Between the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Women’s Liberation Movements, college campuses in the 1960s were truly the seeds of revolution. Nowhere was this more evident than at Cornell University, which was the site of an armed 36-hour long student takeover of Willard Straight Hall in 1969. Steve Kussin has taken this setting along with his own experiences at Cornell to write Five Freshmen: A Story of the Sixties. Today he talks about writing historical fiction.
ON WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION By Steven S. Kussin
My first novel, Five Freshmen, was published last spring— and since then I’ve been doing interviews with radio stations all over the country. I’ve been asked every conceivable question, but the one most often asked is: “What was your inspiration for writing this novel?”
I teach in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at Hofstra University. At the end of the semester, I always show a video about the 1960s. You can hear a pin drop at the mere mention of this decade. The students are fascinated by this turbulent era, during which the War in Vietnam, Civil Rights, and Women’s Lib combined to form a perfect storm. For them, it’s ancient history, something they read about in a textbook.
During one class, I had a “Eureka!” moment: This would make a terrific book. However, I didn’t want to write a text. Instead, I wanted to write a novel and tell a story. I wrestled with the idea for a while. A little background: Originally, I called it Diary of the Sixties. But that just didn’t work for me. Rather, I decided to tell the story through the eyes of students: namely, five freshmen. Hence, the title.
My concept was to bring together five incoming students, from totally different backgrounds, in 1965 at Cornell University. The “saga” would follow them for four years, from orientation to graduation while the campus made a 180-degree turn as the winds of war started to gather over campus. I was fortunate to be a student at that time, and got to watch the evolution— actually the revolution— take place with a front row seat.
My goals was to dramatize… personalize… bring to life… the events that took place. As I said, we started with one university and ended with a very different one. In 1965, it was clear that we had to walk the straight and narrow and follow the rules to the letter. If we didn’t, we could pack our bags and take the bus or plane home: “Look to your left, look to your right,” we were warned. “One of the three of you won’t make it to the finish line.” A sobering statistic.
Perhaps the most telling moment was the stern lecture we received about deportment: “The boys are in the boys dorm… the girls in the girl dorms.” For all intents and purposes, there was a Maginot Line between the two. However, on Fall Weekend, the social event of the semester, co-eds were allowed into the boys dorms for two hours— but only under the strictest rules: “Three feet on the floor… the door open a book’s width… and a light left on.” Of course, we managed to “skirt” (pun intended) the rules with a bridge table (which has four legs)… a match book… and a candle light.
However, by 1969 nobody could care less about those silly rules. With the War in Vietnam revving up, life and death matters were far, far important. Survival was the first priority.
The second most commonly-asked question I get has to do with the five freshmen. I’m one of them— and I’m “real.” I describe the novel as semi-autobiographical. The other four are fictional. I thought long and hard about whom I would bring together— because it would be through their eyes that the events of this decade would be viewed. I don’t want to refer to them as stereotypes— but they are typical of the different students back then. Brant is the superjock, who must balance academics and athletics; Kip is the engineering “nerd” to whom school comes easily; Ian is the wannabe actor, who, at first, lets everything roll off his back; and Dwayne is one of the few African-American students, at a time when there were relatively few minorities on campus.
The events themselves are very real: the end of student “2S” draft deferments… the draft calls… the army physicals… the draft lottery… the draft-card burnings, other protests and mass demonstrations. Yes, I took some liberties with the dates of when these events occurred to keep the flow going. But by doing so, I in no way detracted from the depiction of what happened.
The closing chapters deal with the takeover of the student union building in April 1969. And for this, I truly had a front row seat. My father was literally in the wrong place at the wrong time— and was one of the hostages held, although briefly. There had been similar demonstrations on other campuses, including Berkeley and Columbia. But Cornell was a first in that weapons appeared. Fortunately, over the course of the week and the siege which followed, they were not used. It wasn’t until Kent State that there was bloodshed. Although I personally witnessed the fast-changing events which took place, I referred to several sources to paint as accurate a picture of possible of the day-by-day happenings.
However, I kept reminding myself that I was writing a novel— and was determined to personalize the characters as much as possible. What happens to each of the five of us over the four years is a “riveting tale of comedy, drama, friendships, romances, and relationships”— all set against the backdrop of the majestic Cornell campus. As I wrote in one synopsis, “from fraternity house hi-jinx to draft card burnings and building takeovers, the juxtaposition of a fun-filled campus existence, coupled with life and death issues, is startling.”
From those who lived through that era, I hope Five Freshmen is a fond nostalgia-filled trip down memory lane. For those to whom the 1960s is history, I hope the novel lets them experience what this turbulent era was really like.
Many thanks, Steven. Older readers will no doubt be filled with nostalgia reading your novel while younger readers will get insights into this turbulent era. I wish you great success with Five Freshmen!
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.