Heading In A Novel Direction

Anyone who has ever met a famous person knows the feeling: it's weirdly like meeting someone you've met already. So when you meet Jimmy Carter, know this going in: most of what you thought you knew is true. He's polite. He's very smart. He has no taste for small talk. He hews to the discipline of a schedule. An interview with the former president conducted in his office at the Carter Center in Atlanta begins on schedule at precisely 4:45 p.m. and ends exactly an hour later. But watch out, because sooner than later, he'll surprise you. You might think of the ex-president as a Nobel Prize-winning champion of human rights and world health care. Carter, it turns out, thinks of himself first as a professional writer. He's a man with 18 books to his credit, and he's proud of it. "It's my family's major source of income," he says, leaning forward in a two-seater rocking chair. "I never have been on the lecture circuit, I never have been on a corporate board. I don't criticize others who have. But most of our income is from that source. And the books have been quite successful. Even the poetry book has been a good-selling book."

Besides poetry, Carter has written books of history, public policy, memoir, even a children's book. But it's the 18th book that pulls you up short. At 79, he is the first president to have written a novel. "The Hornet's Nest," a story of the American Revolution set in his native Georgia, appears in bookstores next week. And while the author will not be coaxed into bragging, he's plainly proud of his latest effort, if a little nervous about its reception. Asked to grade himself, he says, "A tentative B-plus."

Sounds about right. "The Hornet's Nest" is a bold book for a first-timer, with a big cast of characters and numerous plots. Most impressively, the author rejects anything resembling conventional wisdom about the Revolution. The British and their Tory sympathizers are not all villains. The American patriots are not spotless heroes. The chief casualties in Carter's version of the Revolution are all the cliches about the birth of a nation--and for that he expects to get angry letters from "those people who won't eat french fries anymore." "The Hornet's Nest" has its weaknesses. Sometimes the characters substitute speeches for conversation, and sometimes the book ceases to be fiction at all, becoming instead simply a flavorful history. But if the bad news is that we're watching a writer learn on the job, the good news is that this is one fast learner.

At first Ethan Pratt, the novel's protagonist, looks like nothing more than that durable cliche of costume drama: the farmer who simply wants to be left alone to work his land and raise a family. Of course, Ethan is in the wrong place at the wrong time for such a dream to come true. He sees his brother hanged by the British. His young son is murdered. Carter says that in the course of his research he was "really shocked at the bloodiness of the Revolutionary War. It was even bloodier--not more people killed, but bloodier encounters--than the War Between the States. 'Take no quarter' became a battle cry on both sides. And when little boys, or brothers, surrendered, the order was, 'Kill them'." By the end of the novel, Ethan has become so bloody-minded that he no longer reacts to savagery, and "The Hornet's Nest" has become the story of a man who loses almost everything for a cause.

The book took Carter seven years to write, and he finished three other books in the same period. "I'm a farmer, and I still get up at 5 o'clock. So by 8 or 8:30 in the morning, when Rosalynn and I might have breakfast together, I've already put in three solid hours of work. I turn out a lot of words." As groundwork for the novel, he wrote out biographies and physical descriptions of his characters. He consulted Colonial historians and read more than 30 books. But none of that prepared him for that moment all novelists pray for: the day their characters get up off the page and take on lives of their own. "I guess that's typical. I've never talked to any other real authors," he says. "I never anticipated, y'know, sexual relations between Ethan and anyone except his wife. That was--it just kind of happened. And when it happened, I went in and said, 'Rosalynn, I just had the biggest surprise of my life.' Which was"--and he allows himself a little grin--"an exaggeration." For the record, the first sex scene written by a president (involving a married couple, it might be added) runs to exactly two lines: "That night, they tried some things they had never done before."

Why would an utterly unfrivolous man devote years of his life making up stories about people who never existed? "I really just have a motivation to do different things," he says. "I never did study anything in college except how to be a naval officer and a nuclear physicist. But even when I was at the Naval Academy, my grades suffered because I was constantly reading literature." If his novel does well, Carter would consider writing a sequel, but that's farther ahead than he wants to think right now. "For the past couple of months and for the next few months, I'm not going to be writing. I'm trying to learn how to paint better. I painted pretty actively until about 15 years ago, and I quit, but I started back lately. It's just a challenge. I painted the cover of the book, too." Which would make it, if you're still keeping score, the first book jacket painted by a president, too.