Altering history with Jacopo Della Quercia: The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy

Giacomo Calabria.jpg

Giacomo Calabria aka Jacopo Della Quercia, author of The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy

Giacomo Calabria grew up watching movies like Back to the Future, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Indian Jones and The Last Crusade, and listening to his parents tell bedtime stories about Genghis Kahn. Maybe that explains a little about how this Albany resident approaches history.

Under the pseudonym Jacopo Della Quercia, Calabria has been a frequent contributor on fun and fascinating bits of history at the humor website Cracked. He came to Albany a few years ago to be closer to family (his brother and sister-in-law own the popular Lark Street bakery Crisan) and started work on his first novel -- the newly released Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy -- "an equal-parts cocktail of action, adventure, science-fiction and comedy" that brings together William Howard Taft, Robert Todd Lincoln and other historical figures to solve a mystery that stretches back to the Lincoln assassination.

Calabria will be at Northshire Books in Saratoga Friday evening for a reading and signing of The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy.

He talked with us this week about his passion for history, leaving Easter eggs for curious readers in the age of Google, and Albany's disturbing connection to the Lincoln assassination.

Where did this idea come from? How does a science fiction story involving Robert Todd Lincoln and President Taft arrive?

The first thing I came up with was the title.

Wait -- you started with the title and based the story on that?

I had a general idea of what I wanted to write about, which was a deeply researched historical fiction that doesn't use history just as a backdrop or as an arbitrary year, but that uses history as the driving narrative that the story is threaded through. So the first thing I came up with was the title -- because I wrote it in the style of Jules Verne's writing -- high adventure, so I wanted it to have a very grand sweeping title.

My apartment at the time was on State Street and it had a sweeping beautiful view of the Hudson Valley and I was trying to think of something very old and vintage and just old timey and I thought, "The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy." And I had no idea what it was going to be about... I didn't even know much about Abraham Lincoln's pocket watches. But I was able to do the research on the whole period from the Civil War to the sinking of the Titanic and just find all of the biggest events I could and as many major players I could and just find a way to connect each one of them together in years so that this event could be connected to that event and it would almost look like they were in synchronicity.

So yes, the idea existed before the characters, before the story. Just the idea of taking a huge chunk of history -- in many cases a part of history not many people know about -- and just finding a way to connect it all. And there were actual conspiracies against America then. There were international plots there were land grabs, terrible things going on, true villains. And it was just a matter of getting these real events and making it look like they all related. And then through these clockwork mechanisms thread a very fun very Indiana Jones-esque adventure through it.

Why was it important to you to include so much of the research you did as part of the story?

I wanted to know everything that was in Lincoln's pocket, right down to how he folded his gloves and put them in his pocket. I wanted to avoid the mistake they made in the film Lincoln, where he left his gloves in the office and went to the theater. And a park ranger told me, "Yeah, but no one really cares about that."

But you should care. In films, for example, people will look at [it] again and again and again. Like Kubrick - when he made films 60 years ago, it was not expected people would be pausing films and watching them again and again to mine them for details, but Kubrick put so many details into his films -- intricacies that it would take decades to realize. That was just his way of doing filmmaking. And with my writing I wanted to reward the reader with the amount of research that I put into my work.

I wrote this book knowing that when people are intrigued by something in the information age they Google it. They will look it up. So I deliberately used that mindset that is in readers today, particularly young readers, to go online and use those little breadcrumbs that I throw in there. I asked a friend to review it and he gave it to his 11-year-old son to read. That night he heard his son laughing and when he asked what was so funny, his son had Wikipedia open and he said, "I can't believe each one of these secret service agents are real!"

I was able to go online and found the federal directory for the entire US government so I had all their names, home addresses, job titles. So I was able to find out that this detective so and so was working the White House that day. This US marshal in Connecticut was the person they would have called for that assignment. And it was that authenticity that not only populated the book with all these real people, I think it actually help suspend the disbelief that this is just another very wacky fantasy. It actually reads in a very realistic and documentary fashion because if these events were happening these are the people who would be investigating it, rather than a large cast of fictional characters. On the surface this book is a very fun, lighthearted adventure, but if you dig a little bit deeper ... I put a whole bunch of Easter eggs in there to reward people.

You just light up talking about the details and the names of the secret service agents and all these historical details.

Well, first of all I've been working with these people for two years. I often say I spend all my time hanging out with dead people, so it is great to share all of these with so many readers after all these years.

But my writing, especially my writing on Cracked, started as an offshoot of my teaching methods which I was using in universities, graduate schools and undergraduates. I was teaching very obscure aspects of Renaissance history and medieval history in a very down-to-earth, enjoyable fashion. So the reason it looks like I'm lighting up when I'm talking about this is because this stuff genuinely does inspire me. It's a passion of mine. And I just use my passion to share it with other people in a way that I would find interesting if I didn't know about it. And hopefully it will infect them with the same curiosity that will encourage them not simply to read my writing but to follow these tools that I give them check these footnotes look at these recommended texts, read these other scholars who have dedicated their lives to this research and that I have only spent a few months coming across as I'm writing this story. They are the people who have built all of the iron. I'm just assembling it into my little erector sets.

Are there any Albany or Capital Region stories that would make for good historical fiction?

One story actually connected with Albany featured prominently in the book is a very unique role that two prominent Albanians played in the Lincoln assassination as spectators. When Abraham Lincoln was in that box at Ford's Theater two people with him were a woman, Clara Harris, and a man named Henry Rathbone, a major in the Union army. Both of them found their way into that box due to politics going on in the city of Albany and Washington.

The very fateful circumstances that brought them over there altered a very disturbing post script to the Lincoln assassination. Henry Rathbone was the closest man in uniform to Lincoln's assassination. John Wilkes Booth physically attacked him with a knife. Ford's Theater said most of the blood on Lincoln's clothing came from Henry Rathbone, who was stabbed in the arm and bled profusely. He never forgave himself for failing to protect Lincoln . This was a man who saw himself at the crossroad of two different paths for American history and he personally destroyed himself over this. He was married to Clara Harris and about 25 years later he was in Hanover Germany as an ambassador he killed his wife and tried to kill himself. He said he didn't do the crimes, people behind the paintings on the wall did. He died in a mental hospital in 1911. In my book, Robert Todd Lincoln gets the message that Henry Rathbone has died. And it shows how years after Lincoln's assassination, there are still victims of John Wilkes Booth. A very disturbing and a very little known moment in Albany history.

What's next for you?
If this book was a Jules Verne novel then my next book is an Ian Fleming spy novel and it stars William Shakespeare during the gunpoweder plot, which, coincidentally, is when he wrote Macbeth. So it's a James Bond story in the 17th Century. It's an entertaining way of settling all these arguments over the Shakespeare authorship question and looks at why Shakespeare's Macbeth is considered a haunted play.

And the name of that book is License to Quill.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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