Recently, I interviewed James Redfearn about the 1919 Boston Police Strike and its impact on the city of Boston and the nation as a whole (listen here). Jim wrote a novel, The Rising at Roxbury Crossing, based on his research.
Sometimes a recorded interview doesn’t provide enough time to answer all the questions I have. I really wanted to discuss how Jim researched the police strike and then transferred the factual information into a novel. In this special Post Script Jim provides insight into his work.
Post Script Interview with James Redfearn
MPL: Why did you decide to write fiction rather than non-fiction?
JR: I decided to write “The Rising” as fiction after I realized that the Boston Police Strike really is an Irish story as well as a Labor story. Once I realized that history had presented me with two great events (The Boston Police Strike and The Irish Rebellion), occurring in 1919, it seemed natural to merge one into the other because of similar themes. It also allowed me to fold my grandfather’s story into the history and gave me greater freedom to breathe life into the dynamic historical characters. Both events are about Power and the struggle to maintain Power as well as Order and the breakdown of Order. Willie Dwyer is the link between the two events and he is caught in their vortex. Willie is Everyman trying to negotiate his own dilemma so that he can take a stand. The story asks the reader, if in Willie’s shoes, where do you stand?
MPL: One thing you did on your journey in creating this book was to get a degree in writing from the Harvard Extension School. Why did you decide to do that and how did it impact the shape of your final work?
JR: I always had a latent interest in writing, but held off from pursuing it because of other life commitments. When I retired from the state police and went to work for the Boston law firm, I decided to dip my toe into the water to see if I really did have an interest. I registered for a course at the Extension School, enjoyed it and was encouraged to “keep working at it.” Because of past experiences with other pursuits, I felt that I needed to enter a structured program. I entered a writing-intensive graduate program and earned a master’s degree in Literature and Creative Writing. (Personal Note—one of the best things I have ever done and recommend it highly). The discipline and work ethic that was required and learned to successfully complete the degree program was instrumental in writing a four hundred-page first novel.
After you retired from being a police officer you worked for a law firm where, amongst other things, you taught how to do research using public documents. Can you tell us a bit about this and why few people are aware of how much is available?
During my career with the state police, I conducted many cases where knowledge of the public record was important to prove my case. In my last few years as a trooper, I was assigned to an Asset Forfeiture Unit, which developed cases to seize and forfeit the assets of large narcotics’ distributors. With time, I developed an expertise in locating information through searches of the public record and was asked by my superiors to instruct other troopers. Eventually, I prepared lecture material and was invited to speak to federal, state and local agencies about this resource. I continued to gives these lectures at Law Enforcement conferences during my time at the law firm.
Like other pursuits, this knowledge that I acquired was through necessity. Most folks are unaware of the information that is out there about them because they probably just haven’t thought about it. At one time, I taught that the holder of the greatest number of personal records was the Government. But I believe today that Corporate America knows more about ordinary folks than anyone. And here is the interesting thing—much of what Corporate America knows comes from us and that we give up private information about ourselves every day in our day-to-day lives.
In The Rising at Roxbury Crossing, Detective Nolan uses his knowledge of the public record to identify the owner of a Boston warehouse. He finds records at the Suffolk County Registry of Deeds and the Secretary of State to learn that the property at 356 Necco Street is owned by Bradford Henshaw.
MPL: You researched the police strike with the intent of writing a novel. How did you go about researching the historical facts of the story? What resources did you use?
JR: I tackled the history first and the more I learned the more I realized that I was discovering an American tragedy. It was a story just waiting to be told. I had the benefit of reading Francis Russell’s non-fictional account, City in Terror. However, he didn’t use footnotes and provided a limited “Selected Bibliography.” I was able to use references in his narrative to track down original sources. He wrote his book in 1975 and so had the opportunity to speak with some of the original strikers. I did not, but did obtain anecdotal stories from strikers’ families.
The Boston Police Strike has been studied over the years as an important and significant event in the context of Boston and American Labor history. Consequently, there are many sources of information related to it. But I found that much of it is repetitious, often covering the same material. My reason for writing the account as a fictional story was to make the event come alive—to put a face on it.
Other resources included: “Nineteen Nineteen, The Boston Police Strike in the Context of American Labor” by Zachary Schrag; Boston Police archives; Boston and national newspapers; private papers of Stephen O’Meara, Commissioner Curtis and Mayor Andrew Peters available at the BPL Private Collections; 1919 map collections at the BPL and the Bostonian Society; Biographies and other subjects related to the 1919 society were researched at the Widener Library at Harvard College; Period photographs from Historic New England; History books for Ballinasloe and Ireland. I interviewed and obtained copies of dissertations from two Professors of History on the subject, Irish-American Nationalism, which was promoted by the Catholic Church in Boston in 1919. And of course I used the web to point me in the right direction on several occasions.
MPL: How many books do you think you read as background research for the novel?
JR: I have 22 listed in my “Sources Cited” and I probably read another 2 to 4 that I didn’t use.
MPL: When writing this piece of historical fiction how did you make the decisions about what to keep as factual and what to create as fiction?
JR: I established the historical timeline-frame first and then wrote the fictional story within the frame, not really changing the general facts of the case. Obviously, there were many more meetings and correspondences from all parties than covered in the book. I tried to place the most critical events on the stage, Coolidge, Peters and Curtis meeting in the governor’s suite just prior to the strike, for example. I also created scenes in which my characters, both historical and fictional, might react to some development. However, I do make the disclaimer that the novel is a work of fiction and all references to actual persons, places and events are fictional and any resemblance to actual persons, events or dialogue is entirely coincidental.
MPL: How did you research the language/slang that the people used back in 1919?
JR: I referred to a couple of sources, including newspaper articles written by Ring Lardner during the period. I also read several plays by Irish playwrights to pick up the vernacular. And then some of it came from me when it just sounded right after growing up in Irish Boston.
MPL: When we met before the interview you described how being a photographer helped you develop your characters. Can you explain what you meant by that?
JR: I tend to write in details, which probably came from my photography background. I actually have to watch this though because sometimes it can slow down the story. As a photographer, I tried to be cognizant of the details or I would end up with a slanted horizon or strange people and objects lurked in the background. So when writing the historical characters, I read as much as I could about how they looked and what their emotional makeup might be. Then when I described them in the story, I tried to capture their essence like a photograph. Early writers seemed to be more descriptive as compared to the modern writers who emphasize story.
MPL: What was the most fun part of this book project for you?
JR: Writing to me is like composing music and when the writing is good, the narrative sings. The whole idea in writing is to make the connection with another human being. And the most satisfying experience of creating “The Rising” continues to be when a reader tells me I really got it. “It was like being in Boston in 1919.”