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Historical Fact & Fiction February 27, 2013

Posted by Carolyn Burns Bass in commercial fiction, historical fiction.
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Author Timothy L. O'Brien in #litchatWhat relationship does historical fiction have to historical fact? The mere word fiction implies that the story is not true. Does that mean it’s false? Or does it only mean that the historical elements of the story are being told through an author’s impression of historical characters, imagined dialog and recreated events? How much latitude is acceptable for interpreting history through a contemporary lens? We’ll discuss these questions and more during Wednesday’s #litchat, then on Friday, Timothy L. O’Brien joins us to discuss his novel, The Lincoln Conspiracy.

Abraham Lincoln is a fascinating historical character. His life was rife with the dramas and intrigues that make good fiction. Shelves and more shelves are full of books about him, his presidency, his family, and his assassination. With so much written about him already, what can a contemporary author bring to Lincoln’s story?

The Lincoln ConspiracyO’Brien presents Lincoln and his assassination through a diverse and memorable cast of characters, some fictional, and some drawn from the pages of history. Leading the way is Temple McFadden, a detective with the District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Department. His wife, the beautiful and capable Fiona, and his good friend, the educated freeborn negro, Augustus work along side McFadden as he dodges bullets, deciphers code and pushes against powerful enemies. The story doesn’t grow from the point of view of the assassination investigation as one might suspect with a D.C. detective as the leading character, but begins several weeks later. John Wilkes Booth has already been assassinated and his co-conspirators jailed. What Detective McFadden discovers after he takes possession of a couple of diaries from a dead man is a wider conspiracy involving some of history’s most colorful characters.

O’Brien masterfully recreates nineteenth century Washington D.C. down to the dung-filthy lanes and avenues, the sewage-strewn rivers and streams, the expanding skyline and burgeoning neighborhoods. Students of history and Civil War buffs in particular will enjoy the cameo appearances of such historical dignitaries as outspoken abolitionist Sojourner Truth; the founder of Pinkerton Security, Allan Pinkerton; Secretary of War Edwin Stanton; renowned Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner, and George Armstrong Custer. The Lincoln Conspiracy is the first of a series of historic thrillers O’Brien is writing about the days following the Lincoln assassination.

O’Brien is the Executive Editor of The Huffington Post where he oversees all of the site’s original reporting efforts. O’Brien edited a ten-part series about severely wounded war veterans, “Beyond the Battlefield,” for which The Huffington Post and its senior military correspondent, David Wood, received a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2012. Previously, O’Brien was an editor and reporter at The New York Times, where he helped oversee a team of Times reporters that was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Public Service in 2009 for coverage of the financial crisis. The Times series that emerged from that work, “The Reckoning,” was also a winner of a 2009 Loeb Award for Distinguished Business Journalism.

Prior to becoming Sunday Business editor at The New York Times in 2006, Tim was an award-winning staff writer for the Times. Before returning to the Times in 2003, Tim was the senior feature writer at Talk, a magazine founded by former New Yorker editor Tina Brown. Tim was with Talk from 2000 until it ceased publishing in 2002. Before joining Talk, Tim was a reporter with the Times and, prior to that, The Wall Street Journal.

O’Brien has a B.A. cum laude in literature from Georgetown University, an M.A. in U.S. History from Columbia University, an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University, and an MBA from Columbia University. He has lived and worked in Europe, South America and Asia.

O’Brien is also the author of a biography of Donald Trump, “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald,” which Warner Books published in 2005. His previous non-fiction book, “Bad Bet: The Inside Story of the Glamour, Glitz, and Danger of America’s Gambling Industry,” was published in 1998.

Follow Timothy L. O’Brien on Twitter: @TimOBrien.

Storify archive of chat with Timothy L. O’Brien is here.