Where Fact Meets Fiction

On the prowl for all those skeletons in the closet, historical fiction author William Martin ’72 is writing his seventh

On the prowl for all those skeletons in the closet, historical fiction author William Martin ’72 is writing his seventh novel, Harvard Yard, on the history of Harvard. The novel, due to be published in the fall of 2003, is the sequel to Martin’s New York Times Best Seller, Back Bay, which fictionalized the Puritan city’s founding. Reintroducing several of the characters from Back Bay, Harvard Yard will recount the entire history of Harvard, following the book’s main character, Peter Fallon, on a hunt to find a rare and valuable book that was a part of John Harvard’s library.

Using a treasure hunt for a valuable and historically significant object to hold the narrative together, Martin’s novels trace the history of legendary New England locations and span several generations. In Cape Cod, the characters embark on search for a lost log of the Mayflower. “These stories begin in the distant past and pick up with a modern character. We follow him as he keeps delving into the past. You travel through time with the main characters and you have two stories, the modern and the historical, working at the same time,” Martin said of his novels.

Explaining why Harvard was a particularly fitting setting for a historical fiction novel, Martin said that, “When you look at the history of Harvard, it was the first in a lot of ways. It was not only the first college; it was the first corporation, which is a pretty significant thing in American history. It was the seed of learning that created a generation that, in the Northeast, created the American Revolution. It’s been a hotbed for a long time.” While Harvard may seem to be a relatively quiet and sheltered microcosm to many current undergraduates, Martin notes that his years at Harvard were steeped in revolution and controversy. As a freshman living next to University Hall in 1969, Martin experienced the student riots and sit-ins first hand.

Martin draws not only on his own experience at Harvard, but on his son’s as well. Dan F. Martin ’04 is a valuable resource for his father’s research, and enjoys taking his father to the libraries and showing him around Lowell house. “My part is mostly social. He comes in and has someone to go to lunch with,” Dan said of his contribution to Harvard Yard. In addition, the character of Peter Fallon’s son is loosely based on Dan. In the last scene of Harvard Yard, it is freshman move-in weekend and the main character’s son is moving in into Hollis, where Dan lived. “The scene is basically exactly the way it was when I moved in. You know, get out so I can get moved in,” Dan said. Martin acknowledges that Dan is a source of inspiration for his work on Harvard Yard. “In that I have to pay his tuition, I am inspired every day to write. Seeing the place through his eyes has been an inspiration. Seeing the modern Harvard through a new set of eyes had been refreshing,” Martin said.

As Martin continues work on Harvard Yard, more of the university’s secrets are sure to unfold. For example, Martin noted that, back in the earliest days of the university’s existence, Harvard’s first professor, Nathaniel Eaton, was relieved after only one year of study for beating his students and servants. For more 17th century gossip, look for Harvard Yard in 2003.