some may think. I have links from my site to Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com and although things are trending upward, I don’t sell tons of books on those sites. However, many of my speaking engagements come from people who drop by the site and then email me with an invitation. Between speaking fees, the books I sell at personal appearances, and the contacts I’ve made, it has been well worth it. Plus, I’m a lot more Internet savvy now than I was three years ago, and that will be helpful with my future works.

[To be continued]

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