Friday, March 13, 2015

Nick Korolev - author of history and fantasy with a political twist

I am honored to host Nick Korolev, an award-nominee historical novelist, educator, naturalist and animal rights activist.  His latest novel Storm Warning reveals some of the most gruesome secrets behind the slave trade.

NK: Your labeling of The Swamp Dragon intrigued me.  You described it as an adult / YA Civil War fantasy novel.  Civil War is not an era that is used frequently as a setting for a fantasy novel. I can see it being the backdrop for a Southern haunted mansion type novel, but not a fantasy.  I imagine, the process of writing that novel involved bending some rules.
MJN: Actually no rules were bent, except maybe reality.  There is a sub-genre of fantasy that is called urban fantasy which is a fantasy that takes place in the present like the popular "Twilight" vampire series.  What I did was throw it back to the Civil War. 

In the book's introduction a little history behind the idea is explained.  The state of West Virginia where the story takes place was born in the war - June 20, 1863.  It was once part of Virginia.  They were turbulent and dangerous times in the new state. Families broke up and every town had a different allegiance that could change.  There were a lot of Home Guard and Militia units both North and South.  In Hardy County, where the story takes place, the Union Militia supported by the new state was called "the Swamp Dragons".  I found this out from a new friend and fellow Civil War historian, Rick Byrd shortly after I moved to WV from AZ.  My imagination went wild.  WV has a famous monster known as the "Moth Man".  I decided to give them a new one, only he is the hero of the story. 

I first wrote it as a movie script that won the 2010 Appalachian Film Festival Best Screenplay and I turned it into a novel. The back cover blurb explains how the fantasy becomes a reality: "From the misty mountains and shadowy hollows of West Virginia a new legend arises.  It is 1863 in Civil War torn Southern Hardy County.  Beloved school teacher, George Voorhees becomes the unlikely hero after he joins the local Union Militia known as the Swamp Dragons at his brother's insistence.  When he is mortally wounded in an ambush by Luther Boggs, a vicious leader of a gang of Confederate bushwackers, Abigail his friend, local midwife and witch turns him into a real swamp dragon in order to save his life.  Overnight his simple life is shattered, and he is thrust into a perilous new world of destiny, magic and power.  With only Abigail's advice for guidance and the continued support of Sarah, the girl he loves, George must navigate the dangerous terrain of a suddenly unfamiliar world in a quest to end the reign of terror by a man whose evil knows no bounds." 

MJN: Your novel Storm Warning was nominated for the Michael Shaara Civil War Fiction Award.  That name alone is very impressive.  To have your name in the same sentence with Michael Shaara is a huge accomplishment.  I'm sure many writers would benefit from this information.  Can you tell us about the submission process to various contests?  What is the timeline?  I know there is a certain window that you have to be mindful of in order to qualify.

NK: Nominated by the publisher Storm Warning, which was just released, will be entered for this year the deadline being Dec 30 for books published in 2015.  The best place to find competitions is to do a search online or get one of the Writers Digest books that lists annual competitions for published books.  Some you need to be nominated others you just enter.  They are split by genre, the most common being crime, mystery, romance, historical fiction, poetry and short story collections.  Some have entry fees and some do not.  Most will NOT consider self-published work and the majority must be paperback or hard cover books.  Two to four books must be sent with any entry forms. 

MJN: You mention that one of your missions is to expose certain myths perpetuated by historical revisionists.  I almost feel like there should be a book about your book, detailing all the research.  Can you give me an example of what kind of myths still exist about the business of African slavery and slavers? 

NK: Though not exactly a mission, myth-busting ended up as part of the story and does need to get to the public interested in this dark time in our nation's history. This is a complex question that could take up a full blown article and whole books have been written on the subject of Civil War myths.  My answer will probably open a big can of worms with some readers.  To put it short and rather blunt, some people are still fighting the Civil War and have latched on to "The Lost Cause" mentality and are basically trying to rewrite history to make the South look justified in rebelling and totally kick the slavery issue under the rug.  This all started back in the 1930s with the Daughters of the Confederacy and the movie "Gone With the Wind" and has been mentioned in various articles in historic magazines and other publications.

Regarding just the African slavery issue they spout "States Rights" which was really their rich planters’ "Right" to own slaves.  The whole economy of the South from early colonial times was built on African slave labor for "King Cotton".  The U.S. Constitution initially allowed slavery where it existed with the provision of later enacting laws to abolish it.  These laws started to be put on the books in the 1790s starting with forbidding the outfitting of slave ships in U.S. ports.  Rarely in the history books you find in school these days is the fact South Carolina tried to secede from the Union during Andrew Jackson's presidency over the slavery issue and he threatened to send in the army.  They backed down until the "Fire Eaters" revived the idea to start their own country.  In 1843 Jackson predicted, "The nullifiers in the South intend to blow up a storm on the slavery question . . . be assured these men would do any act to destroy the Union and form a Southern Confederacy bound north by the Potomac River.”

There are several "revisionist" myths constantly perpetuated on slaving.  One being that all the ships were built, owned and crewed by New Englanders. That is wrong on several fronts and you find out quite fast when you dig into maritime history.  The bulk of ship building was in the North, but anyone can buy a ship and it is the owner or owners plus who is the master/captain, not where the ship is built that count in the argument. The first slaver captain captured was from South Carolina as was the owner of the ship.  As to those who insist on keeping with the ship origin argument, here is an interesting fact. The fastest and most preferred ships of slavers were Baltimore Clippers and they were built in Baltimore. 

The crews were always international.  This takes detailed explaining and has to do with international maritime laws about who could stop and search a ship, but the short of it was, international crews allowed the American captain and crew to get off free if stopped by the U.S. Navy or Revenue Cutters (Coast Guard) which started hunting slavers in 1800. A false flag and foreign crew with false ships papers would muddy the true identity of who was the owner, captain and crew with the American captain and crew claiming to be just passengers. 

The slave trade at the time the novel takes place 1860 - 1862 is feeding the markets in Cuba for sugar plantations with small numbers still being smuggled into the US through the Gulf.  Businessmen both North, South and European were involved in the trade which at that time was as lucrative as the drug trade today.  Shady deals for ships, supplies etc. were made in Charleston and New York.  Havana, Cuba was the port used since U.S. ports were closed to slaving by law.  Spain had made slavery illegal but bribed Cuban harbor officials looked the other way. 

There was a double standard in American society at that time.  Slavers were regarded as scum who perpetuated "man stealing" buying African slaves who were victims of the many intertribal wars in Africa and taking them back to the Americas in horrendous conditions.  Yet, slavery was regarded as clearly an economic issue and merely represented the preservation of a traditional, beneficent and time-proven social order good for owners and slaves that brought heathens to America’s shores and allowed them to embrace Christianity.

The major laws against slavery and slavers that are dealt with in the novel are the 1820 Piracy Act, which declared all slavers to be pirates and to be hung when found guilty and the 1842 Webster-Ashburton Treaty with Great Britain extending the anti-slavery piracy law in perpetuity and allowed the creation of the U.S. Navy African Squadron that was to protect U.S. Merchants from pirates and capture slavers off the west coast of Africa. Here is where another revisionist myth is disproved; the one that paints the South as a victim.  The fact is for the five administrations before Lincoln, the South held the bulk of power in the presidency, Congress and the office of the Secretary of War.  Though most took part in passing the anti-slavery laws, the Southern block's power was such that the 1820 Piracy Act was never fully enforced nor was the U. S. Navy's African Squadron properly funded and thus considered the worst failure in the U.S. Navy's history to that time. When you read the speeches of the Southern politicians and editorials of period papers as the conflict approached you quickly find the plans to reopen Southern ports to slavers, the intention to let the "peculiar institution" to spread into new territory and slavery plainly written into the Confederate Constitution.  Seeing a loss of power with Lincoln's election on an anti-slavery platform pushed the "Fire Eaters" over the edge to war.  Once the war started, the blockade as part of the North's Anaconda Plan went a long way towards stopping importation of smuggled slaves from the Caribbean. 

Much of what is mentioned above is the simplification of facts I found in research.  I used everything from biographies to non-fiction books on the U.S. Navy of the time including one on the African Squadron and one on the Gordon case, period newspapers, and the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.  Storm Warning being a work of historical fiction, I did not bother with a bibliography.  If the novel piques the interest of readers to look more into the history of that dark time in our national history, I regard that as a good thing.

MJN: You have some gorgeous and professionally done trailers that look almost like clips from History Channel documentaries.  Do you find them to be effective marketing tools?  I've seen some rather amateurish looking trailers. Do you think that no trailer is better than a sloppy one?

NK: Thanks for the compliment on my two book trailers.  I write the scripts and collect most the graphics and photos.  My friend who is a professional videographer does the rest and I have to get with him on a trailer for Storm Warning.  Trailers can be good marketing tools if you put the URL on your blog, website, FB page and press releases.  But, I have yet to hear anyone say, "Hey, I saw your trailer and bought the book."  My attitude is if you regard yourself as a professional, do a professional job in promoting your work.  And yes, no trailer is better than a sloppy one.  You have to pretend it is a movie trailer.  Plot out something hard hitting that would make the public want to read your book.  Think of it as a visual synopsis of the written one you used to hook your publisher.

MJN: Tell me about your job as a naturalist.  I know my son would love to meet you, because he is a member at the local Audubon Society.  Do you feel that children nowadays could use more education in that area? We are so high tech and so removed from the earth, we forget where things come from.

NK: Children and adults need to reconnect with nature.  It is the only real hope we have of saving the planet from those who wish only to exploit it for the sake of greed.   I present four or five nature programs a day that take in everything from bird watching, to looking for mushrooms, to imaginative ones like "Bear Necessities" - how to be a bear in order to understand them better, to night hikes to search for bats, owls etc..  I do the programming and create a weekly program brochure.  I also arrange for other programs to be brought to the park like the Three Rivers Birds of Prey - a man and wife team that do bird rehabilitation who bring in birds of prey that cannot be released.  I keep a mini zoo of small local critters and fish at our Nature Center.  These are caught every spring, pampered and released in September to get ready for winter.  Each lives in its own specially designed natural habitat. Guests also can get a hands-on experience in a creek ecosystem when we go on the Creek Critter Crawl into Howard's Lick to catch, study and release all kinds of aquatic small animals.  Kids and parents love that program.  The park is Lost River State Park in Mathias, WV. It is about 2 hours from DC and guests stay in cabins or come in on day trips.  It is an ideal place to get away from civilization and immerse yourself in nature.

MJN: Switching gears for a moment.  You mentioned that you are a cat lover like myself.  Tell us about your experience managing the cat division of a shelter.  How can you tell a reputable animal rescue group from a predatory/shady one?  I heard some unsavory things about ASPCA recently. 

NK: Over the years I have had various "day jobs" to support my art and writing.  When I was out in Sedona AZ I worked three years for the Humane Society of Sedona.  I basically managed the whole cat and kitten area because the assistant director was allergic to cats and the other hired help took care of the dogs.  It was a very nice shelter, supported by the community through donations and the town as we took in strays caught by the police.  I did everything from cage cleaning and feeding, to shots, medication, adoptions and lab work and also manned the front desk when cat room chores were finished. There were times I wished I could bring them all home and did adopt two. 

To judge good from bad shelters I would say check out any rescue group by visiting their facility if you can.  The place should be clean, well ventilated and well lit with the animals in good condition.  Kennel facilities must pass inspection in most states and certificates are usually posted.  Be wary of no kill shelters, because too many become animal warehouses. 

I have not heard anything about the ASPCA recently, but you must realize their local shelters are all individuals and some are not as good as others.  The group I do not like is PETA and have heard some bad things about them this week as to the amount of animals they euthanize and poor adoption records.  They also want to see service dog programs ended.

MJN: You mentioned that one of your day jobs is teaching.  Are your students aware of the other hats you are wearing? Or is it considered impolite to mention your literary works in a classroom?

NK: As a substitute teacher I work with kids of all ages in two counties.  They often ask what I do outside school so I tell them I am a writer and illustrator of books. Some get quite excited about it. I always get asked by the kids and sometimes the teachers to leave cartoons or some kind of drawing on the board, which I usually do.  One of a bear in a garbage can has been saved for two years!  The kids that know about my middle grade graphic novel series Log of the Worst Pirate in the Known World that is with my agent keep asking when it will be published so they can get a copy.  I keep an eye on what they are reading which helps me see what they are interested in reading.  I encourage them to read and use their imaginations, which is better than any video game.

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