An Interview with Eric Lerner
Author of Pinkerton's Secret
Seasoned screenwriter Eric Lerner is the author of Pinkerton’s Secret. He’s also written a memoir Journey of Insight Meditation about his experiences traveling and living in Buddhist monasteries in Asia and America. Lerner kindly agreed to grant an interview to MostlyFiction's Guy Savage earlier this year.
MF: For our readers who have not yet read PINKERTON'S SECRET, please describe the novel for us:
EL: In 1856, Allan Pinkerton, founder of the new detective Agency that bears his name, interviews a young widow named Kate Warne who is applying for a job as a female detective. Pinkerton hires her, and for the next decade she is instrumental in turning his enterprise into America’s first national law enforcement agency. At the same time, Pinkerton is conducting an entirely different campaign—he is an ardent Abolitionist whose house in Chicago is a stop on the underground railroad. When Lincoln is elected president, Pinkerton saves his life on his way to his inauguration, and then he establishes the first Secret Service of the Union Army. In all of these adventures, Kate Warne is at his side, not only as the head of his Agency’s Female Detective Bureau, but as his lover and confidante.
As he undertakes greater and greater risks as a spy for the Union, their clandestine love affair risks both their careers, and their lives.
That is a rather lurid synopsis of the plot. The prose of the novel is a much less purple.
MF: Pinkerton is a well known name, but still he’s an unusual subject for a novel. How were you inspired to write this story?
EL: About ten years ago I found a new biography of Pinkerton at my public library. I’ve always read as much history as I do fiction. I became engrossed in his life story. When Kate Warne walked into his office, the biographer casually dismissed “the rumors at the time of anything but a professional involvement between them.” I dropped the book and laughed out loud. I had one of those rare and precious I have a story moments.
Even though the “facts,” the documents and records of history, do not prove or disprove their affair, any story, real or imagined, only makes sense to me if I can identify the motivations behind the human actions. The only story that made sense out of the events of Allan Pinkerton’s life was a clandestine love affair, a cover-up.
MF: Please tell us about the research involved in the novel.
EL: The first thing I did was read the handful of standard biographies to confirm that everyone had the same view of his “strictly professional” relationship with Kate. Then I set about seeing what I could find that contradicted that ridiculous conclusion.
Pinkerton wrote his own account of his exploits, The Spy of The Rebellion, which was published in 1883, near the end of his life. In it he generously praises Kate Warne as a detective and credits her with a major role in saving Lincoln’s life from “The Baltimore Plot.” When I read it several times, it became clear that only the two of them physically accompanied Lincoln on the secret train. Why Kate? He had other top agents with him.
I managed to track down a rare facsimile copy of Kate Warne’s own logbook, which had survived the great Chicago fire that destroyed the offices of the Pinkerton Agency, and somehow ended up in the Huntington Library in California. Reading Kate’s account of her night in Lincoln’s train compartment, I got a spooky chill, and I could see her and Pinkerton in the same frame, so to speak. They didn’t look entirely “professional” to me.
In Pinkerton’s memoir, Kate then seems to exit the scene at the outset of the Civil War, when he left his wife and family behind in Chicago to return to Washington for eighteen months to set up the first Secret Service. Except her name casually pops up later in his account, when he snares the famous Confederate spy, Rose Greenhow, aided by Mrs. Warne’s forgery of Rose’s letters. So Kate was with him in Washington the whole time!
The clincher for me, though, was a photograph I turned up of his gravesite. His wife is buried beside him. Kate Warne is buried over his other shoulder.
But the love story is only part of the novel, interwoven with the outcome of not just the Civil War, but Pinkerton’s passionate cause—the abolition of slavery and the fate of black people in America. In order to understand the stance Pinkerton embraced, and the hellacious conflicts it brought him into with some of the greatest figures of the age, I had to delve into the life of Lincoln and the great debate over his true position regarding slavery. I also researched the freewheeling era of the 1850’s that produced a woman like Kate Warne, the personalities of John Brown and Frederick Douglass, the little known facts of the Union and Confederate espionage operations, the murky tale of Civil War profiteering, and even the conspiracy theories surrounding Lincoln’s assassination. All of it great stuff.
MF: Readers can check out excerpts and information about the novel at www.PinkertonsSecret.com and this really is a wonderful website. Could you tell us about it?
EL: The business of publishing and the marketing of books seems to me to have become as chaotic as, well, Hollywood. Once the editing of my manuscript was completed at Henry Holt, I realized I could not just sit back and wait for my residuals.
I looked at a lot of author and book websites and I wasn’t satisfied that the medium of the web was being fully utilized. I felt that while it was easy to “excerpt” a book on a site, just putting up a big block of text wasn’t a very tantalizing invitation to buy it.
My 24-year-old son, Sam, is an unusual web designer. He designs, programs and is an impressive visual artist and musician in his own right. He wanted to replicate the experience of a movie trailer, and he had already created several web based projects that combine text with visuals in a pretty unique format. So we built the site together, presenting excerpts in a way that we hadn’t seen before, to create a multi-media experience of the book. Check it out.
MF: Was your decision is create the novel as a memoir affected by the fact that Pinkerton wrote his own memoirs? What is your impression of Pinkerton’s memoirs?
EL: The decision was based on my dissatisfaction with a third person narration. I had the story completely fleshed out, but I’d reached a dead end in the story telling.
Then one night I woke up at three a.m., and I heard Pinkerton. He was describing the real incident in his life of his stoke and paralysis.
Most people don’t think being paralyzed hurts, because they can stick people pins in you and you don’t feel anything. But as I’ve made abundantly clear, most people are utter morons.
It sounded pitch perfect.
The voice was quite different than the one I’d encountered in his memoirs. While I trusted the memoirs’ factuality, if even the presentation was self-serving, I knew the voice was cleaned up, if not ghostwritten, because I read his letters to his sons and employees. Those documents, not intended for public consumption, reveal a borderline paranoid, a raving autocratic. I quite liked that guy.
That’s the voice I heard in the middle of the night. Fortunately, he kept talking to me for several years, because it took that long to finish the novel. Before anyone prescribes an anti-psychotic, I submit in my defense the fact that I spent 20 years writing screenplays, which are all about dialogue, and I was hearing voices the whole time. Maybe that’s no defense.
MF: Writing for Hollywood and writing a novel—how are these two approaches to writing different, and how are they similar?
EL: Thanks for asking that question; I think about it all the time. Because movies are so plot driven, as a screenwriter I developed a huge respect for both the power and the craft of storytelling. I even came to enjoy the process of telling stories aloud to a roomful of studio executives who were deciding whether to proceed with making a movie out of my tale if they were suitably entertained. But in screenwriting you are strictly limited in your execution of the story to action and dialogue—what the characters do and say. That’s the only information you can convey to an audience.
As an aside, that’s why writers hate that directors put their names at the top of a movie, the “possessory credit.” All of their pretty pictures are nice, but if a guy on screen stabs the girl and mutters, “I loved you too much,” that is the story, not some close-up of the bloody knife. The screenwriter created the scene. The director executed his instructions. But I am digressing into a screenwriter’s rant, which is the real reason we’re on strike at the moment—an under appreciation complex.
Back to the question at hand—what’s the difference between screenwriting and novel writing?
The answer for me is the absence of a narrator in a screenplay. In other dramatic forms—Greek and Shakespearean plays and even many modern stage plays, musicals are one example—it is accepted convention that the audience can be told more than what the characters say to each other through a chorus, soliloquies, or even players stepping forward out of the action to explain what is going on in the mind of the hero.
In movie writing these days, those devices are considered admissions that you’re having trouble telling your story. A great example was the movie Blade Runner, whose lengthy voice over was added after the first screening proved incomprehensible. I notice certain self-consciously “arty” TV series now use voice over, and soliloquy is sometimes encountered in comedies, for an almost goofy effect. Hey, he’s talking to himself. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule.
A novel, by contrast, is fundamentally defined by the voice of the storyteller, and every novel, first or third person, has its own unique voice. That’s why I’ve always found a novel to be a much richer world than a movie, and when I wrote movies I was often trying to cram my novelistic sensibility into 120 spare pages of dialogue and instruction for action. Sometimes it worked better than others.
When I finally returned to my first love, novels, though, I was surprised at how hard it was to shake my professional habits. I began constructing Pinkerton’s Secret the way I started to write a screenplay—with the plot. It is a complex story, but it came to me with ease, which might make other novelists groan. My struggle, however, was to find the novel in the story, and that meant finding the storyteller—not just the voice, but what I would call the “enlivening imagination” that spins the tale and in the spinning presents the reader with what is vitally important in the events being recounted.
That took me quite a while.
MF: Although not overly burdened with lengthy descriptions, nevertheless this is a very visual novel. I can’t help but think your film background proved useful in this instance. Any comments on that?
EL: I think I succeeded in playing a subtle trick on you. At one point my agent urged me to put more “description” in the book, saying it lacked enough specific visual pictures. In fact, I rarely describe a tree, a landscape, or other things that many other writers devote paragraphs to. What makes my writing “visual” is that I write in scenes, and I construct my scenes the way a movie scene is constructed—with a central conflict introduced at the top and a resolution at the end that moves the story along into the next scene of conflict.
I think this technique pulls the reader into a “visual” feel, even though it is the reader who supplying the actual pictures in her head.
That leaves me more space to describe the characters thoughts about the plot they are enmeshed in.
MF: As a Chartist, Pinkerton was a radical figure when he left Scotland and yet later the Pinkerton Agency engaged in counter revolutionary union busting activity. To me, this shift in behavior and beliefs is intriguing—especially in light of Pinkerton’s early declaration that the agency would not “shadow or investigate” “trade union officers or members in their lawful union activities.” In the novel, you attribute the union busting actions to his sons and indicate that Robbie and Willie Pinkerton took the agency in a direction their father did not approve of. Any comments on that?
EL: During Pinkerton’s life, some of his enemies (and he made a ton of them thanks to his natural charm) accused him of betraying his roots. But the real betrayal was perpetrated by his sons. Whenever I tell anyone my novel is about Pinkerton, their first reaction is to connect him to the famous Homestead Steel Strike and the bloody confrontation between the strikers and the Pinkertons. Except Allan Pinkerton had been dead for eight years when his son Robbie got the call for help from Carnegie and Frick. Willie was off moping in Europe.
During the last years of his life Pinkerton bitterly fought his sons over control of the Agency because of the changes they wanted to make—moving into “industrial protection,” and even closing down the Female Detective Agency.
What was their motivation to undo their father’s legacy?
That is an important sub-plot in the novel, and it all comes back to Mrs. Warne.
MF: Abraham Lincoln is an American icon—one of the few American presidents that most people remember fondly, and yet in the novel you portray him through Pinkerton’s eyes as horribly flawed—at one point Pinkerton refers to him as a “ninny.” This seems to be a bold portrayal and one you may be criticized for. Any thoughts on that?
EL: Plenty of thoughts. If you swallow the line that Lincoln saved the Union and freed the slaves, then he’s the greatest man who ever lived. If you believe that the Civil War was fought over slavery, and that the South won that war, then Lincoln is something else. I believe that, and so did Pinkerton. But don’t take our word for it. Read Nicholas Lemann’s Redemption – The Last Battle of The Civil War. It chronicles in excruciating detail the defeat of Reconstruction and the creation of Dixie—the lynch law, apartheid nation where blacks resided for a hundred years after Lincoln had “freed” them.
And that tragedy was not caused by Lincoln’s assassination. It probably would have occurred even sooner if Lincoln had lived. There’s no evidence that Lincoln would have even attempted a “reconstruction” of the South.
And if I sound a lot like Allan Pinkerton that’s just a strange coincidence.
MF: One of the things said about Pinkerton is that he seemed to possess a sixth sense when it came to crime detection. After all your work and research, what is your conclusion about that claim?
EL: I was struck more by his elaborate methods of undercover operation than his deductive powers, which might have inspired a Sherlock Holmes type story. Instead, I saw his transformation from detective to catcher of spies and spymaster as a logical extension of his innovative methods of disguise and infiltration. I used this as a motif for the love story between the two detective/spies.
MF: In the novel, Pinkerton is portrayed as an abolitionist and an atheist, was he either of these things in real life?
EL: Absolutely! Why would I make that up? Just kidding. A few facts. When he got to America and moved his wife out to the country outside of Chicago, he was prosecuted by the local, hidebound, immigrant Scots church on charges of blasphemy! The episodes in the novel about his involvement with John Brown and the underground railroad are taken directly from Pinkerton’s own memoirs.
MF: Pinkerton must have been a very unusual man to employ Kate Warne. Do you agree with that?
EL: I think he was a one of a kind in all ways. He saw himself as such, and took great pleasure in flaunting his individuality in other men’s’ faces, which gained him many enemies, real and imagined. (He was probably a borderline paranoid, even his most sympathetic biographers admit that, but don’t forget, William Burroughs defined a paranoid as “someone who is in possession of all the facts.”) He was driven by his unshakable belief that he could tell right from wrong, and that his discernment emanated entirely from his own being. This was in an age when most men needed to justify their actions based on religion, the law, or both. Pinkerton simply said, right is right and wrong is wrong, and if you can’t tell the difference you’re a moron. That struck a receptive chord in my mind. I tried to make that chord resonate throughout the novel.
MF: How much do you think female detectives contributed to Pinkerton’s success?
EL: Female detectives proved to be an excellent means for cracking cases, particularly when he used them in his elaborate undercover operations. He refused to bow to social pressure and do away with them. When one of his senior operatives told Allan that his wife objected to his working alongside women, Pinkerton told the man to find another job.
MF: What are your impressions of Pinkerton as a man and as a detective? Did your impressions change as you conducted research?
EL: As a detective, he is beyond comparison. I can’t argue with his own claim that he was the original and the greatest.
MF: Pinkerton’s Secret would make a great film. If you could dream up an ideal cast and director, who would you select and why?
EL: Actually, I don’t really want to see the novel made into a movie. Gasp! What kind of novelist am I? Well, I’m one who has written some nice screenplays that were butchered in rewrites along the way to the screen.
My biggest hit bears faint resemblance to my original draft, and for years I experienced the ignominy of explaining to its fans that the screen version wasn’t nearly as good as the script I wrote.
MF: Any future projects in mind?
EL: A few years back I was involved with a European mini-series about ancient Rome. The character of Livia, the wife of the first Emperor Augustus, has begun speaking to me in a voice quite as opinionated and informed as Allan Pinkerton. I think it is going to make a good novel.
Read our review of PINKERTON'S SECRET at MostlyFiction.com