Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Secret Life of George Washington: An interview with historical fiction writer, Tim Queeney

Today, I'm talking with Tim Queeney, author of the satirical "secret" history novel, George In London, which I just read for and will be reviewing in the next couple of days.


1) Tell us about your book.

George Washington made a brief visit to Barbados as a young man and never again left America. Well, that’s what the history books say. But an eighteenth-century manuscript discovered in the foundation of Mount Vernon changes everything. The manuscript tells of 19-year-old George Washington’s comic, picaresque 1751 trip to London seeking his fortune.

This isn’t George Washington the stuffy old founding father with the wooden teeth. He’s a young man still finding his voice. A younger son with no inheritance, George must make his own way in the world.

The newly discovered manuscript was written by George’s traveling companion, Darius Attucks, an African-American master mariner. Though an experienced sailor, Darius is barely older than George and not quite the man of the world he imagines himself. After saving George’s life in a shipwreck, Darius is convinced he has been tasked by Heaven to be George’s guide.

Darius and George join their patron, a German baron, and sell American land to wealthy Londoners. The well-connected baron promises George cash, a title and even a country estate for his efforts. Best of all, George wins the love of Sophie, a beautiful French countess. George’s expedition to London seems an utter success. What could possibly go wrong?

2) How did you come up for with idea for this book?

The idea of a previously unknown trip by young George Washington to London sprang to mind one day while reading a short biography of Washington. I hadn't known that he made a trip to Barbados with his older half brother Lawrence when he was 19. It suddenly occurred to me: what if he had met an aristocratic European who recruited George to assist him in a business venture in London? The story very quickly flowed from that idea. Sort of sprang to life full grown. But since it's a very simple, silly story, that isn't too amazing!

3) Despite the presence of George Washington, this is less a counter-factual exploration of hidden aspects of George Washington's life than it is a social satire of life and society in mid-18th century England. Why choose to have George Washington play such a large role in the plot?

Yes, the book is not a classic alternative history. To get technical, George in London is a "secret history." It does not suggest that George's experience in London changes history as we know it. What it does suggest is that the experience changed George personally and that influenced the way history played out.

As to why include George Washington at all, I was intrigued with the idea of young Washington on a London adventure. I saw it as a way to investigate what the young man might have been like before he became the famous dour face on the dollar bill — when still young and eager, ready to take on the world. It was fun to explore the popular view of Washington and some of the famous Washington stories like the cherry tree, throwing a dollar across the Delaware, etc. It was also fun just to have a famous central character.

The real George Washington was a younger son, which under the British system meant that he received very little inheritance when his father Augustus died. George's older brother Lawrence took possession of the Mount Vernon property. In fact, it was Lawrence who named the estate Mount Vernon, after British Admiral Edward "Old Grog" Vernon with whom Lawrence served in the Caribbean in the War of Jenkins Ear (1739 to 1748 versus Spain). With no other means of income, George had to learn a trade and he chose surveying. He worked surveying land, some of which was in the wilderness on the western side of the Allegheny Mountains.

Thus, in the novel, when the Baron Mowenholtz meets George in Barbados and learns that George has surveyed areas in the Ohio River valley, the Baron is pleased to ask George to accompany him and help in the business venture of selling land parcels along the Ohio to wealthy Londoners. For his part, George, who in real life was quite ambitious, jumps at the chance to make his fortune in the capital of the empire.

Incidentally, one reason I had George's sidekick Darius refer to George as "Geo" was to distance the George character from the historical George Washington a bit. So one could read the book as simply the story of a two young men seeking their fortune in the great city of London.

4) Why did you pair of a freeman African-American character, Darius Attucks, with a man whose family had more than a few slaves? Was this something you decided on from the beginning?

I wanted George to become allied with a mariner he met on the trip across the Atlantic from Barbados to the British Isles. When I first started to think of the story I wanted that sailor to be an African American. I was aware of African American sailors in the age of sail after conversations with my friend Lincoln Paine, a maritime historian who has written several non-fiction books, including the encyclopedic Ships of the World (Houghton Mifflin). Plus, I thought the tension between a freed slave and young George, from a family of Virginia slave holders, would add sparks of conflict to their relationship. It was also a way to explore the themes of freedom and race in American history. Not in a boring, academic fashion, I hope, but rather in a personal way, by how these two characters learn to accept each other and become friends.

5) As one of the Founding Fathers and the first post-Constitution elected president, George Washington has an almost sacred status among Americans. Did you ever worry about tackling, even in a humorous way, such an icon? Have you received any negative feedback because of it?

Here in Portland, Maine, stands the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow House, largely unchained from the Nineteenth Century. In the parlor of the house is a framed American print from the early 1800s depicting angels raising the body of the dead Washington to heaven. That idea of Washington as a secular saint continues to this day. It is not, however, detracting from all the things that Washington accomplished for the United States to admit that, after all, he was a human being like us, with faults and foibles. To realize that and to see him as less than some unfeeling demigod makes his accomplishments even more impressive, in my mind. And, of course, Washington the icon is far too big an operation to even notice a little novel like mine. I'm convinced GW's reputation is secure! I actually haven't received any negative feedback. Fiction readers are a smart and sophisticated lot, they see the book for what it is: a fun adventure.

6) This book is a fascinating mix of encounters with both fictional characters and actual historical personages. How did you decide which historical figures you wanted to include?

I wanted to include only those actual historical figures who were actually alive and could possibly have been in London in 1751. As for the actual figures, I knew that I had to have a meeting between the 19-year-old Washington and the 13-year-old Prince of Wales, the future George III. That was too juicy to pass up! Even though the book on the whole is a complete concoction, I tried my best to make the everyday details of London life at mid century as accurate as possible. A great aid to this was John Rocque's 1746 map of London which depicts every street and lane by name. This map was an excellent base on which to build up the details of what was the largest city of its day; a sprawling, growing metropolis of fantastic vibrancy, wealth and squalor.

7) Even if it would be difficult to exploit more potential "holes" in the life of George Washington, Darius could easily have more adventures. Do you have any more sequels in the works?

There are more holes in George's life to squeeze a book through than you might think! Yes, I have several sequels sloshing on the stove. The next George and Darius adventure isGeorge and the Mystery of the Pyramids. That one is on the way sometime in 2012. Thanks for your excellent questions!


If you'd like to read more for Tim, you can find him at his website at

George In London is available at Amazon and at Barnes and Noble. 


Debra Brown said...

Ah, George and the Pyramids. It makes me think of Agatha Christie, who traveled and wrote mysteries set in her travels. So, are you like Agatha and have you been to the Pyramids?

Tim Queeney said...

Thanks, Debbie. I'll take any comparison to the great Agatha Christie! I haven' t seen them in person, but I do carry a few green-tinged pictures of them around in my wallet -- they have a strange eye at the top! And a Latin phrase "Annuit Coeptis" which means "Heaven Favors our Undertaking" I'll wager you have some of these pictures too. Actually, my niece has lived in Egypt and is fluent in Arabic, so she'll help me a bit with the Egyptian details.

Anonymous said...

Great interview!!! Can't wait for George and they Pyramids! Sounds like so much fun!

Tim Queeney said...

Thanks, Tess!