Tuesday, August 22, 2017

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Carl R. Brush, Author

Carl R. Brush, Author
THE YELLOW ROSE - co-author
Carl R. Brush writes historical thrillers. His villains are real villains and they are quite scary. Reviewers say, "Great characters, suspense, and thrilling action-packed scenes." He sets his stories in the past because he feels a need to detach his “writing self” from “contemporary turmoil.” But he believes his themes of racism, political corruption, and oppression can be applied to the contemporary world.

Three of his novels—BONITA, THE MAXWELL VENDETTA, and THESECOND VENDETTA—track a fictional family from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s in the San Francisco area. His fourth novel, THE YELLOW ROSE, which he co-wrote with Bob Stewart, is set in Texas during the 1836 Texas Revolution.

Brush lives in Oakland, California with his wife. They love to travel and enjoy their grandchildren. When he’s not traveling, playing with the grandkids, or writing, Brush plays the saxophone with an amateur jazz band. His sequel to BONITA is awaiting publication; and he is working on the sequel to THE SECOND VENDETTA. 

Q: Why do you write historical, as opposed to contemporary, thrillers?

Carl R. Brush: How did you know to ask me the same question I’ve asked myself many times?

I answer me that matters of murder and justice are just as “thrilling” in nineteenth and early twentieth century America as they are today. But that’s a justification not an explanation.

 I live and breathe and function just fine in the twenty-first century, so, why don’t I feel so comfortable about writing there as well? I believe my writing self needs a detachment from contemporary turmoil. It’s more fun for me, for example, to write about people experiencing automobiles as a rather scary novelty than to create a modern car chase.

Furthermore, though I’m in a different time zone, I do explore contemporary issues in my tales. Such “modern” subjects as racism, political corruption, and oppression, fit just fine into a setting a hundred years or more in the past. Amazingly, every “modern” conflict you can name was alive and kicking “back then” as well as today. And it thrills me somehow to write about the folks who lived amidst those conflicts that were long ago and far away, but, paradoxically, are just as alive here and now.  Long answer to a short question, Joyce, I hope your readers stuck with me all the way.

Q: You write historical thrillers with scary villains and brave heroes and also characters based on real people. How do you mix “real” people with “fictional” characters?

Carl R. Brush: Cf. my answer to the first question. Although it’s important to stick to basic biographical facts about a historical character, you start with the notion that he or she was human with all the impulses and fears and hopes that drive anyone alive today. Then you examine the actions they took in their historical situation and ask what that reveals about their character. Hundreds of clues that there await. For example, what sort of person would issue an emancipation proclamation, but wait so long before doing so? What sort of person would spend his whole life promoting and supporting Jim Crow, then turn around and champion the most comprehensive civil rights legislation in history? Neat questions, huh? What better writing prompts?

Q: The three books, BONITA, THE MAXWELL VENDETTA, and THE SECOND VENDETTA are part of a series that tracks a family from the mid 1800s to 1910. Is the story based on a real family? If so, how did you first discover them? If not, how did you create them?

Carl R. Brush: The Maxwell family is essentially my own creation, though they contain elements of my own family’s history. My great-grand parents came across the plains on a wagon train in 1864 just as Andy Maxwells grandparents did. They settled in northern California, though nowhere near the Maxwells’ Circle M. I attended college at Berkeley, just as Andy did. I have a familiarity and affection for both San Francisco and the Sierra Nevada, so setting my story there was a natural inclination.

The similarities, however, pretty much end there. My ancestors were small time farmers rather than big time ranchers, and they had neither great wealth nor political prominence. I wanted a larger canvas than my rather pedestrian family background provided, so I made my protagonist’s father a cattle baron with political influence and ambitions. Thus, it became natural for the story to move back and forth between the Sierra and the city, between the rural and the urban. Plus, for the back story, I could step into history and the founding and formation of California and the American west and all the attendant glory and agony. Lots of fun.

 Q: BONITA has been described as a book “for those who love history from a woman’s perspective.” Why did you decide to write a story about a woman in the 1800s? How were you able to develop her character—was there much research already done, or did you have to piece together your character and her actions? Was she unusual for her time?

Carl R. Brush: Ooh, so many wonderful questions do you ask. I could spend days and days and pages and pages. But relax, I’ll keep it short. Or shortish.

Why  a woman? Well, I like women, especially strong women. I married one, as a matter of fact.

Bonita’s character was in my head before I even began writing. American frontier women don’t get enough attention in either fiction or history even though their role was as influential as that of men.  A quick Google will reveal I’m right about that.

Only someone with Bonita’s impetuous, headstrong personality could conquer the obstacles she faced on her way to becoming an independent female in the mid-nineteenth century. The novel enters her life when she is twelve, when she finds a way to accompany the Rancho Sausalito vaqueros on a night time mission to rope grizzly bears. I didn’t find it difficult to discover where her character gave her both victories and troubles as I developed the story.

Her story did, however, require substantial research because she was born in 1830, when California was a sparsely-settled frontier. The population of San Francisco, née Yerba Buena, was only a couple of hundred in 1842 when the novel’s action begins. The state’s “European” inhabitants were primarily Mexican ranchers and Spanish missionary priests. Bonita’s story, though, follows her through the Mexican-American war, the gold rush, and into the era of California statehood, when the population exploded. I found ways to include her in such prominent bay area families as that of Captain William Richardson and Mariano Vallejo and into contact with a number of other historical figures like John Frémont. Thank the heavens for Google or I’d still be researching rather than writing.

Was she unusual for her time? Yes, but she was not alone. From former slave, civil rights activist, and entrepreneur “Mammy” Pleasant to Lawyer Clara Foltz to architect Julia Morgan, the women who played lead roles in California history is long and amazing.  

I could go on, but . . .

Q: Reviewers praise the mixture of adventure in the past with your ability to “explore racial tensions, discrimination, corruption, and exploitation.” Did you intend to reveal the issues of a particular time period in order to instruct contemporary readers about such issues or did you include them to draw a faithful and complete picture of the time period?

Carl R. Brush: I did not intend to offer 19th century incidents to illuminate modern issues. Not exactly. The issues are right there staring at me. I’ve had a lifelong interest in history, and when historical events merge in theme with modern ones, well it all just happens naturally.

Q: You co-authored THE YELLOW ROSE with Bob Stewart changing your choice of setting from California to Texas. What made you decide to travel to the Lone Star State?

Carl R. Brush: Bob invited me. I resisted. I knew nothing about Texas history beyond “Remember the Alamo!” He was a Texas native who had lived in San Antonio his whole life.  What could I offer to such a project? However, he insisted, and I’m very glad I relented. It was a fresh and exciting world, those few months of the 1836 Texas Revolution. How many of us know that Texas was the only state that was a nation before it was a state? Not to mention the joy of discovering the woman behind the song, “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

Thanks, Bob, for inviting helping me aboard the train. It was quite a journey, and I miss you.

Q: The use of everyday items and events from the era as back story can help support a story. Do you integrate some of these items to develop a more intriguing plot? How do you choose what to include?

Carl R. Brush: I mentioned above showing peoples’ reaction to the novelty of the automobile. That was a natural item to include because transportation is a crucial matter in every era, and a major change in modes thereof makes for big changes in peoples’ lives. It also helps create plot complications. The horse can do things the auto can’t, and vice versa, so who has one versus who has the other can be pretty entertaining.

Dress is another natural, useful item both for plot and character. For example, Dressing up a “tomboy” like Bonita in an elegant gown with appropriate hairstyle gave her some fits—that damn corset!—but was necessary to advance her transformation into a successful career woman, which was the whole point of the plot at that point.

Q: How useful is humor to create your characters or develop your story?

Carl R. Brush: I’m not a leave-‘em-laughing kind of writer. One-liners elude me. However, I think I create some humor that warms up the story and creates smiles. One such involves that automobile again. The Maxwells faithful and ever-present servant is a Chinese fellow named Ling Chu. He’s traditional in all things, being, for example, an avid practitioner of acupuncture. But guess who introduces the Maxwell family to the automobile despite their resistance. Who lobbies to use it for every trip from the ranch into town? Who takes care of it as if it were a baby? Who becomes the official Circle M chauffeur? Yep. So, doing triple duty, the Model T serves as a character variation for Ling Chu, gives the reader a chuckle, and creates some plot variations.

Q: What’s next and when?

Carl R. Brush: I just completed a sequel to Bonita that takes her to New Orleans to uncover her parents’ background and solidify her claim to her daughter. That’s awaiting publication. I’m now working on a sequel to THE SECOND VENDETTA, so I’m re-immersed in the world of Andy, Many Clouds, and their two “adopted” children.

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

Carl R. Brush: My world’s a busy and pretty happy place these days. I have six grandkids, four of whom live within a mile. Actually, three of them live within a mile, since one is about to leave for Wesleyan in Connecticut and who knows after that? We see the other two from time to time.

We travel a lot. I have a niece who works for USAID, and we like to follow her to her various international postings. The last one was Jakarta a few months back. What a revelation that was. In addition, we generally go abroad each year to check some country or city off our list.

 My wife is from Louisville, so we visit there a couple of times a year.

I play sax in a little amateur jazz combo.

I read. I walk. I give thanks for my (so far) good health. 

About Carl R. Brush by Carl R. Bush

I’ve been writing since I could write, which is quite a long time now. I grew up and live in Northern California, close to the roots of the people and action of three of my historical thrillers, MAXWELL VENDETTAand its sequel, THE SECOND VENDETTA, which take place in 1908-10 San Francisco and the high Sierra. The third of the trilogy, BONITA, is set in pre-gold-rush San Francisco. A fourth and fifth in the series are on their way.

For yet another historical tale, THE YELLOW ROSE, I made a literary jump from California to Texas, where my co-author, the late Bob Stewart, dwelled. It’s a tale of the Texas revolution and an imagined affair between Sam Houston and a legendary mulatto woman, Emily West, who is best remembered as The Yellow Rose of Texas.

I live with my wife in Oakland, California, where I enjoy the blessings of nearby children and grandchildren.

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.

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.


Meet Bonita. Often reckless, often victimized, a deeply spiritual person who transforms herself from
a rebellious adolescent into a prominent entrepreneur.

When we meet her as a twelve-year-old in 1843, her future looks idyllic—a privileged life on a hacienda overlooking San Francisco Bay. But her penchant for eavesdropping and her feisty willfulness wreck everything. She learns that she’s not who she’s been told she was. True to her rebellious nature, revealed in the beginning when she sneaks out on a nocturnal adventure to learn how to rope a grizzly bear, Bonita strikes out on her own to discover the truth about her heritage.

Along the way, she becomes immersed in the swirl of historic events that surrounds her—the Mexican-American war, the gold rush, California’s drive for statehood. An intense romance both complicates and enhances the quest. 

Her search and its discoveries create fresh challenges, challenges she meets with the originality and boldness that by that point we’ve come to expect of this extraordinary woman named Bonita.

Check out the extraordinary trailer

About THE YELLOW ROSE - Co-author with Bob Stewart

Historically, “yellow rose” was a term for a pretty mulatto woman. Also historically, the original Yellow Rose of Texas was one Emily West, and her story is intertwined in song and legend with the Texas Revolution of 1836. That series of battles, led by Sam Houston, made Texas a republic, its own country, a historical event unique among our fifty states.

THE YELLOW ROSE is set during the revolution and supposes that Emily and Sam not only collaborated in certain incidents that gave the Texans victory, but became romantically involved in the process.

The novel mixes legend with fact. No one knows for sure if our Emily met Sam Houston or if she participated in the revolution at all. On the other hand, no one has proved the contrary. So, THE YELLOW ROSE asks the question: what if. . . .

Here’s a link to a trailer: https://youtu.be/MfW8qLOxgow


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Author Links
Twitter:  Carl R Brush @carlrbrush

1 comment:

  1. Terrific interview of a terrific writer and just one truly genuine person. I miss Bob, too, Carl.