Saving Washington: An Interview with Chris Formant
Somewhere deep beneath the bustling streets of Brooklyn, New York lie the remains of perhaps the most important, yet most forgotten, citizen soldiers in American history: the heroic young men from Maryland whose suicide mission on August 27, 1776 bought General George Washington and the Continental Army precious time to escape certain annihilation and a premature end to the American Revolution. In the words of Thomas W. Field, a nineteenth-century historian, this was “An hour more precious to American Liberty than any other in history.”
Until recently, Chris Formant was the president of a large global business. An obvious starting question: what motivated him to become a writer?
“Best-selling author Steve Berry once told me, ‘Chris, you know you’re a writer when there’s a little voice in your head telling you a story and that voice won’t go away. We all have our little voice.’ I’ve always loved to tell stories, especially ones that reframe history in some way. Whenever I would share my ideas with friends, they would encourage me to write about it. One day I did.”
Business skills are not always associated with the creative process of writing but, as Formant highlights, “an effective business leader needs to be a good storyteller able to translate complex strategies into easily visualized actions that will resonate at all levels in an organization. A good writer needs to do the same: create an engaging story allowing the reader to visualize and emotionally commit to the characters and storyline.”
In discussing the germination process, I wondered how long it took from that “aha” moment to the actual publication of Saving Washington (Permuted Press, 2019). Formant says, “A few years ago, I accidently came across a one-paragraph announcement in The Baltimore Sun describing a wreath-laying ceremony near Prospect Park, Brooklyn. The ceremony was honoring the sacrifice of a small Maryland regiment at the Battle of Brooklyn on August 27, 1776. It was captioned: ‘The Maryland 400 who saved America.’ I had never heard of them.
“So, I googled the Maryland 400, sweeping back the centuries of historic dust that covered this unbelievable lost moment in American history and patching together the random bits and pieces of a story – one so inspiring that I knew I wanted it to reach the broadest possible audience. The process, which took about three and a half years, included my conscious decision that Saving Washington should be historical fiction rather than non-fiction.”
Asked about the writing process, Formant replies, “Once I compile my research, I usually begin with a storyboard. I flesh out a storyline and arc in an outline-like form and write a bit of content for each section, including the ending. It helps me see the entirety better. Then, I go back to the beginning and start the methodical writing and rewriting of the story.”
How soon after plotting out the novel did he settle on Joshua and Ben, the protagonists of the novel? Formant explains, “Young adults fight all wars. So, I decided to tell this story through the eyes of two teenagers, one white and one black. What motivated them to enlist, ultimately sacrificing themselves in this suicide mission? Rather than an adult or military point of view, I permitted myself to internalize as a young adult might, focusing on the colliding forces of personal freedom, taxation, American exceptionalism and Old Testament religion – and the swirling emotions of the boys and the colonies.
“Peer pressure, a sense of adventure and growing anti-British sentiment drove Josh and Ben to enlist. But what I soon realized was something more profound – how Josh and Ben matured from happy-go-lucky teenagers to warrior patriots. I wanted to explore what deep motivation would be so powerful that it would drive their selfless actions on the battlefield. Certainly, teenagers wouldn’t sacrifice themselves for taxes. Something more profound was propelling them. That is the story I wanted to tell.”
Ben is Josh’s young African-American friend, fellow patriot and soldier, so why is Ben such a focal point and why is his story is so impactful? “Going back to post-war pension records,” says Formant, “I discovered that there were African-American members of the original Maryland Regiment, unreported in combat records but paid a pension for their service years later. The Army War College estimated that the Revolutionary War had the highest percentage of African-American combatants of any war until the Korean War.
“I’ve hypothesized that combat rosters of the early battles of the Revolution may have under-reported black participation and in some cases are historically misleading.
“Saving Washington has drawn large support from students, teachers and black organizations for introducing a young black man as one of the central characters in a Revolutionary War story. It has also created some expected controversy, as well.”
Saving Washington has sometimes been described as a Young Adult book, which certainly wasn’t my own experience. I asked Formant why the novel appeals to younger readers as well as adults. “It was never intended as a young adult novel,” he says, “but surprisingly debuted as the #1 YA Historical Fiction in this category. Candidly, I think that was because the two lead characters are teenagers.
“Based on book event attendance and my fan mail, it has struck a chord with kids from age 7 through college. A college senior is writing his honors thesis based on the story. A monument to one of the heroes of the story was recently erected as an Eagle Scout project. Teachers have asked if I can write a teaching companion. Others have told me that students are hungry to hear about American heroes, especially ones they can relate to.”
Formant plans to write more historical fiction, and confirms, “I love to take a known subject or time period, but with spotty and disparate facts, and create a realistic story that brings it to life.”
There may be interest in bringing Saving Washington to film or television, and it has been optioned by the award-winning producer of Big Little Lies, Deadwood and Twin Peaks. “No guarantees, but exciting nonetheless,” says Formant.
Chris Formant is a student of history, a technology investor and the former president of a multi-billion dollar global communications company. His previous novel, Bright Midnight, received lavish praise and has been dubbed the “DaVinci Code for rock and roll fans.”
About the contributor: Ilysa M. Magnus is a US reviews editor for HNR.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 89 (August 2019)