Authors: William Martin
Tags: #Suspense, #Fiction / Historical, #Fiction / Sagas
|Peter Fallon |
|Tags:||Suspense, Fiction / Historical, Fiction / Sagas|
Meet the Pratt clan. Driven men. Determined women. Through six turbulent generations, they would pursue a lost Paul Revere treasure. And turn a family secret into an obsession that could destroy them. Here is the novel that luanched William Martin's astonishing literary career and became an instant bestseller. From the grit and romance of old Boston to exclusive -- and dangerous -- Back Bay today, this sweeping saga paints an unforgettable portrait of a powerful dyansty beset by the forces of history...and a heritage of greed, lust, murder, and betrayal.
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They always tell young writers, “Write what you know.”
I never bought that advice, even at the beginning of my career.
I’ve always believed that you write what you
to know, or where you want to go, or who you want to meet when you get there.
So, in the opening chapter of
, I traveled to Federal-era Boston, to a banquet at Faneuil Hall, and I sat at the table with George Washington, John Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere. History records some of the details. I imagined the rest.
I had always been fascinated by the eighteenth-century city, a place of amazing intellectual and political ferment, a place where giants walked the streets. I had also just read Gore Vidal’s
, which suggested that those giants were as human as the rest of us, and I wanted to see if I could humanize them, too.
And why not? I was twenty-seven, recently graduated from the USC film school, and trying to get into the storytelling business. So I was learning everything I could from the movies I saw and the books I read. I believed that if I worked hard enough and honed my talents, I’d soon be making a living by telling my stories and humanizing a few giants, too.
Call that confidence or blind faith or the arrogance of naïveté. But any young person who decides that they are going to succeed in any of the arts needs it. They need to say to the world, “Don’t tell me the odds, because I plan to beat them.”
I can quote from memory the first paragraph of the first chapter of
. That’s how hard I worked on it, because I knew, even then, that I had to capture my readers right away, that the hardest
job for any writer is to make a skeptical reader turn the first page. So I brought a character named Horace Taylor Pratt right to stage center and started him fumbling with his snuffbox. I wanted you to fix on him, because even if you didn’t like him (and he’s not especially likeable), I wanted to tell you, before he even opened his mouth, that he would soon be causing a lot of trouble.
And characters who cause trouble, or promise to, can get a story going quickly.
After that first chapter, I knew I was on my way.
But what did I do in the second chapter? All right, I’ll admit it. I wrote what I knew. I took the story into the present and introduced a character named Peter Fallon, who might not be me but certainly made a good stand-in.
came out two years later, a critic said that it was not your typical first novel, which is usually a voyage of self-discovery for a young author. “On the contrary, this is a story of straight adventure spiced with mystery and laced with history.” Nice. Nothing like a little rhyme to fix a good review in a reader’s mind.
But if proving yourself is part of the voyage of self-discovery, Peter Fallon and I were both taking the trip. We both came from a Boston-Irish background. We both had gone to Harvard as undergraduates and done construction work to make a few bucks. We both had gone on to study something other than the law, which disappointed our fathers. I went to film school. Peter studied history. My father encouraged me despite his misgivings. Peter’s father did not. But we both wanted to show our fathers that we could use what we’d learned in graduate school to make our way in the world.
Like Pratt, Peter is a fictional character, so he gets into a lot more trouble than I do. He’s followed and threatened, but he doesn’t let anyone intimidate him. He falls for a girl who rebuffs him, but he keeps coming back. He has to fight hand-to-hand four stories above the ground, but… let’s not give too much more away.
As for me, I got to sit at a desk and dream it all up.
I started writing
in Los Angeles, in the stacks of the Doheny Library at the University of Southern California. I had written two movie scripts by then, both based on California
history. They were big stories on broad canvases, the kind of tales that had transported me from my only-child world in a middle-class Boston neighborhood to exotic and adventurous places where the vistas were long, the gestures were grand, the women were beautiful, and the men did their best to hide their flaws behind their bravery. Think of a book like Nordhoff and Hall’s
Mutiny on the Bounty
or a movie like
Lawrence of Arabia
and you get the idea.
One of my scripts won a fellowship given by Hall Wallis, the producer of classics like
. This gave me a measure of confidence, but no one wanted to turn my scripts into movies. Too much history, they said. Too expensive, they said. And my agent, puzzling over what director or producer she could submit to, actually muttered, “Too bad John Ford and George Stevens are dead.”
Then one day, a producer said to me, “The way you write, you ought to write a novel.”
And I thought, sure. I know how to tell a story. I can sustain a plot. I understand narrative velocity. I’ll just do it in prose rather than in that strange mix of imagery, stage direction, and dialogue that forms a screenplay.
That was the arrogance of naïveté, squared then cubed.
But before I even conceived of Pratt or Peter Fallon, I needed a plot hook, a reason to put characters in motion. And I had an idea that that had been germinating in my head since I was a kid. Writing it would take me, at least in my imagination, to the place that any Bostonian living in L.A. would be happy to visit: that ancient city of red brick and monuments.
From the time that my parents first let me ride the subways alone, I had wandered the streets of Boston, felt its rhythms, and explored the places where its history had unfolded. And I often wondered why they named the city’s most beautiful section the Back
. Where was the water?
I got the answer in a fourth-grade geography class:
It was said that Puritans arrived at the Shawmut Peninsula in 1630, fell in love with it, and promptly began changing it. They cut down the hills and dumped them onto the surrounding flats to create new land, culminating in a massive nineteenth-century project that covered a huge marsh, washed twice a day by the tides,
in a layer of sand and gravel twenty feet deep. This marsh lay to the west of the city, or behind it, so they called it the
Bay. And after it was filled, the architects went to work.
In the 1950s, our teacher told us that beneath the basements of those fine, old buildings you could find things that people had thrown into the landfill a hundred years before—trash then, archaeological treasures today. What, I wondered, if there were
buried treasure in that landfill? Twenty years later, when the movie producers didn’t want my screenplays and I was not interested in returning to construction work, I wondered again.
The broad contours of the novel came quickly: it would be a two-century search for a lost Revere tea set that may have sunk into the Back Bay. It would encompass two stories set on converging tracks, one past, the other present… as if I didn’t have enough challenges telling just one. But remember the arrogance of naïveté: if a single plotline was good, two would be twice the fun. It would be another big story on a broad canvas with plenty of big scenes—battles, sinking ships, subway chases—the kind of set pieces that drew me as a screenwriter. But there would be intimate moments, too, because any good story is about characters who reveal themselves through their small gestures and silences as well as their actions. And while human characters like Pratt and Peter Fallon would drive things, the city of Boston itself would be the main protagonist.
has now been in print for most of the last thirty-two years, an eternity for a work of popular fiction. And Peter Fallon is still appearing in my novels, getting into trouble, getting out of it, and guiding us book by book through American history.
The enduring popularity of this novel has been attributed to many things: its unusual structure, in which past and present play off of each other with a contrapuntal rhythm that enhances both; its pace, because the conflict advances as quickly as the years fly by; its characters—Pratt and Peter Fallon and the rest—who know what they want and go after it, all else be damned. But I think that the book has lasted because of what it tells us about ourselves.
I’ve often imagined how green and peaceful the Back Bay must have looked on an August afternoon in the eighteenth century, with the westerly breeze stirring the grasses and riffling the water,
the redwing blackbirds and swallows flitting about, and some eel fisherman working a spear in a tidal stream. I’ve also imagined how sinister it must have seemed on nights in the nineteenth century, with the wall of landfill advancing from the east, the wet surface of the mud glistening in the moonlight, and the scavengers going about their business. I have even wondered what would happen if those Puritan descendants tried to fill the Back Bay today. Would the Environmental Protection Agency shut them down over destruction of wetlands?
As the Puritans’ City Upon a Hill evolves before us in these pages, as the flats are covered and modern Boston rises, we see how much of our world is a product of the past, how intricately and intimately our lives are tied to our ancestors’ dreams and decisions—some of them wise, some foolish, and some as grandiose as the plan to fill a square mile of marsh, then build a mini-Paris on top of it.
We can thank those ancestors or blame them. But we should always learn from them before we move on.
That’s what Peter Fallon does. So return with him to old Boston, a place that for him was both familiar and fresh at the same time, because I wrote what I knew about Boston in the context of what I wanted to know about it.