Escape from Andersonville: A Novel of the Civil War
By Gene Hackman and Daniel Lenihan
St. Martin’s Press, 342 pp.

The voice of Gene Hackman: Over the course of his 40-plus years in cinema, it has been street-tough (The French Connection), gleefully villainous (Superman), on-your-feet inspiring (Hoosiers), and solidly terrifying (Unforgiven), but there’s a consistent edge to it that hints at something unsaid, and you alwaysalwaysknow it when you hear it.

After starring in more than 70 films, the two-time Oscar winner once called “Hollywood’s uncommon everyman” by The New York Times has all but said goodbye to the screen, choosing instead to develop his voice elsewhere: on the page. “I only wish I would have started sooner,” Hackman, now 78, says of writing. The veteran actor laughs and invokes a little Brando: “I coulda been somebody! I coulda been a contender!”

Hackman and his friend, underwater archaeologist Daniel Lenihan, have recently completed their third historical novel, Escape from Andersonville. The book centers around Nathan Parker, a captain in the Union army who escapes the hellish Civil War prison (roughly 13,000 men died of starvation and disease in the 14 months Andersonville was open) and, with the help of an opportunistic ex-Confederate soldier named Marcel Lafarge, assembles a band of morally compromised raiders to free the rest of his unit, the Fifth Michigan.

Escape from Andersonville is a nod to the yarn-spinners of yore: a plot-driven, pulpy read aimed at Civil War aficionados who will appreciate the authors’ careful research and obvious enthusiasm for the subject. (Readers in search of a more complete depiction of the infamous prison may want to turn next to MacKinlay Kantor’s 1956 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Andersonville.)

Hackman and Lenihan, who both live in New Mexico, met in the early ’90s, when Lenihan taught Hackman and his wife to scuba dive. They began writing together 12 years ago after discovering that they shared an enduring love for the adventure stories of Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Jack London and Ernest Hemingway. “We tended to gravitate toward yarn-spinners,” Lenihan says, “people who were intrigued with a period of time that had an intensity to it and then laid a human drama over it.” Neither Hackman nor Lenihan had written fiction before. Living up to the saying that writers are readers moved to imitation, the two worked out a method in which each would take on a character and write chapters from that character’s point of view, then they would meet every week to discuss how the story was progressing. Their first novel, a 19th-century high-seas adventure called Wake of the Perdido Star, was published in 1999, and their second, Justice for None, followed in 2004.

While working on Escape from Andersonville, Lenihan wrote from Nathan’s perspective, Hackman from Marcel’s. “I start by asking myself questions like I do when I’m approaching a role as an actor,” says Hackman. “What does the character want? Where has the character been? Where is the character going? Simple things like that, and then from there one thing kind of leads to another.” Of his latest project, he adds, “Over the last year or so, I would look forward to going down in my little cubbyhole room and getting involved with the characters again. I do miss that and I miss the writing once a character is well established. I truly miss that.”

But if Hackman’s long career in film has familiarized him with the process of crawling inside his characters’ heads, it hasn’t necessarily made it easier for him to deal with the critics. “I try not to read reviews,” he muses, “because if you’re going to believe the good ones, then you’ve got to believe the bad ones.” Lenihan notes that he welcomes criticism when it’s instructive, but the reviews that are the most difficult to read are the ones in which the reviewer seems to be critiquing the person who wrote the book instead of the book itself: “We’ll have some genius suddenly decide that, well … the real issue here is an actor, for instance, can’t be writing a book, and that everything we’ve done is designed to be a screenplay. As soon as I see a sentence going in that direction, I toss it. That’s such a dumb thing.”

One of Escape from Andersonville‘s main themes is how civilized people come to do uncivilized things, a facet of the Civil War that Lenihan finds particularly devastating. “[There’s a part of the novel] where Nathan Parker is kind of mulling over that,” he explains. “‘Gee, these same folks were sitting around being ordinary people in parlorsbeing polite to each othernot so long ago, and now everyone’s running around shoving bayonets through each other’s necks and hardly thinking about it.’”

The authors did not consider themselves Civil War buffs before they began the novel. In the course of their extensive research, they traveled to several war sites (including Andersonville), eventually becoming so enraptured by the “human drama” of the period, in fact, that they had to throw away roughly 300 pages of Escape from Andersonville because, as Hackman admits, they “overwrote it.”

That wasn’t the only time that the authors have chucked a hunk of manuscript that wasn’t working. After they wrote 170 pages of a contemporary novel, Hackman felt that the characters’ reliance on cell phones and television “limited one’s imagination” to the point where the story didn’t feel right, and the authors abandoned it. They are currently working on a fourth book of historical fiction.

When writing, one consideration comes before all others for Hackman. “I like a good story,” he says. “Being an actor, I always look for story. It’s like the lifeblood for me.”

Gene Hackman and Daniel Lenihan will sign copies of Escape from Andersonville at 7 p.m. Friday, June 27, at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh.