By Dan C. Gunderman
The year is 1829. The gruff, self-reliant Goldfinch, a veteran of the War of 1812, has become the anointed leader of an idyllic religious community named Synod, nestled in the Ramapough Mountains of northern New Jersey. This came at the behest of three real-life religious figures, who have returned to their evangelical lives. Goldfinch, who’s long been nomadic, is suddenly thrust into a leadership position—with many opinionated residents jockeying for power behind him. Harriet, Minister Mulvane, “One,” and Shepherd are among them.
Thanks to the advice of the village’s Founders, Synod will become a stop on the Underground Railroad. Goldfinch oversees this transition, bringing in a broken runaway family. But southern bounty hunters have followed their path and seek to reclaim stolen property. Meanwhile, Goldfinch meets a shadowy abolitionist on the road, a man with close ties to the federal government who’s also impressively attuned to the wild. As the man recruits Goldfinch and select others into a wider crusade against slavery, Goldfinch also needs to contend with recurring, fiery visions, and Nance, a corrupt politician whose lone pursuit is to eliminate runaway slave dens.
Will Goldfinch protect his village from damnation or destruction? Will he return to his roots and take up arms as his conflict reaches the governor’s desk? How will his knotty relationship with a villager change as he’s called to action?
Fun Facts About
Dan C. Gunderman
ZHP: Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
DG: I grew up in northern New Jersey, in a mostly rural town near the border of New York State. The township brushes up against the Ramapo Mountains, a forested part of the Appalachians. The bucolic setting is infused in my writing—and is a main thread of the narrative in Synod. The region is brimming with historical significance, including being a prime iron-making outlet from the American Revolution until about the Civil War. In fact, the village of Synod is loosely based on a nearly self-sustainable iron operation in the area, now a state park and museum. While the limits of the village were stretched, exaggerated, and utterly re-imagined in Synod, it provided visual inspiration for a novel. In fact, the remote setting is so alive and vibrant, that I couldn’t help but also make it a stop on the Underground Railroad. This is not a historical truth.
ZHP: Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
DG: This isn’t the first story, per se, but the first novel I vividly remember enjoying was J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (Philosopher’s) Stone, first published in the U.S. in 1998. Rowling’s meticulous detail and magical world-building inspired me at the time. In fact, I felt that as a young student, I could create Hogwarts’s rival school and write short stories about its magical students—and owls. Thanks to Rowling, and others, to this day, I typically sprinkle magical elements into my own writing. I also recall reading Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, and connecting it with the oddly mesmerizing frames from the 1996 movie directed by Henry Selick.
ZHP: What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
DG: I would attribute that to a general love of storytelling and the creative ways to go about it. Nearly everything I do is based on the written word—whether journalistic or creative—and so challenging myself to see things in a new light is always atop my priority list. Further, I’d say that the strange, the surreal, and the fantastic elements of life simply enthrall me. I find such pleasure in escapist books and films—say sci-fi or an upstairs-downstairs TV program. There’s no rhyme or reason; I simply search for the glorious parts of what might often be overlooked.
ZHP: When did you first start writing?
DG: I first began writing in first grade or so. I would pen stories in the same vein as Stuart Little. I also recall trying to tell a story about a RMS Titanic passenger, based on a drawing of the ship I haphazardly sketched after watching James Cameron’s Titanic. I first began writing in a more serious capacity during my undergraduate years. First it began with journalistic stories and columns, and then it morphed into creative pieces. I recall one abandoned dystopian “novel” (say fifty pages or so) about a group of survivors in the American Midwest. Survivors of what? Good question. Nevertheless, by my graduate years, I’d confirmed to myself that writing was a lifelong endeavor.
ZHP: What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
DG: The greatest joy of writing is not only the cathartic nature of the craft, but also seeing other people identify with your work. There can be no greater feeling than having a reader savor or even idolize a few loosely connected details that once crept through your mind. There is a reason why storytelling (through different methods, of course) dates back to the dawn of man; that’s because humans long to escape or imagine. Using words as building blocks, we can make that happen. It’s thrilling.
ZHP: Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
DG: This could be a tie between the Harry Potter knockoff stories and ones I wrote about a mouse that looked suspiciously similar to Stuart Little. I even illustrated covers and images in early Microsoft Paint. I wore many hats, of course. But on a more serious note, the first story that I remember writing later in life that I was proud of, came in the form of a short story about the man who attempted to assassinate President Andrew Jackson in January 1835, an unemployed painter by the name of Richard Lawrence. In Poe-like fashion, I attempted to retell this story of Jackson at a Congressional funeral. Lawrence’s gun went off, but no bullet was fired. Jackson beat the man with his cane.
ZHP: What advice would you give a new writer?
DG: To a new writer, I would say: trust your gut, be bold, and never look back (unless, of course, you’re a historical writer). So much of the craft comes from remaining disciplined and even starry-eyed. I suppose what I mean to say is that you should never lose sight of your vision. What do you want to contribute to the literary world? If you see or feel something almost palpable, then pursue that course. Readers will follow.
ZHP: Do you use Social Media?
DG: Certainly. As an entertainment reporter and critic, I use social media to post and re-post images, fan theories, trailers—really anything you can think of. I’m a very “visual” person and so I love looking at my profile and taking in the colors, themes, and hidden meanings behind everything I post and re-tweet. I also use social media to converse with friends and readers alike. And news of my writing typically finds its way to one of these outlets.
Fans can reach me via the contact form on my website: dangunderman127.wix.com/author/contact.
Or they can find me on social media:
ZHP: Describe your desk or writing space.
DG: My writing desk is nestled in a corner in my basement, beneath printouts of my favorite authors and a line of books. I have old paperwork lying around, along with comic books, and scores of manila folders. The space is away from my typically noisy dogs and the distraction of snacks and baseball games. My Ireland calendar dangling on the wall tends to inspire the writer within, too.
ZHP: What is your writing process?
DG: Since 2016, I have had an extra-long commute—from rural New Jersey to New York City. But it hasn’t stopped me from remaining active on the creative front. I typically earmark one-and-a-half to three hours any given night to outlining, writing, editing, or reading. When I write historical fiction, it’s only after I’ve researched and outlined. But once the words start flowing, I strive to reach the end of a draft and get the story down before I really start dissecting it, and transplanting different sections. Synod was a multi-draft process over the course of about three years.
ZHP: How do you connect with your muse?
DG: I usually have a very distinct goal when I set out to write historical fiction. That tends to keep me grounded during the writing process. I’m an ambitious person and so motivation is never really a problem. Still, reaching a level of writing where you’re fully attuned to the story can be difficult. I might listen to alternative music or scroll through historical photos of my respective era, to get “closer” to the story.
ZHP: Is procrastination an issue for you?
DG: I think it can be an issue for almost any writer. Oftentimes, life simply gets in the way. Your perfect writing schedule gets altered by this event and then that. Soon, you might not be as disciplined as you once were. Or maybe you just want to watch the nightly news or catch a baseball game. When you’re on a hard deadline, you have to remember the stakes involved and the beauty of being a writer. If I catch myself procrastinating, it takes a reminder or two to jumpstart the process again.
ZHP: What motivated you to become an indie author?
DG: What I’ve found thus far in my literary career is an overburdened mainstream publishing industry that frequently cannot allot any time for new and emerging authors. This means that over the course of years, you might not have a single agent or editor place their eyes on your manuscript. And there’s nothing more discouraging than a generic, form rejection. In the indie landscape, there is much more potential for exposure, learning, and discourse. I’m proud to be able to share my story with those who read titles from small presses.
ZHP: What advice would you give about writer’s block?
DG: I would say that every writer will face writer’s block, in some form. I believe the only antidote is working right through this phase. That’s a qualified statement, though. Continuing to write allows you to sort of “flex” the literary “muscles.” You can always go back and refine or reword, or even reimagine. Putting words on the page is such a crucial endeavor. I’ve often found that when I have writer’s block, I’ll write a mediocre few pages, or even a chapter. The key to solving it lies in recognition—that is, in being able to spot which areas need some TLC. This is a process that works for me and helps me self-edit. I also think that prewriting is a pivotal step. It could seriously lessen the severity of writer’s block down the line.
ZHP: What’s the story behind your latest book?
DG: My latest book came together during my days as an MFA student. I conceived the idea in late summer 2014 and began writing by fall of that year. The third draft was completed by mid-2016. In terms of plot, the story is an ambitious tale about a nineteenth-century man suffering from an identity crisis. A veteran of the War of 1812, Goldfinch becomes the anointed leader of a religious community hidden in the mountains of New Jersey. His village, created by three real-life religious figures from the century who’ve returned to their evangelical lives, becomes a hotbed of gunfire and idealism. (But not without its share of shootouts rivaling the O.K. Corral.) Goldfinch is joined by exuberant figures like Minister Mulvane, “One,” Shepherd, Solomon, and Harriet. What seems like Goldfinch’s attempt to keep the peace in his town becomes an all-out war for both faith and humanity. And Synod is not just about the villainous Nance’s goal to wipe the slave-harboring village off the map, but a mounted resistance against the institution of slavery. Synod has elements of magical realism and characters who border on supernatural. What’s real and what’s not is left up to the reader’s imagination.
ZHP: What are you working on next?
DG: I’m excited about my next project—which could be one of two things. For over a year, I’ve been sitting on an idea about a Holocaust survivor turned Nazi hunter. Under its working title Rat Line, the novel would tell the story of a man, both similar and dissimilar to Simon Wiesenthal, who makes it his life’s mission to track down the Nazi officer who killed his father. The disgraced Nazi fled to South America. The novel would essentially follow both the officer, as he flees his death camp and seeks refuge abroad, and the protagonist, who teams up with a Spanish revolutionary and others to take down his Nazi foes. I’ve also been dreaming up a novel set in the early 1800s, circa the Napoleonic age. In it, inhabitants of an island shrouded by mist along the Long Island Sound are greeted by a famously dangerous French exile. The story’s still coming together.
ZHP: Do your fans impact your process?
DG: I am grateful for anyone who’d like to read my work! For those interested in the nineteenth century and the extraordinarily difficult moral questions posed by the age, Synod is the right book to pick up. Not only does it focus on one man’s journey from war veteran to authority figure in a religious community, but it also has gunfire, flames, visions, riots, reconnaissance—everything you’d want in a fast-paced but purposeful narrative. I hope many more new fans will discover these characters.
ZHP: When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?
DG: When I’m away from my keyboard, I love to read for leisure and for research, but also follow New York sports teams, go hiking along the Appalachian Trail, and go on brief getaways with my girlfriend. I’m also a huge movie buff and love adding to my DVD collection, reviewing films, and tracking the latest movements of all my favorite auteurs in Hollywood. This could be Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, Kenneth Branagh, and others.
ZHP: What do you read for pleasure?
DG: I stay pretty close to home, in terms of genre. I write historical fiction and I—typically—read historical fiction. I also enjoy immersive sci-fi. I have a strong interest in the Gothic subgenre, in film and literature. This usually means Victorian literary novels and mysteries. I’ve been influenced by classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Frankenstein, in particular, has had an impact on my writing. I also have an affinity for Tudor-era stories, particularly the work of C.J. Sansom or C.W. Gortner. I also tend to appreciate World War II spy and action stories, and will read anything written by Alan Furst.
ZHP: Who are your favorite authors?
DG: Kazuo Ishiguro – for his ability to use an unreliable narrator in the most vivid of settings, typically early twentieth century England or Japan. His entrance into the Arthurian lore was also engaging in The Buried Giant.
Bernard Cornwell – he is the master of historical fiction, known for his intense prose and innate ability to bring early England back to life. Cornwell continues to impress.
C.J. Sansom – his Matthew Shardlake series, set during the reign of King Henry VIII, is so unique and fresh, it’s terribly hard to put down. Also, Sansom’s main character is like no other I’ve encountered: a hunchbacked lawyer. I’m still working my way through the series!
Jeffrey Lent – he works in an era I adore, and his sweeping, intergenerational novels capture the ethos of any decade. His book In the Fall is a wonderful narrative, along with the subtler A Slant of Light, set in a part of upstate New York I know and love.
ZHP: What are your five favorite books, and why?
DG: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro: as a fan of the upstairs-downstairs subgenre, what’s not to like about the largely forsaken Darlington Hall? Stevens, a longtime butler, recounts such wonderful moments of the manor’s heyday. Ishiguro hovers so closely to Stevens it’s hard not to empathize with him.
Gallows Thief by Bernard Cornwell: this book is a fantastic case study of life following the Napoleonic Wars. Rider Sandman, a veteran, gets brought on to be an “investigator” in a murder mystery. What unfolds around him is a captivating story that has a lot of the intrigue I tried to implement in Synod.
In the Fall by Jeffrey Lent: this novel’s ability to flesh out characters from the 1800s to the 1930s is simply remarkable. Norman Pelham and his progeny each have their own story to tell, despite the fact that nearly everything harkens back to a Civil War battlefield.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: this is a seminal work. The characters, plot, literary devices, settings, and overall tonal feel are also exceptional. Shelley’s ability to conjure up an unmistakable monster and also make the story more psychological and philosophical, shows how truly intelligent she was.
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel: this sequel to Wolf Hall is a pure delight (for someone whose favorite historical figure is Thomas Cromwell). This is the high point for the chief minister; he concocts a plan to oust Anne Boleyn and seize more power for himself. Mantel makes history seem like an Oscar-winning drama.
ZHP: What is your e-reading device of choice?
DG: Amazon Kindle. That’s my answer because it’s the only e-reading device I’ve ever owned. But it’s fantastic—you can read, build up your virtual bookshelf, and also surf the web or download apps. I still prefer hard copies, though.