It was always my idea that each Jack Lark novel would take place in new surroundings. This sets me a challenge and it is never easy to make the right choice of destination. However, I’ve been nurturing the idea that one day I would take Jack to America and to the American Civil War for a long time. It is a war that has always fascinated me, even though I initially knew only a little of the battles and the campaigns that were fought. But there was something in the bitter struggle between compatriots that made me certain it would be the perfect environment for Jack.
As ever with a Jack Lark story, the first difficulty lay in how to get him there. The idea of an American serving in the French Foreign Legion came to me when researching The Last Legionnaire, and this gave me the opportunity to use a man’s death as a way to open up a route for Jack to make the journey across the Atlantic.
Yet, as I started my research for The True Soldier, the sixth book in the series, I realised that there was much more to this war between the states than I had ever imagined. This was a war of brother against brother and countryman against countryman. Nothing I had covered in the Jack Lark series thus far came close to matching this level of intensity. I found it hard to understand how men from the same country could fight in such a long and bitter struggle. This wasn’t war like I was used to. It was a war between men who shared a language, a common heritage and many of the same ideals and beliefs. It would become a war where both sides demonised their foe, especially those who had seen the elephant and experienced combat. This made for a ferocious conflict, with the slaughter reaching an unprecedented level as advances in weaponry made combat more deadly than ever before. The war dragged on much longer than anyone would ever have imagined possible, and it killed and maimed on an unparalleled scale.
Yet, there was so much more to this war than just battle and bloodshed. There were ideas there, ones that resonate in our modern world. There were questions of identity, of what each side wanted their country to be. There were arguments of governance, the right for states to self-govern competing with the need for a single, united country. There was economics, with arguments of free trade fighting with the need for tariff barriers. There were ties of loyalty and of family, some nurtured and others severed with a shocking callousness. Underscoring it all was the concept of slavery and of people prepared to fight and die so that others may be free. At times, it felt like I was reading ideas and arguments from our own fractured and fractious world of today, rather than from a conflict that took place so long ago.
Then there were the soldiers who fought in these chaotic and deadly battles. These were not professional soldiers, like Jack’s beloved redcoats. These were men, and a few daring women, who had lives and families that they chose to put to one side so that they might fight for a cause they believed in. I read tales of such bravery and undaunted courage that I could not be anything but inspired. There was cruelty too, no war can be fought without it. Yet there was also compassion. Hatred and love, courage and fear – these are the raw emotions that challenge a society’s values and beliefs, and rock it to its very core. They are the emotions that fuel my desire to write.
The more I read, the more I wanted to know. The idea of a single novel became a much grander idea for more Jack Lark stories set against this devastating civil war. Of course, my Jack will never stand still. It is not to be his fate to march faithfully through a single campaign, and I promise that he will still cover new ground with every tale. Yet for the first time in the series, he will linger here and, no matter how hard he tries, he, like me, will find himself drawn to this bitter conflict that ripped a young nation in two.
Paul Fraser Collard
The True Soldier is out NOW