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William Forstchen and the
Twists of History

Winter 2012 | By Kristal Arnold. Photo by William R. Forstchen.

William R. Forstchen (MA 1991, PhD 1994, History) rides in a remote area of Mongolia during a trip to conduct archaeological research.

Indiana Jones employs a hat and a whip to tackle difficult situations. William R. Forstchen shares a fascination in history and archeology with the fictional hero, but uses a laptop and a former House Minority Whip to ply his trade.

Like his fictional doppelgänger, Forstchen is a college professor who travels to remote parts of the world on archeological excursions. Forstchen, however, is better known as a best-selling author with 45 titles to his credit, including nine projects with Newt Gingrich.

One recent project that brought the two together (Gingrich wrote the foreword) was 2009's One Second After. The book was Forstchen's attempt to quietly save the world, as Jones is often challenged to do.

The apocalyptic thriller depicts a fictional North Carolina community (based heavily on Forstchen's own hometown in North Carolina) coping with the result of an electromagnetic pulse attack. An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is the electrical disturbance that follows the detonation of a nuclear bomb in the atmosphere. In reality, an EMP attack, Forstchen says, could take down the power grid and wipe out 90 percent of the U.S. population within a year.

The book is a frightening blend of each of the areas Forstchen studied while earning both master's (1991) and doctoral (1994) degrees in history at Purdue. He specialized in military history, the American Civil War, and the history of technology.

One Second After, which has sold 300,000 copies in 15 countries, put Forstchen on The New York Times Best Sellers List in 2009 for six weeks and caused a stir in the nation's political ranks. It instantly heralded Forstchen as an expert on the topic, leading to national television appearances, meetings with Congressmen, and talks with NASA and the Department of Defense. Through his book, he is sometimes even credited with providing the impetus for the Prepper Movement, a group of survivalists devoted to preparing for a doomsday-like event. Hollywood has also taken notice—his books have been optioned four times, though at the moment, no films are imminent.

"I wrote the novel to try to wake up public opinion," he says. "I'd love nothing more than to prevent another war, even if in some small way."

The Gingrich connection is less about bending political will and more about publishing the past with a fictional modification—usually a change in one specific decision, and how that might have altered history. Their first collaboration was a three-book series covering the Civil War, but the twist is that the Confederate Army wins the Battle of Gettysburg. The duo has also tackled World War II and the Revolutionary War.

Forstchen began his writing career in the early 1980s writing science fiction. During the 1990s, he wrote a nine-book series called The Lost Regiment, placing a Union Army regiment into a fictional alien world.

He came to Purdue in 1989 after serving as dean of a Maine boarding school. He wanted to specialize in military history and, in his opinion, Purdue had the best program in the country—and it had Professor Gunther Rothenberg, a historian known internationally for his expertise in the Napoleonic Wars and Habsburg military. "Gunther was my hero, a father figure, and one of the most loving, brilliant men I've ever known," he says. Forstchen actually wrote Purdue and the late Rothenberg into his next novel, Pillar to Heaven (working title), due for a summer 2013 release. Vernard Foley, Robert May, and the late Gordon Mork were also instrumental in Forstchen's education and growth.

"One Second After never would have happened without the education I got at Purdue," Forstchen says. "The history of technology was key, but also the research methodology that was driven into me."

As a professor of history and faculty fellow at Montreat College, that methodology proves useful in his non-fiction adventures in scholarship. In 1998 Forstchen received a Pew Grant to conduct archaeological research on Mongol encampment sites in Russia. He returned in 2000, joining the first of four six-week archeological expeditions into the Mongolian backcountry, an area he has been interested in since childhood.

"We were in a very remote spot in central Mongolia, Khar Balgas, which translates ‘city of the black stone,'" he says. "We would take a jeep as far as we could and then get on horses, sort of like an Indiana Jones fantasy. Once I turned to my friend and said, ‘We may be the only two Americans alive who've ever seen this.'"

In true Indiana Jones fashion, he once "ran afoul" of the Russian security service (formerly the KGB) and was stripped of his archaeological discoveries. He escaped, even without a musical crescendo by John Williams to lead the way.

He plans to return to Mongolia once his daughter, Meghan, graduates from the University of North Carolina, where she is currently a sophomore in the pre-med program. He's emboldened to return based on his own history.

"It was like being in Middle Earth. You expected to turn a corner and run into an elf or hobbit. The air was so pure, like the first breath of air in Eden. It was so beautiful—a strange, mystical place. One of most remote spots on the face of the earth," he describes. "A lot like the basement archives at Purdue, where I was equally happy."


Enjoyed reading THiNK. Since I did my dissertation in the area of the philosophy of religion (with Prof. Cal Schrag), I was pleased to read about its high rating.

Rich Dubiel M.A.'67, Ph.D. '74. Professor of Communication, Univ. of Wisconsin-Stevens Point

Very interesting; brought back memories of sitting in history classes at Purdue. Having just retired from teaching history classes for over thirty-five years I now have the chance to read one or two of these books.

Dan Warkentien

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