Bill Forstchen, book author and Montreat College history professor, has his latest novel, 'Pillar to the Sky,' released this week. It will the 45th book for Forstchen, shown on the Montreat College campus. Forstchen also wrote the best-seller 'One Second After.' / Bill Sanders / firstname.lastname@example.org
Best-selling author and Montreat College professor Bill Forstchen will have his latest novel, 'Pillar to the Sky,' released Tuesday. / Bill Sanders / email@example.com
About “Pillar to the Sky”
William R. Forstchen’s latest novel, published by Tor Books, comes out Tuesday. The best-selling author of “One Second After,” Forstchen teaches history at Montreat College. “Pillar” is the story of building a space elevator to harness the sun’s energy, and the people who push to make it happen.
MONTREAT — For a dyslexic guy who failed English composition twice in college, Bill Forstchen has done all right for himself.
The Montreat College history professor and best-selling author of “One Second After” has his 45th book coming out this week, and he’s in demand nationally as a public speaker and expert. The new book, “Pillar to the Sky,” weaves together the concept of a high-tech space elevator with characters who devote their lives to making it a reality.
Not bad for a kid who was told by the nuns in elementary school that he was going to burn in hell.
A gregarious man with a keen sense of humor, Forstchen is certainly not rubbing any of this in on his former teachers. But he is thoroughly enjoying the successes he’s accumulated at age 63.
“We don’t know about the prophecy of the nuns yet, and, hopefully, we won’t for another 25 years or so,” Forstchen said with a hearty laugh. “I’d hate to wake up and find out they were right. Regarding failing English in college, if (that teacher) is still out there, ‘Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah!’ Actually, she lives in New Jersey, which is punishment enough.”
Clearly, Forstchen is no shrinking violet. He’s a passionate guy, a large man at 6-foot-4, with a booming voice that still harbors more than a touch of his own New Jersey accent, even though he’s been at Montreat for two decades.
First and foremost, Forstchen is passionate about his daughter, Meghan, a pre-med student at UNC Chapel Hill. She was 12 when he started writing “One Second After” and 16 when it was published, the same ages of the daughters of the book’s main character.
The 2009 book, a New York Times bestseller, follows a Black Mountain family as they struggle to survive after a high-altitude nuclear strike creates an electro-magnetic pulse, or EMP, disabling the American power grid and nearly all electronics. Society quickly dissolves into chaos, an admittedly “dystopic” glimpse at the future, Forstchen says.
He’s also clearly passionate about his writing, teaching, American history and space exploration, the subject of “Pillar to the Sky.” And don’t get him started on Mongolian history.
Walking between Montreat’s quaint stone buildings, Forstchen, wearing a cashmere Mongolian jacket, says if he had to choose between teaching and writing, it’d be an easy choice. Teaching inspires him, keeps him young, makes him think more deeply than anything else.
'Not afraid to make you think'
Standing at the lectern in his sophomore level American history class on a recent Thursday, Forstchen starts talking about “Pillar,” which centers around the concept of a space elevator. He acknowledges it sounds a bit, well, out there.
But, he explains, with the development of material called carbon 60, or “Buckyballs,” a light, high-strength material that he says will become the steel of the 21st century, it is a real possibility. In a nutshell, the concept is this: fire a rocket ship loaded with spools of carbon 60 to 23,000 miles, where the vessel can attain synchronous orbit with the earth (the rotation of the earth matches orbital velocity). The vessel will drop the carbon 60 line, where gravity will pull it to the earth, preferably to an anchor spot at the equator, where centrifugal force will keep the line rigid.
“You’re going to have to reinforce it, built it up,” Forstchen says, the students looking skeptical. “Once the first wire is up, you put spinners on it and build it up.”
Once it’s substantial enough, the line can hold a vehicle, or elevator, that can travel back and forth into space. While Forstchen simplified the concept to explain it and allows that space debris, solar storms or terrorism could derail it, the idea is not as crazy as it sounds.
NASA and noted scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson have produced documentary videos on the subject, available on YouTube, one of which Forstchen shows to the class.
Still, his students seem doubtful, and Forstchen acknowledges that even the smartest, most well-educated people he knows don’t understand that an object that far from the earth would still adhere to Newton’s laws of gravity. Gravity is at work even a 100 million miles from us, he says.
“If you go up 500 miles and you step off this sucker, you’re going straight back down, which presents wonderful opportunities for sports,” Forstchen says, drawing a smattering of laughter. He mentions Felix Baumgartner, who ascended 24 miles on a balloon and jumped back to earth from the stratosphere.
But what’s the purpose of the elevator, which obviously would incur enormous expense?
“We are running out of energy, but we are surrounded by limitless energy provided by what?” Forstchen asks the class. Several call out the answer. “The sun.”
“If you build solar arrays 1,000 miles up, you’ve got limitless energy piped back down to the the earth’s surface,” Forstchen continues. “It’s clean, it’s efficient. No emissions.”
He asks how many students would ride a space elevator. Just a few hands go up.
“Where’s your sense of adventure?” Forstchen booms, laughing.
As a boy, Forstchen was glued to the tube during the Apollo space missions, so when his publisher, Tom Doherty in New York, asked him to consider the space elevator book — and offered to send him to the Goddard Space Center near Washington, D.C. for three days — he was over the moon. The idea, he says, is for NASA to get some good publicity and Forstchen to get the inside dope on the concept.
“The big reason I wrote this book is I want to try to sell the idea that the best days of America are ahead of us,” he says. “And second, the energy problem will easily be fixed if we will simply look up instead of down.”
The students clearly eat it up.
“He’s an excellent teacher,” says Lamar Seymore, a freshman. “Not in the fact that he gives us a lot of work, but in that he explains a lot. He starts from the beginning of history and then goes on about how it impacts the 21st century and the 20th century.”
Joseph Palazzola says he learns something new, and usually eye-opening, every time he comes to Forstchen’s class.
“He has one of my favorite types of teaching styles,” Palazzola says. “It’s not, ‘Let me give you a book, lecture on the book and expect you to understand it all and then give you a test on it.’ He’s not afraid to make us think. He wants us to be informed and not just memorize.”
Seymore said he was astounded when he Googled Forstchen and found he’d written so many books, including series on Gettysburg and World War II with former Speaker of the House and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich “I don’t know how he does it,” Syemore said.
Forstchen almost didn’t. A bright kid, he struggled in school.
The nuns thought he was intentionally obstinate and maybe just lazy, if not a bit dim. In the 1950s and ’60s, nobody understood dyslexia, a learning disability that makes it difficult to understand written language and leads students to misspell words and transpose letters.
But Forstchen was undeniably bright and made it to college, Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J. When he failed freshman English composition — twice — the teacher was particularly nasty to him, telling him he would never amount to anything.
The third go-round was the charm, though. A kind-hearted English teacher had no idea what dyslexia was, but he knew Forstchen had the brains to do the work, so he helped him transform the pictures in his mind into written words.
After graduating, Forstchen went to Purdue University in Indiana, intent on earning a master’s degree in history. He ended up with a doctoral degree, a minor miracle to him, considering the advanced degree required proficiency in a foreign language.
Again, a professor went the extra mile. Forstchen flatly attributes his success in the Ph.D. program to his Spanish professor, David Flory. Before taking Flory’s class, Forstchen had “flunked a foreign language, four, five times.
“I was such a nervous wreck, and by the end of the first class, he noticed it,” Forstchen said. “Two minutes later, I was pouring it out to him.”
Always prolific, Forstchen had published a historical book while getting his master’s. To connect with Forstchen, the professor began sight-reading Forstchen’s novel in Spanish, and then incorporated it into the class. The gesture moved Forstchen deeply.
“If he trusted me to that level, I wasn’t going to screw it up,” Forstchen said.
He specialized in military history and the history of technology, but jobs were sparse for history professors in the 1970s, so Forstchen embarked on “a rather checkered career” that included stints in construction, as a golf course greens keeper, a hot walker at a race track, an apple picker and garbageman.
He came to Montreat College 21 years ago to teach history and continue his writing career.
While he’s a teaching “fellow” now, putting in just two days a week in the classroom, Forstchen carried a full load for years, even as he cranked out the books and articles. His eight-book “Lost Regiment” series, which follows a Civil War regiment to an alien world, was optioned in 2002 for a possible movie by actor Tom Cruise and producer Paula Wagner.
Montreat College, which has about 1,500 students, doesn’t mind the attention.
“He’s the face of the college,” Academic Dean Marshall Flowers said as Forstchen made his way through the cafeteria line.
To this day, Forstchen donates to Purdue but won’t spare a dime for Rider. That university teacher who told him he’d never amount to anything gave him unexpected gifts, though: determination and a compassion toward students.
“The impact it left on me as a teacher is just how critical the words of a teacher are to their students,” Forstchen said, adding that the best teachers plant seeds in their students that may take years to grow. “I can’t understand a teacher or a professor who goes after a kid in a negative manner.”
Montreat sophomore Grace Freeman, who also works as Forstchen’s assistant, said the professor has a reputation as “a crazy old man who’s really cool, but once students get in his class it’s not your ordinary history class.”
He pushes students hard, but he also offers encouragement only he can give.
“I was kind of frustrated because I failed English last year, and he said, ‘I failed English. You don’t have to jump through all the hoops, the status quo that society puts on you,’” Freeman said. “He teaches you to think outside the box.”
Still rumpled, down to earth
Forstchen has a reputation as a conservative — besides writing with Newt Gingrich he also considers him a good friend. But Forstchen almost sounds like an Asheville liberal when talking about energy consumption and the untapped power of solar energy in space.
But “One Second After” had none of that feel-good vibe. Some critics have suggested the premise of “One Second After” is far-fetched and plays to right-wing fears.
“I can understand how some people see it as a political agenda from the right,” Forstchen said, referring to the EMP theory. But he says he’s heard concern from both sides of political spectrum on the issue.
He’s used to taking some heat, particularly from utility company representatives who dispute Forstchen’s assessment of their lack of preparation, or “hardening of electronics” to protect form EMP.
“You’ve got to let it roll off of you,” he said.
An aviation buff and pilot, Forstchen says he hasn’t changed much with all the success, although he did indulge himself by buying a 1943 L-3 Aeronca reconnaissance plane used in World War II. He remains the classic rumpled college professor with disheveled hair and the fashion sense of somebody’s grandfather.
“Well, let’s just say I comb his hair before we go out,” said Forstchen’s girlfriend, Robin Shoemaker, an Asheville accountant. “He is the quintessential college professor.”
The massive success of “One Second After” allowed Forstchen some financial freedom but didn’t really change his lifestyle. It did, almost overnight, make him something of a guru in the “prepper movement,” the loose association of Americans who believe in stockpiling basic necessities and weapons in case of societal breakdown like the one depicted in his book.
“I never expected the societal impact or the sales impact the book was going to have,” Forstchen said. “When I went into my first prepper conference, out in Waynesville, when they asked me to show up, I was expecting 30, 40, 50 people. I show up and there’s 600 people, I was like, ‘What is this?’”
The book has sold several hundred thousand copies, and it did give a huge boost to the prepper movement. It also allowed Forstchen to meet Shoemaker, 42, who, like Forstchen, is divorced.
They met last November at a prepper conference, and it was love at first sight.
“I’m crazy about her,” Forstchen said. “I even met the love of my life thanks to that book.”
Shoemaker says she would not describe Forstchen’s lifestyle “as extravagant in any way. He still lives in the same house he’s been in for 20 years, still flies a Civil War-era Union flag and exchanges potato gun spud shots with his neighbor, a Civil War buff who flies a Confederate flag.
She describes him as an “original thinker” and a “fantastic story teller.” The new book is a “rousing good tale,” and an upbeat look at America’s “can-do” attitude.
“I think people are at a point where they want to want to have some hope, to recapture what America used to be, which is doing the impossible,” Shoemaker said. “So, I think it’ll resonate with people.”
Forstchen admits he’s still obsessed with history, with technology, with telling stories.
When he gets on a good writing roll, he can knock out 5,000 words, about 20 pages, in a 24-hour period — that’s with a couple of two-hour naps thrown in to revitalize himself. His “sweet spot” for writing, though, is from about 8 p.m.-2 a.m., followed by a bit of a review and cleanup session around 9 a.m.
His life is busy, but he’ll be the first to tell you it’s also very, very good. He’s hopeful, upbeat. Happy.
At one point in his history class, Forstchen talks about the pilgrims leaving England for America.
“Nobody says, ‘There goes the future of humanity. There goes the people who are going to come back one day and save us from fascism and communism,’” Forstchen tells his students. “I don’t know where we’ll be 50 years from now. I like to think we’ll be spreading out across the universe.”