Conducted by Leighton Connor
This is the conclusion of my interview with Carter Newton about his new novel Suicide’s Run: A Tale of the Hobomancers (on sale now!) In Part One, Carter and I talked about using the Hobomancer setting for a novel; in Part Two, we talked in more depth about the characters, and some of the challenges Carter faced in bringing them to life. In Part Three, we talk about Good Jungle, the human response to disasters, and the fascist plot to overthrow FDR.
Leighton Connor: Let’s talk about Good Jungle. Good Jungle, for those who haven’t read the book, is the massive and surprisingly developed hobo camp that the characters visit early in the story. You mentioned to me awhile back that your depiction of Good Jungle was inspired by your research into how people react in a disaster. I’m curious what you meant by that.
Carter Newton: There’s this idea in pop culture that when a disaster happens, the worst in humanity comes out, we go all Mad Max, and every man for himself, and only the preppers shall survive. It makes good movies, good comic books, and good TV. It’s also wrong. And not a little wrong. The trope of the lone wolf human with no connections is basically a fiction invented by Hollywood so that you can get away with a character with no back-story. It’s a crutch for writers who are on deadline and just need to get it done.
In the real world, people are social creatures, and thousands of years of living as social creatures has taught us to look after those around us. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the US Gulf Coast, in those first days the response was... let’s go with “uncoordinated at the federal, state, and municipal levels.” That conveys the message without adding value judgements the way that words like “shameful” or “ridiculous” or “ham-fisted” or “would be laughable if not for the fact that people were dying because of the gross ineptitude” do.
So, anyway, in the aftermath of this disaster, people started by checking on their neighbors. And then community leaders (or emerging community leaders) started setting up communal kitchens to feed those who didn’t have power or food, and then they started putting together medical clinics, for lack of a better term, for first aid or those who were sick or needed their medications. And then there would be a place for gathering, whether that was for worship or discussion of the situation, or just to sit someplace with someone who understands you and share a cup of coffee. And being New Orleans I suspect music broke out somewhere in there.
If you look at a refugee camp, or in the historical record at a Hooverville or Bonus Army camp, or more recently at an Occupy Wall Street camp, they all have basically those same elements. Also, they describe the perfect Hipster urban landscape, minus the disaster, but you know. So, when I started thinking about Good Jungle, I had this rich vein to draw from to help think about the layout and the character of the village. There are communal wash tubs for laundry and hygiene. There’s a communal kitchen which is basically continually making a batch of stone soup - everybody puts in what they can. But as you get deeper into the village, there’s a school, and a hospital tent, and merchants and craftsmen, a lending library, and a baseball field, and a garden for food crops. And it’s a little bit fantastic, but less than you might think.
Suicide has this image in his head that the camp would be full of lazy, indolent men, and he’s surprised first that it’s families with women and children. And then he’s surprised by the fact that there’s all this enterprise - a tailor who offers to make him a suit, a blacksmith who is equally comfortable making a wrought-iron decoration as tinkering a pot. And there’s commerce, essentially shops specializing in different wares like bags for travelling. And Suicide is stunned because it isn’t simply a place where people sit doing nothing, it’s a functioning city where they take in the victims of the rolling disaster that was the Great Depression.
The baseball field may have been pushing it. Well, maybe not. Soccer games break out in refugee camps all the time. Okay, I feel all right about the baseball field.
LC: I assumed you had just made up the whole thing. As I said before, I’m impressed by your commitment to doing research and working real history into your fantasy story. What really blew my mind, though, was when you told me that the Business Plot was real. Without too many spoilers, can you explain what that means?
CN: The Business Plot was, basically, an attempted fascist coup to overthrow FDR in 1933. It might have worked except for the fact that the plotters were stupendously dumb. The plotters attempted to install as the figurehead of their coup the most decorated Marine in the history of the United States Marine Corps, General Smedley “Old Gimlet-Eye” Butler. In addition to being the bestselling author of War is a Racket, a book which calls out industrialists who use undue influence on American foreign policy to use the military might of the US to achieve their business ends, he was also a personal friend of Franklin Roosevelt. So as the figurehead of a fascist coup, probably not the best guy.
Let this be a lesson to you. If you plan on a coup, Google the guy you plan on putting out there as the figurehead. The thing of it is, that’s the only boneheaded move they made. If they’d picked a different, politically ambitious man - of whom there are usually no shortage among the general staff - it probably would have worked. Butler was incredibly popular, and capable of delivering a stirring speech, and believed deeply in the Constitution.
The point is that the Business Plot was a coup attempt on FDR which was real, and serious, and dangerous. As a nation, we got very very close to losing our democratic republic.
LC: I don’t want to give away the details, but the Business Plot ends up being an important part of your story. How had you heard of this attempted coup in the first place? What about it made it seem right for a Hobomancer novel?
CN: I first heard about the Business Plot on the Tank Riot podcast. They did a profile of General Smedley Butler, the “Fighting Quaker.” One of the things they talked about was his involvement in this sort of apocryphal coup attempt led by a bunch of wealthy, powerful industrialists. Only, the thing of it was, the names of the wealthy, powerful industrialists weren’t recorded because there was no reason to trouble them with such allegations. So I was thinking that this conspiracy theory was a pretty good setting for telling a story of a man on the run. Suicide is the very definition of a low-level flunky who makes a good scapegoat.
Oh, by the way, author Sally Denton in her book about the coup, The Plots Against the President, used FOIA requests to get access to many of the actual investigation files. The FBI and congressional investigations determined that the threat was real and that the thing that stopped it was General Butler.
LC: Good job avoiding spoilers there. One more question, and we’ll wrap this up. I imagine that people who are familiar with Hobomancer will want to read this book, to see how you’ve brought the setting to life. But what about people who have never heard of Hobomancer, who--as hard as may be to imagine--have never even spent any time thinking about hobos? How would you describe the book to a person like that, and why should they read it?
CN: This is a book about train-hopping hobo wizards in 1930’s America. It’s a story of a man wrapped up in events beyond his reckoning. It’s an adventure to save the United States as we know them. It’s a fast paced race that will leave the smell of coal smoke in your nose and the sound of the whistle singing in your ears.
LC: Excellent. Thanks for your time, Carter, and for giving such thoughtful answers. And thanks for writing the book. I greatly enjoyed it, and I think other people will, too.