Friday, June 28, 2013

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Historical Thriller Author Carl R. Brush

Carl R. Brush, Author

Carl R. Brush writes historical thrillers set in the San Francisco area – a location I truly appreciate. (My own books are set in the modern-day San Francisco area). He has just published THE MAXWELL VENDETTA, a prequel to THE SECONDVENDETTA, one of my favorite historical thrillers. We fans enjoy his really bad villain, reluctant hero, characters drawn from real historical figures, and themes still relevant in today’s world, like bigotry, corruption, and large companies exploiting little guys.

Carl is a retired English/Drama teacher and school administrator who rediscovered his alto saxophone and has been playing in a senior jazz ensemble they’ve named the geezer band.  He is working on his third historical thriller in the series set in the San Francisco area in the mid-nineteenth century. 

This is Carl’s second contribution to this blog. You can read his earlier guest post “Turning Real People into Characters” here

Q: Why did you decide to publish a prequel, THE MAXWELL VENDETTA to THE SECOND VENDETTA?

Carl R. Brush: Sounds kind of backward, doesn’t it, to publish the prequel after the sequel? That’s how my life often goes. I wrote THE MAXWELL VENDETTA first, started shopping it around, and garnered a nice collection of “So sorry,” notices. In the meantime, I tried a couple of other projects which generated little enthusiasm either at home or abroad, so I went ahead with the sequel, which I’d planned to do “sometime.” That became THE SECOND VENDETTA. When Solstice Publishing accepted it, I reworked THE MAXWELL VENDETTA, applying suggestions that Solstice Editor-in-Chief, Nik Morton, had made regarding THE SECOND VENDETTA, which brings us up to today. Not the way I designed the process, but I guess someone else in the great somewhere redesigns the original design, and not always intelligently, if you ask me. But she doesn’t ask.

Q: How do you make events from the early 20th century relevant to today’s world?

Carl R. Brush: Easy. All the central conflicts in both THE MAXWELL VENDETTA and THE SECOND VENDETTA could be ripped right from today’s headlines—Individual and institutional racism; corporations brutalizing us commoners; political corruption; media manipulation; romance, requited and un-. Sound familiar? The thing is, you set these issues down in a historical context, and they suddenly look different and somehow fresh. Many of my readers have commented about how interesting and surprising it was to think that folks in long skirts and high collars struggled with our same uglies. Interesting, yes. And both discouraging and exhilarating to think how little we’ve solved or changed.

Q:  I admit I’m biased. I enjoy exploring history through characters and their experiences. How do you build your characters in an historical setting so that they appeal to readers?  Are they based on real people?

Carl R. Brush: I think the process of building characters is pretty much the same for any genre of fiction. For your main people, you imagine folks who interest you, set them down in nasty situations, and see how they react. Do they turn tail and run? Attempt to fight their way out? If so, do they fight fair? Do they succeed or fail? How do they handle the results either way?

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever got (Credit: author Les Edgerton) was to put your characters, especially your protagonists, in fixes from which you have no idea how to extricate them. You learn a lot about both the characters and about yourself working through those. To me, writing your way in and out of these crises, is much more valuable than an outline for deciding how the story goes. And a lot more fun. I know one great example from a book you might recognize, Joyce, called ON MESSAGE, in which a certain lady finds herself in big trouble and makes ingenious use of an undergarment. I won’t give anything else away, because if they haven’t already, I advise your readers to dive right into that terrific novel and find out what she does with what.

As for the idea of basing characters on real people, some of my characters, especially in THE SECOND VENDETTA, are not only based on real people, but were actual historical figures. Ambrose Bierce, for example, really was a prominent writer of the period. Hiram Johnson did win the 1910 CA governorship. However, I admit I made only a moderate effort to research and recreate their personalities. This is fiction, after all, not biography.

I make no conscious attempt to base my fictional characters on real people. After the fact, however, I see resemblances between my protagonist, Andy Maxwell, and myself; and there are strong parallels between his mother, Carolyn Maxwell, and my own mother: Strong, decisive, often narrow and opinionated, compassionate when it counts.

Q: One of your reviewers described Yellow Squirrel as “one of the most delicious villains I've seen in a long time.” I concur. They don’t come any “badder.” How did you create such a villain?

Carl R. Brush: I wanted a guy who had a strong and believable motive for getting even and who wouldn’t give up on it. As I wrote, though, I realized I needed another dimension if the notion that this guy would keep his resentment alive for decades was to be believable. After all, other people in his family had suffered the same injustice he had, but had moved on. I dove into his psyche and realized that he is someone who lives to intimidate and destroy. It’s his fulfillment in life. Whether it’s as inconsequential as forcing people off a sidewalk on a downtown stroll or as felonious as slaughtering a whole family, domination and destruction are his raison d’etre.

That idea of fulfillment through annihilation, I think, gives a positive (in his mind) base to his evil actions and makes him more interesting than your melodramatic mustache-twirling villain who’s bad just because. On a more philosophical level, I see Yellow Squirrel as a personification of evil itself. Many folks have said of Milton’s Paradise Lost that the Devil is the most interesting character. Where would storytelling be, after all, if we had only angels to talk about?

Q: How important is the concept of a villain to creating suspense and, for that matter, to defining a hero?

Carl R. Brush: As I’ve said elsewhere, there are many wonderful novels that have no central bad guy. Wendell Berry’s fine works have no such characters as far as I know. Kate Atkinson’s latest, Life After Life, is the most recent example I can point to. As for me, though, I need my bad guys front and center.

Yellow Squirrel (I hope) creates dramatic tension in both my Maxwell novels whether he’s in a particular scene or not. I give him his own chapters, but even outside them, his threatening and intimidating interactions with characters other than those he intends to destroy mean that those characters carry his presence with them everywhere. Thus, danger, in the seen or unseen presence of Yellow Squirrel, lurks behind every page the reader turns. At least that’s what I intended.

As to Yellow Squirrel’s effect on our hero, he’s the foil, the forge, the crucible that defines Andy. Andy’s a reluctant hero, drawn into a role for which he considers himself unfit, but a role no one else can fill. And it’s a role crucial to the survival of his family and many others besides. The story is about how he learns to build and develop a part of himself he didn’t know existed. Without Yellow Squirrel, he’d have never discovered that element of his character at all.

Q: Did you write these novels to entertain or to enlighten readers about the history of the period?

Carl R. Brush: Both. Sam Johnson said literature should edify and delight. That impulse comes from being a teacher all those years, I guess. Or maybe becoming a teacher came from the desire to edify and delight.  I do hope readers will pick up some of my love of the time and place as well as some knowledge about it. It’s why I love reading historical fiction myself.

Q: How did you become interested in San Francisco/California history?

Carl R. Brush: That seems to be just part of my DNA. My great grandparents came to Northern CA via 1864 wagon train. My natural inclinations and abilities were always literary and verbal rather than mathematical and scientific. When I was growing up in a rural part of the Sacramento Valley, San Francisco was my city on the hill, my escape goal from small-town monotony. My interest has never flagged, so here I am.

Q: What’s next?

Carl R. Brush: I’ve just finished drafting a third novel in this group. The working title is Bonita, and I’m working backwards again. It’s set in a San Francisco of the even more distant past, a time when the town was still called Yerba Buena.  Unlike the other two, this covers a dozen years (1842-54) instead of a couple of months. The Maxwell part of it comes in the form of a cameo appearance by the patriarch of the other two books, Carter Maxwell, who’s referred to but never actually comes to life in either work. The working title for this one is BONITA, which is the name of the heroine, a 12-year-old (when the book opens) who discovers that she’s not, after all, the niece of her guardian uncle, a prominent figure in the area, but a waif he’s treated as nearly a daughter since she was an infant. It’s quite a switch of protagonists for me, and it’s a wonderful adventure. My beta people think she’s a neat character, so I’m encouraged. I believe BONITA is even better than the Vendetta’s, but I also believe you should believe that your best creation is the one you’re working on now.

Q: Tell us something about Carl Brush. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Carl R. Brush: I’m a lucky guy. A retired English/Drama teacher and school administrator, I live in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, with my wife, Susanne, who blessed me with three stepchildren, who, in turn, blessed us with six grandchildren. Four of them live within a mile of us, ranging from 3-14 in age, so we do a lot of taxiing and babysitting.

I had a rural upbringing by a dad who was raised on a small farm, and an uncle who was a foreman on a couple of ranches. The family spent many vacations hiking and fishing around the Sierra. Thus, though I can make no claims to some of the skills my characters possess, I have some acquaintance and experience with those who do. On the other hand who among us has personal experience with the centuries past about which we choose to write?

A few years ago I picked up my long-neglected alto sax and joined a senior jazz ensemble we call the geezer band.

Susanne and I do a fair amount of traveling, and we plan to keep at it as long as our health allows us to endure airports and long plane rides. We’re headed for the UK next month.

Publishing my own novels was a lifelong goal, so holding that first paperback in my hands was and is a super thrill, and I’m grateful to you for this opportunity to talk about how it got there. Thanks for the insightful individualized questions.

About Carl R. Brush

Carl Brush has been writing since he could write, which is quite a long time now. He grew up and lives in Northern California, close to the roots of the people and action of his historical thrillers, the recently-released The Maxwell Vendetta, and its sequel, The Second Vendetta. A third volume of the trilogy, set in pre-gold-rush San Francisco is nearing completion. Its working title: Bonita.

You can find Carl living with his wife in Oakland, California, where he enjoys the blessings of nearby children and grandchildren.

Journals in which his work has appeared include The Summerset Review, Right Hand Pointing, Blazevox, Storyglossia, Feathertale, and The Kiss Machine.  He has participated in the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Tin House Writers’ Workshop.

Early California, 1908. Andy Maxwell sets out to solve the mystery surrounding the stabbing death of his younger brother outside a San Francisco bar.  He’s certain the murder is part of a vendetta against his family, but frustration and suspense mount as he fails to convince authorities that the killing is anything more than the sad consequence of a brawl between a pair of drunks. The police, the U.S. Army, even his mother refuse to entertain the possibility that the killer, Michael Yellow Squirrel, is one of a clan who intends to wipe out the Maxwells and their California Sierra Nevada ranch.

Andy’s quest for the motives and perpetrators behind the scheme carries him from California to Wyoming and deep into his family’s pioneer past and psyche, where he unearths disturbing secrets about, among other matters, his own racial heritage. It also plunges him into a romantic dilemma involving a blonde debutante and an Arapaho princess. Although Andy’s initial purpose is to foil a conspiracy against his family, his journey eventually leads him to question not only his own values, but also those of the frontier that spawned and nourished them.

This historical thriller, the prequel to another gripping historical novel, THE SECOND VENDETTA, is set nearly one hundred years in the past, yet THE MAXWELL VENDETTA embodies themes as contemporary as racism, political corruption, and sexual exploitation. In short, contemporary America mirrored in a novel of early California.

Not again.

It’s taken Andy Maxwell two years—1908-1910—to help his family recover from the vendetta that nearly killed his mother, burned their Sierra Nevada ranch house, and exhumed some long-buried family secrets—including the fact that his father was black. At last, Andy thinks, he can return to University of California and pursue his history doctorate in peace.

Not so.

First of all, it turns out they don’t want a miscegenated mongrel in the Ph.D. program. Just when he’s enlisted the eminent San Francisco journalist, Ambrose Bierce, to help him attack that problem, it turns out that marauder who started all the trouble in the first place didn’t stay Shanghaied. Michael Yellow Squirrel is back for another try at eliminating every last Maxwell on earth. So much for school.

And then there’s the election.

Reform gubernatorial candidate Hiram Johnson wants him to run for the California legislature and help foil the railroad barons.

And then there are the women.

The debutante beauty and the Arapaho princess.

So, how is Andy Maxwell, going to deal with all these quandaries? The Second Vendetta answers that question and many more with a tale-telling style that pulls readers into the book and doesn’t let them go till they’ve turned the last page, wishing there were more yet to turn.


Book Links
Available in e-book and paperback at, (, and other outlets

from Solstice Publishing available on Amazon and at Solstice Publishing

Author Links
Twitter:  Carl R Brush @carlrbrush


  1. Joyce--Thanks for the opportunity and for the handsome presentation of the interview. I'm embarrassed to notice a missing question mark in the text, but on the whole I'm pleased at the result for your excellent questions. thanks again.

  2. Hi Joyce and Carl,
    This is a great interview. Thought-provoking questions, particularly the one about the villan-hero relationship.

  3. I found your great blog through the WLC Blog Follows on the World Literary Cafe! Great to connect! I'm at

    I'm looking forward to picking up some tips from the blog.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.