Burton spoke to Eleanor J. Bader about writing this entertaining, absorbing and relevant historical novel.
Eleanor J. Bader: How much of Adamson’s 1969 was based on your own family history?
Nicole Burton: The premise of the book is that a young Englishman comes to the U.S. in twelfth grade and gets stranded here without his family. This actually happened to my older brother. My family is from England but we’d been living in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1968 and 1969. Very unexpectedly we had to leave because my dad’s job transferred him to Italy. I have always tried to imagine what it must have been like for an 18-year-old boy to be alone in the U.S., without any moorings, without any anything. I know that it sounds incredible, but my brother actually did okay. He lived with friends for a while, graduated from high school, and then went to a junior college in Massachusetts.
EJB: Adamson seems to apply to the University of Bridgeport (UB) on a whim after quickly flipping through a catalog of U.S. colleges. No one advises him or helps him figure out the best match for someone with his interests or academic record. Was this typical?
NB: I remember that I picked my college out of a book. I never went to visit it, the way kids do today. When my dad and I returned to the United States in 1971, we lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I finished high school and then moved to Washington, D.C. to attend Georgetown University. My husband actually went to the University of Bridgeport (UB) in Connecticut. He’s from Virginia, and he wanted to go as far away from his hometown as he could and, somehow, he chose Bridgeport.
EJB: Did any of your husband’s experiences at UB or elsewhere find their way into the book?
NB: My husband somehow always finds himself in the center of historic moments and he tells many amazing stories. He went to Woodstock, lived in San Francisco after he graduated from college, and met Jim Jones at the People’s Temple before the Temple moved to Guyana. He eventually returned to Virginia because he was having trouble finding work in California. Although some of his experiences are woven into Adamson’s 1969, most of the story is a flight of fiction.
EJB: Since you grew up in the U.K. and spent time in Italy, you did not, yourself, live the events that happened in America in 1969. How much research did you do?
NB: I was in the U.S. for the first half of 1969. There was no Internet then and the world I moved in in Europe was very different from what I’d known in the U.S.–so I had to do quite a bit of reading about America in the late 1960s. I also talked to a lot of people. I wanted to know about the Vietnam War and about the military draft that was sending young men to fight in southeast Asia. I asked many now-middle-aged men how the draft had impacted them, and spoke to countless friends, and friends of friends. Everyone had a story. Some went to Vietnam voluntarily, out of a sense of duty. Some joined the Air Force or National Guard thinking that would protect them from getting shipped over. Some had student deferments. Some went to Canada or Sweden and some went to jail. I felt like I needed to understand all of these perspectives in order to portray Adamson’s confusion realistically. He was just a kid who did not even know where Vietnam was when he first arrived in the U.S. He did not understand why the U.S. was fighting. He had also never heard of the draft before coming to America and was trying to deconstruct what was happening before it grabbed him. He was terrified.
This fear—and Adamson was certainly not alone in this feeling—led me to do a lot of reading about the U.S. military. I also read countless accounts of other events that took place in 1969 that are recounted in the novel, including Woodstock, the huge anti-war protests and the growth of the interracial People’s Temple led by Jim Jones.
As I got deeper into the research, my husband printed out a long chronology of 1969 that included all the key events of the year. I read through it and looked at what happened in 1970 and 1971, too. This gave me a month-by-month framework that I thought readers would find easy to grasp. That’s why I organized the book as a month-by-month account of Adamson’s life. I thought it would be a good way to bookend the calendar.
EJB: You also include references to the music that was popular that year and emphasize that music played an important role in helping Adamson navigate and cope with his life.
NB: Yes! I love the music of the late 1960s. For me, having an older brother—my brother is six years older than me—was like having the key to a time machine. My brother and I were friends and thanks to him, I was able to hear music and go to shows that other youngsters my age probably missed.
The music is on the book’s webpage so readers can listen to it. Many of the songs have been remixed so young people often know them, but have not always heard them in their original form. The website gives than that chance.
EJB: Did anything you uncovered in your research surprise you?
NB: It surprised me to learn that Adamson could have been drafted. Most people assume that if you were not a U.S. citizen you were exempt from the draft, but that wasn’t true. I corresponded with someone at Selective Service to verify that non-citizens could be called up for service.
I was also stunned to learn that in 1969 the U.S. had half-a-million troops in Vietnam. This was sobering to me. Furthermore, I was truly astonished to discover that there were 56 plane hijackings in 1969. This was the years before metal detectors were installed in airports as a security measure. It was mind-blowing that hijackings were once so ubiquitous.
EJB: Although Adamson is not Jewish, his friend Hannah is and her dad is a Holocaust survivor. Why did you include mention of the camps in the novel?
NB: I’m Jewish and it is always important to me to have Jewish people portrayed in my work. But there’s another theme here. Hannah’s dad had a secret life and I’m interested in secrets. Maybe it’s because of my own background as an adopted child, but the subject of other people’s secrets fascinates me. My adoptive father did secret work and I still don’t really know what it involved, but the idea that people are not always what they appear to be is a theme I find compelling. This is why I made Mr. Wardheimer embody this. Hannah saw him as Dad. Adamson saw him as a kind neighbor. But the government saw him as something menacing.
EJB: What do you want readers to take away from Adamson’s 1969?
NB: I really hope that young people will read the book and focus on the legacy of 1969. We are living in a turbulent, divisive political time today that is similar to climate in 1969; then, as now, people resisted and engaged in many forms of cultural expression.
Adamson’s 1969 is both light and deep and I hope people reading it will appreciate what an extraordinary year it was, especially for an immigrant newcomer to America. I also hope they’ll appreciate that they can be like Adamson and find their own chosen family, their tribe, as well as their direction and life path.