Monday, November 16, 2009

Mormonhermitmom's Interview with Mark Shurtleff, author of Am I Not a Man?

I had a chance to pick Mr. Shurtleff's brains a bit via email. My thanks to him for taking the time out of his busy Senate run to chat!

If your current run for the U.S. Senate doesn't work out, do you have any plans on writing more books based on Supreme Court cases? For instance, Plessy vs. Ferguson or Brown vs. Board of Education?

I’ve found that I enjoy writing so much that whether I win or lose the Senate race, I will continue writing (usually late at night.) I am interested in writing more historical novels based on famous cases but I have begun work on the incredible true story of an experience I had while serving as a JAG officer in the United States Navy. I represented a Chief Petty Officer who was charged in a General Court Martial of wearing unauthorized medals (including silver and bronze stars and purple hearts) and refusing a direct order to remove them. His claim was that he earned them in secret combat operations in Laos during the Vietnam War. Because those missions were still classified top secret, his military record did not include those awards.

The case became one of intrigue, suspense and ultimately murder of one of my witnesses, as I delved into the mysteries of top secret military actions and the terrible price paid by many of the men and women who served in that conflict. As I traveled to the Pentagon and met with officials, veterans, and POW families, my own preconceived notions and “my country right or wrong” attitude I had grown up with, began to change. The book is entitled An Apostrophe to Nam. The title and theme of the book are taken from the famous soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Hamlet that has been called “An Apostrophe to Man:” ‘Oh what a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world - the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me.”

What was the first book you remember reading on your own as a child?

I read a lot as a child. I can’t remember the very first book, but in third and fourth grade I became very interested in a series of history books called “I Was There …” I remember liking the war stories like “I Was There at Pearl Harbor” and “I Was There at the Battle of the Bulge.” In fifth grade I loved a book called “The Fighting Prince of Donegal,” and read it over many times. I also totally got into “My Side of the Mountain” and imagined myself as that boy living in a hollow tree in the forest and surviving off the land. I next got into Edgar Alan Poe and Ray Bradbury and in junior high totally fell in love with J.R.R. Tolkien. In junior high I also joined the Military Book Club. My fondest memories of summer (beyond swimming in Pudding Pond, tubing Nickel Ditch, camping at Big Rock, playing Sandlot baseball and cooking Mulligan Stew in a coffee can on a fire next to my fort,) was running to the Bookmobile every Thursday afternoon.

Where did you have to look to find details about Dred Scott's life beyond extant court documents?

A lot of books have been written about Dred Scott but almost all of them focused on the case and its significance (although most missed the importance of the case to the election of Abraham Lincoln.) What little was written about his life was contradictory. So I went to Southampton County Virginia and looked at old court documents and records to learn what I could about the Blow family which helped me get to the most likely truth about where Dred was born and grew up. I wanted to experience the rivers and forests and cotton fields that Dred experienced. I searched lots of records to try and find a location for the Blow’s Olde Place Plantation, but was unsuccessful. I finally found an old map that listed a dirt road called Olde Place Road in the area where the plantation was rumored to be, and spent some time out where Dred was born and grew up. Not a lot has changed in 200 years.

I then traveled to every place he had lived and tried to do much of the same. I visited the wild Tennessee River, Huntsville, Alabama, St. Louis, Missouri, Rock Island, Illinois, Davenport, Iowa, Ft. Snelling, Minnesota, and Corpus Christi, Texas. I learned a lot when I got to know and interviewed Dred’s great, great granddaughter Lynne Jackson, and listened to the family lore. All of this research helped me focus in on the most likely truth of all the disparate tales and I believe that I have written a more accurate portrayal of his life than anything that has ever been written before.

What was the last book you read? Who is your favorite author/s?

I needed an escape and so quickly read Dan Brown’s new novel The Lost Symbol. Just before that I finally finished War and Peace which has been sitting on my nightstand for a few years as I slowly made my way through it when I couldn’t write another word on my novel. I love and have read most of the works of Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, James Michener, and David McCullough. Finally, this might sound weird. but I also love Stephen King. His tales are horrible, but I just love the way he writes. The man knows how to tell a story!

On an unrelated note: What's your favorite dessert?

My mom’s peach cobbler (with a little milk on top.).


  1. But what happened to Chief Petty Officer? Did he have to do jail time for wearing the medals or did they let him go? Did he continue to wear the medals. I think they should have let him have them.

  2. Robyn! You are really amazing. You should monetize this blog. You do author interviews!!! For heaven sake get sell some of your work!


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