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Interview with Brian Feinblum about "The Middle Generation"

1. What inspired you to write this book?

I have wanted to write biographical fiction since watching Lincoln in theaters in 2012. I wrote The Eisenhower Chronicles while in law school. That book was structured like an HBO miniseries, allowing me to experiment and grow as a writer with each episode. Upon completing it, I wanted my next book to be of a similar topic so I could push what I’d learned even further. I chose John Quincy Adams because, like Eisenhower, he had a brilliant mind for foreign policy but was also a bridge between the Founders and Lincoln. I started researching him and, once I realized that the Monroe Doctrine, which he wrote as Secretary of State, was the winning chess move in his showdown with Europe over South American independence, I knew I had my story. I was all the more excited because Europe at the time was controlled by the Holy Alliance, a group of monarchies who kept the peace in the continent through force after Napoleon’s defeat. Their leader was an Austrian diplomat named Metternich, who was arguably the greatest diplomat in European history. That meant the story could be framed as a clash between Adams and Metternich, which interested me and, I hope, interests readers.

2. What exactly is it about and who is it written for?

It’s about Adams’ time as Secretary of State, from 1817 until 1825. This places it in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. Spain’s colonies in South America are fighting for their independence, and Adams hopes the US can take advantage of this by absorbing Florida and Spain’s holdings in the Pacific Northwest. Doing so would help secure control of North America and, he hopes, his victory in the 1824 presidential election. What unfolds is a multifaceted political thriller of Adams navigating a series of challenges and crises. First is his aforementioned struggle with Spain. Second is the Missouri Crisis, which threatened the Union and is when the North learns that the South won’t give up slavery willingly. Third is his climactic showdown with Metternich, which forms the core of the novel and culminates in the Monroe Doctrine. Last is the election of 1824, which pits Adams primarily against Andrew Jackson and which is famously one of the most chaotic elections in American history (some readers may be familiar with the notorious corrupt bargain). Another subplot portrays the pressure of being John and Abigail Adams’ eldest son, which distorts Adams’ personality, and for which he emotionally abuses his own family.

This novel is for fans of American history, especially those eager to learn about a largely forgotten crisis/era. I also think fans of political dramas with partnerships forming and breaking and with a lot of strategic calculations will have a lot of fun with this read.

3. What do you hope readers will get out of reading your book?

I hope they feel like they’ve stepped back into the early 19th century with all of its attitudes, sights, and smells. More importantly, that they’ve spent some time with John Quincy Adams, feel like they know him, his voice, his family, and his beliefs. He’s a far more fascinating man than I expected when I started researching him, and I hope I conveyed that.

I also hope that people who’ve struggled with overwhelming pressure to be successful will relate to him and know that even Presidents have shared such experiences. Finally, I hope that they learn a bit about the second generation of Americans and their conflict with the Holy Alliance that produced the most famous foreign policy document in US history.

4. How did you decide on your book’s title and cover design?

My original idea for the title was The Ballad of John Quincy Adams, mostly because I like musical ballads and I thought the name was pretty. But no one else liked that title because the novel is a fast-paced political thriller and so calling it a ballad didn’t make any sense. I liked The Middle Generation because it highlighted how the book focuses on the second of the three generations in America’s classical era that stretched from the Revolution until the Civil War. That generation is overshadowed by those two bookends, and so telling their story through Adams provided insight into an overlooked part of US history. I included A Novel of John Quincy Adams and the Monroe Doctrine to make clear both the book’s main subject and the fact that it’s a historical fiction novel and not nonfiction.

I primarily asked the publisher to include a chessboard on the cover to help convey that it’s a political thriller and not slow-moving or dull. Everything else I left to her discretion.

5. What advice or words of wisdom do you have for fellow writers – other than run!?

A writer needs the patience to build the experience necessary to produce quality work, both in their career and for individual projects. Remember what Hemingway said about first drafts. Part of learning what you’re doing is listening to feedback and studying the masters while still trusting your own judgment. Most writers who can persist this way will develop their unique voice and make their own contributions to the literary world. Similarly, I would say a writer must learn to focus on what they’re doing and ignore the outside world when it attempts to demoralize or distract them. Treat most such efforts as static noise.

6. What trends in the book world do you see -- and where do you think the book publishing industry is heading?

I think the single biggest trend of the past several years has been the atomization of the literary world. There are so many options and subgenres for readers to pick from that they can choose whatever they’d like regardless of cultural trends. This gives writers more room for carving out their individual niches and thereby earn an income from their work but also dilutes the readership and reduces the likelihood of future books entering the canon as classics. Has any American writer achieved such status since Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy?

7. Were there experiences in your personal life or career that came in handy when writing this book?

I’d gone to law school at my parents’ urging and found it to be a bad fit. That helped me relate to Adams as his parents demanded he become President, though of course his situation was far more stressful. But I appreciated how he felt obligated to please them while struggling to do so and I think other people who have experienced parental pressure will also relate to his journey.

I was also able to draw on my years of historical study. My college thesis was on how Charles de Gaulle inspired Nixon’s opening to China, leading me to read a lot of diplomatic history. I learned about Metternich and his role in defeating Napoleon and in shaping the Concert of Europe at that time. This allowed me to appreciate the threat he’d pose if I set him as the antagonist.

I also think that The Eisenhower Chronicles provided critical experience in writing biographical fiction. I tried something a little different with every chapter of that book. Two chapters were in the first person, a style I enjoyed more than I expected. That convinced me to write The Middle Generation in the first person, which fit the story well.

8. How would you describe your writing style? Which writers or books is your writing similar to?

Portraying the protagonist’s mind and personality as realistically and interestingly as possible is my top priority with each novel. I find the different layers of people’s psyches and how their conscious and subconscious desires collide to be endlessly fascinating. Conveying character arcs in this way is my main goal as a writer (think of how Walter White’s pride overrides his adherence to civic and familial norms in Breaking Bad, as an example).

Dialogue is my favorite type of writing and my books are full of it. I do my best to give each character a distinct voice so their conversations and debates are as interesting as possible and develop an almost musical rhythm.

I look to Ernest Hemingway as my role model for prose. I love how his writing is simultaneously accessible and sophisticated, especially the rhythm he builds by connecting various clauses with the word “and.” I also like Elmore Leonard both for his dialogue and his prioritizing his prose’s readability, even deploying fragments to make it smoother.

As The Middle Generation is a biographical novel, I would compare it to I Claudius, Wolf Hall, and Hamnet, but in the style I expressed here.

9. What challenges did you overcome in the writing of this book?

I wish I knew more about Adams before I told people I was writing about him! I had primarily focused on the twentieth century and so this novel required a huge amount of research. Most intimidating was his 51-volume diary. I would still be researching if the Massachusetts Historical Society hadn’t added a search engine that allowed me to target specific keywords and topics. I accumulated over 400 pages of notes that I looked at when writing every paragraph.

10. If people can buy or read one book this week or month, why should it be yours?

I believe that the best works of art are both entertaining and meaningful. An entertaining premise and story hooks the audience and moves them along and they exit remembering how its depth made them think or feel in ways they hadn’t previously. I wanted The Middle Generation to embody both of these qualities. It is a political thriller and moves at a fast pace. An important plot beat or twist occurs in almost every scene. The dialogue, though informative, is exciting, often explosive, and is the action driving the novel forward. But at the novel’s heart is a fascinating historical figure who I did my best to resurrect in all his hopes, ambitions, and contradictions. My hope is that readers not only learn about Adams and his era but, just maybe, themselves too by absorbing his struggle and journey. November 2023, the release month for this book, also marks the 200th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine, making it an excellent time to delve into the mind of John Quincy Adams.

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