Novelist talks about latest work

HOLLIS – It took Tom Fitzgerald nine years to write his novel about Ben Franklin, “Poor Richard’s Lament: A Most Timely Tale,” and, he said in a recent telephone interview, half of that time was spent getting the language right.

“What I envisioned would take a year or a year-and-a-half took nine,” he said from his home in Rhode Island. “Damn near killed me. The biggest challenge was, for Franklin to be ‘present,’ not only did I have to know him inside out, I had to speak like him, or he had to speak like himself.”

Here is an example, not even of direct speech, but from a descriptive paragraph:

“Feeling a tickle upon his palm, Ben beheld thereon, to a bit of a start, not the three-penny nail dropped there, but a silvery serpent which, melting in the moment as if into quicksilver, sundered into several globules, these pooling to center such as to congeal into a coin so reflective as to imitate a looking glass.”

The premise of the novel is this: Ben Franklin has spent 200 years in purgatory and is given a chance to visit the United States of the present to, as Fitzgerald would have it, to see what has happened in his absence.

“Readers coming into the book,” he said, “are swept along with Franklin to see what’s happened to America, through his eyes. He has the reference points to what it was and to how he might have contributed to some of the things that aren’t good about it, including the over-emphasis on profit and material gain.”

Readers and potential readers will have a chance to discuss the book, published by Hobblebush Books of Brookline, and Fitzgerald’s concept of Franklin, at a book signing party on Saturday, Feb. 11, from 2-6 p.m. at the home of Matt and Betinna Peyton-Levine, 16 Blood Road, Hollis. There they will hear him read such as this:

Felicitously, he had chosen the ratification event, firstly because it was climactic in and of itself, and secondly, because it had allowed him to crown his personal history with perhaps the finest oratory of his eighty-four years on earth – which oratory he had managed to capture in full, every word of it, not by recollecting it, which he could not do, but by returning himself to the actual event, by no greater than thinking upon it, as one thinks upon a thumb such as to frolic it, and witnessing thereby … etc.

They will also hear a view of Franklin that isn’t always as complimentary as one might read in history books and Fitzgerald will reply, to any skeptics, that the accuracy of his book is spot on.

“It’s 100 percent,” he said when asked about it, “because when I say that, what I mean is, in the whole trial scene, for instance, his own writings are used against him. Nothing is paraphrased, everything is verbatim from him.”

Unlike some novels, he insisted, no “facts” are invented.

Fitzgerald, a technical writer for more than 30 years, became fascinated with Franklin by reading his autobiography.

“The muse whispered in my ear,” he said: “What if Ben came back?”

It was an idea that lay dormant for a decade, until he got laid off and decided to bring it back, still fascinated by Franklin.

“He’s just so approachable and interesting,” he said. “He’s everybody’s uncle. You can picture yourself having a beer with him or sitting next to him at a dinner party and feeling comfortable in his presence.”

But Franklin was far from perfect involved in “shady dealings” and familial abuse, a moral philosopher for whom Fitzgerald found “all kinds of examples of hypocrisy.”

But that doesn’t take away from his sense of awe, at least to some extent, for Franklin, gleaned from reading nine biographies in addition to Franklin’s autobiography.

“There were just so many facets to the guy,” he said. “It seemed like he would be a magic presence in modern day America.”