If you think of George Washington as someone who couldn’t tell a lie, you probably haven’t been watching AMC’s Turn: Washington’s Spies.
In conjunction with the Revolutionary War drama’s fourth and final season premiere June 17, Alexander Rose, who wrote Washington’s Spies, the book about the Culper spy ring on which the show is based, is coming Tuesday to Philadelphia, along with executive producer Craig Silverstein, for a private screening at the new Museum of the American Revolution. Rose spoke with Ellen Gray about what he’s most looking forward to seeing, what he has learned about writing for television, and why Benedict Arnold’s Philadelphia-born wife reminds him of a character on The Sopranos. Here, edited and condensed, is their conversation:
Will this be your first visit to the museum? What are you looking forward to seeing?
It’s my first visit to the museum while it’s open. I was there, I think, about a year ago to do a talk for some fund-raising. But I never actually got to see the museum. So I’m pretty excited.
They’ve got Washington’s tent there. I’d like to compare their Washington’s tent to our Washington’s tent [on Turn]. It’s an amazing collection that they’ve amassed over the last several years, and you wouldn’t think you’d be able to pull off something this big in this day and age, but they seem to have managed it.
One thing both your book and the series did was change my impression of George Washington. He seems to have been really involved in the nitty-gritty aspects of the Culper spy ring.
At a time when espionage was regarded as an ungentlemanly occupation, Washington was actually a natural at spying the daylights out of the British. He was an innately cautious and skeptical individual, which are precisely the attributes you want in a good spymaster. And he used those talents to enormous effect with the Culper ring. And they had this strange relationship to Washington. He served as a father figure to them, virtually for the entirety of the war. The Culpers were George Washington’s personal spy ring, and he took a great amount of interest in them and what they could achieve for him and the war effort at large.
Would he have made a good CIA director?
Well, he made a very good head of government, so I guess being CIA director wouldn’t have been beyond his ken. He probably would have loved it. He could actually tell lies, and he told a great many of them. And he enjoyed it.
How involved have you been in the TV series?
At the beginning, it was pretty straightforward what my role was, which was precisely zero. Barry Josephson had optioned the book, which came as a great surprise. Then he pitched it to Craig, who wrote the pilot. Barry and Craig invited me along to go watch the pilot being filmed. I’d never been on a set before. I basically just made sure I kept out of the way and kept my mouth shut. For the first season, Craig said, ‘Why don’t you come out to Los Angeles for a couple of weeks and give us some advice, or come up with some story arcs, or something?’
And then at the end of the season, Craig said, ‘Hey, for next year, why don’t you come out and write an episode?’ And then after that, I did a couple of episodes, you know, one episode a season. So I wasn’t full-time there. I’m actually writing other books.
Writing an episode has to be different from writing a book.
What I’m used to is working in libraries or in archives. And I don’t talk to anyone for weeks. Whereas writing for television, you’re thrown into a writers’ room, six or seven other people, all throwing around ideas. With a book, I can drone on at extraordinary lengths. Screenwriting is basically poetry, or you could probably argue coding, in the sense that you have to squeeze as much information into as few words as possible.
The season premiere is pretty hard on Philadelphia’s Peggy Shippen, who married Benedict Arnold. Was she really such a conniver, do you think?
It’s very difficult to know. She’s almost like Carmela Soprano in a way, in that you don’t quite know what she knows and what she doesn’t know. In the show, she has to be much more of a dynamic character. You don’t want to have Peggy Shippen [played by Ksenia Solo], who is sort of this extraordinary flower, just being a boring wallflower. My view has always been, anyway, that she was much more deeply involved in the Arnold affair than she liked to pretend.