In Robert Dallek’s authoritative biography of the thirty-fifth president, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963, he discloses Kennedy’s affair with a nineteen-year-old White House intern. The revelation of a liaison that took place at such a critical moment in world history intrigued Stephen L. Carter and prompted him to wonder, “Suppose that it wasn’t an affair? Suppose it was a cover for secret negotiations to resolve the crisis?” Thus was born the premise for the novel Back Channel, a suspenseful retelling of the tumultuous political events of 1962 that brilliantly blends fact and fiction.
Stephen L. Carter believes that few young people today understand how close the world came to annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In a talk he gave at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., which you can view in full below, he called it a moment in history that is “underappreciated and understudied.” So he set out to write about it, inserting his own fictional idea into the historical record. Indeed, what more fascinating fodder for a novel than the negotiations that would prevent a global cataclysm!
Even though it was an ABC correspondent and not a White House intern who became the liaison between Kennedy and Khrushchev, many of the novel’s characters and much of the plot bear a striking resemblance to real people and events. In an effort to add authenticity, Carter pored over transcriptions of meetings of the special advisory committee Kennedy appointed during the crisis. That pretty much sums up the writer’s approach to producing great historical fiction: “You just do loads and loads of research and do your best to get the facts right, other than the facts you change for the sake of the story.”
Read an excerpt and check out the video below, in which Stephen L. Carter discusses in detail how he merged fiction and history to craft this truly gripping, high-stakes thriller.