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SunLit Interviews

How the 2003 Iraq war led a Colorado author to write a novel about the War of 1812

What started as a short story for Colorado writer Nick Arvin grew, years later, into a full-blown adventure of a boy set loose in the world

Nick Arvin’s most recent novel, “Mad Boy (Europa Editions, 2018), won the 2019 Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction.

His first novel, Articles of War (Doubleday, 2005), won the 2006 Colorado Book Award and was selected for the One Book, One Denver reading program. He lives in Wheat Ridge, Colorado.

The following is an interview with Arvin.

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit


What inspired you to write this book?

Way back in 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, there was a significant amount of looting by the Iraqi civilians in Baghdad. Some commentators at the time wondered aloud what kind of people could do this, steal from their own neighbors and countrymen? This criticism seemed silly to me and probably racist; I thought, “I bet the Americans did the same thing when the British invaded Washington during the War of 1812.”

I did some research. In fact, there were Americans looting in Washington when the British invaded. The research inspired me to write a short story about a boy in Washington during the invasion who becomes a looter. My agent read the story, and his comment was that it felt like a chapter from a novel. But I wanted it to be a short story. So I published it in a small outlet online, and I stopped thinking about it.

Years later, I was working on a sci-fi novel, but it wasn’t coming together; I began to suspect it was too heartless and over-intellectualized. And around that time my son and I started reading Treasure Island, and I completely fell in love with it. I thought, this is what I want to write⎯an adventure story, a boy running around with muskets and cannon and buried treasure…

“Mad Boy” by Nick Arvin.

And I remembered the short story I’d written years earlier, set during the War of 1812. How had the boy come to be alone in Washington as it burned? And what had happened to him afterward? As I explored those questions, the short story turned into “Mad Boy.”

Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

“Mad Boy” was inspired by a love of adventure novels, classic stories like “Treasure Island,” “Huckleberry Finn,” and “The Long Ships,” by Frans Bengtsson. But if you make me pick one favorite author, I always go with Virginia Woolf, who wrote so beautifully that it seems supernatural to me.

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?

Mad Boy involves a number overlapping characters and narratives, so that it’s hard to find pieces of the book that I can pull out without a lot of explanation of back story and relationships. However, in the section that I chose, Henry meets someone new, one of my own favorite characters in the book, who will pull Henry into new adventures.

MORE: Read more SunLit author interviews

What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?

I loved doing the research for this book. The War of 1812, and the entire period between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, is so much neglected and forgotten that there are all sorts of fascinating historical tidbits and narratives that I could use in my story. Also, the entire book was a lot of fun—after all, it’s about a boy at loose in the world, encountering strange situations and unusual characters! I had a great time. I hope readers will, too.

What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?

I decided early on that I wanted the action of the book to follow the path of the British through the Chesapeake in 1814, including the Battle of Baltimore. But as I dug into the Battle of Baltimore, I began to realize that the reader would never be able to understand everything that was going on from the point of view of a single character. I’d need to have multiple characters in different places. So, I began creating the additional characters and fitting them into the story. Hopefully, at the Battle of Baltimore, it seems that the characters all come to their various places quite naturally, but it took a lot of work to get them there.

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

The role that enslaved Americans played in the War of 1812, by joining the British and fighting with them in substantial numbers, was wholly new to me. Having learned of it, it seemed to me to be an absolutely essential element to any story about America in the period. I have woven elements of that story into “Mad Boy,” but If I can encourage people to read one more book it would be, “The Internal Enemy,” by Alan Taylor, which won the Pulitzer in 2014, and is an incredible work of history. Taylor is extremely lucid in describing how the institution of slavery was woven into America politically, economically, and culturally, and his examination of the War of 1812 is illuminating because the war caused disruptions in that weave. I found it revelatory. Read it.

What project are you working on next?

I’ve been working for a while on a collection of stories drawn from my career as an engineer, about engineers losing control of their lives. That’s still in progress. I’ve also begun doing some preliminary research for a novel that would be set on the Mississippi River in the 1820s or ‘30s. It’s early days, and it may or may not turn into a real novel, but it feels like a place and time with a lot of potential.

— Buy “Mad Boy” at BookBar

— Excerpt from “Mad Boy” by Nick Arvin