Tuesday, July 5, 2016

7 Questions with Jack Kelly, Author

 Jack Kelly is a novelist as well as a writer of popular history. He has published books about the 900-year history of the world’s first explosive (Gunpowder) and about the American Revolutionary War (Band of Giants). He lives near Rhinebeck, New York, a village founded in 1682. One of his ancestors fought in the Revolution. His latest book, Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal, looks at the building of America’s most influential public works project and at the political and religious excitement that broke out in the canal region during the early nineteenth century.

How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
As a kid, I visited Fort Niagara near Niagara Falls. I became fascinated by the reenactors in their scarlet uniforms, and by the guns and pageantry. Military history, then American history in general, has intrigued me ever since.

What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
I’m lucky to live in the Hudson Valley, where towns date back to colonial times and where many of the events of the Revolution played out. Every day I pass a house where General Israel Putnam made his headquarters. Up the road is the oldest operating American inn. I’m a strong advocate for historic preservation because I think the places and artifacts of the past are crucial to our collective imagination.

Have you thought about your future career? Will history be a part of it? 
Having written about the canal era, I’m moving on to write a book about the railroads and their role in shaping nineteenth century America.

Why is studying/knowing history important? 
Cicero said that not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child. Understanding the past informs each person’s judgment in ways that are elusive but very real. I think an understanding of history is a duty of citizenship.

What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why? 
I am a fan of American History from the Revolutionary era through the nineteenth century. Whatever era I’m writing about becomes my favorite.

What is the story behind your new book Heaven's Ditch: God, Gold and Murder on the Erie Canal?
I grew up along the canal and very near Hill Cumorah where Joseph Smith found the golden plates that contained the Book of Mormon. The story of the visionary outbursts along the canal has always intrigued me. Researching the book, I developed an appreciation of the enormous impact the canal had on America’s history and character

Why is the construction of the Erie Canal such an important part of American history and why did it attract so many unusual characters?
The canal broke through the barrier of the Appalachian Mountains and speeded the settlement of the interior. It opened the Midwest and gave the nation easy access to the tremendous resources of the interior. The frontier – and western New York was the frontier in those days – attracted