‘Forward To Camelot’ ~ interview with Susan Sloate and Kevin Finn

What drove you to write ‘Forward to Camelot’; was it to get at the truth or simply that it would make a good story?

Susan: This was definitely something I was driven to do. On some level the assassination has been part of my deep consciousness all my life (I was six when it happened), and after seeing Oliver Stone’s JFK the desire to write about it just burst out of me—specifically, the desire to go back and keep it from happening. I don’t think we ever thought about getting at the ultimate truth—though we did research in depth, and I think we found a lot of truth there; but to me, the more important truth was finding a way to save the president through the confines of what we knew—all the danger, all the fear, all the forces ranged against him.

Kevin: I don’t think there is any way we’ll ever know the full truth about who did what or why.  I was really in this for the story, since a treasure a hunt for a rare artifact linked to the most memorable day of the 20th century is a great hook.  More so, I grew up with the JFK legacy and always saw him as larger-than-life, a great leader who had incredible character in the time of crisis.  The chance to write about him and explore that character close-up was also a big reason for taking on this project.

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How many weeks did you spend on research before started to write? 

Kevin: Oh, we wish it were only weeks of research!  Susan and I spent almost four years researching Forward To Camelot, all of it done in the days before the Internet. We did phone interviews, tore through newspaper archives, read almost every book on the assassination we could find, spoke to historians and key figures of the day.  We were determined to have our facts right, and most importantly, we needed to know as much as possible about the historic figures we were using as characters.  We had to understand JFK, Lee Oswald, Jackie Kennedy and LBJ as PEOPLE before we could properly use them as characters, otherwise our readers wouldn’t be emotionally connected or invested in the story.

Did you go to Dallas during the research?

Susan: Yes, I’ve been to Dallas several times, and met Marina Oswald and others who were involved in these events. I was in Dealey Plaza in 1993 on the day they dedicated it as a historic site. To this day, whenever I’m in Dallas I always go to Dealey Plaza, to pay my respects.

Kevin says: For this edited version, I went to Hyannis in Cape Cod, where the Kennedy’s grew up.  It was surreal, this small summer town that hasn’t changed very much.  I felt as if any moment I would see Jack and Bobby Kennedy walking down the street or to the small church where they worshipped. It was both an eery and inspiring aura, something I’ve never felt before or since.

How easy it for two writers to work on the same novel? Where you e-mailing each other or both in the same room?  

Kevin: Susan and I both lived in New York when we began developing the concept, so at first we were together often. Susan moved to Chicago and I also moved, so after that it was a lot of extremely long hours on the phone talking plot, story and character.  The creation of email made things so much easier but we were already well into the process when that happened.

There are good and bad things about writing with a partner.  When you’re both going good, things are easy and sometimes one partner can carry another if they’re having a bad day.  Then there are days when you’re both spinning your wheels but suddenly one good notion can turn a bad session to great one.

The hardest part of collaboration is for one writer is to give up creative control.  There may be two writers but there can only be one voice. Since we had a female protagonist, it was a natural choice Susan would be the final voice.  So you have to know going in that at some point, everything you do will be re-written and maybe cut if it doesn’t fit that voice.   The same applies to choosing plot or story. Whoever has that voice is going to have the final say.  There has to be someone to break the ties and there are no referees in writing.  Neither partner always gets their way, and coming to a creative compromise can trigger battles.  They happen in the best of partnerships.  The most emotional scene in ‘Forward To Camelot’ was the result of the most hard-fought, months-long creative conflict Susan and I have ever had.

Did you write a treatment or a plot outline for Forward to Camelot?

Susan: We had to, for this book. Though I like flying by the seat of my pants for most novels, the plot for this one was so complex and we had such a stringent timetable to adhere to that we needed the safety net of a well-planned outline. We had characters moving all over the place, and we had to be sure of who was where at all times. We also had many plot points to tie up. The outline was a must but it took Kevin and me a couple of years just to get that done. We went over every single step of the story and character development before we wrote a word of the manuscript.

Had you decided how your story was going to play out or did your characters’ choices change as you did the research?

Kevin:  Our characters’ choices changed as we’d write.  We’d write something or consider a plot point, then say ‘wait, that can’t happen that way‘ because it would conflict with something we’d already written, didn’t ring true to the character, or quite often conflicted with the actual history of the time.  We stuck to actual history and timeline as much we possibly could and that mantra often restricted character choices or plot decisions.  In the end it paid off, for the blending of fact and fiction is almost seamless.

Who was the most difficult characters to write?

Susan: By far, the toughest characters to write were President Kennedy and Lee Oswald. We found in our research that they were both elusive men; they weren’t easy to know, even though we had photographs and film and audio footage of both, along with hundreds of books and articles. We were truly trying to write them as they were, which was made more difficult by the contradictory accounts we read. It was especially interesting that people who met Lee Oswald casually or knew him apart from the assassination all said more or less the same thing: he was polite, well-spoken, well groomed and intelligent.  Only people close to the assassination in some way painted him as violent and crazy.

With JFK, revisionist historians have essentially told us he was shallow, soft, a product of his family’s PR machine, a serial adulterer and more. Except for the adultery, the rest is so not true. But if you can make him look worthless, then why does it matter how he died?

It’s especially interesting how much alike JFK and Oswald were. They were both avid readers, thinkers, passionately interested in politics, dominated by a parent (Oswald’s mother, JFK’s father), ex-military, involved at some point in ONI (JFK during WWII, Oswald during his military service and probably afterward), both in unhappy marriages but genuinely loving fathers. If they’d ever met, I think they’d have liked each other, and in our story, they do.

6 – Had you worked together before starting this novel? 

Kevin: We’d worked together as screenwriters and shared a great sense of story, so we were always comfortable working up ideas as a team.  Our writing styles compliment each other well, where Susan is strong on characters and I’m strong on action or emotional beats.   Our devotion to story always carries us; if something doesn’t work for the story, we won’t use it.  That’s an unwavering rule for each of us individually and as a team: if it doesn’t work for the character or the story, it doesn’t work at all.

Did you split responsibilities 50/50 as you wrote? Did one of you write while the other chased research? 

Kevin: We split the research evenly, and sometimes we’d overlap each other as far as what we’d discover.  For the early drafts, Susan worked mainly on character & character scenes while I handled the development of the action sequences, like the rescue at Love Field, the time travel concept and the final scene in New Orleans.  I tend to write more thrillers and action-based sequences, so this was natural for me.  While Susan did the yeoman’s work of actual writing and re-writing to maintain a singular voice & style, I took on the burden of editing when it came time. So each of us had a turn at the main chair in addition to the elbow to elbow work.

‘Forward to Camelot’ was first published in 2003; you have rewritten it for the 2013 edition. What, if anything, did you change for the new edition? Did you unearth new research?

Kevin: Shortly after original publication, we learned the true whereabouts of JFK’s Bible, the artifact that triggers the entire story.  The Bible had been secreted away among President Lyndon Johnson’s personal possessions and wasn’t discovered until after his death.  An offer to return the Bible to the Kennedy family was declined, so the Bible now sits on display in the Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.

The odd caveat is that through all our hard work and research at the Kennedy Library, The Library of Congress and countless other sources, no one could tell us where the Bible was.  Seeing our missing treasure featured as part of a trivia question on the game show ‘Jeopardy!’ was a bizarre but hilarious ending to our quest.  We address this in more detail during a new Afterword in Forward To Camelot (50th Anniversary Edition). That was the major piece of information added to the new edition.

The writing is a fast paced style which doesn’t hang around each scene too much. Do you write all your novels like that or did you adapt your style to the story?

Susan: Every story demands its own style, though I believe in keeping things moving, no matter what genre you’re in. This is true of my love story, ‘Stealing Fire’, and my self-help novel (co-authored with Ron Doades), ‘Realizing You.’ You know what your point is, get to it quickly and get on to the next one.

This summer, during the revision of ‘Camelot’, Kevin helped enormously by telling me I tended to write everything twice, and he was right: I did it once for setup and then again for dramatic effect. Just eliminating all that unnecessary repetition did wonders for the pace of the book.

Kevin: I’ll always write ‘long’ for an early draft of a script or novel, just let the writing flow and whatever comes out on paper, so be it. Editing is a strength for me, honed from screenwriting and long days in production, where video & film editing creates a whole new perspective on trimming a story. While many writers nibble or prune at their work and consider it ‘editing’, I’m able to look at a piece objectively, then cut and slash without losing any of the story’s core or flavor.  As Susan often hears me say, ‘we can’t drain the swimming pool with a straw.’   So it’s really a process for me, writing, cutting and re-cutting until everything is lean and tight.

Any tips for new writers embarking upon a historical novel? 

Susan: Have a working computer and a good Internet connection—research is key to writing a great historical. Use as much fact as you can, and only invent fiction when you have to. We found amazing bits of history no novelist had ever used before, just because we were willing to keep plowing. The more you let your subject lead you, the better your novel will be.

Kevin: Do your homework. Research is vital.  You’ll find great pieces of history or character you can use to flavor the story, and make the reader feel as if they’re really part of the time you’re writing about.  True facts can also be great doorways into your fiction; For us, Lee Harvey Oswald never met JFK, but uncovering the little-known fact that Kennedy was protected by firefighters in his hotel on the night before his assassination (his Secret Service detail had snuck out to a local bar for a few drinks) provided the chance to bring Kennedy face to face with his would-be assassin.  With the facts supporting the fiction, it became plausible and we made it believable. Be wary, though, for two reasons:

You don’t want to use so much historical fact that your story bogs down or loses it’s edge completely. Nancy Bilyeau (“The Crown”, “The Chalice”) is great at blending fact with fiction into her narrative. Susan and I made the conscious choice to stay as close to factual history as possible in the plotline, and frankly it drove us nuts.  We always made our fiction fit the facts, but there were some bouts of sheer madness trying to make the pieces fit and still be logical.

Your first duty is to the story.  Never let the facts get in the way of a good story; take creative license when you must so long as it is not too far-  fetched. Accuracy will help people learn about the era or people, but ultimately novelists are storytellers first, not historians.

The Warren Commission into the assassination of JFK is 899 pages. I suspect you didn’t plough your way through every statement?

Susan: The Warren Report is pretty much a lie from beginning to end, so we didn’t spend much time on it. What’s important about the Warren Commission is the amazing data they gathered and published (some of which directly contradicts their own Report). In addition to the Report, the Commission also published 26 volumes of supporting documents. Those documents are gold. The Commission pretty much counted on no one ever reading them, but people did, and their doubts about the lone-assassin theory just grew and grew.

Researchers have found tons of amazing evidence in the exhibits, including the fact that Oswald was taught Russian in the military—but as he was a radar operator, why would he need it? (The fact that Oswald later defected, supposedly on his own, and lived in the Soviet Union for two years, is some huge coincidence? I think not.)

How about the testimony of Bobby Hargis, the motorcycle cop who was riding to the left of and slightly behind the presidential limousine?

At the moment of the head shot, Hargis was hit on the right side of his helmet with blood and brains so hard he thought for a second he had been shot. If he was behind the president and to JFK’s left (and it’s in the Zapruder film), and the fountain of blood sprayed at him from the right front, then by the laws of physics, the shot itself could ONLY have come from the right and front as well (ie, behind the picket fence on the Grassy Knoll). That proves there had to have been a 2nd shooter; all that is in the Warren Commission exhibits.

Kevin: Susan told me the Warren Report was one of the greatest works of fiction ever produced.  I skimmed some pages and decided she was right.

Review of the book here:

https://slateone.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/forward-to-camelot-by-susan-sloate-kevin-finn-review/

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Ron Taylor, November 2013

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