BROWSE BY:     Title Number Subject Creator Digital Content

Interview with Chris E. Fonvielle Jr., December 13, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

pdf icon Get PDF Version
Title:
Interview with Chris E. Fonvielle Jr., December 13, 2007
Date:
December 13, 2007
Description:
Dr. Chris E. Fonvielle, Jr., is a professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, specializing in the Civil War and Eastern North Carolina. Dr. Fonvielle is the author of many articles and several books on history, including two on Civil War-era North Carolina: The Wilmington Campaign: Last Rays of Departing Hope and Fort Anderson: Battle for Wilmington. His most recent book, Historic Wilmington and the Lower Cape Fear, was published in 2007.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Fonvielle, Chris Interviewer:  Rodrigues, Carmen Date of Interview:  12/13/2007 Series:  SENC Writers Length  60 minutes

 

Rodrigues: This is Carmen Rodrigues. Today is Thursday, December 13, 2007. I'm at the Randall Library with Dr. Chris E. Fonvielle, Jr. Dr. Fonvielle is a professor at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He is also the author of numerous articles and several books on history, including two on North Carolina's coastal war, The Wilmington Campaign: Last Rays of Departing Hope, and Fort Anderson: Battle for Wilmington. His most recent offering, Historic Wilmington and the Lower Cape Fear, was published this year, 2007. Welcome, Dr. Fonvielle.

Fonvielle: Thank you, it's nice to be with you.

Rodrigues: I'm always fascinated by what types of books writers are reading. So I'm curious to know what's on your bookshelf right now?

Fonvielle: I read a lot of nonfiction, in fact, mostly nonfiction. I guess given the time constraints that, as a historian and a teacher, that I have, I delve very quickly into the nonfiction field. It's very difficult to keep up with the historiography of Civil War history and North Carolina history, and history of the south, so I read a lot of nonfiction. I just finished reading Bill Kelso's book on Jamestown, actually, a little bit of departure for me, because I usually look at mostly Civil War stuff or North Carolina stuff. But Bill Kelso is an archaeologist who excavated James Fort at Jamestown. For decades, archaeologists believed that Jamestown, originally called James Fort, had been washed away by the James River, and Bill Kelso was convinced that he could find at least part of it. In fact, he found about 90 percent of it, and then wrote what essentially is an archaeological report but in a very readable style, called Digging for the Past - or The Buried Past: The Search for James Fort. So that's been the most recent thing I've been reading. I'm rereading William Cooper's biography of Jefferson Davis, called Jefferson Davis: American, and I'm actually working on an article on the battle of Moore's Creek, and so I've been reading some primary source documents on that. But I guess like a lot of historians and writers, including yourself, I've got lots of books on the tarmac waiting to be read. And I read quite frequently, and as much as I can.

Rodrigues: Are there certain journals - as a historian - certain trade journals that historians subscribe to?

Fonvielle: Oh, absolutely. I'm an Americanist, so I subscribe to American Historical Review, Journal of American History. As a Southern historian, I also subscribe to Journal of Southern History, and as a Civil War historian, I subscribe to Civil War History, published out of Kent State University. And then some more popular magazines-slash-journals, like North-South, which is a - written in a popular style, more of a popular format, but the finest of war historians write for North-South. So though it's not considered a peer-reviewed journal, the historians who write for it are some of the finest historians in the country.

Rodrigues: When did you first discover your love for history?

Fonvielle: I've been asked that before and I don't know that I can answer that. I think history's just in my blood, and it's always been in my blood. It was certainly nurtured by certain events and people over the years. But I think it's just something that's always been with me. And, you know, as a child I would go on family picnics or with the Boy Scouts or Cub Scouts or church groups to historic sites in the Wilmington area. We'd go to Fort Fisher or we'd go to Brunswick Town and Fort Anderson, Moore's Creek, and I was just fascinated by the historical features that remained on site and the ghostly remains of the town of Brunswick, the old colonial port, and, you know, to look at the artifacts that had been excavated on these sites, and to hear the stories by the archaeologists and interpreters on the site. It just really, you know, captured my interest. Growing up, going to St. James Church, which is the oldest, one of the oldest churches in the Episcopal parish, and knowing a lot of the old Wilmington families and hearing the old stories from them, certainly had a lot to do with it. But my brother and two sisters aren't particularly interested in history, and they did the same things, and went to the same places I did. So why the history bug bit me but not them, I can't answer that. Other than to say, it's in my blood.

Rodrigues: You're a Wilmington native, is that correct?

Fonvielle: That's correct, born and raised.

Rodrigues: Have you ever traced your lineage back, throughout the history of your family and how it ties closely to North Carolina?

Fonvielle: We have. We have, yup. I've taken a great deal of interest in that. I'm of French Huguenot descent. The patriarch of the Fonvielle family, now pronounced "Fon-ville" - originally it was "de Fon-vee-ay" - and the story is, the best that we can discover, two brothers at least, Jean de Fontvielle and his brother Peter and their families, fled France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 17 - 1695, going initially to Holland and then to England, and then to Virginia, by about 1700. And then migrated southward into Craven County at about the time that Newburn was established. We know that they were there before 1711 because Peter de Fontvielle, who apparently was trading in Indian slaves, was killed during the Tuscarora War, which occurred from 1711 to 1713. So Jean de Fontvielle is the patriarch of the Fonvielle family. And over the years, various branches of the Fonvielles have dropped the "de," the "t". It's gotten southernized in its spelling and its pronunciation. Actually I spell my name F-O-N-V-I-E-L-L-E, most Fonvielles have dropped that first "e." But we're all kin. And there's a great family story that we come from, sort of the Otis Campbell, the town drunk, of a town in France, Fontvielle, there's actually a town still there called Fontvielle, which is, of course, French for "village of the fountain." And the local story is, or the family story is, that this town drunk saved a regional nobleman from drowning and then was bestowed titles and rewards and so forth. So the story has always been that we come from a long line of drunk Fonvielles, and there must be some truth to it because five years or so ago I got a call from a Francis Fonvielle in Texas and he was doing some genealogy and had read one of my books, I think, and found out I taught at UNCW and called me. Anyway, you know, in a matter of course of the conversation, I asked, "What do you know about the origins of the Fonvielle family?" He said, "Well, I don't know, I was always told that we came from this drunk in France who saved some regional nobleman from drowning." So there must be some truth to this story. We're very proud of this, incidentally.

Rodrigues: After - since history has always been in your blood, has writing always been in your blood as well? Did you always have a fascination with writing?

Fonvielle: I can't say that I have. I've always been very fascinated by writers and what they write, and I love words and I love the way that words are constructed, I love the way that words sound, and phrases and sentences, I mean, so in that regard I've always been interested in writing. People have said that I sort of have a natural style for writing. I think a lot of it comes from listening to the stories that my family told. Of course, my father and his brothers and my grandparents grew up in the age before television, the age of radio, of course. But families communicated, friends communicated, by telling stories, so my father was a great storyteller. His only surviving brother, now 82 years old, is a great storyteller. So I grew up listening to my father and his brothers and my grandparents, just talking about stories. And I think that had a tremendous influence on the way that I write. I like storytelling a great deal. So people say that you've got a natural writing style - but I've never really studied the mechanics of writing.

Rodrigues: When did you write your first historical text for publication? How did that come about?

Fonvielle: Well, my first book was actually written as a result of a project that I was working on when I was at the University of South Carolina, and it had to do with African American troops on Folly Island during the Civil War. And I co-authored this book with several other people. And of course being in graduate school, as you know, you do a lot of writing. And, but - and then when I was teaching at East Carolina University in the late '80s and working on my dissertation, I was asked to write an introduction to a classic Civil War naval volume, so that gave me some experience. But my first really blockbuster book was The Wilmington Campaign: Last Rays of Departing Hope, which I was very proud of. Started off being my master's thesis and evolved into a much broader study for my Ph.D. dissertation, and then I sort of went back through it and rewrote it for publication in 1997. So it, it sort of evolved over time. People have asked me over the years, "Well, how long did it take you to write the book?" Well, it took me years to write the book. But usually, you know, I spend about a year trying to research a particular topic, and then probably another year writing it. So that my portion of it is two-plus years because, of course, once it's accepted for publication, you have to go back and edit and do whatever the publisher wants you, wants you to do. But.

Rodrigues: When you were first asked to collaborate on that very first project, were there any, was there any hesitance? Were you like, "No, I'm not a writer, I'm a storyteller," or did it seem like a natural progression? Is this what historians eventually do, is that the expectation?

Fonvielle: Yeah, it seemed like a natural progression. I'd been doing a lot of writing anyway, I was probably at the height of my, my writing in graduate school. So I felt very confident, very comfortable with the material, and thought that I could do a good job. I'm very proud of the project in the long run.

Rodrigues: How is it to collaborate with other writers or other co-historians? How is that to work in a collaborative project versus how you've been doing projects on your own?

Fonvielle: Yeah. Well, it didn't present any problems. One of the collaborators was one of my teachers at the University of South Carolina and the other one was a very good friend of mine. We were of like mind on the project, and we had very similar goals when it came to, you know, doing the project, and believe it or not, our writing styles were very similar. And you know, I really don't have an ego about writing. The project leader went back and edited a few things, and that's fine. I had no problem with that whatsoever. So it worked out well. I'm actually co-authoring a memoir of a Union admiral during the Civil War with a good friend of mine from UNCW. I've known him for 25 years and we've recently discovered that we were both working on the same project, it was quite serendipitous, but we were sharing the bill at a conference, and naturally in the course of the conversation, he said, "What are you working on?" and I said "I'm editing the unpublished memoir of Admiral David Dickson Porter." He said, "No, you're not, I am." I said, "You're talking about the same memoir from the Library of Congress?" He said "Yeah." I said, "Well, I discovered that 20 years ago when I was working on my master's thesis." "So, did I." It was sort of a competition. So we just decided to join forces and it works out real well. It gives me a chance to collaborate with an old friend. He's chief historian of the U.S. Coast Guard and I'm a big fan of his work, and he claims to be a big fan of my work, so it works out well. But I - you know, I love working on my own projects, but I thoroughly enjoy working with other historians, too.

Rodrigues: Does that happen often, where two historians discover they are, in fact, working on the same project, or is this the first time that happened to you?

Fonvielle: First time it's happened to me. I don't know if it's fairly common or not. And there've, you know, there've been other opportunities for me to work on projects that I passed up, thinking I'll come back to them, and missed out on golden opportunities. I discovered - gosh, when I was working on my master's thesis - and this would have been in the mid-1980s - a fabulous, just fabulous manuscript that was written by John Gratton, who was a Union sailor during the Civil War, who wrote about his memoirs as a sailor. And it, it was complete. It just was not published. Called Under the Blue Flag. And I thought, "This is just a wonderful project that is just waiting to be published, and - all I'd have to do is go back and just edit it a little bit, add an introduction." And so I set it aside as a project that I would do in the future, and doggone it if didn't one of my classmates in East Carolina discover it at some point, and he beat me to it, and got it out. And it's a wonderful project. So I missed out on that opportunity to - but. So just move on, work on the next project.

Rodrigues: You received your B.A. in Anthropology at UNCW.

Fonvielle: Yep. Wanted to be an archaeologist. I did.

Rodrigues: What made you change to American History?

Fonvielle: Good question. I love archaeology, I love just digging in the dirt. And - spent a summer in Israel with a UNCW team in the Negev desert, working in a place called Ber Sheva, and it was just great. But I wanted to do historical archaeology and in the '70s that was not a well respected field. If you were an archaeologist, you either did classical archaeology and you went to Greece or Rome or, you know, Turkey, and you dug. Or you did pre-history archaeology. You dug for Native American stuff. So historical archaeology was still a new field, and there was only one program to my knowledge east of the Mississippi River at the time that I graduated from UNCW, and that was at William and Mary, and tuition was just incredible, it was like $12,000. Well, it may as well have been $120,000 to me. So rather than go to graduate school to get my degree in anthropology, with an emphasis on archaeology, I accepted a job as a curator at a Civil War museum called the Blockade Runners of the Confederacy Museum. And that's how it all started. That's how I got more interested in the history side of it, and the coastal war, and the navies during the Civil War and blockade running and so forth.

Rodrigues: Is historical archaeology, a little bit of a tongue-twister for me, is that when you're basically digging for American artifacts?

Fonvielle: Right, exactly. Right.

Rodrigues: Interesting that that wasn't popular at that point, or respected. Has it since become - ?

Fonvielle: Oh, it has, and the father of modern archaeology is Stanley South, who's from North Carolina, worked with Geoffrey Cope at North Carolina, UNC. And when he got out of graduate school, and this would have been in the, I guess, the mid-fifties. Stanley, like all American-trained archaeologists, went into pre-history archaeology and was excavating the Town Creek Indian Mound in southeastern North Carolina, and then the state offered him a position excavating Brunswick Town on the Cape Fear River, which was the main port on the Cape Fear, until the American Revolution. And he accepted the position, and his mentor, Cope, told him, he said, "You've just destroyed your career, nobody does historical archaeology, you know, just kiss it good-bye." And he took that as a challenge and essentially developed the field of American historical archaeology. And it's thriving. I wouldn't say it's competing with pre-history archaeology, but it certainly goes hand in hand, and it's a much more well-respected field today than it was even in the '70s. But he was the man. And he's still alive, and doing well.

Rodrigues: So you went and you got your M.A. in American History at East Carolina University. And then you continued on to get your Ph.D., also in American History, at the University of South Carolina. And we've - talked a little - you've talked a little bit about how the writing came out of this formal education. There are some historians, though, that I do meet that don't necessarily have a formal education. What do you think the benefits of a formal education - what do you think that have been to you as a - in your career as a writer and as a historian?

Fonvielle: Yeah, the - a number of very popular historians or authors who have written very well-received, you know, studies of American history, or world history, that didn't have their Ph.D.'s. Barbara Tuchman comes to mind. Shelby Foote wrote probably the most popular study on the American Civil War, a three-volume series, that still sells like crazy. And Bruce Catton, gosh, Douglas Southall Freeman, who won the Pulitzer Prize for writing the biography of Robert E. Lee. So that doesn't necessarily make you - the Ph.D. doesn't necessarily make you, you know, a better writer or a better historian. But it gives you more, I guess, professional credibility. And I have to say that, you know, it taught me - the formal education gave me a lot of research skills, made me a more disciplined researcher. I like to think a more disciplined writer, though we were talking a bit about that off-camera and I'm not as disciplined as I would like to be, but that - more because of the time, you know, challenges. All the other things that life throws at you. What was it John Lennon said? "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." So while I plan to do more research and more writing, life often intervenes. But I think the formal education helped me with my research skills and made me a more disciplined writer.

Rodrigues: Does it also give you, going through these various programs at various institutions, does it also give you a greater network of other historians and writers to (inaudible)? Does it, does it develop these relationships? And is that important in the community in which you're in?

Fonvielle: Well, it helps you develop relationships with historians who may not be around anymore. You know, you have an opportunity to study their work, to study how they researched, how they wrote, what they wrote about. You learn historiography. Their arguments. Their ideas. And, you know, what are the gaps, what are the holes? What are the issues that still need to be addressed? What documentation has been discovered since these earlier historians worked on their projects that might challenge what they wrote? So, you know, you develop relationships with historians of the past, but you know, you also develop relationships with, you know, your contemporaries. And, you know, I've had this wonderful opportunity to work with some of my peers, some of my friends in the field, and my own publications have also been received well enough in the Civil War field at large that I've also developed good relationships with historians that I greatly admire and whose work I aspire to duplicate. Like James McPherson, recently retired from Yale University, I'm sorry, Princeton University, who's the dean of Civil War historians. Pulitzer Prize for Battle Cry of Freedom in 1989. And, you know, I've got to know him a little bit, and of course, I'm a big fan of his work. Ed Bearss, former chief historian of the National Park Service, who is just a great historian. Yeah, it's been great developing these relationships.

Rodrigues: Why is it - you mentioned that, your love for Civil War history and a love for the local history, and you have you PhD in American History. I guess let's start from the broader view. Why American history? I know that you're an American, so it seems obvious, but clearly there are other Americans that aren't specializing in that field. Why did you choose American history to start with?

Fonvielle: I don't know. I guess growing up in the Cape Fear, growing up in Wilmington and growing up in North Carolina. I have to say that my first interest was in local history, and I still consider myself to a large extent a local historian. I've studied and written extensively about the history of the Lower Cape Fear and about my hometown. So my initial interest, that seed of curiosity, was certainly nurtured in this area, and it just sort of grew from there, from Wilmington into regional history, into the history of the state and sort of spread out from there into American history. Not that I'm disinterested in, 'scuse me, European history or world history, but my curiosity has always been about the American experience and the American people. And more specifically southerners and North Carolinians.

Rodrigues: Let's talk a little bit more about southern history and also your fascination with Civil War history. What have you learned along the way, in researching, what fascinating things have you discovered when you've been researching local history and Civil War history, separately or together?

Fonvielle: Things that I've learned. I guess about the - Wilmington and the Lower Cape Fear, just what a magical, mystical, charming place that it is. And the people here. I guess it's almost inexplicable, hard to put your finger on. But there's just something very alluring about the people and the culture and the history of this area. And I guess just trying to solve that enigma, that mystery, in part, is what keeps me, you know, looking deeper through the layers. In terms of the Civil War, you know, the first book that I received as a Christmas gift from my parents back in 1961 was The American Heritage Pictorial History of the American Civil War. And I can remember spending hours perusing the photographs and lithographs and the - engravings of that terrible war and just wondering what it must have been like and how the people could have endured it. How they could have done that to each other, you know, Americans killing Americans. Four years of bloody warfare, the terrible casualty rates, 635,000 Americans killed, more than all Americans in all other American wars combined up until the Vietnam War. Just devastating. But the allure of the larger-than-life characters that came out of the war, too. And, you know, how it made us a country. We were a country on paper only and then the war itself made us a real nation. So that - I found that all very interesting.

Rodrigues: How do you choose your projects - you mentioned that you missed out on that one project. How do you choose not only your projects, but the priority in which you're going to address these projects?

Fonvielle: Oh, priority. That's a whole 'nother issue, because I've always, probably like you, I've always got so many irons in the fires. You think that every project should have priority and in a way they do.

Rodrigues: How many projects right now do you have?

Fonvielle: I have, let's see. I'm co-authoring a book on Louis Froelich, who was a Bavarian-born arms manufacturer for North Carolina and the Confederacy. I'm co-authoring that memoir by David Dixon Porter, the Union naval admiral I talked about, with my good friend Bob Browning. I am working on a biography of a Union naval officer, who was - his name was William Barker Cushing, not well known today, but in his day, in the 19th century, he was a cross between Brad Pitt and Arnold Schwarzenegger. And one of the most popular figures in history. But history has sort of forgotten him. He was very popular; he died very young and interest in him certainly faded by the time World War I came along. So I'm working on that project. Gosh, what else. I'm actually working on an article on Union prisoner of war exchange in North Carolina in 1865. It just occurred to me, I'm writing a lot of stuff about Union sailors and soldiers, I'm not doing much with the Confederates, am I? I guess I oughta get back to doing a project on southerners.

Rodrigues: So how do you determine with all these projects that you're gonna - (inaudible) and then - these are the projects that you're actually working on, but do you have other projects that are, like, possibilities?

Fonvielle: Yes. Yeah, I do. I want to do a biography of a Confederate - well, in fact, I am doing an article on a Confederate general officer, his name was William Henry Chase Whiting. Graduated from West Point in 1845, number one in his class, had the highest grades of any cadet until Douglas MacArthur graduated in 1906, the Confederacy's best engineer with the exception of P.G.T. Beauregard - just a brilliant young man who fell out of favor with the high command in Richmond, Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, and Robert L. Lee, the commander of the army of Northern Virginia. And was sent to the backwater of the Confederacy here at Wilmington and ended up being mortally wounded in the Battles of Fort Fisher, and dying as a prisoner of war in New York in 1865. And so I'm working on an article that will appear in a series of articles on Confederate generals that will be out in 2008. And I'd like to make that a full-length biography. I've got this article on the Battle of Moores Creek I'm working on. So, you know, I've got some other projects in the back of my mind, but I like to think one project at a time, but it doesn't work out that way.

Rodrigues: So how do you determine priority then? What is, what is it? Is it what's coming, like, going to be published first? Does that bump up priority? Is it whatever is fascinating at that very moment?

Fonvielle: Yeah. Well, what I'm fascinated by is what determines what I want to write about. But I guess the publishers' deadlines determine priority. So whichever publisher is more mad at me at the moment and says, "I need the manuscript yesterday." So I gauge the level of anger to determine what priority is. I'm being facetious, of course.

Rodrigues: Do historians guard their ideas for what they're going to be writing? Are some things kept (inaudible) in, like, an ace that you have to - "I'm not going to share this because somebody might steal it"?

Fonvielle: I, you know, I don't. I mean, I know, I know historians who do. I know historians who, you know, think they've discovered the Holy Grail and they're not going to talk to you about it or reveal anything until such time as the project has been - comes to fruition, publication, whatever that is. But I don't. I'm like a kid in the candy store. When I discover something, I want to share it. And, you know, people, other historians, professional historians, amateur historians, if they contact me and they've got a question about something that they think that I can help them with, I'm more than happy to do that. I'll share any information that I have at any time with anybody. I've never quite understood this guarding of, you know, thinking this stuff should be kept secret. I mean, why? I mean, you discover something, wouldn't you want to share it with the world?

Rodrigues: Is there, is there a valid, is it a valid fear to think that some other historian might steal your amazing idea?

Fonvielle: I don't know that I've come up with enough amazing ideas yet to warrant stealing. You know, I've come across some projects as I've mentioned that I regret not jumping on sooner, to be sure. But no, I mean, as far as I'm concerned there are no historical secrets that are worth keeping.

Rodrigues: If you're knee deep in a project, if you're really emerged in this project and you find out that another historian is, is like you did -

Fonvielle: I did.

Rodrigues: Like you did. But they don't want to share the project, they don't want to co-author it, do you scrap the project, is it like "I'm not going to work on this anymore," or do you just continue on, knowing that nobody can tell the story the way that you're going to tell it?

Fonvielle: Well, it hadn't happened to me until, you know, Bob and I ran into each other about a year and a half ago at this conference. And, you know, after the initial exchange, it was like, "Well, why don't we do it together?" And there was no hesitation. I do remember when I was working on The Wilmington Campaign, and my good friend Rod Gragg published his book on Fort Fisher called Confederate Goliath. And much of my book, The Wilmington Campaign, focused on the battles of Fort Fisher. And Confederate Goliath came out, did extremely well, won all kinds of awards, and sold tens of thousands of copies. And a friend of mine asked me, "Well, what are you gonna do now? Are you going to scrap your project and go on to something else?" No. Because no one, until Rod came along, had ever written on Fort Fisher, and what he, his, the success of his book showed was that there was a great deal of interest in Civil War battles other than the big ones that you always hear about, Gettysburg and Antietam and so forth. And so, you know, I decided to continue with my project, which was actually broader in scope. It didn't - it included the Battles of Fort Fisher, but looked also at the Wilmington campaign in general, the fall of the city. And Rod's book was just about the battles of Fort Fisher. So I thought his book was a nice study and a good introduction and that I thought my work would supplement and complement what he had done. And that turned out to be the case. Wilmington Campaign sold tens of thousands of copies, too. So it proved just what I suspected, that people are very interested in other aspects of the war, and - including the coastal war, and now there are probably a dozen of us who are working in the less well known coastal war which traditionally had been overlooked by professional historians, and you know, we're meeting with considerable success and that pleases me tremendously.

Rodrigues: You mentioned that you spend about a year researching your projects. What resources do you use in your research? Tell us about the whole research process, where you go, what resources you use, types of notes that you're taking.

Fonvielle: Anything and everything I can find. I have never been to a repository anywhere whether it be the National Archives or the state archives or any of the really fine repositories that we have at major universities in the state, including UNC-Wilmington, right here in Special Collections; the Southern Historical Collection at Chapel Hill; Perkins Library at Duke University; of course, the State Archives in Raleigh. Or even little historical societies. We've got a really fine repository in the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society in downtown Wilmington. The North Carolina Room at the public library in Wilmington. But I have never been to a small town library, repository, or large archival repository that I didn't find something that was not either of interest to me or of use to whatever project I was working on at that time. As a historian, you know, I like primary source documents, so I scrutinize, as a Civil War historian, the official records of the Union and Confederate armies and navies. I use the National Archives, and you know, all the great holdings that they have there. Newspapers, manuscript material. I look at a lot of secondary work to see what the other historians have looked at, how they interpret events, historical events, where they come down on certain arguments. And, you know, just anywhere and everywhere I can find stuff, you know. And it's incredible, you know, some of the best stuff is still in private hands. So I just ask people, "What have you got? What have you got in your attic? What have you got in your library?"

Rodrigues: So you knock on their doors?

Fonvielle: Oh, absolutely, anywhere and everywhere I can find some stuff.

Rodrigues: Do they sometimes realize that they have that stuff or are they sometimes completely unaware?

Fonvielle: Both. Both. Usually people are thrilled that you are interested in what they have in their private collection. Some of them may be a little hesitant if they're family letters that they're not totally familiar with and they don't want to be embarrassed if there's information contained in the letters that, you know, they may not want to become public knowledge. And occasionally I'll run into people who do know exactly what they have and don't want to share that information, which goes back to your question earlier about keeping secrets. And for whatever reason, you know, they just don't want to share that information, and that's fine. I don't press them, I don't push them. I've got a situation right now where a lady's in North Carolina and her great-grandfather lived in Wilmington during the war, kept a journal, apparently there's some incredible information in there, at least that's what I've been told. And she's just not quite ready to let that material go. And that's okay. You know. You can't find it all. That's the other thing I've discovered. You can research forever. You can research to the ends of the earth and never get it all.

Rodrigues: Do you stop then, do you say, "I'll give myself a year to research and whatever I find in that year is what I have," and then just move on?

Fonvielle: No, a year is just kind of an arbitrary, you know, number. I've researched other projects for four years, and I've researched other projects for less than a year. But a year is really sort of a general rule and then you try to cut it off so you can move on. Because you realize that you could research forever and always find additional material. I usually cut off the research at the point of diminishing returns where what I'm finding really doesn't change my knowledge and understanding of events and participants.

Rodrigues: Oh, okay. So when you realize you've got a full grasp on it, that's when you move forward?

Fonvielle: Right. Right. Then I start writing.

Rodrigues: You said that, you mentioned quite a few repositories that you've been to. When you have to physically go there - is that the case? Or do you get a lot of this information on the Internet?

Fonvielle: Both. I enjoy the search process. I enjoy going to the public repositories. I enjoy visiting these places; I enjoy the interaction with the archivists and the staff. Oftentimes, new material has come into the repositories that have not yet been catalogued that they are willing to share with researchers. Oftentimes the archivists and staff, you know, may have ideas, they know what you're working on, they may ask questions that you hadn't really considered. Just giving you new ideas, new thoughts about your project. I just enjoy being in the stacks, too. There's just something about the smell and the taste and the ambiance of these, of these repositories that I like. That said, I mean, I love the Internet. I've found some incredible stuff on line that I never would have found anywhere else. Manuscript material, books, photographs, I could have searched for a million years and not find, found some of the stuff that I've found online. So.

Rodrigues: Do you, do you ever have to caution your students when they're using the Internet for their research projects?

Fonvielle: I do. You know, because they have a tendency, with a lack of research skills, to use the easy-to-find stuff, the Wikipedia, the - I tell them to be careful because a lot of these Internet sites are just gobbledygook. You know, to make sure that you've got a lot of corroborating evidence before you start writing and making claims. But to back up, you know, your research with, by looking in, you know, hard documents, too. Go to the library, look in the periodicals, look in the journals. Read books. Don't ever quit researching.

Rodrigues: How important is documentation to a historian?

Fonvielle: It's everything. It's every - if you don't document, if you don't cite your sources, if you don't have the documentation, it doesn't, it doesn't give your work any integrity. And historical integrity is extremely important to historians.

Rodrigues: Do you keep - how specific are you during the research process to keep an accurate record of your documentation? 'Cause I imagine that might be quite its own project, to make sure that you're constantly keeping your documentation in order.

Fonvielle: Absolutely. Right, right. And everything that I research, I document. I cite my sources very, very carefully. Understanding that, you know, if someone wants to follow up on my research, then I've got to be able to provide an easy path to the documents that I use. So that they can either substantiate my claims, my documentation, or challenge my claims and my documentation. But I've got to make what, the sources I research in accessible to anyone who wants to follow my research. So that's incredibly important. And without that, you know, your work just does not have the integrity that it, that it deserves, and that it absolutely has to have. And consequently, you as a historian then do not have the credibility and the integrity that you have got to have for your work to be accepted.

Rodrigues: So once you've gathered all this research and you begin your writing process, how does the writing process work for you? What's your writing style?

Fonvielle: You know, I don't know that I've got a - I haven't really thought much about it. I was talking to you earlier about this, remember. When someone asked Mickey Mantle to break down his batting style, he said, "Hell, I don't know, I just swing the bat and hope I hit the ball out of the park." And I guess, you know, that's the way I've approached it. I don't really consider myself a writer, although I like to write, and I like to write in a way that I hope is readable to people. And I've been told that I write in a very readable style. I want to make it accurate; I want to make it factual, you know, I want to make a good argument. I want my work to be accepted and respected by professional historians, but I also want my work to be read by the general public. I want my work to be accepted by a lot of different audiences, and so I guess in terms of my style, you know, I write for historical accuracy. I try to make a very clear argument, present my case in a very clear way, but do it in a very readable sort of way. I like to tell stories. I try to draw people in with words and phrases and stories, 'cause I think the anecdotes and the human interest side of history really appeals to most people anyway.

Rodrigues: Because you turn in - if you're working on a book, before you turn it in to, in to your publisher, do you have any first readers? Any other peers that you turn to to say, "Can you take a look at this, let me know what you think"? Perhaps a friend? Who are your first readers?

Fonvielle: Well, usually the editors, the publishers have editors. But I like for as many people who are willing to look at my stuff as possible to look at my stuff. Friends, family members, colleagues, anyone that will give me their time and give me their ideas, I'm open to. As I've said, I don't have an ego about this stuff. And oftentimes, you know, you're too deep into the forest, and you miss a lot. And, you know, I've had friends who are not historians read the stuff and say, "Well, you know, it's a little too abstract," or, "A little too deep here," or, "Why don't you try this," or - you know. I get ideas from all types of readers and people, and I love to have as many readers as possible reading my stuff. Sometimes you're not provided that luxury. I'm trying to finish up an article now that is due on Monday, and I'm grading exams and research papers and I'm moving my office, and so I just don't have time - I barely have enough time to write the article myself, and I'll turn it over to the publisher and let his people deal with it. And I've already talked to him about it, I said, you know, "You can do with the article what you want to with it, but let me, let me get it to you." But preferably I would have, you know, a couple of friends, family members, take a look at it beforehand. But you're not always provided that luxury.

Rodrigues: What are some of the challenges that historians face when accurately trying to portray these events? What are some of the things that challenge you the most when you're trying to get to the truth of a matter?

Fonvielle: How - I guess the biggest challenge is how truthful are the documents that you're researching in. You know, how accurate has the observer or the participant of a historical event, the observer of a historical event, been in presenting, you know, the story. You know, we all, as human beings, are biased, you know, not a conscious prejudice necessarily, but we all have our own biases, and we see things through the prism of our own life experiences. And consequently when we write or we tell about our experiences, you know, we put a spin on it, based on our gender and our age, our cultural upbringing, I mean, all of that. And so, that's always been a big challenge to me. How truthful are the documents that I'm researching? And ideally you like to have a lot of corroborating evidence or as much corroborating evidence as possible. I remember the game we used to play as kids in elementary school, when you were asked to witness an "incident" and then you would tell about it or write about it and everyone would have a different observation about what they had experienced. And, you know, in the search and the quest for the truth of what happened, you take as many of those experiences, you know, that share, you know, some common attributes and common traits and you go with that. So I guess that's the big challenge - is, you know, how accurate, you know, these observations are and can you find corroborating evidence.

Rodrigues: Do you struggle then when you sit down to write to make sure that you yourself are not putting your own spin on it?

Fonvielle: Oh, absolutely.

Rodrigues: How difficult is that, or how careful do you have to be when you're writing? Do you question things as you're writing, or - ?

Fonvielle: I do. You know, I'm a 54-year-old white southern male, and grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, and, you know, how do my experiences, my upbringing, my view of life, you know, how do they influence my writing? I'm constantly asking myself those questions. How can I be as truthful as I possibly can? How can I interpret these sources in such a way that I can present it as accurately as possible and interpret them as accurately as possible? So that, you know, readers and other historians are not faced with as many challenges as they might otherwise be.

Rodrigues: Seems like a difficult task all around.

Fonvielle: Oh, it's challenging, it's fun. I enjoy it.

Rodrigues: You teach here at UNCW. You teach courses on the Civil War, Wilmington and the Lower Cape Fear, the Old South, and antebellum America. How does teaching fit into your life as a writer and historian?

Fonvielle: Well, I love teaching. I love being in the classroom. I love the interaction with the students. I love when, you know, what I'm talking about and what I'm interested in really starts to spark something in them. And you can feel it, you know, you can tell it; you can see it in their eyes. You can hear it in their voices when they start asking you questions. And let's face it, teachers basically teach the things that most interest them. I try very hard to keep my classes fairly open, open-ended, in that, you know, I want to talk about things that they're interested in, too. You know - but admittedly, as a historian, when I go into a classroom, you've already got your syllabus set and you've got your lectures done and you end up talking about the stuff that most interests you. How interesting is that stuff going to be to the students? So I try to be fairly open so that we end up talking about all kinds of stuff. But I mean, I just love that whole process of teaching and learning. Because I learn more as a teacher than I ever did as a student, and I learn a great deal from my students. So to say that I'm just a teacher is missing, you know, half of the equation. As a teacher I'm also a student. So that, I think, helps me become a better teacher and I think it helps me become a better historian. And consequently, I hope it makes me a better writer.

Rodrigues: Do you have students who come to you and say they'd like to pursue a career in history and also write about it, similar to you?

Fonvielle: Yeah. You know what, the biggest compliments I get are from the students who come to me at the end of the semester and say, "You know what? I've never liked history. I'm not really into history now. I'm not going to become a historian. I'm not gonna pursue a history major, but I've got to tell you, that was pretty good. That was interesting, and I learned a lot." To me that's the biggest compliment. The ones who are like me, who just have history in their blood, the ones who are interested in history, not necessarily because they know why they're interested in history, they just are. And they become history majors, and they go through the whole process as I did and as my colleagues did, of majoring in history or in anthropology and then pursuing graduate degrees and, you know, writing master's theses and dissertations and working on various historical projects and maybe publishing books and articles, you know, that's preaching to the choir. You know, that's not as much of a challenge. They are where we are. So the biggest challenge to me is to touch the students who are not necessarily interested in history. But yeah, no, I get a lot of students who come to me and say, "I'm a history major," or, "You're converted me into a history major," which always thrills me. And, you know, I've had a lot of students come through my classes who are now teachers themselves. And I've worked with some really fine graduate students who have gone on to bigger and better things, and makes me sure feel great, too. Like, maybe I've touched their lives, much as, you know, some of my teachers and mentors touched my life.

Rodrigues: I want to, I want to thank you for your time with us here today, it's been interesting. And we wish you all the best in the future.

Fonvielle: Thank you. Good talking with you.

Repository:
UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database
Found in:
Randall Library | UNCW Archives and Special Collections | Online Database | Contact Us | Admin Login
Powered by Archon Version 3.21 rev-1
Copyright ©2012 The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign